The Bible contains many references to women that, in our modern day, sounds discriminatory and sexist towards women. Many, both inside and outside the church have concerns that an orthodox understanding of the Bible is threatening and even harmful to women. The Bible does have a number of passages regarding women that are deeply troubling, especially read without context. Given this, can women in the 21st century benefit from the instructions of the Bible, written in ancient times and often credited with humiliation toward women? Is the Bible good for women?
Author Wendy Alsup suggests we read these pieces of Scripture with an awareness of the whole biblical story, not as isolated sections. In her book, “Is the Bible Good for Women? Seeking Clarity and Confidence Through a Jesus-Centered Understanding of Scripture” Alsup looks at how God’s grand story offers inspiration to women that connects God’s vision for womanhood to the Good News of Jesus Christ. She addresses difficult passages with questionable teachings from four New Testament readings referencing women or wives. One of these passages is 1 Timothy 2 which touches on women teaching with authority. Hundreds of passages have been written on this chapter, with almost as many interpretations proving this to be one of the least understood and most contested passages of all time.
First Timothy 2 says, “A woman must quietly receive instruction with submissiveness. But I do not allow a woman to reach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet. For it was Adam and Eve who was first created, and then Eve” (11-13). In spite of the lack of consensus and obvious translation difficulties, many Christians continue to cite portions of 1 Timothy 2 as the foundation for their belief in male leadership in the church. In order to really break down this passage, you have to look at Paul and his previous writings.
Alsup explains that the passage can be read several ways, One way does not view the Bible as a connected whole: “According to this perspective, Paul’s instruction contradicted previous passages in Scripture, and his instructions then were relative to only the particular culture in which he was teaching. Or one might teach that this passage is absolute because it is among the final instruction of Scripture, and the examples throughout Scripture of women doing more than what Paul seems to suggest here are tossed out as obsolete. Without using the Bible as commentary on itself, we end up either writing this passage off as irrelevant or interpreting it so strictly that women are forbidden to use their spiritual gifts in the church in any way. But we are approaching Scripture as a unified text in which each progression in God’s story reflects both the past and the future.”
Using this passage to restrict women in leadership requires elevating a handful of verses over the rest of Paul’s writings, not to mention the entire New Testament. When you read all of Paul’s letters and the Book of Acts in one sitting, it is apparent that Paul supported the leadership of women. We see this in a number of churches, including Philippi, Thessalonica, Cenchrae and Rome. It’s baffling to see how some church leaders and theologians give such weight to the 1 Timothy 2 passage when many other portions of Scripture supported equality. Paul’s practice aside, such a restriction contradicts the teachings of Jesus and the Kingdom of God values He ushered in.
While some charge that Christianity, the Bible and the Church are anti-female and horribly oppressive to women, Jesus is a powerful example of how that isn’t the case. Jesus loved women and treated them with great respect and dignity. This can be seen throughout the New Testament. The value of women that permeates the New Testament isn’t found in the cultures of some societies. For example, Jewish women were barred from public speaking. The oral law prohibited women from reading the Torah out loud. Synagogue worship was segregated, with women never allowed to be heard. Jesus’ treatment of women was very different.
One great example is Jesus’ conversation with a Samaritan woman, in public referenced in John 4. The rabbinic oral law was explicit: “He who talks with a woman [in public] brings evil upon himself.” Another rabbinic teaching prominent in Jesus’ day taught, ‘One is not so much as to greet a woman.” From this, we can understand why His disciples were amazed to find Him talking to a woman in public. And imagine how stunned this woman was that the Messiah was trying to reach out to her and offer her living water for her thirst soul.
Women around the world are increasingly done with having their role be a topic of debate. Today, women make up a greater percentage of both the nones (people who don’t claim and religious affiliation) and the dones (those who are leaving organized church). Even in the midst of this, God is raising up women all over the world in all kinds of arenas, including the church.
Some people mistakenly believe strongly that the church fathers are rooted in an anti-female Bible, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. People held, and continue to hold misogynistic beliefs in spite of, not because of the biblical teachings. We have to remember that when the Bible describes an action, it does not necessarily mean the Bible endorses that action. The Bible describes men treating women as little more than property, but that does not mean God approves that action. The Bible is very focused on reforming our hearts. God knows that a changed heart will result in changed behaviors.