Let Me Be A Woman: A Discussion on Biblical Femininity
In 2016, approximately 1,000 women contacted Emily’s List, an organization dedicated to helping women run for public office. In 2017, that number jumped to 22,000. In 2015, 88 women were running for seats in the House of Representatives, and 19 women were running for seats in the Senate. In 2017, those numbers rose to 354 and 38, respectively. Whether or not 2018 is ‘the year of the woman’, it’s certainly a time in which more and more women are actively engaging politically and socially. In 2018, Brooke Ventura spoke with authors Aimee Byrd and Nana Dolce on biblical womanhood and what these shifts indicate about the various ways women have participated and continue to participate in the life of the church today. This article originally appeared on Modern Reformation on October 1, 2018.
Brooke Ventura: One thing I’d like us to do during our discussion of womanhood today is compare and contrast biblical womanhood with feminism. When people discuss what it means to be a women, it seems that those are the two poles of the spectrum, so I think it’ll be helpful for our conversation to discuss how or if these philosophies can be reconciled at some points or others.
I can’t remember the first time I heard feminism mentioned in church; I just remember there being a sort of negative connotation about it. Feminists were women who promoted abortion, hated men, and were angry—that was it. I never heard anyone explain why they like abortion (or why they couched it in terms of reproductive rights), why they hated men (which seemed kind of extreme, since men make up a large portion of the global population), or what they were angry about; I just remember getting the distinct impression that it was unbiblical and wrong, and that Christians were (or should be) against it. What about you ladies?
Nana Dolce: I have a different experience; mine is closer to that of Nigerian novelist, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who describes her great-grandmother as a feminist, a woman who didn’t know the word and yet spoke against imposed gender restrictions. I can understand the description. Growing up, the word ‘feminism’ never came up in my West African Ghanaian immigrant community but I believe several women in my family and childhood church might be considered “feminist” based on Adichie’s definition. I was reared by a married woman who functioned as a single mother, balancing children, school, and multiple jobs. She felt the unfairness of her situation and decried it as injustice. I was encouraged by her to ‘lean in’ to my education and future career and to see these as more stable than marriage. We didn’t discuss abortion rights, pay gaps, or broader feminist issues but the idea of unjust power dynamics between men and women swam in my early family and church circles. I’m thankful for the tuning that came with conversion and the examples of strong women and men with beautifully distinct roles across ethnically diverse marriages.
Aimee Byrd: I also don’t recall the first time that I heard the term feminism mentioned in the church. My first memories of its usage were political, signifying the progressive left agenda of sexual liberation, killing babies, and promoting women over men. I think my first interaction with the term in evangelicalism was through books I was reading. As a young, married woman I wanted to be a godly wife. So I began listening to Christian radio and reading books on biblical womanhood. There’s a plethora of books marketed to Christian women about the evils of feminism. Some are better than others, distinguishing the goals of earlier feminism and it’s different, harmful stages. But the message to Christian women is usually that strong women rob men of their masculinity. So I would see one stereotype exchanged for another. We can do better in addressing the movements in our culture and how they affect the church. Now, I see people calling women who want to engage with these troubling responses feminists. This “insult” has been hurled at me quite a bit. I have been accused of being as feminist as possible without going against Scripture. Shouldn’t we all? And just yesterday I was labeled an “evangelical neo-feminist.” What does that even mean?
BV: You both touched on something very interesting, which is the fact that in our circles, we’re familiar with certain aspects of feminism (positive and negative), yet we none of us have a sort of sound-byte, one-line definition of it. In the article Nana referenced above, Adichie defines feminism this way: “Feminism is part of human rights in general—but the vague expression ‘human rights’, in this instance, denies the specific and particular problem of gender. It’s a way of pretending that it is not women who have, for centuries, been excluded; of denying that the problem of gender targets women. It denies that the problem is specifically about being a female human. For centuries, the world divided human beings into two groups and then proceeded to exclude and oppress one group. It is only fair that the solution to the problem should acknowledge that.” What is the problem of being a ‘female human’ that Adichie is referring to here? What does she mean when says that one group excluded and oppressed another?
ND: I can’t speak directly for Adichie but I do believe that Scripture is useful to us in understanding sin—including that of misogyny and sexism. Russell Moore writes in Tempted and Tried that “the canon of scripture shows us tracks of blood from the very edge of Eden outward. The biblical story immediately veers from paradise to depictions of murder, drunkenness, incest, gang rape, polygamy, and on and on…” The story gets ugly outside of the garden. Post-Genesis 3 humanity is abusive, violent, unjust, prejudice, and biased in both explicit and implicit ways. The self-aggrandizing attitude of our first parents in their desire to be “like God,” has marred the image of God in their descendants, producing people (both men and women) who are ravenous for power and self-importance at the expense of their neighbor. In this particular drama, the problem of being a ‘female human’ is the danger of being the ‘weaker vessel’ (1 Peter 3:7) in a world where sinful humanity is trampling on others to be god; and so we see the abusive degradation of women in both Scripture and in our time. Just consider the brutal gang rape and dismemberment of the nameless concubine in Judges 19. Today, 1 in 3 women worldwide have experienced either physical or sexual violence in their lifetime (some of these happen in our homes, churches, and Christian institutions). And millions of girls face the danger of elimination in the womb or infanticide across societies that value males over females. Abuse and ingrained bias against women and girls are insidious sins that deny the truth: In the beginning, God created the man and woman in His own image, equal in value and glory, He created them to serve together under the goodness of His sovereignty (Genesis 1:27-28).
AB: Thankfully, I was raised in a family that made a phrase like “the problem of a female human” sound foreign to me. While I have experienced sexual disparity as a woman in society, and even in the church, it was nothing like the culture Adichie describes. But even in Western culture where women enjoy more rights than ever there is still abuse, harassment, and subjugation. We know there is no problem in God’s design. The story indeed gets ugly outside of the garden. And the solution goes beyond recapturing human dignity for both men and women. This is why feminism as a political movement ultimately fails, even as we rightfully participate in the good parts of it. While it’s imperative to join with others pushing for women to share in equal rights and to fight against sexual abuse and harassment, the gospel contrasts sharply with some of the individualistic, sexual revolution aspects of the modern feminist movement. Christians need to uphold the greater picture of human destiny and agency, men and women created for eternal communion with the Triune God and one another. We don’t merely want people to fight against sexual harassment of women, although that is currently necessary. We want to recover God’s design of distinction between the sexes without reduction. We aren’t aiming for, “Okay, yes, you deserve rights too, and you can work with us without feeling sexually threatened or degraded.” And the problem isn’t merely a need to hear men acknowledge sin against women, or to acknowledge the gender disparity. What we need to acknowledge is that all dehumanizing reduces God’s design of both men and women. If we are to image the love that God has for us in Christ, then we need to view one another holistically, recognizing that both men and women have bodies, minds, and souls that are to reflect that love. And so Paul tells us, “Let love be without hypocrisy. Detest evil; cling to what is good. Love one another deeply as brothers and sisters” (Romans 12: 9-10, CSB). God put man and woman in the garden temple as co-laborers. Eve didn’t just get to tag along; it was not good without her. Adam had to sacrifice for her, from his own side. She’s not a problem; she’s a great gift. We need to acknowledge that women are necessary allies to men in God’s mission to the world.
BV: How then does Scripture talk about women? What do we learn about her from the portraits we see in redemptive history?
ND: If Scripture is above all the story of God, then it reveals a God who honors and cares for women. The first poem we read in the Bible is an ode to Eve and these lyrics are the only human words recorded pre-Fall. Following the Fall, Scripture’s attention to Eve remains. Consider this: the protoevangelium—the first gospel announcement in Genesis 3:15—describes the promised Savior, not as the Son of God, but as the seed of the woman. That’s incredible—but it’s not isolated. Long before the resurrected Jesus made women His first witnesses, narratives of Old Testament women testified of Christ. We often speak of Deborah’s leadership (and indeed there’s much to glean there), but consider Heber’s housewife Jael, the clear Christ-figure in that passage–she crushes the head of an enemy who dies at her feet (Judges 5:26-27)! And what of Abigail, the woman who rescued an entire household by bearing the guilt of another (1 Samuel 25:24)? And afflicted and outcast Hagar who testifies to the Living One who sees and hears, a sharp contrast to the lifeless, blind, and deaf idols of Egypt. In 1 Peter 3:7, we learn that God is a Father who gives an inheritance to His sons and daughters, these are women who must be treated with honor, lest a man’s prayers be hindered. From Eve to the last bride in Revelation, the Bible shows God proclaiming His love and gospel through the stories and images of women.
BV: There are several passages of Scripture that are difficult for us to grapple with–the passage from 1 Corinthians 14:33-35 and Acts 21:8, for example. In his letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul talks about it being shameful for a woman to speak in church, but in Acts 21:8, Luke speaks of the four unmarried daughters of Philip the evangelist, who prophesied. Luke’s record doesn’t mention anything about the apostles rebuking those women for prophesying, so why would Paul say that it’s shameful for a woman to speak in church?
AB: Yes, this is why it is so important to read these passages with a good understanding of what the whole of Scripture tells us. When we read a jolting passage, such as Paul calling women to be silent in the church, we need to do the interpretive work to make sure it jives with the rest of the canon of God’s word. Just looking within the context of 1 Corinthians, we see that Paul actually labors to incorporate women into speaking positions in the worship service even in a culture that didn’t typically educate their women or hold them in esteem. This is truly radical when we consider the accepted opinion of a popular first century rabbi, Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, recorded in the Jerusalem Talmud: “The words of the Torah should be burned rather than entrusted to women” (JT Sotah 3:4, 19a). Conversely, Jesus calls Mary’s sitting at his feet in the position of a disciple the one necessary thing, which will not be taken from her (Luke 10:42). And Paul works to establish a way for women to have authority to prophecy (1 Cor. 11:2-16) and to speak in tongues (1 Cor. 14:5, 26-33) in worship! So clearly he isn’t going to contradict himself in the same letter banning all women from speaking at all.
When we look at the whole canon of Scripture, we are even more confident that this isn’t the case. Nowhere in the entire Old Testament do we see an admonition against women speaking in religious gatherings. Philip Payne makes this point, noting Psalm 68:11, “The Lord gives the command; the women who proclaim the good tidings are a great host” (Man and Woman, One in Christ, 56). We see women as active tradents of the faith throughout Scripture. King Josiah’s dignitaries sought out the prophetess Huldah to authenticate the Word of God, most likely the book of Deuteronomy (2 Kings 22:13-20). We have theologically rich songs and prayers from Miriam (Exod. 15:19-21), Deborah (Judges 5), and Hannah (1 Sam. 2:1-10). In the New Testament we see Peter affirming that men and women will prophesy (Acts 2:17), and that is confirmed with the mention of Philip’s four daughters and Paul’s direction for women to prophecy while upholding gender distinctions. Considering examples such as this, describing women actively speaking and traditioning, we can look at Paul’s admonition in 1 Cor. 14 with proper guardrails from which to interpret the text. We know what it can’t mean, so we can now look at the textual context in which it is written: to maintain proper order during worship, as well as the cultural context in which it is written: women who were unaccustomed to their new liberties in worship were chatting and asking questions, causing disorder, when they needed to learn quietly with the rest of the worshippers while a word of counsel is spoken (Job 29:21). The principle that the modern reader can take away from this is that one expression of the Lord’s command to love (1 Cor. 13) will result in refraining from disruptive, non-inspired speech out of a respect for the proper order of worship and for the officers of the church.
BV: There’s also the question of the roles of women within the church–in Romans 16:1, Paul commends Phoebe, Prisca and Aquila to the congregation, referring to them as his fellow laborers and exhorting their brethren to receive those ladies as they would himself. But in 2 Timothy 2:12, he writes, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet.” How do we reconcile two texts that are apparently at such odds with each other?
ND: 1 Timothy 2—read in the context of chapters 1 and 3—is more about the church than about anything else. Paul says in 1 Timothy 3:14-15: “I am writing these things so that you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth.” Probably due to the exploits of false teachers, Paul sends instructions on prayer and corporate worship and in so doing, he secures the office of elder/pastor for qualified men. He links his words in 1 Timothy 2:12 to Genesis and goes on to define the office by very specific qualifications. At this point, I love that this particular question ties 1 Timothy to Romans 16 because I think we see there that Paul’s idea of male elders in the church doesn’t mean superiority over or distance from women and others. If 1 Timothy 2 directs church order, then Romans 16 depicts church life as we see the shared mission of women and men laboring side-by-side. Paul mentions 9 women in that chapter—one, Persis, he calls a “dear friend,” another is commended for her mothering, Junia suffered as a fellow prisoner with Paul, Priscilla the teacher, Phoebe the deaconess, and many others are commended for their hard work. It seems that, for Paul, 1 Timothy 2 doesn’t mean women tiptoeing in the church. If so, let churches that affirm the principles of 1 Timothy 2 be the most eager to equip women in the use of their gifts within God’s good order.
AB: Nana nails it in saying that leaders promote others. They lead from underneath, elevating both the men and women in the church to grow in love and service to others. Romans 16 gives us a picture of church life where brothers and sisters are actively serving together. Here’s where I think complementarians need to be much more careful not to anchor their main arguments on women in the church with such an obscure and debated text such as 2 Timothy 2:12. How do we reconcile this text with the leadership titles that Paul gives women such as Phoebe? Many of our translations render the Greek prostatis in Romans 16:2 as saying Phoebe has been a “helper of many, and of myself as well.” But this is a word that connotes leadership, of which Paul himself admits to receiving in the passage. It is the feminine derivative of proistémi, which is translated earlier in Romans as “he who leads” (Rom. 12:8), and in Paul’s letter to Timothy as a man who “manages” his own household well (1 Tim 3:4,4,12) or elders who “rule” well (1 Tim. 5:17). We cannot deny that there is some form of leadership in the feminine derivative as we see Phoebe described in a patron-client role by Paul and as the bearer of his most theological epistle, of which Donald Barnhouse writes, “Never was there a greater burden carried by such tender hands. The theological history of the church through the centuries was in the manuscript which she brought with her. The Reformation was in that baggage. The blessing of multitudes in our day was carried in those parchments” (God’s Glory, 124). We can’t ignore the point made by Mike Bird that Phoebe possibly read this letter to the Roman congregation, or at least would be the one whom the elders sought, as Paul’s personal representative, to ask questions about his meaning in the text (Bourgeois Babes, Bossy Wives, and Bobby Haircuts, 20-21). But this isn’t merely a single instance of Paul contradicting an oft-flattened hyper-complementarian interpretation of 1 Tim. 2:12, which forbids women from any authoritative teaching or leadership over men. Paul plants the Philippian church with Lydia (Acts 16:14-15, 40). He calls women such as Euodia and Syntyche “fellow workers” on the same level as Clement (Phil. 4:2-3). This is a term Paul continuously uses for those laboring with him, leading the way by laying their own lives down for ministry work. We can see why it’s so imperative for Paul to note Euodia and Syntyche’s need to come together in unity before the church, as they are women of influence. Along with Phoebe and Prisca, Paul describes Mary, Tryphena, Tryphosa, and Persis as fellow laborers in the gospel, who “worked very hard” for the church in the closing of his epistle to the Romans. Philip Payne notes that Paul uses this word for himself often, and exhorts the Thessalonians to “appreciate those who diligently labor among you, and have charge over you in the Lord and give you instruction, and that you esteem them very highly in love because of their work” (1 Thess. 5:12, Payne, Man and Woman, 67). I could certainly go on from these few examples to show how Paul’s practices conflict with the hyper-complementarian interpretation of his teaching of 1 Tim. 2:12, but space restrains me.
I come to 1 Tim. 2:12 with the knowledge that Paul has a high regard for women co-laboring under the ministry and shows that in his own practices. And I come to the text knowing there are two offices where Scripture does not describe women serving in: Levite priests in the Old Testament or elders in the New Testament. I see theological reasons for this, and I agree that as Paul is directing behavior in corporate worship for the Ephesian church here, he secures the office of elder/pastor for qualified men. But as Paul is describing a worship situation in 1 Tim. 2, he is doing that within the context of addressing false teaching in the church, specifically in Ephesus, that was affecting the women. His many references to problems with the women in the church employ the same language as his references to false teaching that permeates the letter. Rather than follow deception, Paul calls for the women to learn (2:11). As I described earlier, this is a radical teaching in a culture where only upper-class women of status had any access to education. Complementarians need to seriously engage with some of the evangelical egalitarian scholarship that points out the grammatical form in its original Greek as, “I am not permitting” in contrast to the English translation, “I do not permit,” as this challenges Paul’s exhortation as a universal prohibition (see Payne, 320). An argument for holding the office of elder for qualified men needs to be more theologically well rounded (and I believe there is a rich argument for this) than just this verse gives us. Also, we can’t anchor an argument forbidding women from speaking with any authority from this Greek word authentein in 1 Tim. 2:12, which is used nowhere else in Scripture, and is mostly translated as domineering, aggressive, or usurping authority in extra-biblical texts. Paul uses a completely different Greek word, exousia, when discussing church authority in all other texts. This may give us a clue about the false teaching that he is combatting in Ephesus.
As Paul is addressing the false teaching affecting the women in Ephesus, he calls them to learn in submission as serious students of God’s word, rather than with ostentatious display or by trying to domineer the qualified men he has called to serve the word to them.
BV: I think the two things we can certainly derive from Scripture is that neither sex is essentially superior to the other, and that, from the beginning, women were clearly intended to actively participate in the life of the church. Our good desire to maintain the scriptural distinction between the offices to which the Lord has called qualified men and the areas wherein all believers may serve shouldn’t become so consuming that we go careening in the opposite direction, where we become so worried about women being ordained that we don’t care if we build extra-biblical fences that prevent them from participating in the public life of the church at all. Even in the infamous head-coverings passage of 1 Corinthians 11, Paul’s “man was not made from woman but woman from man” verses were followed up with, “…in the Lord, woman is not independent of man nor man from woman, for as woman was made from man, so man is now born of woman. And all things are from God.” No matter what your take on head-coverings may be, it’s pretty clear that Paul is affirming the equal worth of both men and women and the interdependence of each sex on the other. This is one area where I feel contemporary secular feminist discussion could improve—in their right desire to denounce and work against toxic masculinity, they’ve not really articulated a positive definition of masculinity.
AB: Yes, while evangelical feminists agree on distinction between the sexes, they often downplay these distinctions and empty them of their meaning. I think this is why so many women in egalitarian churches feel just as undervalued, because even though there is an ostensible consensus that man and woman are equal, the work hasn’t been done to acknowledge the enrichment that distinct feminine and masculine contributions bring to the church. On the other hand, complementarians often set up so-called biblical femininity and masculinity as something to strive for in itself. Roman Catholic theologian Dietrich Von Hildebrand points out that the calling for both man and woman, is “to be transformed in Christ, to become holy and glorify God, and to reach eternal communion with God….the specific tone of masculinity and femininity must appear by itself” as we strive together towards this same mission (Man, Woman, and the Meaning of Love, 61).
BV: I agree—there’s a subtle, but very important distinction between trying to be a ‘biblical woman’ and becoming a biblical woman as a result of the continuing work of the Holy Spirit that conforms us more and more into the image of Christ. Let’s talk about Titus 2:3-5, where Paul instructs the older women to “…teach what is good, and so train the young women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled, pure, working at home, kind, and submissive to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be reviled.” There are a couple of things to unpack here: it’s interesting that Paul admonishes older women to teach younger women, and that they emphasis he places here is loving husbands and children, working at home, submission, all so that the word of God may not be disgraced or despised. That’s a pretty serious contingency: if the younger women don’t love their husbands and children, are not self-controlled, pure, etc., then the word of God is reviled. What are we to make of this?
AB: Paul opens his epistle to Titus saying that he is an apostle “for the faith of God’s elect and their knowledge of the truth that leads to godliness” (1:1). The truth of the gospel changes us. It comes with the power of the Holy Spirit to sanctify his people in the likeness of our Savior and Lord Jesus Christ. He then explains how false teaching from the “circumcision party” is rejecting the truth, thereby defiling both their minds and consciences. “They claim to know God, but they deny him by their works” (1:16). Next we see that women too are responsible to be tradents of the faith, meaning that they’re to pass down the tradition given to them by the apostles to the younger generation. In order for them to do this, Titus must invest in these women in the household of God so that they will be instructed in a healthy doctrine (2:1). This knowledge of God leads to personal holiness and relational care in the home. In the context of the Greco-Roman households of time, the women managed the domestic sphere. Personal households were considered a microcosm of society; so it was important to uphold the social household codes and function in harmony. What kinds of people does Christianity produce? Unlike the immoral behavior from the circumcision group, who were slandering the Word of God in their teaching and their actions, both men and women are to pass down sound faith, which bears fruit such as love and self-control in their personal households.
Women today still have great influence on both their personal households and in God’s household. Our competence might not be measured by Greco-Roman household codes, yet the same principle still applies. We are tradents of the faith, and therefore need to teach what is good. While younger women are not our only sphere of influence, they are a big one! Do we have the truth? Then we will be actively teaching it to upcoming influencers, modeling and encouraging younger women in how the gospel leads to godliness and affects our relationships in the home.
ND: Thank you for your answer, Aimee; it’s helpful. I especially appreciate the literary context you provide for Titus 2:3-5 when you point out Paul’s picture of the Cretan circumcision party as those who “claim to know God, yet deny him by their works.” I see a sharp contrast between Paul’s description of this group and the church Titus is given to shepherd. The circumcision party is “unfit for any good work” (1:16). But the Cretan believers, old and young alike, must be eager, ready, and devoted to good works (2:14; 3:1; 3:8; 3:14). The teachings of the circumcision party were upsetting or ruining entire households (1:11). If so, the entire household of God must live contrary to these false teachings: older men must be sober-minded and sound in faith. In the same way, older women were to be reverent and sound teachers of younger women in their good work and character at home. Likewise, young men were to be self-controlled and Titus, himself a young man, was to be an example for good works (2:7). The sound teaching and the model character and works of God’s people would silence the slander of opponents (2:5,8). Amen!
Regarding our application of this text today, I agree with you that, while our competence isn’t measured by Greco-Roman household codes, the principle given for the sound teaching, character, and works of God’s people still applies. Here, I thank God for the witness of the older women of my local church. I belong to a 60-year-old traditional black Baptist church in Washington DC, and the congregation is packed with older men and women, many of whom have been married for some 40, 50, and over 60 years! I have been helped by the godly examples of these seasoned women whose mouths are filled with sound encouragement and whose hands work hard for the Lord. They participate in the shared mission of the church and are eager to do good works at home and out. They have been to me the Priscillas, the Phoebes and the Marys of Romans 16. They exemplify Titus 2 in that they claim to know Christ and their works testify of Him, leaving little room for revilers. I’m helped by them.
BV: It really emphasizes the fact that as Christians, we live life together—we’re not independent agents; we’re members of a living body of which Christ is the head and chief cornerstone. Ours is an embodied faith that is to be communicated, taught and discipled in other Christians, and we need the support, encouragement, rebuke and admonishment of our sisters and our brothers—it’s one of the primary ways we will be built up in love, attaining the unity of the faith and the knowledge of the Son of God (Eph. 4:12-13). This is the whole purpose of our existence—not to live our best lives now or fulfill our own desires for who and what we are or want to be. When men and women work together in love—not out of selfish ambition or conceit—when we count others as more significant than ourselves and look to the interests of our neighbor as well as our own, that’s when the whole world acknowledges us as Christ’s disciples, because they’ve seen the love that we have for one another.
Brooke Ventura is a writer. She lives in Ontario, Canada with her husband and two children.
Aimee Byrd is the author of Recovering From Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, No Little Women and Why Can’t We Be Friends, and co-host of The Mortification of Spin podcast. She lives in Maryland with her husband and three children, and is a member of New Hope Orthodox Presbyterian Church.
Nana Dolce was born in Ghana, West Africa. She lives in Washington, DC with her husband Eric and two daughters. She homeschools her children, is on staff at a local church, and holds a Master of Arts in theological studies. She blogs at motherhoodandsanctity.com
This article was first published by Modern Reformation on October 1, 2018.