Does the Christian Church Hamper Women's Liberation?

Updated on October 17, 2017

Has the Christian church historically stood with women in their quest for gender equality? Responses to this question may vary: Many may say, “Yes;” and many others may say, “No.”

Here I will examine a few biblical statements about women, with emphasis on how they are interpreted, shaped into doctrine, and related to the church and, subsequently, to the general public’s view of the status of women in the United States. This may help to provide a possible answer to the question.

The Bible

We start with what the Bible actually says about the status of women—without interpretation. In the Old Testament and the New Testament, many sayings indicate that women are inferior to men. Frank and Evelyn Stagg in their book, Women in the life of Jesus, said “the status of women in the Old Testament is not uniform.” Their statement is true of the New Testament. While in the Gospels, Jesus seems to liberate women, Paul’s epistles seem to suggest gender inequality.

We will take a mere snapshot of both Old Testament and New Testament. Unless otherwise noted, scripture quotations are from the New King James Version.

Old Testament. Although the Old Testament shows that a few women achieved greatness, it seems to indicate that women are inferior to men. I will not cite passages that indicate women’s equality; rather, I will focus on a few passages that suggest inferiority.

  1. In Genesis 1:27, the writer says God created male and female “in his own image”; in Genesis 2:18, he says “It is not good that man should be alone; I will make him a helper comparable to him”; and verses 21 and 22 the writer says God took a rib from the man and made a woman. The first passage indicates that women are created equal, because both were made from dust and created in the image of God. The other passages indicate that women are inferior to men, because they were made from man’s rib, to be his “helper.” Two things need to be said here: First, scholars look at the Hebrew word from which “helper” comes and discover that the same term is used for God as a helper, and means, “superordinate helper.” Therefore, the term “helper” does not mean that women are inferior to men, but that they are partners. Second, Chapters 1 and 2 represent two creation stories, drawn from two different sources and merged together, without documentation. Space does not permit me to explain this concept.

  2. In Genesis 3:16, the writer quotes God as saying to women: “Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.” The Living Bible quotes him as saying, “he shall be your master.” Without interpretation, the passage is clear that women are to be submissive to their husbands.

  3. In Genesis 21:10, men were permitted to have many sexual partners, whom they could dismiss, when they no longer needed them. This was not true of women.

  4. In Numbers 27:8-11, the writer depicts the rule of inheritance. When a man died, his sons inherited the estate, but his daughters inherited nothing.

  5. In Deuteronomy 24:1, the writer described the procedure for getting a divorce. Divorce could be initiated by the husband, but not by the wife.

  6. In Proverbs 31: 10-28, a virtuous woman seems to be man’s servant or slave. Her role is to satisfy her husband’s every need, take care of the children, make clothes for the family, walk long distances to the market, buy land and raise a garden, care for the needy, and sell produce in the marketplace. To fulfill this role, she gets up before daylight and goes to bed late at night, while her husband simply works at his day-job, siting “in the council chamber with other civic leaders,” as stated in Verse 23 of the Living Bible.

New Testament. Although, in the Gospels, Jesus seems to have liberated women, Paul’s epistles seem to suggest that women are still inferior to men. I will list a few passage here, without interpretation.

  1. In Ephesians 5:22, Paul says, “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord.”

  2. In I Corinthians 14:34-35, Paul says, “Let your women keep silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak; but they are to be submissive, as the law says. And if they wish to learn something, let them ask their own husbands at home.”

  3. In I Timothy 2:11, Paul says, “Let a woman learn in silence with all submission,” and in verse 12, he says, “And I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man, but to be in silence.”

Biblical scholars use hermetical principals to interpret those passages. I will list a few such principles in the form of questions to be answered about the text: To whom was it written? Is this a universal principle or a solution to a local problem? Does this comport with other passages of Scripture? Radical in theology, I ask, does this square with the total nature of God? Grant R. Osborne in his book, Hermeneutical Spiral, goes deeper and lists different hermeneutical principles for each genre of Scripture. Space hinders me from explaining and applying these principles.

Therefore, I will take a snapshot of a branch of theology that seeks to make sense out of Scripture and to develop doctrines to be taught and practiced in the Christian churches.

Systematic Theology and Doctrine

Before lurching into systematic theology, let me clarify its meaning. In Greek, the term is made up of two words: Theos, meaning “God”; and logia, meaning “utterances, sayings, and oracles.” In English, it means “study of God.” Augustus H. Strong in his book Systematic Theology defines it as “the science of God and of his relationship to the universe.” Charles Hodge, in his book with the same title, says “theology is the exhibition of the facts of Scripture in proper order and relation…” Wayne Gruden in his book with the same title says, “Systematic theology is any study that answers the question, ‘What does the whole Bible teach us today’ about any given topic.” His definition “indicates that systematic theology involves collecting and understanding all the relevant passages in the Bible on various topics and then summarizing their teaching clearly so that we know what to believe about each topic.”

Of the many topics addressed in systematic theology, however, the status of women is not usually included. But Gruden includes it in his book. I must focus on his book, because many seminaries use it as a textbook in their Master of Divinity programs. Moreover, the cover of the book says “over 100,000 copies [are] in print.” I even used the book in my Master of Divinity class at Virginia University of Lynchburg.

True to his definition, Gruden collects and explains all the passages relevant to the status of women and then summarizes them into a doctrinal statement for the church. His statement suggests that women are equal in all areas except in marriage. Using the trinity as a model of the relationship between male and female, he concludes that they are equal “in personhood and importance” but have “different roles and authority.” Applying his conclusion to husbands and wives, he said, “Husbands, therefore, should aim for loving, considerate, thoughtful leadership in their families,” and wives should aim for active, intelligent, joyful submission to their husband’s authority.”

Gruden is not alone in his doctrinal statement. The Southern Baptist Convention includes it in article XVIII of their Baptist Faith and Message. It reads: “The husband and the wife are equal in worth before God, since both are created in God’s image…” The husband “has the God-given responsibility to provide for, to protect, and to lead his family.” It says also that “a wife is to submit herself graciously to the servant leadership of her husband.”

What makes the Southern Baptist statement so important is that the Southern Baptist Convention is the largest religious denomination in the United States. It reported on its website that in 2016 it had 47, 272 churches in its membership and 15, 216, 978 members in their member-churches. Furthermore, it operates six seminaries. Without a doubt, many Southern Baptist leaders, as well as other denominational leaders, study in those seminaries. Moreover, the Convention operates Lifeway book store (formerly, the Baptist Book Store), with stores all over the Country. Their books are, therefore, made available to anybody who wants to read and study them.

People indoctrinated in their teachings are in decision-making bodies such as politics, business, and education, to mention a few of the many. We saw this played out in politics, during the 2016 Republican presidential primary. Michelle Bachmann, a candidate who embraces this doctrine, had to scramble for an answer when reporters asked her how she could be President of the United States and, at the same time, submit to the authority of her husband. Furthermore, it may be seen in Hilary Clinton’s election loss to Donald Trump. Despite the fact that Trump has been married three times and treats women as trophies, 64 percent of non-college educated white women voted for him. If Hillary Clinton can be believed, many women voters “caved” to the men in their lives—fathers, husbands, employers, and more.

Although the Catholic Church does not use Gruden’s textbook, it, too, denies full gender equality. Pope Francis says women are equal, and yet the Church excludes women from the clergy and puts much stress, according to Christian Monitor, on “teachings about women as mothers above all else.” The Pope seems open to allowing women to be ordained as clergypersons, but the church rebels against it, saying “the pope’s job is not to change doctrine.”

The Church and Women’s Liberation

Does what I have said here confirm that the church hinders full gender equality? Maybe not in totality, but it certainly suggests that it helps to slow the progress. Although many scholars interpret the Bible by using certain hermeneutical (interpretive) principles, many persons believe that God wrote the Bible, and everything said in the Bible is true. None of us has escaped hearing the often repeated phrase: “The Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it.”

Many people go to church every Sunday, from their youth up, and listen to preachers and teachers who follow the doctrinal insights taught in systematic theology. They, also, listen to preachers who espouse a literal interpretation the Bible and to preachers who are untrained and uninformed. Needless to say, people who grow up under their influence are parents, teachers, employers, bankers, legislators, jurists, Governors and Presidents. They represent the church in the marketplace, and unless they have examined the worldview handed to them in their upbringing in the church, they stand against total gender equality.

Should we demonize the church for its part in hindering women’s liberation? Certainly not! The church is not perfect—and never will be. But needless to say: It needs to reexamine its theology and, subsequently, its worldview. This calls for a reinterpretation of the Bible and a recasting of church doctrine. Nearly three decades ago, according to Joe E. Trull in his book, An Introduction to Christian Ethics, the World Council of Churches called for a ten-year focus on women, with emphasis on “the need for God, the community, and the church to be re-imaged” THE TIME TO RE-IMAGE IS NOW!

© 2017 Lawrence L Beale

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