Rosa Parks sat unmoved in her seat. A woman known to be so soft-spoken had apparently had enough. One can imagine how so humbly and quietly she would explain to the driver of the bus that she was not going to move from the seat she was in. What those in Montgomery might have called “separate but equal” was only separate. It surely was not equal. And Rosa knew that it was her right to stand up for what she believed in by staying seated where she was. When she was arrested that day, she probably didn’t realize the impact that she would have on her community and throughout the country. From the day of her arrest for over a year after, the Montgomery Bus Boycott took place, and momentum was building in what we now know as the Civil Rights Movement.
The problem with the Jim Crow Laws was that being separate wasn’t really being equal. The laws were taxing on all people in the African American community. Children were forced sometimes to walk to schools further away because the schools closest to them were for whites only. Some were refused jobs and services merely because the color of their skin. And it took the quiet yet unmoved voice of a meek woman in Alabama to stir the hearts of the people to finally say that enough was enough.
Today, in the church, I feel like there is a spirit of the Jim Crow Laws still alive but manifested within another group within society – women. Complementarianism believes that men and women are equal, but that God created them separately, and, with that, they have separate roles. With this they make sense of passages like that in Colossians and Ephesians where wives are told to submit to their husbands, and passages like that in Corinthians and Timothy where women are told not to speak in church, teach, or be in a spiritual position over a man.
But are men and women really equal if we force different roles on them?
How do we decide what these roles are?
Are they birthed within us or oppressed on us by centuries of conditioning?
And what does the Bible really say about the roles of men and women?
There are many passages in the Bible that can be taken as being for complementarianism or for egalitarianism. I will address important women throughout Salvation History before going into Paul’s letters, where things get more controversial. In this post I will specifically look into the Old and New Covenants. I apologize if I leave anything out, but for time’s sake, I can only write so much. I will try not to sound too scholarly or come across as condescending. Feel free to comment if you want to add to anything I address whether it is positive or negative.
The Old Testament:
In Genesis both man and woman are said to reflect the image of God (Gen 1:27-28). And though Eve was the one who ate the apple, Adam is seen as the type or the personification of sin within the world (see Romans 5) – a man once made in glory contrastingly seen as the carrier of sin in the world. This is seen more theological here rather than historical, but truth be told, I think that about most of Genesis. Genesis is written in the form of a myth – meaning that though many of the things said are true in some aspects, they aren’t meant to be literal or historical (especially the Creation story) so to make doctrinal statements on gender roles solely based on this passage would not suffice for either camp.
Rahab and Ruth are both women of importance in the Old Testament for a couple reasons. The fact that they are women mentioned in the Bible for helping bring along Salvation History is of importance, the higher importance being that neither of them were Israelites. The fact that God would use non-Israelite women to tell the story of how He was working within His Covenant people is phenomenal when considering all its implications theologically. Later, these women will even be included in the genealogy of Jesus in the Gospels.
There are also many other notable women worth mentioning in the Old Testament. There are too many for me to mention them all, but here are a few. Deborah is both a judge and a prophetess, and she delivers the Israelites in a way equal to Gideon and Samson and others (Judges 4). Along with that, the prophesy in Joel 2 considering the outpouring of the Holy Spirit talks about it being imparted on both male and female. Esther is another woman of some notoriety, being used by God as a vessel – playing out further the story of Salvation History. There are more women who are of prominence in the Old Testament, but to say much of many of them would be speculation at best.
The Gospels, believe it or not, have some pretty interesting things to say about women and their potential role in society. In Matthew chapter 1, like mentioned above, there are several women mentioned in Christ’s genealogy – Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba (though not by name), and Jesus’ mother, Mary. Luke’s gospel is especially full of instances where Jesus treats women (any person marginalized in society actually) differently in terms of the norm of his day. Luke 8 talks about Mary Magdalene traveling with the disciples. This is enhanced even more in Luke 10, when Mary is sitting with the apostles learning at the feet of Jesus. In this specific reference, Martha, her sister, gets rebuked for getting mad at Mary for not doing what was “assumed” of her by hosting and helping Martha serve the guests.
Also, in Luke 24, Mary and other women are attested as being the first women to witness the resurrected Lord. At the time, women’s testimonies were seen to be of low value (they couldn’t even hold testimony in court!). So, the fact that the Gospel writers include women testimonies in their letters is astounding. These are not only mentioned in Luke, but there are references of women in the other resurrection accounts as well.
The only other Gospel account of relatively high prominence is the Samaritan woman in John 4. In this passage, Jesus talks to a woman who is living in adultery. In this pericope, Jesus tells her that worshipers of God won’t be judged by the nationality they were born in or what Temple they worshiped at, but that God is now looking for people who will worship in Spirit and in truth. In all of the Gospels, this is the most plainly Jesus ever speaks of who he is as Christ and Lord. For him to say that to a woman is again crazy to contemplate!
Marks of the New Covenant:
Some people look at what Paul says in 1Corinthians 14 and 1Timothy 2 to say that women should never speak in church or be in a role of leadership, but Joel’s prophesy that is fulfilled in the New Testament at Pentecost seems to differ. At Pentecost, the Baptism in the Holy Spirit was given as a mark of the New Covenant – God’s Spirit now dwelling within each believer. God’s Spirit isn’t just given to men but also to women, and both were expected to exercise those gifts (Acts 2). Acts 21 mentions women who were known for prophesying. Women were seen as an integral part in the early church and were expected to exercise in spiritual gifts, some of which I will specifically note in my next post.
Another mark of the New Covenant was baptism. Baptism at the surface doesn’t seem to be equalizing men and women, but I think that it is a minor theological point that God was putting across at the New Covenant. Let me explain. The people of God in the Old Testament were the Israelites. To be a part of the people of God one had to be born in. The mark to show that one was an Israelite, a follower of God, was specifically circumcision. The mark of circumcision was started in Genesis 15 when Abraham made his covenant with God. God said He would bless the whole world through Abraham. A mild problem with circumcision though was that it was a sign that only the men had within the community.
The sign that a person is now part of the people of God, the church, is baptism. Baptism is an outward symbol of an inward change of status within believers. And all believers, man and woman, Jew and Gentile, rich and poor, were all linked in water baptism and by the baptism in the Holy Spirit. The sign was no longer only something that Israelite men could possess, but it was an act that all people could willfully participate in! To be a believer meant to break the tradition of the former practices that separated the people of God from the outside world, and to now embrace the old and “new” traditions which are now to bring all people together in Christ. This is at the heart of the Gospel and almost every other book of the New Testament.
The church today doesn’t have a problem having a woman in an unpaid position. They just don’t call her a pastor but a “pastor’s wife.” But as soon as she is officially recognized and given a salary, the gloves come off. Many within the church also don’t have a problem if a woman works as a children’s pastor (in some churches it is expected!), but they have a problem when a woman is put in a position over men who are her own age. This is inconsistent if one is using 1Corinthians or 1Timothy as a basis for their “complementarian” claim.
Just as Rosa Parks opened the door for the Civil Rights Movement, there are many women who recently have opened the door for women’s rights and women in ministry within the church. Some of the first people to start the Pentecostal Movement in the early 1900’s were women. Aimee Semple McPherson is another woman evangelist who reached prominence in the 1920’s and 1930’s. There are also many women missionaries throughout the years who should not be forgotten either.
There are so many women who have not only impacted the church, but they have impacted Salvation History and the history of the world at large. I don’t think that God has a problem with women in ministry; if he doesn’t have a problem then neither should we. And even though this is only half of the argument, I encourage you to study the subject yourself. Dig into the Scriptures. Study them for yourself. There are so many questions that need answered theologically, philosophically, and psychologically. But let’s not be afraid to push the door open. Things will never change for the better if we don’t question the norm.