Over the last couple of weeks there has been quite a bit of media coverage concerning the role that women are allowed to play in the Church of England. This brings to light the broader question of how God intended men and women to work together from the beginning.
I thought this was an appropriate time to post some thoughts from a presentation I did at the University of Northern British Columbia last fall on “The Role of Women in Creating a Healthy Society”.
A Look at the Bible
When studying anything, it is often useful to start at the beginning. People are introduced in God’s creation in the book of Genesis in chapter one verses 26 and 27 when “…God said, let us make Adam in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth. God created Adam in his own image; in the image of God he created him. Male and female he created them.” It is important to note here that there is no generic term for humanity in Old Testament Hebrew other than “Adam”. It is also important that the verbs to rule (kabash) and to dominate (radah) suggest the taking of the land and its stewardship. This stewardship is given to humanity as “male and female” in God’s command for “them” to “rule over” creation.
The man, who was created first, then goes about naming all of the animals. As the man encounters each animal that God has created, he becomes aware of his loneliness and his need for a helper like him. The man and the woman were created sequentially in Genesis chapter two to demonstrate the need they have for each other, not to justify or show any kind of hierarchy.
The solution to the man’s loneliness comes when God creates the woman from his side. “Rib” (tsela) actually refers to the side of the man, a part of the body that is neither above him nor below him. This represents a central part of the man that is used for the woman, a basic building pattern that can be drawn from the man and used to create a second person like the first.
In Genesis chapter two verse 18 “God said, ‘It is not good that man should be alone; I will make him a helper comparable to him.'” The designation of the woman as a “helper comparable to” (“help meet” or “corresponding to” in some translations) (ezer kenegdo) the man does not refer to someone who is in a subordinate position. There are many occurrences in the Bible in which God is the “helper” for Israel or for an individual who appeals to him. Such examples leave no doubt that “ezer” can refer to anyone who provides assistance, whatever their relationship is to the one whom they aid.
In Genesis chapter three we see where humanity’s disobedience to God begins. This sin begins the alienation and breakdown of the harmony that God had so effectively created in Genesis chapter two. There is no longer an ideal relationship of trust and love. Everything takes a downward slide towards suspicion and isolation. In verses 16 to 19 God tells the man and the woman what will happen because of their disobedience. To the woman he says “you will want to dominate your husband but your husband will rule over you” and to the man he says “cursed is the ground for your sake; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life. Both thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you and you shall eat the herb of the field:. This is best understood as a description of the new order of things, of how life WILL be lived as a result of the sin, rather than how it SHOULD be lived. It is not a command for one sex to rule over the other any more than God’s words to the man are a command for all men to be farmers or vegetarians. These are not God’s decisions on how things MUST be, such that violating them would be sin’ it is a declaration of how things WILL be as a result of their sin.
Both unity and gender diversity are clear themes in the creation accounts. God created the woman and the man to be one in unity and love. There is neither explicit nor implicit mention of an authority or leadership role of the man over the woman, except as the sad result of their sin and the ensuing judgments. Even then, such hierarchy is not presented as an ideal, but rather as a reality of human history like that of the weeds that spring from the earth. The resolution of this conflict in equality and harmony cannot be found in these chapters but look forward to a future redemption.
What we see from women in the Bible is similar to what we looked at from the last 2000 years of church history. From early on, women were affirmed as leaders. Miriam is a good example. She is portrayed in the Exodus narratives as a leader in and of her own right and is accorded a level of respect similar to that of Aaron and Moses. The congregation of Israel viewed her role as essential to its mission, refusing to move ahead on one occasion until she was restored to leadership after her criticism of Moses (Numbers 12:15).
In the New Testament, the apostle Paul describes a new era in which there will no longer be the discrimination of Jew over Gentile, free over slave or male over female – for all believers will be one in the Messiah (Galatians 3:28). Jesus treated women with dignity and respect. Women, as part of the priesthood of believers, were permitted to learn (1 Timothy 2:11), teach (Acts 18:26), lead in worship (1 Corinthians 11:4-16) and even serve as apostles (Junia in Romans 16:7) Husbands were called to mutually love and serve their wives, who, along with their children and slaves, were no longer to be treated as property (Ephesians 5:21-28)
Women leaders come to the front with the beginning of the apostolic period. Several factors explain this. One is the Holy Spirit’s empowerment of both women and men for ministry. The outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost was an equal opportunity event. The women among Jesus’ disciples were enabled to witness just as the men were (Acts 1:8, 14-15; 2:17-18). The result was a major paradigm shift from the male priesthood of the Jewish culture to the charismatic worship format and gender-inclusive leadership of the early church.
Paul uses quite a few terms to describe the people who worked along side him in the building of the early church. It is interesting that he uses exactly the same language to describe both his male and female colleagues in ministry. He calls both men and women “fellow prisoners”, “fellow workers” and “hard workers: who “risked their necks” for Paul and “labored side by side” with him.
There were many women working alongside Paul in his ministry. Junia was considered “outstanding among the apostles” at Rome (Romans 16:7). Phoebe was a deacon (Romans 16:1-2); Syntyche and Euodia were leaders and evangelists (Philippians 4:3); Philip’s four daughters were prophets (Acts 21:9); and Prisacilla was a church planter (Romans 16:3-4) and a teacher (Acts 18:26)
These facts are hardly open to debate – although some remain eager and willing to attempt to circumvent them. To do so, however, one must dismiss the evidence of women leaders in the culture at large and impose on the biblical woman the image of cloistered, domestic female that did not exist in the Greco-Roman world. If anything, the matter of fact mention and listing of women in ministry permits us to conclude there was a substantially wider and well established early Christian culture of women leaders.
What has been your experience of men and women working together?