Because Someone Asked

A Quick Sweep of What the Bible says about Women.

Let us start from the beginning, like way way back in the beginning. Although it has been established that by the time of Jesus and the New Testament (NT) that women were ‘less’ than men in society, there are indications that their subjugation were a result of the exile and Israel mimicking the ways of the Assyrians, Babylonians, and the Chaldeans/Persians. Because it seems to be different before that: apart from the examples of Miriam and Deborah, we find in Proverbs 30 (which is a Pre-exilic document) “The Wife of Noble Character” where we see a woman who is cosmopolitan and enjoys a degree of independence. In Proverbs 31.13-16, without reference to her husband, she is able to buy/sell/transact! In verses 24ff., she owns her own business. Now compare that to the United States where women were not allowed to have their bank accounts until c.e. 1974! It is the exile of Israel that sets how we see the Old Testament (OT) treats women.

That is the milieu where Jesus walks in—women were virtual slaves and organized religion did not want to have anything to do with them. The religious leaders of the day (Pharisees) prayed: “thank you God that I am not slave, a Gentile, or a woman”! Jesus shows up and without any qualms allows women to follow him, listen/learn from him, allows them to talk to him in public, and he compares God to a woman (Luke 15:8ff). And if you were going to fake a religion, why would you have a woman be the first witness to your coming back to life?

Which brings us to Paul and later Timothy. But before that, a little bit of show business: billing matters. When originally sent out on their missionary trip in Acts 13, it was "Barnabas and Paul" (Acts 13.2) and by the end of that chapter, it was "Paul and Barnabas" (Acts 13.50). Guess why the change: now apply that to "Priscilla and Aquila" (they're all over Acts).

PHOEBE by Kelly

Then there is Romans 16: it begins with Phoebe who is described as a "servant" and if you have the New International Version (NIV) it is footnoted to "deaconess" (at least in the 1973 edition, too lazy to pull out my later edition). Because the Greek word behind "servant" is diakovos. Here is the first thing that needs to be pointed out: everywhere else in the NT, that is translated as "deacon" except here ... because Phoebe is a woman? Okay, to be fair it depends on the translation, especially now there are newer translations). Later in Rom 16.2, she is described as a "great help to many people". Want to know what the Greek word behind "great help"? Prostasis ... yeah, you get the word "prostrate" from that. "Stasis" is "to stand" and "pro" is a prefix that makes the word mean "stand before". It has the weight of a general standing before his army ... or a pastor before her congregation. Except English translators allows their biases and "doctrine" influence them when rendering the Greek into English. One more bias before we move to Timothy. In Romans 16.7, Paul greets Andronicus and Junias, both described as apostles. But before the 3rd Century, Junias was Julia. Julia (girl) became a Junias (boy). Why? Can a woman be an apostle?

Then there is that part in 1 Timothy where women are to be silent, not teach, and have babies. Let us begin with the big picture. Paul is writing to Timothy who was sent to the church of Ephesus to fix a problem. The problem had to do with false teachers - that is the essence of the two letters addressed to Timothy. Everything Paul said address that concern. Then in chapter 2 comes the part where women should shut up and listen and not be allowed to preach. Without going into the details of the false teachings (one includes a mother-earth teaching that twist the creation story so the argument about Adam being created first...), Paul instructs Timothy on church organization, dealing with people in the church and so on. Then in 2 Timothy 3, we run into this part about the false teachers again; Paul describes them in verses 1 & 2 and adds in verse 3: "They are the kind who worm their way into homes and gain control over weak-willed women .... blah blah ... always learning but never able to acknowledge the truth." Again, without dealing with the nuance of the false teaching, what we see is the modus operandi of the false teachers and the consequences it had for the Ephesian church: hit on women who in turn goes around blabbing about the false ideas of those teachers. A very specific situation that requires a specific action: shut these women up! Considering Jesus in the NT, Paul as he relates to other women (e.g. Romans 16), it must be said that 1 Timothy 2 is not universal but specific to a specific group of women in the church of Ephesus in Timothy's time.


Sometime in the early 2000s, I was invited to be speaker at a forum about women as pastors. I was the third speaker who gets to have the last word. The first speaker pulled out all the bible verses that (more than I did above) shows women can be pastors. The second speaker dealt with psychology and noted characteristics unique to women that qualifies them to be leaders. Then it was my turn.

I worked with Ephesians 5 … and yeah, it goes through the part “wives, submit to your husbands” (5.22). Working textually, I pointed out the “therefore” with which Paul divides the passage (5.1, 5,17 and eventually 6.14). The second one, in particular, begins where the English gets messed up: it is found in Koine Greek in verse 15 not 17. It gives a different tone if you say “therefore be wise” as opposed to “therefore do not be foolish.” Either way they are two sides of the same coin but by putting it in verse 17 in English, wisdom does not have the same tone. But that is minor compared to what else follows.

Each “therefore” is followed by it’s main point: a command. In the second “therefore” the strong imperative verb(s) are “do not get drunk” and “be filled” (v.18). That is the command. It is followed by four participles which would show what it is like to be filled with the Spirit: speaking to one another with hymns/songs (v.19a), singing/making music (v.19b), giving thanks to God (v.20), and submitting to one another (v.21).

This is where the English translators (I’m looking at you NIV) messes things up. Paul is known for long rambling sentences, which can be unwieldly translating. So the English translation can often chop up Paul’s sentences. For example Ephesians 1.3-23 is one loooooooong sentence in Greek. That is a whole paragraph in the NIV. And what we are looking at is not that long: we’re only looking at Ephesians 5.18-21. Yes, that is one sentence … but the NIV, not only separates them into three sentences, they separate verse 21 into it’s own paragraph (again to be fair, they flip-flopped in three different editions: check out how the paragraphs are rendered in the 1973, 1984, and 2011).

“Speak”, “sing”, “give thanks” and “submit” were in one sentence. Why separate “submit”? Again, there is a slight nuance to “submit” that may justify segregating it—really slight. “Speak”, “sing”, and “give thanks”, are present active participles. You know the part about active or passive verbs right? Now “submit” is a present middle participle. Middle. It’s a Greek thing that sounds active but has a twist to it. The active voice usually emphasizes the verb or the action: you SPEAK, you SING, you GIVE THANKS. The middle voice shifts the emphasis to the doer of the action. YOU submit … yes, you, not your wife, not your kid, not the guy sitting beside you, YOU YOURSELF.

Many scholars argue that the “submit” part is a transition to what follows. But that’s missing the whole point … and they probably never read or ignored the Greek. Look at modern Christianity and you see a lot of the speaking, singing, and giving thanks, but not so much of the submitting part. On the scale of things, it can be said it is not too elegant?

“Submitting to one another” is not a transition but an introduction: what follows are specific pictures of what submitting should look like. And here is now the heart of the matter: “wives submit to your husbands” (v.22).

Read that in the New American Standard Bible (NASB): “Wives, subject yourselves to your own husbands” (italic are NOT mine, they are in the NASB). You see, when the NASB renders something in italics, they are saying that the italicized words are ABSENT in the Greek. Yep. There is no verb in verse 22. So, in NIVish, it reads simply “wives to your husbands as to the Lord.”

Big picture time: what follows is known as the Household Code. It shows six groups of people in three relationships: wives-husbands, children-parents, slaves-master. Two things to take note of: notice the equation in each? You have the “oppressed” half (wives, children, slaves) and the “oppressor” half (husband, parents, masters). There’s no getting around it, I tried “submissive” vs “dominant” but… it really describes the stark inequality in relationships in the First Century.

Secondly, take note of the commands, the oppressed group gets the “obvious” command: “wives submit,” “children obey,” and “slaves obey.” While the oppressors get … um … something else: “husbands love”, “parents … do not exasperate” and “master …” wait that is the punchline, we’ll get back to that.

Markus Barth (son of the great Karl Barth) says the absence of the verb in 22 can be simply be explained by an “e.g.” (“exempli gratia”/”for example” or loosely “example given”). He reads Ephesians 5:21-22:

“Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. E.g., wives to their husbands.”

You see what is going on here? Paul is using the oppressed class as the example, even the model, with which the oppressors must submit. That is the punchline when we read the command to the masters: “treat your slaves in the same way” (Ephesians 6.9). Yeah, I have a whole book on that (scroll down to the bottom).

Given that Jesus, who we consider God, came as a servant, who speaks in terms of greatness can be found in servanthood, repeating again that he did not come to be served but to serve. We are missing the point if we do not get that part.

Now if greatness in God’s eyes is servanthood and submitting to one another … that may make the women of the first century the only ones qualified to be pastors and leaders of the church.

(Okay, maybe not some in Ephesus but …).

Want more on the wives-husbands, children-parents, and slaves-masters? It's all here ...