This is a sticky, hairy topic, but I’ve started thinking about it more specifically, and I’m certainly not done, but here’s the beginning of what might turn into a pretty decent article. Actually, this was a handout from a recent talk I gave on the subject.
Cultural Difficulties. This is a difficult issue to say the least. Each culture in the history of the world has had difficult issues particular to their culture and their time. This is one of ours. For example, in Africa today, nobody is talking about gender roles. Asians do not struggle over what the Bible says about gender roles at all. Rather, they struggle with ancestor worship, among other issues. Our cultural biases give us blinders when it comes to these culturally defined difficulties with the scriptures. In other words, the problems we have with the scriptures are not universal. Everyone has problems with the scriptures, but your particular set of problems is almost certainly defined by your cultural situation. As we discuss this issue, we should be aware that our cultural situation will make it difficult for us to be objective, and perhaps Asian Christians would help us tremendously here (and we could probably help them with the issue of ancestor worship), but we’ll try to be as careful as we can.
Contextual Difficulties. The Bible was written a long time ago, and understanding it is difficult at times, especially when we wear cultural blinders (see above). Further, there are many kinds of genres which require different interpretive guidelines. Just because King David had multiple wives does not necessarily mean it is a good thing. In narrative sections, the Bible reports things that it does not approve of just like any good newspaper or biography might. Third, there is no one section of the Bible that lays out the entirety of its teaching on gender roles. In other words, we’ll need to put several passages together. We cannot look at some of the passages and ignore others. When the Biblical authors seem to disagree with themselves, we do not pick the passage we like — rather, we struggle to understand how they fit together. Finally, the Bible has little to say about gender roles. There just isn’t much written. We’re going to ask a whole lot of questions for which there are no good answers in the text. However, let’s look at what is there . . .
Linguistic Difficulties. As we begin, I should note that when we speak of gender roles, the language we use is highly charged. I want to try to diffuse the terms as much as possible. For example, the word “submission” can be a horrible thing. I understand some of the baggage that comes with the word, but it doesn’t need to carry this baggage. For example, when dancing, normally women “submit” to the leadership of their partners. Players on a basketball team “submit” to their coach or team captain. Of course, we use the same word when describing heinous crimes, but the word doesn’t necessitate such horrors. When speaking of “submission” with gender roles, it can go either way. We can freely admit the incredible injustice inflicted upon women especially who have been told to “submit” to their abusive husbands. The same things can be said for these words too: authority, dominion and ruler (to name just a few).
The first two chapters of Genesis each tell the creation story from different perspectives. The first is a big, grand, beautiful, symmetrical story, and the second is intimate, close, emotional and detailed. And each tells us something different about men and women. Genesis 1 tells us about the equality, Genesis 2 tells us about the distinction. Every time that the New Testament has any sort of extended commentary on gender roles, it always refers back to these two passages, so it would make sense to start here so that when we get to the New Testament, we’ll be ready. In the first version of the creation of mankind, we see that men and women are created ontologically equal. That is, their essence, or being, or basic quality is the same.
26. Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” 27. So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. 28. And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”
Notice that when God wants to create a creature in his image, he does so in two irreducible parts. That is, by themselves, men do not reflect the image of God, nor to women. You need a man and a woman to reflect the image of God. Of course, we can say that all people individually are created in the image of God, but there is something reflected in the community of these two different people (men and women) that is uniquely reflective of God. God has always existed as a community of 3 people, and so to reflect him truly, we need to be more than one. Second, note that God gives dominion (or authority) to both men and women to rule over all the earth. He gives it to them equally. The command is for them to rule together.
In this account of creation, we look more closely at the events and in so doing we see that there are distinctions between man and woman. They are not the same.
7. Then the LORD God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature. 18. Then the LORD God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.” 19. Now out of the ground the LORD God had formed every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens and brought them to the man to see what he would call them. And whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. 20. The man gave names to all livestock and to the birds of the heavens and to every beast of the field. But for Adam there was not found a helper fit for him. 21. So the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. 22. And the rib that the LORD God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. 23. Then the man said, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.” 24. Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. 25. And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.
First, notice that the man was created first, and that it was clear from the very beginning that by himself things were “not good.” In verse 18 God announces he will make a “helper” for him. This is a good translation, but there is a strong connotation (in my mind) of something very unhelpful with the word “helper.” If you want to occupy a 4 year old child, you might say, “Would you like to be my helper today?” Or, you might compliment the same child by saying, “You’re such a good helper!” That is not the meaning of this word in Hebrew. This word is used most often of God himself. As in, “the LORD is my help and strength, whom should I fear?” This is a kind of help coming to alleviate some sort of deficiency. In other words, God created a woman because the man needed her. He needed help even before the fall . . . before sin entered into the world. We all need community, not because we are sinners, but because we are people.
In Verse 23, the man names the woman. We understand a little bit today what this means. In the time when this was written (and for most of human history), it would be clearly understood that this act of naming signaled that the man had authority over and responsibility for the woman. She does not name him in return. He was not taken out of her body, but she was taken out of his. There are some clear distinctions, even if we don’t know exactly what they are quite yet. Finally, notice that there is great intimacy, harmony and peace between them.
This is where the gender roles get all mixed up and we begin with the problems. Sin enters the world. We should note that the man and woman sinned together for the first time. When God comes to them, he calls for Adam, not for Eve. The curses given to them are certainly for all of mankind, but there is a difference in emphasis between the curses given to the man and those given to the woman. For the man, God talks about the difficulty of his work. For the woman, he talks about the difficulty of her relationships, especially with her family (husband and children).
1 Corinthians 11.3-15
This letter was written by the Apostle Paul to the church in Corinth. They were a messed-up church! Anyway, he addresses their questions one by one throughout the letter. Here is his take on the behavior of women in church in this letter.
3. But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God. 4. Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head, 5. but every wife who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, since it is the same as if her head were shaven. 6. For if a wife will not cover her head, then she should cut her hair short. But since it is disgraceful for a wife to cut off her hair or shave her head, let her cover her head. 7. For a man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man. 8. For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. 9. Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. 10. That is why a wife ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels. 11. Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man nor man of woman; 12. for as woman was made from man, so man is now born of woman. And all things are from God. 13. Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a wife to pray to God with her head uncovered? 14. Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair it is a disgrace for him, 15. but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For her hair is given to her for a covering. Whew! Ok, let’s walk through this passage.
First, in verse 3, there are several things to note. What does “head” mean? What is “headship?” Whatever it means, there seems to be some sort of hierarchy. In relationship to Christ, a man is a body and Christ is the head. In relationship to his wife, though, the man is the head and the wife is the body. Christ is a body, with God as the head. So it goes something like this . . . wife — husband — Christ — God. On that line, you are the head of the person to the left of you and the body of the person to the right of you. This analogy of gender roles and the Trinity came up in the Creation story a bit, and here it is more clear. In other passages it is clearer still. Let me try to synthesize a little right here.
Who is more powerful, Jesus or God the Father? The same. They are both God. Who is more important? What a silly question. However, they have different roles. The Father did not die for our sins, that was the job of Jesus. They are equal, but have different jobs. Jesus was submissive to the Father. In the gospel of John, Jesus is hard to figure out. On the one hand he keeps saying things like, “I and the Father are one” (John 10.30). On the other hand, he also keeps saying thing like, “I do nothing on my own authority, but speak just as the Father taught me . . . I always do the things that are pleasing to him” (John 8.28-29). What does it mean that Jesus did not have the authority in himself to do what he was doing? He was/is in a submissive role to the Father. Not because he is inadequate, incompetent, or anything of the like, but because he completely trusted the Father to do his job and together (with the Holy Spirit), they accomplished our redemption. This seems to be the way the Bible presents the gender differences. They are equal, but have different jobs (at least sometimes). Women are in the submissive role (like Jesus in his relationship to the Father), and men are in the leadership role (like Jesus in his relationship to the Church). So, we each get to illustrate Jesus in his different relationships.
Verses 5-15 talk about a head covering for women which is inappropriate for men. First, we should notice that the women are doing the same thing as the men (vs.4-5). Paul has no problem with the women praying and prophesying in public. His instruction is about head coverings while the women do the same activities as men. These head coverings indicate some kind of submission, some kind of following. They were a cultural way of acknowledging the gender roles of creation, apparently. Today, head coverings would simply suggest that the person was Amish or really weird. How can women and men obey this teaching today? I’m not sure. We need to find a culturally relevant public way for women to acknowledge gladly the role God has given them in creation. And men should then refrain from this public demonstration. It does not need to be one particular thing, but perhaps. I haven’t been able to come up with any good ideas yet, but I don’t think we can simply let this command of scripture lay dormant as if it is irrelevant to us.
1 Corinthians 14.29-40
Ok, here’s one of those passages that gets taken out of its context constantly! There are some potential landmines here, but let’s look at the context and that should help us understand things better. People in other cultures don’t seem to see the things we see here because of our cultural blinders.
26. What then, brothers? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up. 27. If any speak in a tongue, let there be only two or at most three, and each in turn, and let someone interpret. 28. But if there is no one to interpret, let each of them keep silent in church and speak to himself and to God. 29. Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said. 30. If a revelation is made to another sitting there, let the first be silent. 31. For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged, 32. and the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets. 33. For God is not a God of confusion but of peace. As in all the churches of the saints, 34. the women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says. 35. If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church. 36. Or was it from you that the word of God came? Or are you the only ones it has reached? 37. If anyone thinks that he is a prophet, or spiritual, he should acknowledge that the things I am writing to you are a command of the Lord. 38. If anyone does not recognize this, he is not recognized. 39. So, my brothers, earnestly desire to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues. 40. But all things should be done decently and in order.
On first glance, it seems like Paul is forbidding women to speak publicly in church, but just a few chapters earlier, he was mentioning that his big problem with women praying and prophesying in church had to do with head coverings (see above). Then, if we look a little closer, we see that Paul is actually addressing the ordering of the public worship service. Things should be done decently and in order. In fact, in the beginning of this section he tells two other groups of people to be silent. What he means is . . . wait your turn to talk.
Then, when mentioning women, he says they must be silent until they get home! What does that mean? Paul cannot mean to forbid women from speaking in general because he encourages them to prophesy (so long as their head is covered). Perhaps a little cultural background would be helpful. These early churches took their model for the order of worship from the Jewish synagogues. When it came time for the teaching, a man would stand up, read the scriptures and expound on them. Then, when he was finished, the (male) elders of the community would each take a turn to respond to the exposition. One might say, “Amen,” meaning “I agree. That is true. Believe him.” Or, one might say, “I like the beginning, but starting with his third point, things started going downhill. Let me correct some of what was said . . .” The elders could do this but not others. The Christians started using this form of worship, except they allowed women to prophesy, too. Many (most?) evangelical scholars would agree that in this passage, the assessment of the teaching is forbidden to women. This fits with the overall theme of orderliness of worship. After all, if there were no restrictions on who could respond to the teaching, the congregation would be there all day! Secondly, this fits with the Bible’s teaching (especially in Paul) elsewhere that spiritual responsibility and authority rests with the (male) elders of church. On the basis of this understanding, our denomination and our church have decided to allow only men to become elders and the elders (sitting together they are called “the Session”) determine what is good doctrine.
One of the most stupidly misunderstood texts in all the Scripture.
25. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, 26. for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. 27. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. 28. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.
Let’s be reasonable here. Verse 28 is constantly used to say that the gospel has abolished all role distinctions. There is no male or female. There are tons of problems with this view. First, Paul also says there is no slave or free. However, in 1 Corinthians 7.21 he says that a slave should seek to be free if possible. Certainly we all still play the roles of male or female, slave or free. Looking at the context it is easy to see that he is saying that the gospel does not give preferential treatment to anyone based on economic or gender differences. God’s grace does not come specially for men nor for the rich (nor specially for women nor the poor).
Love it or hate it, this is the clearest passage in scripture regarding the roles of husband and wives in the Bible.
18. And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, 19. addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, 20. giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, 21. submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ. 22. Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. 23. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. 24. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands. 25. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, 26. that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, 27. so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. 28. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, 30. because we are members of his body. 31. “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” 32. This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. 33. However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.
First, notice that in verse 21, that everyone is called to submit to each other, recognizing that we all are brothers and sisters of Christ and have his Spirit living in us. Secondly, Paul makes a clear case for marriage being a representation of the relationship between Christ and the Church. There are a lot of interesting things here, but for the purpose of this paper, we see that wives are playing the role of the Church in this drama. Perhaps you did not audition for this role, but you have it, sister. Men play the part of Christ. Here is the assignment of your role in the marriage.
1 Timothy 2.8-15
Here, we have the most straightforward talk about the role of women and men in the church. That doesn’t make it easy, though. In fact, they are some of the hardest words to understand in all of Scripture (at least for our culture).
8. I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling; 9. likewise also that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, 10. but with what is proper for women who profess godliness—with good works. 11. Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. 12. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. 13. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; 14. and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. 15. Yet she will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.
In this letter, Paul is instructing his apprentice, his disciple, Timothy on how to order the churches he is planting. So, this is perhaps the most universal (without a specific church context) letter we have from Paul. In the beginning of this passage, the instructions for men and women seem fine enough. Men should pray passionately, but not with anger. Women should dress modestly and be known for their fantastic good works, not for their fantastic bodies. Then, verses 11 and 12. Again we should note that Paul was happy for women to pray and prophesy publicly (see above). He affirms the value of women over and against others in the culture of his day.
However, we see the authority role of men again here. Since Paul is clearly not prohibiting women to teach in general, what does he mean? Probably “exercise authority” is a qualifier of “teach.” That is to say, women are not to teach authoritatively over men. The “quietness” of women should be quietness and submission in relationship to the authoritative teaching and responsibility. And in the church, he’s not suggesting that all men have this authority. In fact, this passage is followed immediately by a section on the qualifications for the office of bishop. That is to say . . . women cannot exercise authority over the church, but let me tell you who can. Not all men exercise authority over the church — only certain ones.
Part of Paul’s argument here is that menkind were created before womenkind. His appeal to creation rather than a sense of social protocol (“that’s how everyone does it!”) tells us that the instruction is not specific to Paul’s culture only. I’m not sure about the meaning of the argument that Eve was deceived while Adam was not. Verse 15 is just plain weird. There is nothing close to a consensus about what it means. It is perhaps the strangest verse in the New Testament.
I have hit the highlights of what the Bible says about gender roles, but certainly not all the places. I understand that God has ordained gender roles of leader and follower from creation. Men are to be leaders. Women are to be followers. A man is to take responsibility and a woman is to help because of his deficiencies. They are a team of separate, but necessary parts. They dance together. They are like two wings on an airplane. Not the same, but corresponding. Which is more important? We need them both. And we need them both to play their separate roles.
When the Bible talks about gender roles, it only talks about them in the context of family and church. Never outside. Therefore, I can think of no reason to apply them outside the family and church. In fact, these two institutions that were initiated and ordained by God are safe places in which to practice the creation plan of gender roles. Inevitably we will fail, and only in the covenant community of family and church can we have confidence in the forgiveness of others when we mess up. In the worlds of business, politics, healthcare, law enforcement, art and education, there is no safety net of repentance and forgiveness when we hurt each other. There is no covenant commitment outside the family and church, and playing our gender roles is risky, adventurous and sometimes dangerous for both roles. If we were to apply them outside the covenant commitments, we will inevitably alienate all those around us . . . death of isolation by a thousand alienations.
The Church and Family provides a safety net which will free us to swing on this trapeze with confidence that if we fall, the men and women around us will catch us, and allow us to climb up and try it again.
In the church and family, women should learn to submit in a helpful way. There is a balance. A kind of submission that does not actively help is not really submission. She who does not actively help her elders to lead is not obedient to her God. They need her help. On the other hand, she who does not follow the lead of her elders, but tries to take the reigns of the church away from them, is not obedient either.
In the church and family, men should learn to lead in a way that is gracious. There is a balance. A kind of leadership that ignores the thoughts, feelings and needs of the followers is not really leadership. He who does not actively seek the council, wisdom and understanding of his followers is not obedient to God. He cannot truly lead those he does not love. On the other hand, he who does not love enough to make decisions, but sits on his hands because he is afraid is not obedient either.
C. S. Lewis describes it this way . . . in regular society we are all people, citizens, soldiers, employees, gender neutral descriptions. We march in lockstep wearing the uniforms of our social or political status. What a gift it is, then, to come into the home or the church and don our ball gowns and tuxedos. Some of us dance forward, some of us dance backward. This is a gift from God not to be despised or to be taken lightly.
 I certainly do not mean to omit the Holy Spirit here. We could say the same things about role distinctions with him, too. But for the sake of brevity, we’ll just stick with Jesus and the Father.
 Note Acts 18.26 where Pricilla and Aquila bring the great preacher Apollos into their home and teach him about the way of God “more adequately.” In a highly unusual way, Pricilla (the wife) is mentioned first in this context. This may indicate (but not necessarily) that she was a better teacher, or more prominent than her husband in some way. In fact, 4 of the 6 times the couple is mentioned in the NT, Pricilla is first.
 A “bishop” in this context is not nearly so specific as has been defined in the Roman and Episcopal churches. This touches on the issue of church government which is not the subject of this paper. However, I ‘ll quickly note that many scholars and pastors (myself included) think that from a biblical perspective, “bishop” and “elder” are interchangeable. That does not mean that a distinction today is a bad thing, but simply that the Bible does not regulate such a distinction.