Christianity and Women

By James M. Rochford

Critics of the Bible have argued that Scripture is chauvinistic toward women. For instance, critical scholar Peter Richardson writes, “The goal in Paul’s exegesis appears to be, without I hope being unduly harsh, greater conformity with the… view of subordination of women.”[1] While this might sound harsh, the Bible has very difficult passages toward women. For instance, Peter writes, “Wives [should] be submissive to your own husbands” (1 Pet. 3:1). Elsewhere, Paul writes, “The man is the head of a woman” (1 Cor. 11:3), and he states, “Wives, be subject to your own husbands” (Eph. 5:22). Is this a sexist attitude toward women? Critics argue that this is ancient patriarchy at its worst.

Religion has never been kind toward women

Feminist scholarship considers religion to be misogynistic and patriarchal. Misogyny comes from the Greek roots misein (“to hate”) and gyne (“woman”). Patriarchy comes from the roots pater (“father”) and archos (“ruler”). Christian authors usually respond to these accusations by claiming that feminists are exaggerating or misconstruing the data. However, that is not our view. Instead, it seems that feminist scholarship does have a good hold on how religion has oppressed women. Consider a number of different religious systems in this regard:

(1) Talmudic Judaism. The Talmud records, “A man’s wickedness is better than a woman’s goodness; women bring shame and disgrace.”[2] Rabbi Eliezer said, “Whoever teaches his daughter Torah teaches her debauchery… The wisdom of a woman is only in her spinning rod… May the words of the Torah be burned and not be delivered to women!”[3] Of course, this thinking does not occur in the Hebrew Bible, but sadly, rabbinic Judaism taught this misogynistic doctrine like this.

(2) Hinduism. Manu’s Code states, “Him to whom her father may give her, or her brother with the father’s permission, she shall obey as long as she lives. Though destitute of virtue, or seeking pleasure elsewhere, or devoid of good qualities, a husband must be constantly worshiped as a god by a faithful wife.”[4] Secular authors Carmody and Carmody write,

Between the first Vedas (1500 BCE) and the first codes of law (100 CE), women’s religious role steadily declined. A major reason for this was the lowering of the marriage age from fifteen or sixteen to ten and even five. This both removed the possibility of education (and consequently religious office) and fixed women’s role to being wife and mother. In fact, in later Hinduism being a wife was so important that a widow was prohibited from mentioning any man’s name but that of her deceased husband.[5]

They [women] were subject, successively, to fathers, husbands, and elder sons. As soon as they approached puberty, their fathers hastened to marry them off, and during their wedded lives they were to honor their husbands without reservation… This held true even if their husbands were deformed, aged, debauched, lived openly with other women, or showed them no affection. To ritualize this attitude of devotion, orthodox Hindu authors counseled wives to adore the big toe of their husband’s right foot, bathing it as they would an idol, and offering incense before it as they would to a great god.[6]

In Hindu society, women were not eligible for moksha; the best that a woman could hope for was to be reborn as a man.[7]

The birth of a girl was not an occasion for joy. Hindus attributed it to bad karma in a previous life and frequently announced the event by saying, ‘Nothing was born.’[8]

Hindu religious texts frequently imagine a woman as a snake, hell’s entrance, death, a prostitute, or an adulteress. In Manu’s code, slaying a woman was one of the minor offenses.[9]

Secular comparative religions scholar S.A. Nigosian writes,

In no way, then, are women considered to be equal to men or even to be free members of the family or caste… Proper behavior for a woman means an arranged marriage by her father at the proper time, usually soon after puberty (in some localities, child marriage is still a common practice)… The next proper duty of a woman is to respect, obey, and worship her husband, even if he is unfaithful, virtueless, and devoid of good qualities.[10]

Traditionally, a widow was expected to accompany the corpse of her husband to the funeral pyre and be burned alive by his side (sati) on the assumption that a woman who outlived her husband had caused his death by her evil karma.[11]

(3) Islam. The Quran reads: “Your women are a tillage for you; so come unto your tillage as you wish” (Surah 2:223). Later, we read, “Men are the managers of the affairs of women for that God has preferred in bounty one of them over another… Righteous women are therefore obedient, guarding the secret for God’s guarding. And those you fear may be rebellious admonish; banish them to their couches, and beat them” (Surah 4:34). Carmody and Carmody note,

For many men, the best part of the heavenly Garden was the hur: dark-eyed, buxom virgins. In addition to his earthly wife, each male in heaven could expect to have seventy hur. They would never be sick, menstruating, pregnant (unless he wished), bad-tempered, or jealous. He would be able to deflower a thousand each month and find them all intact when he returned to them. In descriptions of the Judgment scene, one sees the reverse of this fantasy: Women are in charge of men, which is a sure sign of disorder.[12]

(4) Eastern religions. Lewis Hopfe notes that the yin and yang of Taoism was a symbol that reinforces the negativity and subordination of women. He writes, “The yin was the negative force in nature. It was seen in darkness, coolness, femaleness, dampness, the earth itself, the moon, and the shadows. The yang was the positive force in nature. It was seen in lightness, brightness, warmth, maleness, dryness, and the sun.”[13] Theodore Ludwig writes of Jainism: “[Digambaras] insisted that women could not be allowed into the monsastic life; they can become monks and reach enlightenment only after rebirth as men.”[14] Carmody and Carmody write,

Confucianism was largely misogynistic. The woman’s role in Confuscianism was to obey and serve her parents, husband, and husband’s parents. She was useless until she produced a male heir, and her premarital chastity and marital fidelity were more important than a man’s.[15]

The Chinese ritual of foot binding was a thousand-year-old horror show in which women were grotesquely crippled from very early childhood… the hideous three-inch-long ‘lotus’ hooks–which in reality were odiferous, useless stumps–were the means by which the Chinese patriarchs saw to it that their girls and women would never ‘run around.’[16]

(5) Secular Worldview. One might think that secular thinkers would hold to a more egalitarian view. However, historically, this hasn’t been the case. For instance, both Aristotle and Nietzsche claim that women are weaker than men, and men should dominate over them, because of their physical prowess. Aristotle writes,

The relation of male to female is by nature a relation of superior to inferior and ruler to ruled. (Aristotle, Politics, 1254b)

[Woman is] more mischievous, less simple, more impulsive… more compassionate… more easily moved to tears… more jealous, more critical, more apt to scold and to strike… more prone to despondency and less hopeful… more void of shame or self-respect, more false of speech, more deceptive, of more retentive memory… also more wakeful; more shrinking [and] more difficult to rouse to action. (Aristotle, History of Animals, 608b. 1-14)

Friedrich Nietzsche (19th century atheistic philosopher) writes,

Yet woman is not capable of friendship: women are still always cats and birds. Or, in the best case, cows.[17]

Everything in woman is a riddle, and everything in woman hath one answer: its name is child bearing… Man shall be educated for war, and woman for the recreation of the warrior. Everything else is folly… Man’s happiness is: ‘I will.’ Woman’s happiness: ‘He will.’ …Thou goest to women? Remember thy whip![18]

(6) Unbiblical Christianity. Christian leaders have been guilty of misogyny as well:

Clement of Alexandria (AD 250): Every woman should be filled with shame by the thought that she is a woman. (Pedagogues II, 33, 2)

Jerome (4th century): As long as woman is for birth and children, she is as different from man as body is from soul. But when she wishes to serve Christ more than the world, then she will cease to be a woman and will be called Man. (Commentary on the Epistle to the Ephesians, III, 5)

Ambrose (4th century): One who does not believe is a woman and should be designated by the name of that sex, whereas one who believes progresses to perfect manhood, to the measure of adulthood in Christ, with the name of the sex dispensing with the seductiveness of youth and the garrulousness of old age. (Ambrose, The Exposition of the Gospel of St. Luke, lib.X, n.161)

Augustine (AD 4th century): I don’t see what sort of help woman was created to provide man with, if one excludes procreation. If woman is not given to man for help in bearing children, for what help could she be? To till the earth together? If help were needed for that, man would have been a better help for man. The same goes for comfort in solitude. How much more pleasure is it for life and conversation when two friends live together than when a man and a woman cohabitate? (De genesi ad litteram, 9, 5-9)

John Chrysostom (5th century): [Women] in no case outstrip the men, but occupied the second rank. (Epistle to the Ephesians, Homily 13)

Leander of Seville (AD 6th century): Nor has she any need to become a slave to her body which by natural law should be subservient to a man. Happy the virgin who takes her body from Eve but not her punishment. (Regula Episcopi, Preface)

As we can see, Christian leaders have been guilty of misogyny just as much as any other religion on Earth. But what does the Bible say about women? When we turn to Scripture, we see that the Bible has a uniquely positive and empowering view of women.

The Bible’s unique view of women

The Bible has a high view of women in both the Old and New Testaments:

Old Testament view. In the OT, the ideal woman “opens her mouth in wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue” (Prov. 31:26). Deborah was appointed as a judge in Israel (Judg. 2:16; Neh. 9:27). Likewise, Abigail was a “wise and prudent woman,” who corrected David from making a huge mistake (1 Sam. 25:33-35). Esther rescued and led the nation of Israel, during turbulent times (Est. 4:14; 8:17).

New Testament view. Jesus had a following of women (Lk. 23:49). This was scandalous considering his first-century religious milieu. In fact, when Jesus rises from the dead, he first appears to women—not to men (Mt. 28:1-10; Jn. 20:10-18). In the NT, Priscilla was a Bible teacher, and Paul was close with her in ministry (Rom. 16:3). The fact that she is listed before Aquila (her husband) is significant because this notified seniority in her ministry.[19] In fact, she even teaches Apollos—a gifted Christian preacher—about theology and doctrine (Acts 18:26). Phoebe was a deaconess in the church in Rome (Rom. 16:1). Euodia and Syntyche were esteemed by Paul as two women “who have shared… in the cause of the gospel” (Phil. 4:2-3). Junia is mentioned as “outstanding among the apostles” (Rom. 16:7). It is difficult to imagine someone with an apostolic gift not being able to teach in their own church. Lois and Eunice taught Timothy (2 Tim. 1:5; 3:14-15). Paul gives prescriptions for the role of women in the church, which includes praying and prophesying (1 Cor. 11:5; Acts 2:18; 21:9).

What does it mean for a husband to lead his wife in marriage?

The Bible does teach that husbands should lead their wives in marriage. Many people are cynical toward leadership, because we have seen so many examples of abusive, hypocritical, or egotistical authority. It is safe to say that the word “authority” is a loaded term—especially when we’ve seen the way patriarchy has walked all over women. However, when we read an ancient text, we need to understand the words based on their terms—not ours. What does Paul mean when he claims that husbands should be leaders to their wives?

(1) Submission does not mean inequality. The man is no more superior in value to his wife, than the Father is superior to Christ (1 Cor. 11:3). Later in this passage, Paul writes, “In the Lord, neither is woman independent of man, nor is man independent of woman” (1 Cor. 11:11). Elsewhere, Paul explains, “There is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28; cf. Gen. 1:27). Peter writes that a wife is a “fellow heir of the grace of life” (1 Pet. 3:7).

(2) Submission does not mean that a woman should submit to every man. Paul writes, “Wives, be subject to your own husbands, as to the Lord” (Eph. 5:22).

(3) Submission does not mean unqualified authority. The Bible never affirms unqualified submission to anyone other than God himself. Paul writes, “Christ is the head of every man” (1 Cor. 11:3). In other words, both spouses submit to God and his Word. The husband could not command or force his wife to do anything that is outside of the bounds of Scripture. Christian marriage presupposes being “subject to one another in the fear of Christ” (Eph. 5:21).

(4) Submission does not mean patriarchal domineering. The Bible simply doesn’t define leadership in this way. Jesus redefined what leadership truly means: humility, compassion, and sacrificial love (Mk. 10:42-45). Indeed, this is how Paul describes the responsibility of husbands: “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her… Husbands ought also to love their own wives as their own bodies” (Eph. 5:25, 28). Elsewhere, he writes, “Husbands, love your wives and do not be embittered against them” (Col. 3:19). Peter writes that husbands should be gentle to their wives and show them “honor” (1 Pet. 3:7). Here is a clear picture of the Bible’s view of leadership: sacrificial, emotional, and costly love for others.

What is the primary realm of a husband’s leadership? A colonel in the army should lead in the area of warfare—not in the area of what his soldiers write in their love letters. A CEO should primarily lead the affairs relating to the business—not the personal lives of the employees. Similarly, since marriage is a relational and spiritual bond, the husband should primarily lead in relational and spiritual ways.

Since marriage also involves functional areas of life, this means that husbands should lead in these areas as well. A number of principles should be kept in mind:

For one, the husband might not feel competent to lead when it comes to making difficult decisions for the sake of the family. Yet, he should submit to God’s design and faithfully step forward to lead despite how he feels.

Second, the husband should make a decision for the sake of his family—not personal gain. In this way, he is following the model of leadership that Jesus gave us—not living to “please Himself” (Rom. 15:3).

Third, the husband should make a decision as strong leaders do in any other realm of ministry. Of course, strong spiritual leaders don’t bark orders from a control tower. No one wants to follow a leader like that! Instead, strong leaders win others through collaboration, counsel, dialogue, discussion, debate, and much prayer. As the leader in the family, the husband should win over his family through love and “all dignity” (1 Tim. 3:4).

Fourth, if agreement on a grey issue cannot be reached, the husband is responsible before God for making a decision. Of course, the couple can hardly take a vote in such a deadlock, so someone needs to make the call. In such cases, the Bible teaches that the husband is held responsible, as well as being held responsible for the outcome.

Consequently, when we properly understand the biblical view of leadership in marriage, frankly, we find that this isn’t a privilege, but a serious responsibility! People in our culture assume that leadership refers to power and authority, but under the biblical definition, leadership means sacrificial love and service. Based on this view, the husband is responsible to be the first to initiate, the first to love, the first to serve, and the first to apologize. He is to love his wife as Jesus loved us (Eph. 5:25). A higher standard simply cannot be imagined.

Controversial Passages

Critics of the Bible typically point to these passages to critique the Bible’s view of women. We treat each passage below:

Genesis 2:18 Are women merely a “helper” for men?

Genesis 3:16 Does this passage sanction men ruling over women?

Romans 16:7 Was there a female apostle (Junia), or was this a contraction for a man’s name (Junias)?

1 Corinthians 11:5-6 Is it wrong for a woman to have her head uncovered while praying?

1 Corinthians 11:7-9 Are women made in God’s image or man’s?

1 Corinthians 14:34-35 Are women supposed to keep silent?

1 Timothy 2:12-15 Paul writes, “I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet.” Are women allowed to teach men or not?

1 Peter 3:1 Peter writes, “In the same way, you wives, be submissive to your own husbands” (1 Pet. 3:1).

(1 Pet. 3:3) Does this mean that women should not wear makeup and jewelry?

(1 Pet. 3:6) When did Sarah obey Abraham in the OT?

(1 Pet. 3:7) Does Peter think that women are inferior to men?

Why is God called a Him rather than a Her?

Further Reading

Our own position is complementarian in marriage, but egalitarian in leadership and teaching. That is, we do affirm male leadership in marriage, but equal leadership in the church. For a female elder, she leads the church in her role as a pastor, but her husband leads her in marriage as her spouse. Most theologians hold to either egalitarianism or complementarianism respectively. Therefore, it is difficult to give full support to either position in the way of books. Thus the reader should use discernment in reading these text below, as they are slanted one way or the other.

Egalitarian books

Keener, Craig S. Paul, Women, & Wives: Marriage and Women’s Ministry in the Letters of Paul. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013.

We liked Keener for his tremendous scholarship on the first-century understanding of women. Keener is an expert on extrabiblical Jewish, Greco-Roman literature.

Kroeger, Richard Clark., and Catherine Clark. Kroeger. I Suffer Not a Woman: Rethinking 1 Timothy 2:11-15 in Light of Ancient Evidence. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1992.

  1. They are somewhat progressive. They believe that there is no authority or leadership at all between men and women—even in the marriage relationship. Therefore, they are completely egalitarian (Note their hyphenated name “Clark-Kroeger”). They also seem to deny Pauline authorship of 1 Timothy, repeatedly calling the author “the Pauline author.”
  2. They have also been critiqued for their understanding of Greek, but McCallum states that the nuances are so difficult to discern that he would need to see a scholarly retort to determine it.[20]
  3. They have been critiqued that their sources date to the second century. However, we use these same exact sources to see proto-Gnostic teaching in Ephesus for 1 John and all other NT historical interpretations. All sources date to that time. This was probably a proto-Gnostic teaching. No two Gnostics were alike.

Winter, Bruce W. Roman Wives, Roman Widows: The Appearance of New Women and the Pauline Communities. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans Pub., 2003.

Complementarian books

Grudem, Wayne. John Piper. Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books. 1991. Download here.

Grudem, Wayne. John Piper. Fifty Crucial Questions: An Overview of Central Concerns about Manhood and Womanhood. Download here.

Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW). Research Journal. Found here.

Complementarian in marriage—egalitarian in ministry

Hugenberger, Gordon. “Women in Church Office: Hermeneutics or Exegesis? A Survey of Approaches to 1 Timothy 2:8-15.” JETS 35/3 (September 1992) 341-360.

Hugenberger offers a reading of 1 Timothy 2 that demonstrates that this passage is given in the context of marriage—not ministry. He surveys alternate views before offering his own perspective.

[1] Peter Richardson, “Paul Today: Jews, Slaves, and Women,” Crux 8 (1970): 37. Cited in House, Wayne. “Paul, Women, and Contemporary Evangelical Feminism.” Bibliotheca Sacra—January-March 1979. 41.

[2] Sirach, 42:14.

[3] Jerusalem Talmud, Sota 3:4.

[4] Manu’s Code, 5.151-154.

[5] Emphasis mine. Carmody, Denise Lardner, and John Carmody. Ways to the Center: An Introduction to World Religions. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Pub., 1984. 87.

[6] Carmody, Denise Lardner, and John Carmody. Ways to the Center: An Introduction to World Religions. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Pub., 1984. 87.

[7] Carmody, Denise Lardner, and John Carmody. Ways to the Center: An Introduction to World Religions. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Pub., 1984. 87.

[8] Carmody, Denise Lardner, and John Carmody. Ways to the Center: An Introduction to World Religions. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Pub., 1984. 87.

[9] Carmody, Denise Lardner, and John Carmody. Ways to the Center: An Introduction to World Religions. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Pub., 1984. 87.

[10] Nigosian, S.A. World Religions: A Historical Approach. Third Edition. Boston: Bedford/St.Martin’s, 2000. 24.

[11] Nigosian, S.A. World Religions: A Historical Approach. Third Edition. Boston: Bedford/St.Martin’s, 2000. 25.

[12] Carmody, Denise Lardner, and John Carmody. Ways to the Center: An Introduction to World Religions. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Pub., 1984. 333.

[13] Hopfe, Lewis M. Religions of the World. Fourth ed. London: MacMillan, 1987. 198.

[14] Other Jains (the Svetambaras) allowed women monks. Ludwig, Theodore M. The Sacred Paths: Understanding the Religions of the World. New York: Macmillan, 1989. 353.

[15] Carmody, Denise Lardner, and John Carmody. Ways to the Center: An Introduction to World Religions. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Pub., 1984. 161.

[16] Carmody, Denise Lardner, and John Carmody. Ways to the Center: An Introduction to World Religions. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Pub., 1984. 161.

[17] Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra (London: The MacMillan Company, 1896), 75.

[18] Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra (London: The MacMillan Company, 1896), 88-90.

[19] Keener writes, “That Priscilla’s name is mentioned before her husband’s in Romans 16:3 and twice in Acts is noteworthy, because the husband was nearly always mentioned first unless the wife was of higher social status or neither party had any concern for status.” Keener, Craig S. Paul, Women, & Wives: Marriage and Women’s Ministry in the Letters of Paul. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013.

[20] See McCallum’s article for a blow-by-blow defense of the Kroeger’s work.