Does the Bible teach the subjugation of women?
Because of Eve’s sin in Eden and her role in leading Adam into likewise sinning, some read into Scripture that women carry greater responsibility for the Fall and this was to be reflected in their repressed status for all time. There are still some who in their heart harbour sympathy for this view. The Hebrew culture and traditions of the times don’t help; in fact, there is a traditional Jewish prayer that says, “Blessed are you, Lord our God, Ruler of the Universe, who has not made me a woman.”
But the Bible, in contrast to almost every other contemporary ancient document, takes a strong stand in favour of women’s rights. This contrast is reinforced given that the biblical position remained unchanged throughout the domination of traditionally women-oppressed Egyptian, Canaanite, Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Greek and Roman cultures.
Some of those points of gender equality within Israel over some 4000 years include:
- Having the right of inheritance and land ownership: “If a man dies and leaves no son, give his inheritance to his daughter” (Numbers 27:8).
- Fulfilling the role of a spiritual leader as prophet, even during times of war: “Now Deborah, a prophet, the wife of Lappidoth, was leading Israel at that time” (Judges 4:4).
- Encouraged to conduct business and be involved in commerce: “She considers a field and buys it; out of her earnings she plants a vineyard” (Proverbs 31:16).
- Had a right to protection; to be eligible to marry, a man had to be prepared to give his life for his wife: “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:25).
Such a range of rights was unknown outside the nation of Israel, but they had been eroded and abused by the time of Jesus. But God in the Person of Jesus, took a stand against the culture in defence of women’s rights. He defended a woman caught in adultery (John 8:1–11); He preached one of His most significant sermons to a woman (John 4:1–35); He dedicated much of His healing to restoring the health of women (Luke 13:10–17; Mark 5:21–43; Matthew 15:22–28); He presented Himself first to women after His resurrection (Matthew 28:8–10) and many women were significant in the growth of the early church.
Can a woman speak in a worship service?
Misunderstanding has resulted from the apostle Paul apparently instructing women to worship in total silence: “Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak . . . for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church” (1 Corinthians 14:34, 35).
Here Paul is writing to a church whose worship service had declined into something less than decorous. The chapter—in fact, much of the book—focuses on a church service that does not create confusion for non-Christian visitors (verses 27–33) who would think that the Christians were out of their minds (verse 23). Paul indicates that the women were asking questions of their husbands during the service—an unnecessary interruption—contributing to a loss of decorum and worshipful atmosphere (verse 35). He concludes by advising the church members to do everything in a “fitting and orderly way” (verse 40).
Significantly, when Paul reiterated the same advice to his protégé Timothy (1 Timothy 2:12), he uses the Greek word hesuchia, which literally means “peacefulness” rather than silence, as it is interpreted in certain Bible versions.
Further, it is important when interpreting scripture to differentiate between what is a moral imperative and a specific instruction for a particular circumstance. While a specific instruction for a local circumstance will vary depending on the circumstance, a moral imperative is unchanging and consistent from one end of scripture to the other. Clearly this passage deals with a local issue only, because in several other places in the Bible women did speak and participate fully in worship services.
Within the Hebrew context there was never an impediment to women speaking and leading out in worship services. Anna the prophetess spoke right in the Jewish Temple as part of the dedication of Jesus (Luke 2:36–38). Moses’ sister, Miriam, led out in one of the greatest worship services of all time in what the Bible describes as the “assembly in the wilderness” (Exodus 15:20; Acts 7:38); women were encouraged to pray and prophesy in church (1 Corinthians 11:5); and the Bible speaks of Philip’s four daughters who did just that (Acts 21:9); while in Philippi, women led out in a worship service every Sabbath (Acts 16:13).
Clearly then, silence was not a moral imperative but rather about Paul dealing with a specific circumstance, although the principle applies to us all today.