Putting Women in Their Place: From Settled Conviction to True Love

If it were not for my wife, Faith, my expertise in gender relations would have been completed a great deal sooner.  She was clearly the obstacle to my ownership of a settled position. Left on my own, the issue was mostly decided as my understanding had peeked at about age 20, at which point I had completed a Bible College degree and had learned from Corinthians that women are to remain silent in church and from Timothy and Ephesians that women are not to exercise leadership. 

How thoroughly I “knew” this is a bit unclear because in spite of the very conservative nature of my education I do not remember that this was emphasized with any clarity, as reality intruded. Ozark Bible College had a very strict rule that women were not to speak in chapel – with the clear exception of large donors (Mrs. Welshimer, heiress to the Phillips Petroleum fortune, spoke whenever she wanted). Women were not supposed to teach men – except one of the most effective teachers on campus was a woman medical doctor. Women are to remain silent except when they need to say something (important donors, highly qualified teachers, missionaries, etc.). For every verse demarcating the public roles of women there seemed to be an exception. The interpretive strictness received on the one hand was mitigated by the pressing circumstance on the other. An understanding that pertains not just to life but to reading the Bible.

  If I could have negotiated the issue of gender or perhaps, all of my theology, from a theoretical vantage (alone in a cave for example), I could have “arrived” sooner. You have to admire the ability to arrive at a full understanding of an issue early on and the willingness to stick to your guns without giving it anymore thought. This settled, unthinking, doctrinaire, ownership of an issue seems to be the most common of the spiritual gifts. I presume I too could have been so blessed. As it is, being married and having two daughters, living in Japan some 20 years and being associated with actual humans on a regular basis is very theologically unsettling. In the Japanese church if it were not for women taking the initiative there would be no church. To say life intruded on a biblical understanding may miss the fact, it was a peculiar biblical understanding geared to exclude this reality.

The Jew’s knew how to take a position and stick to it; perhaps we could take a cue from their prayer celebrating the unchanging order of things. In the synagogue the men would pray, “Thank God that he has not made me a Gentile, a slave, or a woman.” At this point the women in the congregation would answer back, “Thank you God, that you have made me according to your will.” Here is a hierarchical world in which ethnicity, religion, social status, and gender really mean something. The problem is that Paul seems to deliberately overturn this understanding when he implies this prayer is forbidden in Christian congregations (Gal. 3:28). It is precisely the notion of a set cultural order, a law of nature, the way things are, being overturned that Paul equates with salvation.

Surely when he tells women to keep silent in Church (I Co 14) this is an incontrovertible fixed order – men speak and women listen. The problem is, Paul recommends (also in Corinthians) that when the women do speak in church that they should follow cultural considerations (in 1 Co 11:2–11). I doubt Paul was simply making exceptions for the wealthy heiresses of the community who could be relied upon for serious patronage.  Paul is not making exceptions to a general, fixed, rule but is forging a new sort of society (the Kingdom of God) which accounts for the culture but does not presume it is definitive.

Isn’t it absolutely clear, however, that man is the head of woman like Christ is the head of the Church (as in Ephesians and Corinthians)? What is unclear is whether the word “head” means “boss” or “source” (as the reference in Corinthians is to Genesis in which the woman is taken from man’s side – her source). What is clear from the rest of Corinthians is that biblical authority has nothing to do with being an authoritarian boss, but as with the headship of Christ, it means being a servant who provides for growth. If one is determined to stick to stereotypes this is a passage that might serve as a proof text, but only if the gospel challenge to culture and authority is overlooked.

This sort of nitpicking can be very tiresome if one is seeking a settled position.  Isn’t it a good thing Paul tells Timothy that the men are the decision makers who run things and tell the women what to do (to be in “full submission” and to do no teaching)? To reach this conclusion, however, one must ward off curiosity and isolate this passage from its context. The slightest study indicates that Paul is commanding that women too should study and learn – and his command that they be “in full submission” (I Tim 2:11) may in fact mean not in submission “to men” or “to husbands” but in submission to God or the gospel – as with the men. As N. T. Wright notes, it is not that Paul is saying women cannot teach men, he is saying, “I don’t mean to imply that I’m now setting up women as the new authority over men.” He might need to say this, Wright notes, due to the religious situation in Ephesus where the biggest Temple was the shrine of a female-only cult.  At the Temple of Artemis, a female deity, the priests were all women. Women ruled the show and kept the men in their place.[1] Where the passage is cut off from its life situation and the theory formed in isolation, it may be a proof text for misogyny but this is contrary to all that the gospel is about.

As portrayed in Scripture, gender problems are at the center of the human problem, so it is no surprise that gender issues are at the center of interpretive problems. How to be men and women in relationship, how to be image bearers, how it is that Christ and the Church resolve the problem of gender, is not just part of the biblical story – this is the biblical story. To callously presume an understanding of gender relationships, marriage, or the role of men and women, as absorbed from culture is to miss the point of salvation. The gospel challenged first century culture and it challenges our culture in the same way. Where oppression – the original oppression, the first sign of the Fall – is “supported” by the Bible, it may be the point of salvation has been obscured. “The two shall become one flesh and I am talking about Christ and the Church” (Eph. 5:32) fuses the issue of gender relations with the issue of salvation. If we miss the one we miss the other.

Life intrudes on a failed understanding in the same way it intrudes on a failed biblical interpretation. On this Valentines Day I can say the most disruptive, the most difficult thing I did to my settled understanding of gender and Christianity was to get married. The real world of relationship does not allow for the truncated understanding so often foisted off as biblical. If my life has been a salvation journey, a journey toward realizing humanity in its fullness, a journey which cannot abide this world’s notion of authority, this is an understanding worked out in marriage.

 More than 40 years ago I fashioned a tin foil heart and enclosed it with some roses and sent it to Faith. It was the best decision I ever made but it cost me my settled convictions and opened up the possibility of true love. This seems to be the necessary trade-off.

Happy Valentines Day my love!


[1] http://ntwrightpage.com/2016/07/12/womens-service-in-the-church-the-biblical-basis


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Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

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