The following text is a reprint of the non-copyrighted
“THE BIBLICAL POSITION ON...WOMEN’S ROLES”
written by John MacArthur Jr.
The feminist movement of the twentieth century has assaulted traditional Christian values for women, and the result has been a revolution in our country. Whereas women traditionally fulfilled support roles and gained their greatest joy and sense of accomplishment from being wives and mothers, today many have abandoned their homes for the higher-paying and supposedly more prestigious jobs of the work force outside the home. Traditional sexual morality has given way to promiscuity with women often in the role of aggressor. Gentle, quiet women have become self-assertive and hostile, boldly demanding their “rights.” Divorce is rampant, with women frequently initiating separation and divorces.
As if the secular feminist movement does not generate enough confusion for women today, there has arisen a fast-growing group who refer to themselves as “biblical feminists.” This movement, which includes both men and women of varying theological perspectives, espouses most of the causes of the secular movement while seeking to find their justification in Scripture.
As Christians, our desire is to examine the Scripture as carefully as possible in order to know God’s will and obey it. We believe in the authority and inerrancy of the Word of God and are confident that it has a clear message for women today. Only the Bible can offer a final solution to the chaos and confusion with which modern women are confronted.
In the creation account of Genesis 1 we find God’s first word on the subject of men and women (verse 27)--they were both equally created in the image of God. Neither received more of the image of God than the other. So the Bible begins with the equality of the sexes. As persons, as human beings, as spiritual beings, standing before God, men and women are absolutely equal.
Despite this equality, there is in Genesis 2 a more detailed account of the creation of the two humans which show some differences in their God-given responsibilities. God did not create the man and woman spontaneously at the same time, but rather He created Adam first and Eve later for the specific purpose of being a helper to Adam. Though Eve was Adam’s equal, she was given a role to fulfill in submitting to him. While the word “helper” carries very positive connotations, even being used of God Himself as the helper of Israel (Deut. 33:7, Ps. 33:20), it still describes one in a relationship of service to another.
When craftily tempted in the Garden of Eden, Eve, rather than seeking Adam’s counsel or leadership, took the lead herself, eating of the forbidden fruit and then leading her husband into sin (Gen. 3:6). Because Adam and Eve sinned in disobedience to the command of God, there followed certain consequences for them and also for the serpent (Gen. 3:14-19). For the woman, God pronounced a curse which included multiplied pain in childbirth and tension in the authority-submission relationship of the husband and wife. Genesis 3:16 says the woman’s “desire” will be for her husband but he shall “rule” over her. In Genesis 4:7 the author uses the same word “desire” to mean “excessive control over.” Thus, the curse in Genesis 3:16 refers to a new desire on the part of the woman to exercise control over her husband—but he will in fact rule or exert authority over her. The result down through history has been an ongoing struggle between the sexes—with women seeking control and men ruling instead, often harshly. Before the fall and the curse there was true harmony in the husband-wife relationship, but through the curse a new element of tension and dissension entered into the marriage relationship.
It is significant to note that the responsibility of wives to submit to their husbands was part of God’s plan even before the curse. Feminists often dispute this, viewing submission as something which came in through the curse and which should be eliminated through the cross of Jesus Christ (just as we seek to relieve the pain of childbirth through drugs and breathing techniques, and as we seek to ease the toil of the field through modern technology, even including air-conditioned tractors). But since a careful reading of Genesis 2:18-25 shows that God created the woman to support her husband an be a suitable companion to him, we do not erase woman’s submission in marriage through the cross but rather we add harmony to the relationship.
Thus, the Bible begins by establishing both the equality of men and women and also the support role of the wife. Many other Old Testament passages support these two themes of equality and submission for women (i.e., Ex. 21:15,17,28-31;Num. 6:2; 5:19,20,29; 30:1-16).
Women were active in the religious life of Israel throughout the Old Testament, but generally they were not leaders—with a few exceptions. Women like Deborah (Jud. 4), however, clearly were the exception and not the rule. In fact, Isaiah 3:12 in its context of God’s judgment on unbelieving and disobedient Israel indicates that God allowed weak leaders, either masculine women or effeminate men, to rule as a part of His judgment on the sinning nation.
When we begin to look at women in the new Testament, the first thing we observe is how Jesus spent time with women and apparently enjoyed their companionship—in stark contrast to other men of His day. In the midst of the Greek, Roman and Jewish cultures, which viewed women almost on the level with possessions, Jesus showed love and respect for women.
Though Jewish rabbis did not teach women, Jesus not only included women in His audiences but used illustrations and images in His teaching which would be familiar to them (Matt. 13:33, 22:1-2; 24:41; Lk. 15:8-10). He also specifically applied His teachings to women (Matt. 10:34f).
While the Jewish Talmud said it was better to burn the Torah than teach it to a woman, Jesus taught women freely. To the Samaritan woman at the well (Jn. 4), He revealed that He was the Messiah. With her He also discussed such important topics as eternal life and the nature of true worship. Jesus never took the position that women, by their very nature, could not understand spiritual or theological truth. He also taught Mary and, when admonished by Martha, pointed out the priority of learning spiritual truth even over “womanly” responsibilities like serving guests in one’s home (Lk. 10:38-42).
Though men in Jesus’ day normally would not allow women to count change into their hands for fear of physical contact, Jesus touched women to heal them and allowed women to touch Him (Lk. 13:10f; Mk. 5:25f). Jesus even allowed a small group of women to travel with Him and His disciples (Lk. 8:1-3)--“an unprecedented happening in the history of that time,” said one commentator.
After His resurrection, Jesus appeared first to Mary Magdalene and sent her to announce His resurrection to the disciples (Jn. 20:1-18). Jesus did this despite the fact that women were not allowed to be witnesses in Jewish courts because they were all believed to be liars.
In Jesus’ treatment of women we see how He raised their station in life and how He showed them compassion and respect in a way that they had never known before. But Jesus still did not exalt women to a place of leadership over men. None of the Twelve he selected were women. Even at the cross where most of the men had fled and the women remained faithful, Jesus did not dismiss His male disciples and replace them with women. And Jesus made a radical break with His culture in so many ways that surely He would have done it in this way also if it had been God’s will. Jesus, in His treatment of women, demonstrated their equality and worth as persons, but He did not promote them to positions of leadership over men.
In the Epistles we discover the same two principles side by side—both equality and submission for women. Galatians 3:28 points us to the equality, indicating that the way of salvation is the same for both men and women and that they are members of equal standing in the body of Christ. It does not, however, eradicate all differences in responsibilities for men and women since this passage does not cover every aspect of God’s design for male and female and since Paul makes clear distinctions in other passages he wrote.
The passages which instruct us about spiritual gifts also make no distinctions according to sex. And most Scriptural exhortations to Christian growth and behavior are directed to men and women alike (i.e., I Pet. 2:1-3; Heb. 4:16;
6:1; Eph. 5:18; Gal. 5:16; Phil. 2:1-5).
However, throughout the New Testament and alongside these passages on equality are also passages which make distinctions between what God desires of men and what He desires of women, especially within marriage and within the church.
While Christian marriage is to involve mutual love and submission between two believers (Eph. 5:21), the New Testament, in four separate passages, expressly gives to the wives the responsibility to submit to their husbands (Eph. 5:22;
Col. 3:18; I Pet. 3:1; Ti. 2:5). This is the voluntary submission of one equal to another out of love for God and a desire to follow His design in His Word. It is never pictured as groveling or in any way diminishing the wife’s worth as a person, but rather the husband is called upon to love his wife sacrificially as Christ loved the church (Eph. 5:25).
The biblical picture is of a union filled with love and harmony where both partners are submitting to one another, where both lovingly sacrifice for the best interest of the other and where the husband is the leader in a relationship of two equals.
While husbands and fathers have been given primary responsibility for the leadership of their families including their children (Eph. 6:4; Col. 3:21; I Tim. 3:4-5), wives and mothers are urged to be “workers at home” (Ti. 2:5), meaning managers of households. Their home and their children are to be their priority—in contrast to the feminist emphasis today on careers and jobs for women outside the home.
The biblical pattern for raising and instructing children in God’s truths was established in Deuteronomy 6 where children are to be taught by parents “when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up.” Parents are responsible for the spiritual education of their children, and mothers who work full-time outside their homes usually lack the quality time to instruct their children adequately. Nor can the responsibility for this instruction simply be transferred to someone else. While feminists emphasize that women should seek their own self-fulfillment at all costs, the Bible urges Christian women to be humble, to sacrifice their own needs to meet the needs of others, to do what is best for their children, trusting that God will meet their needs in the process.
From the very beginning of the Christian church women fulfilled a vital role (Acts 1:12-14; 9:36-42; 16:13-15; 17:1-4, 10-12; 18:1-2, 18, 24-28; Rom. 16; I Cor. 16:19; II Tim. 1:5; 4:19). Women played an important role in the church from earliest days but not a leading role. The incarnation was in a Man, the apostles were all men, the chief missionary activity was done by men, the writing of the New Testament was the work of men (though some feminists would have us believe Priscilla wrote the Book of Hebrews), and generally leadership in the churches was entrusted to men. Still, women had a prominence and dignity in the early propagation and expansion of the gospel that they did not have in Judaism or the heathen world.
While the Apostle Paul respected women and worked side by side with them for the furtherance of the gospel (Rom. 16; Phil. 4:3), he appointed no women elders or pastors. In his epistles, as he wrote instructions to the churches, he urged that men were to be the leaders and that women were not to teach or exercise authority over men (I Tim 2:12).
The ministry of women is essential to the body of Christ, but the New Testament gives no basis for women becoming pastors or elders. While women are spiritual equals with men, they are excluded from leadership over men in the church. The New Testament finds no conflict here though twentieth century feminists insist that these principles contradict one another.
The Apostle Paul is completely consistent with Jesus in regard to women. Paul had a high regard for women and shared his labors for the gospel with many of them. But, like Jesus, he never appointed them to positions of authority over men in the home or the church. As active as women were in the early church, nowhere did Paul ordain them as elders.
If more Christians understood the methods of feminist thinking and what kind of biblical interpretation they must do in order to arrive at their conclusions, they would likely be more hesitant to accept the feminist position. To understand the feminist interpretation process, we begin by examining their view of Galatians 3:28 and how their interpretation of that verse affects their interpretation of the rest of the New Testament.
FEMINIST VIEW OF GALATIANS 3:28 - The foundation for all feminist interpretation of the New Testament is Galatians 3:28--“Their is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Feminists interpret this verse to refer to an equality which is both theological, regarding men and women’s standing before God, and also social, regarding all of their relationships in day-to-day living. If men and women are equal before God, feminists say, then there can be no differences within their roles and responsibilities in society. Feminists therefore use this verse as the basis for the elimination of all role distinctions between men and women in Christianity. They then interpret all other New Testament verses on women in light of the feminist understanding of Galatians 3:28, thus demanding that no other verse be allowed to teach role distinctions for men and women.
PROBLEM WITH FEMINIST VIEW OF GALATIANS 3:28 - Feminists fail to interpret
Galatians 3:28 in its proper context. The verse concerns the subject of justification and the believer’s relationship to the Abrahamic covenant. Paul was not seeking to establish social equality in the relationships he mentioned. Rather, he was showing that all, regardless of their standing in society, may participate by faith in the inheritance of Abraham to be sons of God. He was teaching the fundamental equality of both men and women in their standing before God. Even the feminists emphasize that this is a theological passage rather than one dealing with practical matters.
Equality of being before God does not require the elimination of all role distinctions in society. Equality of being does not rule out authority and submission in relationships. We could point to many examples of relationships in which there is equality and yet a difference in roles involving authority and submission—the Trinity, the President and U. S. citizens, parents and children, employers and employees, Elders and church members.
The theology of Galatians 3:28 will result in certain social implications, but they will be the ones given in the Bible. Where authority and submission are discussed in relationships in the New Testament, instructions are given for how those relationships may be regulated so that they function in Christian love and harmony and not with abuse. The Bible does not eliminate authority but cautions that authority should be exercised in a way that honors Christ. Those in authority (husbands, Elders, parents, employers) are instructed to use their authority in a godly way. And also, those who are to submit to these authorities (wives, church members, children, employees) are instructed to submit to authority in a godly way.
Because feminists want to rule out the submission of wives to husbands and of women to male leadership in the church on the basis of Galatians 3:28, they face a serious problem in biblical interpretation when they come to the Pauline passages which explicitly teach the submission of wives to husbands and women to the male leadership in the church. Beginning with their interpretation of Galatians 3:28 that all role distinctions must be abolished in the name of equality, they seek to interpret these other Pauline passages (Eph. 5:22; Col. 3:18; I Pet. 3:1; Ti. 2:5; I Tim 2:11-15; I Cor. 11:1-16; I Cor. 14:34-35) in light of that questionable interpretation of Galatians 3:28. Feminists of various persuasions have come up with four different ways of handling this biblical material in order to reach conclusions favorable to the feminist viewpoint:
FEMINIST VIEW #1 - The New Testament passages which teach the submission of women were not really written by Paul but were added by scribes, and thus are not part of the inspired Word of God.
PROBLEM WITH VIEW #1 - This position reveals a low view of the inspiration of Scripture. According to this view, some of the Bible was inspired by God and some was not. Therefore, the Christian, rather than submitting to Scripture, must function as the judge of Scripture—always making decisions about what is inspired and what is not inspired. Both II Timothy 3:16 and II Peter 1:20-21 indicate that God inspired all Scripture, that he was overseeing the process of the writing of Scripture in such a way that the end product is His Word, not the product of human authors. Thus, the Christian views all of the Bible as God’s inspired Word and does not set himself as judge of the Bible.
FEMINIST VIEW #2 - The New Testament passages which teach the submission of women were written by Paul, but he was wrong. Those who hold this view believe Paul was too much influenced by his rabbinical background and that in his writing of Scripture he had not reached a full understanding of how the gospel related to relationships between men and women. Thus, he was mistaken in some of the passages he wrote.
PROBLEM WITH VIEW #2 - This position is also based on a low view of the inspiration of Scripture. In this view, too, the Christian must become the judge of Scripture to determine for himself what is correct and what is incorrect. This view assumes that twentieth century man has a better understanding of God’s truth than did the Apostle Paul writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Again, II Timothy 3:16 and II Peter 1:20-21 indicate that God worked in and through the writers of Scripture in such a way that the end product was God’s perfect Word and not a conglomeration of truth and error put together by human authors.
FEMINIST VIEW #3 - The New Testament teaches the submission of women, but the teachings are no longer applicable in the twentieth century. According to this view, Paul was teaching the world view of his own culture in the first century, but our twentieth century culture is more enlightened about the equality of men and women, so the teaching no longer applies. Or sometimes it is said that writers of the New Testament knew that the ideal was to abolish all gender-based roles but feared to hinder the gospel if they broke so radically with their own culture. Thus, these Pauline passages are relegated to temporary cultural truth rather than universal truth for all cultures and all times.
PROBLEM WITH VIEW #3 - The foundation for Paul’s teaching on the role or responsibilities of women is never the culture of his own day but rather the purpose of woman’s creation and the woman’s failure in the fall as Paul points out in I Corinthians 11:1-9 and I Timothy 2:8-15. Adam was created first, and Eve was later created as a helper for him rather than their being created simultaneously and independent of each other. Eve was deceived and led her husband into sin rather than submitting to his leadership. If the reason for the woman’s submission is related to the creation and the fall, than it is not something which can change from year to year and culture to culture. Rather, it is a universal principle.
Some feminists say that there was no submission for the woman in creation but only as a result of the fall, that Genesis 3:16 was the beginning of authority and submission. But Genesis 2:18-25 teaches a submissive role for Eve in relationship to Adam, and Paul interprets it that way in the New Testament. Thus, the cross does not rid us of authority and submission, but it brings harmony to authority and submission relationships.
FEMINIST VIEW #4 - The New Testament, if rightly understood, has never taught the submission of women. If the literary context, the historical context and the theological context were carefully studied, Paul would be clearly seen to be egalitarian, and thus the New Testament teaches that women may fulfill any responsibilities in the marriage and the church that men may fulfill. Thus, “headship” means only “source” and never “leader” or “authority.” “Be subject” means only “relate yourselves to” or “respond to” or “adjust yourselves to” and never “submit to.”
PROBLEM WITH VIEW #4 - In these last two views the confusion among the various
feminist representives comes to the surface. Both groups read these same passages, and some say they teach submission and others say they do not. Greek lexicons include “authority” as one of the meanings for “head” and “submit” as one of the meanings for “be subject” so that only prejudicial interpretation could limit these words to pro-feminist definitions. This last view is so unconvincing that other feminists even reject it.
If one wants to arrive at pro-feminist conclusions, there are a limited number of ways to interpret the biblical context in order to reach such a position. These four are the alternatives which feminists have devised thus far.
Each alternative has serious flaws which cause the Christian, in the process of feminist interpretation, to sacrifice either a high view of inspiration of Scripture or else to use a false hermeneutic, or principle for interpreting Scripture. Either is too high a price to pay. All of these exegetical gymnastics become necessary just to force the Pauline passages to harmonize with the feminist interpretation of Galatians 3:28. If Galatians 3:28 were interpreted correctly in context to refer to the fundamental standing of men and women before God, and if the feminists did not totally reject any concept of authority and submission, harmony of all the biblical material on the subject would be rather simple.
Men and women stand as equals before God, both bearing the image of God Himself. Yet, without making one inferior to the other. God calls upon both men and women to fulfill roles and responsibilities designed specially for them in certain situations. In fulfilling those God-given roles taught in the New Testament, women are not limited. They are reaching their fullest potential because they are following the plan of their own Creator and Designer. Only in obedience to Him and in His design will women truly be able, in the fullest sense, to give glory to God (I Cor. 10:31).
Note: This file was written by John MacArthur Jr., of Grace Community Church, Sun Valley, California. It originally was presented as non-copyrighted material in a booklet titled, “The Biblical Position on Woman’s Roles.” For information about the radio and tape ministries of Grace Community Church and John MacArthur, write:
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