Women’s history month is upon us, and we all have cause to celebrate the female voices of the past who have paved the way for women to enjoy a fuller, educated life with which to serve our God. Yet many of us who have grown up in the church have received mixed messages when it comes to what the Bible has to say about women. Even those who have little-to-no church experience have likely heard some sort of (so-called) biblical perspective on the role and value of women. However, many of these “facts” have been distorted, misunderstood, and even misused by men and women alike.
Here are three common misinterpretations, misconceptions, and misteachings when it comes to the Bible and women:
- The Bible teaches that men are more valuable than women.
- The Bible teaches that women should not seek to have a voice.
- The Bible teaches that women should not teach or lead.
Before we dive into what the Bible does not say about women, I think we need to start this conversation with a few important foundations about God and His Word.
There is no “Old Testament God” and “New Testament God.” Both accounts (as well as all teachings of Jesus) are of the same God. There are no contradictions. God is the all-knowing, all-merciful, all-righteous, all-gracious, all-holy, all-mighty, all-loving God. He is immutable—He does not change. Everything we know to be true of God in the Old Testament is still true of Him in the New, and vice versa. Our knowledge of the New Testament shapes the way we read the Old, and so it goes the other way around.
Most of the issues people have with the Bible’s “teachings” on women can be understood and explained through greater knowledge of the history, context, and purpose of the writing. God worked (and still does work) through the culture, geography, and customs of the time. Some of the “oddball,” troubling traditions we see in the Bible are primarily of cultural, not spiritual, influence. Additionally, a lack of the reader’s familiarity with the original languages (Greek and Hebrew) as well as many interpretive nuances of each lead to difficulties in capturing the true meaning of the original text (ex: Deuteronomy 22:28-29). Alongside all of these issues is the fact that many of the “problems” people have with the treatment of women are treatments which are also applied to men (ie. Leviticus 15, see point #2 here).
This post assumes that you believe that the Bible is the inerrant, inspired Word of God. It is His revelation to us. It is primarily a theological book, intended to reveal who God is and what His plan is for mankind. It is not a history, science, economics, or morality book. It has those elements within it, but its purpose is not to provide a detailed dissertation on those topics. We must start from the foundational viewpoint that the Bible is sufficient and authoritative, and when we do not understand all the pieces of the biblical puzzle, we need to remember the goodness of God and perfection of His Word and keep seeking to understand.
All this to say, we don’t get to read the Bible with a Sharpie, blacking out the passages we don’t like. When we encounter difficult passages, we need to change our default position. Instead of letting hard verses cast doubt on God’s character, we need to first question our own knowledge and understanding of His Word. With this posture as our common ground, let’s move on to the three earlier stated misconceptions about what the Bible says about women.
Misconception #1: The Bible teaches that men are more valuable than women.
The Bible clearly teaches that He created men and women equal in value, yet unique in form and function. Unfortunately, many interpret these male/female distinctions as a hierarchical difference in our worth. However, both man and woman are made in the image of God. Man is not fully like God. Woman is not fully like God. Yet, together, we paint a glorious picture of God’s likeness. Both play a vital role in bringing Him glory. Yet, especially at face value and without this understanding of our uniqueness in God’s eyes, there are many verses that are difficult to reconcile with the reality of a God who loves and values men and women equally.
There are multiple Old Testament laws and narratives that seem to exercise harshness toward women and promote misogyny and authoritarian abuse. For example, there are severe punishments for a woman caught in adultery, and none prohibiting polygamy, while accounts of rape, abuse, neglect, and even the murder of women by “men of God” that seem to go unpunished. We need to understand this: just because abuse and inequities are recorded in the Bible, doesn’t mean it gets God’s stamp of moral approval. Quite the opposite, in fact. There are many stories in Scripture that are meant to point us to the absolute wrongness of the situation and make us want to cry out, “Disgusting! Injustice! God, help us!” (see point #1 here).
Throughout the tapestry of the Old and New Testaments, we see a steady thread of God’s intentional choice and good plan to include and honor women. In each and every historical period represented within the biblical world, it was normal for women to be oppressed, neglected, and objectified as property. It is with this as the backdrop that God shockingly (to those of that day), consistently, and purposefully invites women to be part of His redemptive plan to rescue the world from their sin. If we were to list out all the biblical accounts as evidence for one or the other (with the proper interpretive context in mind): pro-women vs. anti-women, pro-women wins by a landslide.
Misconception #2. The Bible teaches that women should not seek to have a voice.
The Bible includes many specifics about how we are to worship God together as a congregation. Various passages seem to suggest many (frankly) surprising rules, especially to the modern woman. From our current cultural, historical point there is much in the Word of God that sounds chauvinistic and completely inequitable. The following are a few examples of how these verses might sound to the modern woman.
- Women are to have a gentle and quiet spirit = sit down and shut up.
- Women cannot speak in church = sit down and shut up.
- Submit to your husband = sit down and shut up.
- Women are saved by childbearing = your greatest purpose in life is that of motherhood (and if you try to reach outside of this realm you need to sit down and shut up.)
I am not going to get into the specifics of each, as many (who are much smarter than me) have already done so here, here, and here (among many others) by using the proper biblical hermeneutical (interpretive) rules they are trained to use. For sake of brevity, I can confidently declare this: anything that might resemble “sit down and shut up” is not within the message of the Bible.
Misconception #3. The Bible teaches that women should not teach or lead.
Most likely, if you ask any pastor today to list out the most influential people in his spiritual life, the list will include women. His mother, his Sunday School teacher, his grandmother, his wife, or his neighbor. God has used and continues to use the influence, teaching, love, dedication, leadership, and strength of women to shape every godly man. Furthermore, if we take out all the work and influence of the women in the Bible, whom God has chosen to use to bring His sovereign, perfect Kingdom plan to earth, well…we are left with a very inadequate and incomplete story. God loves women. God blesses women. God has a particular, wonderful, extraordinary role for each female soul who would trust in His best plan for their lives, and for many, that includes leading and teaching in the public spaces.
As a Baptist, I believe in complementarianism and that the office of pastor/elder is designed by God and delegated to qualified men, and that pulpit teaching to a local congregation is reserved for those men. This is not to say, however, that women are not to teach the Bible or have a voice and lead within the church. God has called, calls, and will continue to call gifted women to teach the Word of God to others and this teaching ministry is vital to both the church body and the pastor. Beyond the specific gift of teaching, all Christian women are called to step up and out to be a godly leader through utilizing her influence and intellect to shape those around her for the glory of God.
There is so much more that could be said and I have intentionally stayed as big-picture as possible. It would be very easy to get lost in the weeds of all the specific (perceived) difficulties. Instead, I want to turn our hearts to application and transformation, because anyone can get their feathers ruffled. But will we become people who move forward to do something about it?
I humbly ask that you consider the following:
1. Do your homework.
Read the Bible for yourself. Know what it says and know what it means. Don’t take one person’s opinion about it as fact. Do your own intelligent research. This takes a lot of hard work and investment of our resources, but before you enter the next debate about what the Bible has to say about women, you need to personally do the work to understand the difference between the following:
- Descriptive (what the Bible simply records) vs. Prescriptive (what the Bible specifically teaches)
- Cultural (what the norms were for that time) vs. Biblical (what is clearly, uniquely, and timelessly Christian)
- Traditional (the ways things have always been done) vs. Theological (what is actually taught in Scripture)
There are many verses in the Bible that—at first glance—are simply hard to swallow. I have been a serious student of the Bible for over two decades now, and I am still having huge “ah-ha!” moments—especially as I dig into the original time and culture of the authors’ worlds—for some of these trickier passages.
2. Interpret Scripture with Scripture.
Perhaps our problem is not what the Bible has to say about women. Maybe the bigger issue is our lack of knowledge and effort to understand when it comes to these sticky topics? Unfortunately, many have listened more to what others have to say about the Bible and women than they have listened to the Bible itself. When you come across something that causes you to scratch your head, be sure to view that fuzzy passage through the lens of what is abundantly clear in Scripture.
3. Hold fast to the authority, inherency, and inspiration of the Bible.
Many a “believer” has walked away from the faith because they just couldn’t reconcile what they read in the Bible with what they felt to be true. Even Oprah admits that is what caused her to stop believing in the biblical God. Let’s not let our lack of understanding of the Bible corrode our trust in the Bible. Instead, let us use the muscle of faith, stand firm on the promises of who God is, and cling to the reality of the Bible’s reliability. Then, from this foundation, we can dive into the depths of what the Bible has to say about women.
To wrap up, I want to leave on a personal note. I am a strong, capable, confident woman. I am a minister of the gospel. I am a complementarian. I have a full-time career. My husband does all of the cooking. He and my kids do their own laundry. I teach the Bible for a living through writing and speaking. I support my husband in his work as a pastor. My husband is my biggest cheerleader and bends over backward to provide the time and resources I need to fulfill my calling to work while also fulfilling my calling as wife and mother. I do my best to submit to his leadership. He does his best to love me sacrificially. We have a thriving marriage.
These statements are not contradictory. They are the beauty of what God has specifically called me to as a woman. God has already revealed bigger plans for my life as a strong woman than I could have ever dreamed of. His way is right and good, fulfilling and fruitful.