Women & the Church: 2 things that began changing my mind

the journey

If it’s not obvious so far, I wanted to make something clear before we begin: these posts in this series on Women the Church are walking through the same path my own journey took get to where I am.

In my last post, there was a concern that a friend brought up that I didn’t get to talking about the biblical texts enough. Well, this is because both egalitarians and complementarians are looking at the same biblical texts. In my own shifts on this issue, the key changes were not “new” Bible verses I found.

Instead (and as these posts have tried to follow), there was first a personal change. I not only met others that thought something different than me and yet didn’t fit the caricature I had been offered, but I also saw that they believed these things for very  good reasons. Secondly, there was a contextual change, where new perspectives on the Bible verses in question were offered to me, and my mind had softened to receive these things. My attempt to soften many others of us was my goal in my previous post.

With that hopefully out of the way, I want to briefly take everyone into the first major wrecking balls that were thrown into my wall of strict complementarianism.

home vs. church?

But first a quick side note. For the time-being, I will be sticking to discussing women in formal leadership offices and roles in the church rather than the idea of “headship” in the home or masculine/feminine roles in the family.

This is for several reasons, which I’ll explore in future posts, but I’m mainly trying to find what I can about how similar the Bible expects the structure of families and churches to be. I’ve been raised with the assumptions that husbands are supposed to be the “pastors/elders” of their home.

(I once even heard an–admittedly–amazing sermon that discussed the Ephesians 5 “Husbands love your wives as Christ loves the church” passage by going through the requirements of an elder in 1Timothy 2.)

But I don’t know that this is the case, and I’m finding the connection between Family Structure and Church Structure increasingly weak. If you have any good resources on this to help me out, feel free to send them my way. Okay, side note done.

Thing #1: Baptism

The first thing the blew my mind was this: women could be baptized.

As the New Testament talks about baptism, it’s (admittedly few) passages on the subject use similar language to describe it as the Old Testament uses to describe circumcision. It talks about how baptism “marks” Christians and “identifies” them with the “Body” of Christ. The great Galatians 3 passage about the legalism of circumcision ends with the triumphant statement of baptism as the “new” and “treuer” way that God’s people are now joined to the community.

Now think about this. Jewish men of this day and time would go to synagogue every week and thank God for not making them a woman. For over 1,000 years, the Jewish community had one primary visible, outward mark of being part of God’s people (circumcision), and it was about as exclusively male as you can possibly get.

And then, suddenly, seemingly overnight, this 1,000 year old mark was now something that women were freely able, invited, encouraged, and even commanded to do?

There is no way that we can comprehend how traumatic this would have been to God’s people. The sandal! The offense!

One wonders if the Jewish Christian push-back against doing away with the circumcision requirement was more a function of this long-entrenched patriarchy than it was some expression of Pharisaical legalism.

In fact, in the aforementioned Galatians 3 passage where circumcision is condemned and baptism is exalted, the very next verse after the Paul’s baptism statement is that epic (and over-used) egalitarian prooftext, therefore intimately linking baptism and “engendered-ness” with the discussion of circumcision:

“So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

And so, let me re-state the significane of this discussion: because of what Christ did, and the changes it brought, the most fundamental way of outward, communal, and ecclesial participation in the essential functions of the Church were now wide-open to women after being shut on them for over 1,000 years among Yahweh’s people.

If you take seriously the progressive nature of the history of God’s work and revelation in the world, and believe that this revelation is clearer and closer to the fullest of God’s intentions as time goes on, then, at the very least, this should make you pause and consider.

Thing #2: location, location, location

The second thing that really made me question what I had been taught was seeing that every single word in the New Testament that in any way even seems to limit a woman’s role in any part of the church is only written to cities in which their religious life was absolutely dominated by female goddess cults.

There’s a singular reality you see throughout Christianity: it wants to exalt the downtrodden and humble the powerful, in the hopes that a true expression of God’s communal life would be lived out in the world.

Well, I need to apologize to the feminist critics out there before saying this, but the reality is this: there have been societies in history where different segments of it were ruled by women and men had little place of power.

In the ancient world, this was true of the cities of Ephesus and Corinth, the two cities that are the only recipients of letters that have any critique of women acting and leading in certain ways in the church and church service.

(When I say this, I’m referring to the letters of 1 Corinthians and those to Timothy, who was an elder at Ephesus. I think there is good evidence that the book of Ephesians was a general letter, not written directly to Ephesus, though Ephesus’ copy was the one that survived. And so, when I write here, I’m not referring to Ephesians.)

I’ll go more into specifics in future posts, but at the time that Paul was writing, there was an emergence of a sort of “proto-feminism” in these two cities (especially Ephesus). Rome did not like this and was trying to find ways to quell this so the women might be a bit more “obedient” like they were in Rome.

Could this be why, in letters Paul writes to Corinth and Ephesus, he more or less tells the women to relax and give some space for the men to do stuff, but when he writes to Rome, he talks about Junia, the female apostle (early church-planter) and other women especially important in the early ministry of the church? Could he be trying to humble the powerful and exalt the weak so as to create a vibrant, healthy, loving community?

Could this be why the Roman married couple, Priscilla and Aquila (two church panters and pastors, it seems; the female of which is, strangely, nearly always mentioned first of the two of them), when fleeing Rome under the Edict of Claudius find a suitable home for their potential “crazy” woman-pastoring ways in Ephesus at the end of one of Paul’s missionary journeys in Acts?

And so remember that as we move forward: the only times Paul says anything restricting to a woman’s function, role, or actions in the midst of the church are in letters to two specific cities–none other. He writes to so many other places throughout he New Testament, and yet it’s only to these two cities that he says the “offending” remarks that seem to harshly condemn women in leadership at churches. And these were the two biggest early church cities wherein abusive female religious authority reigned, and men (at least in the religious sector of social life) were demeaned, left out, and alienated.

And so, considering this and the baptism thing above, I ask the reader: should not all of this be considered when we read these texts in question? Does this not begin to give us some pause about how narrowly we may have understood these texts in question? What are your thoughts?

These things were certainly enough for me, several years ago, to continue my journey. Tomorrow, we continue ours as we press all the more deeply into this.

[image credit: Tommaso Laureti, “The Triumph of Christianity” (color edited by myself for effect)]


20 thoughts on “Women & the Church: 2 things that began changing my mind

  1. I wish I had more time to reply, but alas, I have much to do before Thanksgiving rolls around.

    “Should not all of this be considered when we read these texts in question?” YES. But it is one thing to consider these things, and quite another to find such things compelling.

    The argument that Paul only says “restrictive” sounding things about women in relation to leadership roles when he writes to cities that had a problem with female domination is a terrible argument in my opinion.

    When you look at Paul’s rationale for these so-called “restrictions” in 1 Timothy 2:11-14, his reasons have absolutely nothing to do with “Ephesus-only” problems. It’s a terrible argument.

    Paul begins with freedom: “Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness” (2:11). He then says, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man…” (2:12).

    Now, if you put your commentaries away for a moment and read what Paul says next, what are the reasons he gives us for his statements in 2:11-12?

    Paul says this “…For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor” (2:13-14).

    Paul’s reasons are rooted in things that are true of all men and all women in all places and all times. He grounds his imperatives in the universally applicable truths of creation and the fall. Until the egalitarian deals effectively with that (and I don’t think he/she can), it’s going to be hard to present a biblically compelling case for your side.

    And oh yeah…do you remember the first time human beings were made to believe that God was unnecessarily restricting them in some way? You’ve read Genesis 3 right? That didn’t turn out so well for us. I think it’s much better for us to simply trust that what God said is the best way to go. Isn’t it interesting that Paul makes reference to that story here?

    And (this may be important to say for those who read this)…if it weren’t for what I consider to be compelling scriptures like the one above from 1 Timothy, I would love nothing more than to have the best female leaders in the highest positions of leadership within the church.


    • 1- i do not mean for this post to be at the end all be all of the discussion. if these points for all there were in the Bible, of course they would not be enough to compel one to change their mind. for me, at least, it was simply enough to get me looking into it more. And so that was all I was really trying to accomplish here.

      2- actually, there are some pretty simple responses yo the whole creation-order argument (I’ll get into them more with the next posts), but here’s a taste: first, Paul appeals to creation for other things (like head coverings) that most complementarians don’t follow, so it’s an inconsistent hermeneutic. Second, why does he not say the same things to other churches? if these rules/limitations are so important, and rooted in creation, then why did they not come up again in other letters? Thirdly, those verses are some of the most difficult to authoritatively know how to translate in the New Testament. Lastly, there is evidence if a proto-gnostic cult in Ephesus at the time of paul’s writing that was teaching the superiority of women (most early gnostic leaders were women, in fact), based on an assertion that women were actually first in the world and not men (hence Paul’s affirmation otherwise)

      3- i don’t mean “restrictions” in the same way most feminist mean it, as if Paul was some chauvinist that hated women. I simply mean strong up boundaries for roles and such. First, i know that conplementarians would say that these boundary lines were not meant to be “restrictive” but “freeing” for men and women to truly florist. secondly, I tried to say as much as I could in the post that paul “seemingly” restricts women. I do not think he does, and I do not think that more conservative interpretations and translations of his words are accurate. we’ll go into that more later.

      4- and I tried to address your foreboding Genesis 3 concern in an earlier post. I have no qualms about God setting restrictions on life, how it should be lived, church, and how our relationships should be governed. I love and value Church authority, civil authority, and my employer. I know that God limits for our sexuality is for our good and flourishing. And I fully believe that to overstep my boundaries that God has created is destructive to both myself and those around me. And so, Ray, as much as I respect you, veiled implications that egalitarians are those that must hate limits, God’s word, and have simply come to their conclusions based on some deep seeded distrust of God and dislike of his word and applying it to their lives is bothersome. It’s the Christian version if Godwin’s law, can be applied way too easily to anything you happen not to like, and describes no egalitarian I’ve every met, heard, nor read.

      Thanks for letting me get that out. And really, thanks for your words.


      • “…veiled implications that egalitarians are those that must hate limits, God’s word, and have simply come to their conclusions based on some deep seeded distrust of God and dislike of his word and applying it to their lives is bothersome…and describes no egalitarian I’ve every met, heard, nor read.”

        Well if that’s true, I’ve also NEVER come across a single complementarian who believed it so that that they could hold to a traditional male hierarchy and keep women subdued. (wink wink)


      • “…the only times Paul says anything restricting to a woman’s function, role, or actions in the midst of the church are in letters to two specific cities–none other.”

        As much as I was on board with you about perspicuity, I don’t even know where to start with this.

        The first thing that comes to mind: If what you’re saying is true, why would Paul not be more careful to measure his words so as to avoid overreacting and giving the false impression that he simply doesn’t allow a woman to teach men in the church (which he kinda says). And not just, “In X situations or contexts, I do not permit…” but rather, “I do not permit (seemingly at all times/places)…”

        Long story short, despite the good points you raise, I don’t yet feel jostled in my current position…


  2. I’ve been digging recently for more on the women in the church, and being restricted in Paul’s epistles topics. This was very enlightening, I found the point that Paul ONLY mentions those points to the cities with prominent goddesses fascinating. Thank you for sharing your research.

    On a different not how far do you believe we should go with the wife under the husband idea? I agree with the husband being the head of the house, but I recently wrote to World Vision on my belief that they were going a little to far with extreme of anti-feminism, and giving the men all of the adventures. Not only did they reply to tell me that Deborah was not a leader, but in defense of women adventuring they stated that the women on their staff did adventure with their brothers or husbands. I feel that this contradicts not only the Bible, but such great testaments to the spreading of truth as Gladys Aylward, and Corrie Ten Boom. I would be interested to hear your thoughts…


    • I can’t speak to World Vision, I’m not familiar enough with what you’re referring to. I do agree with you, though, that there is a LONG history in the Church of women doing some of the most dangerous, radical, and impacting things for the Kingdom of God, even over and above men.

      As far as husband and wife stuff, I’ll be honest, I’m still sorting that out. Currently, I think those in a marriage should EACH work to cultivate the godly virtues of strength, vision, leadership, taking the initiative in reconciliation and serving one another in life and their relationship with God. I don’t know that I see a list of “virtues” that only men should cultivate in themselves and women should not. They should both strive to become the people God has for them to be. And then, they should structure their household dynamics and practicalities in whatever way makes sense for the way they’re wired. For many households, this would look complementarian. It’s one thing for a married couple to come together and through prayer and consideration come to the conclusion that due to their giftings, it would lead to their household flourishing for the guy to take the loving lead in most things; it is quite another to say that the Bible mandates this for all families, all households, no matter the giftings and calls of God, in every sphere of existence, for all time. For most families, I’d imagine this would be a combination of things. The wife leads in the finances, where the husband might lead in cultivating their spirituality. Or maybe the wife leads in cultivating time and space to talk about how the relationship is going and the husband leads in the maintaining the calendar. So on and so forth.

      I actually think this is how most complementarian households FUNCTION practically. And so, as I’ve said before, I think most complementarian husbands are acting most loving to their wives when they are (even inadvertently) acting like egalitarians towards their wives.

      I hope that helps. What do YOU think?


  3. “Second, why does he not say the same things to other churches? if these rules/limitations are so important, and rooted in creation, then why did they not come up again in other letters?”

    Perhaps because Paul felt a need to address other more pressing issues that were going on in other churches, etc. As you yourself have told me, Paul wasn’t writing a comprehensive systematic theology to every church. You already know that, so I’m not sure why you turned to that as part of your rationale here.


  4. Pingback: Women & the Church: 2 things that began changing my mind {4 … | Christian Dailys

  5. I have run across this post in my effort to find a way to be egalitarian. I look forward to your other posts, but you comments here about Paul writing to churches that only had issues with women in leadership is interesting.

    I guess what I find most interesting is your evaluation as to why he would write to these instructions to these churches. You take the opposite rationale for this than I would. Paul often wrote to address problems in churches, and it seems clear that your “discovery” points to why Paul would write restrictions to women in these locations and not elsewhere … he wanted to address the issue of women leading. Does it not seem clear to you that he would write instructions to these churches telling the women not to lead in locations where the women were leading and he would not feel the need to address this in churches where it was not an issue. From a simple reading of these and your insight, it seems clear that Paul was addressing the problem where it was one.

    Does that not make sense to you?


    • It makes total sense, and I’m sorry if I didn’t communicate myself well. First of all, this post is one post in an on-going series that’s been continuing well beyond this post. If you go tot he beginning of this post, you’ll see me make reference to “this series”. It’s in bold and it’s a link. If you click that, you can see every post I’ve written in this series. There’s been a bunch.

      To your point, I’m sorry if I wasn’t clear. I wasn’t saying, “Isn’t it weird that Paul discouraged female leadership in those places where there WAS female leadership?!” Instead, I was saying, “It’s weird that Paul ONLY writes SEEMINGLY restrictive words to women at churches in areas that had a strong cultural PERVERSION of what female leadership looked like.” In other words, the problem wasn’t that there was female leadership in the first place, but how they were leading.

      I absolutely think there were women functioning in leadership roles in the other churches mentioned in the NT. Acts describes some of this, and the recipients of Romans and the Epistles of John seem to have echoes of female leadership present. The letter of Ephesians also seems to allow room for this.

      And so, Paul only wrote these restrictive letters to places whose culture was dominated by sinful female leadership dynamics. What he criticizes is not THAT women were leading, but HOW they were. I hope that clarifies things.

      What do YOU think?


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