In an article in the 1991 issue of Christianity Today entitled, ‘Let’s Stop Making Women Presbyters’, evangelical theologian and leader J. I. Packer wrote: ‘Presbyters are set apart for a role of authoritative pastoral leadership. But this role is for manly men rather than womanly women, according to the creation pattern that redemption restores’.
This view, which subordinates the woman to the man, is underscored by the Reformed evangelical preacher John Piper in a book he edited with theologian Wayne Grudem entitled, Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism.
Piper writes: ‘At the heart of matured masculinity is a sense of benevolent responsibility to lead, provide for and protect women in ways appropriate to man’s differing relationship’. The converse is also true: ‘at the heart of mature femininity is a freeing disposition to affirm, receive and nurture strength and leadership from worthy men in ways appropriate to a woman’s differing relationships’.
These writers advocate what is sometimes called the ‘hierarchicalist’ view of the relationship between the man and the woman. This view maintains that although God has created men and women equal, he has designed the woman to be subordinated to the man.
Proponents of this view maintain that the subordination of the woman to the man points to the complementary role she is given by God. This view of the male-female relationship may also be described as the traditional view, since it is the view that Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and many Protestant churches espouse.
Man and Woman in Creation
We begin by examining the account of the creation of the first humans in Genesis. There, we are told that human beings – male and female – are created in the image and likeness of God (Gen 1:27). That both the man and the woman are bearers of the divine image suggests that they both have been bestowed with the same dignity and value.
It is important to note that the image of God is also a relational concept. This means that the first human pair images the God who created them by enjoying community with each other.
According to this understanding, the woman was not created by God merely to complement the man. Rather she was created to ‘complete’ the divine image by delivering the man from his isolation. This primal community of the man and the woman reflects the triune God who created them, who is Being-in-Communion.
Although the proponents of the traditional view would agree with this, they argue that the fact that the woman was created from the man indicates that she is subordinated to him. This argument is, of course, fallacious: the context of the narrative has to do not with the hierarchical order of creation but the alleviation of the man’s solitude and loneliness.
In its depiction of the woman as created from the man, the narrative stresses that only the woman is a fit companion for the man. This is beautifully brought out in Genesis’ portrayal of marriage as the joining of the man and the woman in such a way that they become ‘one flesh’ (2:24).
Marriage is the bond between the man and the only creature that is like him (2:23). It is also this profound similarity between male and female that allows the woman to be the man’s ‘helper’.
To describe the woman as the man’s ‘helper’, however, does not mean that she is subordinated to him. Hierarchicalists have used this to substantiate their position. For instance, based on this description John Piper has categorically declared that ‘God teaches us that the woman is a man’s “helper” in the sense of a loyal and suitable assistant in the life of the garden’.
But the term ‘helper’ (Hebrew: ezer) does not necessarily refer to a subordinate. There are seventeen references to God as our helper in the OT. Furthermore, the specific term that Genesis uses for the woman (‘ézrer kenegdô : fit helper) suggests equality, not subordination.
As Semitic specialist David Freedman explains: ‘When God creates Eve from Adam’s rib, his intent is that she will be – unlike the animals – “a power (or strength) equal to him”’.
Paul’s Magna Carter
In Galatians 3, Paul reinforces the conclusions we have drawn from the creation narrative in Genesis concerning the equal status of the man and the woman. In what is sometimes described as his ‘Magna Carta of Humanity’, Paul writes: ‘There is neither Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus’ (Gal 3:28).
Hierarchicalists also recognise the implications of Paul’s declaration of equality in Christ. But they argue that this declaration has to do only with the positions of redeemed persons in Christ, not their relationships and functions. They argue that although the woman is equal in status with the man, she is relationally and functionally subordinate to him.
But positional equality cannot be severed from equality in relationships and functions. The former must surely imply the latter.
Christ has brought about not just a change in status, but also a change in relationships. And if this is true for the relationship between Gentile and the Jew, and the slave and the citizen, surely it must also be true for the relationship between the woman and the man.
Reflecting on the implications of this especially in relation to Christian ministry, F. F. Bruce could write:
No more restriction is implied in Paul’s equalising of the status of male and female in Christ than in his equalising of the status of the Jew and Gentile, or of slave and free person. If in ordinary life existence in Christ is manifested openly in church fellowship, then, if a Gentile may exercise spiritual leadership in church as freely as a Jew, or a slave as freely as a citizen, why not a woman as freely as a man.
Women in the Church
There is strong evidence that women were involved in the various ministries of the church in the earliest period of its history. Christian art of the first and second centuries, for example, depicts women baptising, administering the Lord’s Supper, teaching and caring for the congregation.
But the most important evidence of the egalitarian view of the early Church with regard to the participation of women in the ministry is found in the pages of Acts. Luke mentioned the involvement of women in the early expansion of the church in cities such as Jerusalem (Acts 5:14), Samaria (8:12), Philippi (16:13-15), Thessalonica (17:4), Corinth (18:2) and many others. For example, Lydia (Acts 16:40) played a significant role in assisting Paul in the Philippian church.
Significantly, women prophesied and taught in the early church. Acts 21:8-9 describes the four unmarried daughters of Philip who prophesied, suggesting that these women exercised some form of significant leadership at the church in Caesarea. Acts 18 also clearly indicates that Priscilla (together with her husband) was a teacher of the Scriptures who helped to further enlighten the already erudite Apollos about ‘the way of God’ (18:26).
Women were not excluded even from the office of the apostle.
In Romans 16:7, Paul writes: ‘Greet Andronicus and Junias … They were outstanding among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was’. The question whether Junias is a man or a woman is a much disputed one among contemporary scholars. But the Fathers of the early church, including Origen and John Chrysostom maintained that Junias was a woman.
The Question of Submission
The creation narrative, Paul’s Magna Carter for Humanity, and the practice of the early Church provide the framework for understanding male-female relationships. It is within this framework that one should interpret the passages that prohibit women from performing certain ministries.
Thus, scholars have argued that even Paul’s declarative statement in 1 Timothy 2:12 (‘I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over the man’) must be understood contextually and must not be taken as a timeless imperative. In addition, linguistic studies have shown that here we have a temporary directive, not a permanent rule.
It is also within this framework that we should understand the Pauline concept of submission. Paul maintains that the overarching principle that should govern the human community (especially the Christian community) is mutual submission: ‘Submit to one another, out of reverence for Christ’ (Eph 5:21).
Mutual submission demolishes the social hierarchies and discriminations brought about by the Fall by according equal dignity and worth to every human being regardless of ethnic heritage, social status and gender. In the context of marriage, such mutuality is seen in the relationship of reciprocity where the wife willingly submits to her loving and devoted husband.
In conclusion, I must stress that in rejecting sexual hierarchy, I am not rejecting all hierarchy as such.
Society is so ordered that an egalitarianism that knows no supra- and subordinate levels, no authority and obedience is in the end naïve and untenable. In the concrete structures of society, some women may be subordinated to men, as the occasion requires.
But the egalitarianism that is portrayed in Scripture rejects the view that all women must be subject to all men all the time because they are women, in other words, that hierarchy should be based on gender.
It is in this respect that the biblical vision of the male-female relationship is truly counter-cultural. It points to the kind of human community that God had intended in creation, and the eschatological reality that the redemptive and restorative work of Christ has made possible.