[16]   Human Rights (3): Feminism & Women’s Role in Church

STORY:  In the US, the National Organization for Women (NOW) is the largest feminist organization. In addition to eliminate discrimination and harassment based on gender, they support abortion-on-demand and homosexual rights.

In the area of Bible translation, there is a trend towards producing gender-neutral translations. In the last two decades, a total of 17 such translations have been published, covering most major translations including New International Version (called Today’s NIV, TNIV), Revised Standard Version (RSV), Revised English Bible (REB), Jerusalem Bible (JB, Roman Catholic). Conservative Bible scholars have condemned such attempt to put “inclusive” language above accuracy because of distortion of the Biblical text.


·       Like the society as a whole, the Christian church has historically discriminated against women. The Roman Catholic Church and most Protestant churches still place limits on women assuming leadership. The Christian and Missionary Alliance does not allow women to be elders.

71.  Are men and women completely equal?

a.   Women have always suffered discrimination and unequal treatment in the past few millennia. They achieve approximate (not total) equality in western societies only in the last few decades. Women are still explicitly and legally discriminated against in many countries in the world, especially in Muslim countries.

b.   The Bible emphasizes equality:

·         Man and woman were created equal (Gen 1:27).

·         Man and woman are equal in the church (Ac 2:16-17; Gal 3:28).

·         Husband and wife are to submit to each other (Eph 5:21).

The verse on mutual submission

Eph 5:21 which is the main theme of the passage of Eph 5:21-33 but often improperly excluded to emphasize only the submission of the wife in v.22. In Greek, v.21-22 reads “being subject to one another in the fear of Christ. The wives to their own husbands as to the Lord.” Note that the word “subject” or “submit” (somenoi) is found only in v.21, not in v.22 as the verse simply follows the sense from v.21. This clearly shows that v.21 belongs to the next paragraph.

·         Man and woman are mutually dependent (1Co 11:11-12).

c.   Man and woman are equal but different:

·         Man is the head of the family (Eph 5:22-25). The Greek word for “head” (kaphale) does not mean “ruler” or “director”. It means “the person who leads” in the sense of “going first” such as the spearhead going into battle. It can mean “origin” or “source” in another context (1Co 11:3), indicating that woman was created out of man.

·         Woman is to subordinate. The Greek word for “subordinate” (upotassetai) means voluntary subordination or “be disposed to subordinate”.

·         However, this applies only in the family, not male-female relationship in general.

d.   The Jewish tradition discriminates against women. (Jewish prayer book: “Thank God that I am not a woman.”) But Jesus did not discriminate against women.

·         He spoke to women in public (Jn 4:27) while Jewish custom regarded speaking to a woman in public, even to the wife, as improper.

·         He spent time teaching women and welcomed them as disciples (Lk 10:38-42) while New Testament society neglected education of women.

·         He acted in a way that made a woman the first witness to His resurrection (Jn 20:10-18).

e.   The C&MA recognizes that in the church, men and women share a common spiritual standing and unity in Jesus Christ (Gal 3:28; 1Co 12:12-13). It is a unity enhanced by interdependent, complementary roles, and varied spiritual gifts (1Co 11:11-12; Ro 12:3-8).

72.  Should Christians support the feminist movement?

a.   Feminism refers the organized activities that advocate women’s rights and interests. There are two very different types of feminism. On the one hand are the traditional feminists who wants equality with men. On the other are the radical feminists who reject men.

b.   Traditional (or early) feminism:

·         It began in the 19th century, and was founded on Judeo-Christian principles. It was an attempt to deal with the historical inequality between men and women in many areas of life.

·         The only objective was to strive for equality, not any special treatment. They offered clearly stated, practicable solutions. They asked for the right to vote (women’s suffrage); for the control of their own property; for equal employment and educational opportunities and, for the right to obtain divorce on the grounds of brutality and drunkenness.

·         In 1920, women’s suffrage was achieved in the U.S. with the passing of the 19th amendment. In Canada, women obtained to right to vote in federal and provincial elections in 1916-25.

Document of the traditional feminists

Declaration of Sentiments (1848): “All men and women are created equal.” Their argument for fair laws and equal treatment is based on this premise of equality.

The unfair and often brutal treatment of women is listed:

He has never permitted her to exercise her inalienable right to the elected franchise. … He has compelled her to submit to the laws in the formation of which she has no voice. … He has made her, if married, in the eye of the law, civilly dead. He has taken from her the right to own property, even to the wages she earns. … He has so framed the laws of divorce … to be wholly regardless of the happiness of women. … He has monopolized all the profitable employments. … He has denied her the facilities for obtaining a thorough education.

c.   Radical (or modern) feminism:

·         In the late 1960s and 70s, feminism abandoned its moral heritage and became a movement based on the attitude of anger, resentment and self-pity. This is represented by the National Organization for Women (NOW) in the US (founded in 1966) and the National Council of Women of Canada (though not as radical as the US counterpart). It is sometimes described as “women’s liberation movement.”

·         These radical feminists denigrate the role of women. They hold to a basic “pseudo-Marxist” tenet that women are the victimized proletariat in the male-established social order. (Motto: “Motherhood is slavery.”) They proclaim women’s sexual freedom. The book Female Eunuch (by Germaine Greer) advised women to “consciously refrain from establishing exclusive dependencies and other kinds of neurotic symbioses,” showing a hatred of men and marriage.

·         Equality is no longer the only objective of the feminist movement. Instead, radical feminists seek to overturn and restructure society. They have revolutionary, not reformist, goals.

·         Women’s studies program becomes a research field which portrays women as “victims,” with exaggerations of women’s sufferings.

d.   Recent development:

·         A 1999 poll shows that many women are growing increasingly uncomfortable with the lesbianism, bitterness, radicalism and very liberal politics that accompany the current radical feminist movement. In 1992, 31% of women considered themselves feminists, but in 1999, only 20% of women called themselves feminists. In fact, three quarters of women polled described the word “feminist” as an insult.

·         An increasing number of women have returned to support traditional values, based on the Bible and reflected in the Judeo-Christian values of many early feminists. They recognize and accept sexual (physical traits) and gender (social roles) differences. They only seek to end discrimination of women. Representative organizations include REAL Women of Canada and Concerned Women for America in the US. They often express explicit subordination to Biblical principles. They can be called the New Traditional Feminists.

e.   Comparison of the two types: [according to Concerned Women for America]

(1)  Traditional feminists looked at the world through reason; radical feminists see everything through a gender prism (being victims).

(2)  Traditional feminists did not view men as the enemy; radical feminists believe that men are their constant oppressors.

o        Traditional feminists (like Mary Wollstonecraft, author of Vindication of the rights of woman, 1792) saw men as potential allies in the fight to end hatred and oppression. Radical feminists have become convinced that men take every possible opportunity to exploit women by injuring them physically and mentally. Radical feminists no longer strive to gain acceptance into the world of men. Instead, they work to create a new woman-centred world, even if it comes at the cost of traditional values.

(3)  Traditional feminists saw marriage and motherhood as privileges; radical feminists see the family as a prison.

o        Traditional feminists firmly believed that women’s suffrage would benefit the family, whose interests, they believed, would be better protected by wives and mothers. Radical feminists could not have more opposite views. They believe men use marriage and families to suppress women. According to radical feminists, one can achieve “liberation” only through a renunciation of the role of wife and mother.

(4)  Traditional feminists saw abortion as exploitation of women; radical feminists see it as a solution to the problem of exploitation.

o        Traditional feminists realized that abortion has a negative meaning: that the special contributions that women make to society through pregnancy and motherhood are regarded as a burden. The traditional feminists could see nothing as degrading to women as abortion. Radical feminists strongly advocate abortion. Because of the low value they place on marriage and children, they see abortion as an escape from the “oppressive” roles of housewife and mother and, thus, an escape from exploitation at the hand of men.

(5)  Traditional feminists fought for access to the academic world; radical feminists work to destroy that world.

o        Traditional feminists fought for equal education. Radical feminists believe that women must move away from the male-dominated academic world and turn to Women’s Studies which are described as “richer,” more “spiritual” subjects exclusive to women. Professors teach an ideology based on the “oppressor/oppressed-class paradigm” rather than truth.

(6)  Traditional feminists wanted to maintain the traditional family; radical feminists work to destroy it.

o        Traditional feminists sought equality while accepting their traditional roles. Radical feminists strive for power and “liberation” and attempt to destroy the woman’s traditional role. This has been a key factor in the family’s decline. Radical feminists teach that when a woman settles for the role of wife and mother, she subjects herself to an inferior position.

f.    Conclusion:

·         Radical feminism is against Biblical principles. They advocate power struggle with male, call for the abolition of marriage and family, uphold self fulfilment above family responsibility, and seek to destroy the traditional family. They should be opposed by Christians.

·         On the other hand, traditional feminism does not conflict with the Bible and is worthy of support.

·         In all cases, each demand by feminists should be examined carefully through a lens of Biblical principles.

73.  Can women preach or assume leadership in church?

a.   For many centuries, women had been excluded from preaching and leading in the church. The Bible appears to prohibit women from preaching and assuming leadership (not to “have authority over a man”) (1Co 14:34-35; 1Ti 2:11-12). However, such restrictions are based on arguable interpretation of the Bible. That is why some Protestant churches today have women pastors and women elders. It should be noted that while some of these are evangelical churches, many of these are mainline churches with a liberal view of the Bible.

b.   To say that Paul’s commands may not be applicable to today will require satisfying the three questions on “cultural relativity” [see lesson 2 on principles]. These are:

(1)   Is the command inherently moral?

(2)  Is there a uniform position/prohibition in the Bible?

(3)  Do we share similar specific life situations?

c.   First, it should be noted also that restrictions of ministry of women in the church are not based on inherently moral rules, that is, it is not a question of morality. It is a question of propriety (see 1Ti 2:15).

d.   Second, the restriction is not universally applicable to all times because there is no uniform witness in the Bible.

(1)  Restriction on women to teach is not universal. While 1Co 14:34-35 apparently prohibits women from public speaking in the church, Paul in the same letter teaches that women can pray and prophesy in public (1Co 11:2-16). Some argue that 1Ti 2:11 only prohibits women from “authoritative preaching” in public. But in the New Testament, prophesy refers to preaching and teaching, with the intent to edify, to comfort, and to encourage (1Co 14:3-4,24,31).

(2)  Restriction on women as church leaders is not universal. There are numerous prominent woman leaders in the early church:

o        Ro 16:1-15 lists 8 women highly regarded by Paul including Phoebe the deaconess [Greek word is actually “minister” (diakonon, translated as “servant” in NIV) meaning one who presides, also 1Ti 3:11]; “Junias” was most likely “Junia”, a female apostle (Ro 16:7).

o        Priscilla was Paul’s fellow worker (Ro 16:3) and was sometimes mentioned (contrary to Jewish custom) before her husband Aquila (Ac 18:26) indicating her greater role in church.

o        1Ti 5:2; Titus 2:3 describe women elders (Greek word presbyteras, same word as Titus 1:5) as those in the order of widows with qualifications specified in 1Ti 5:5-10.

o        In Ac 21:9-10, four daughters of Philip prophesied.

o        The early Church Fathers recognized the office of deaconess and some women served communion. It was only prohibited after AD350.

e.   Third, Paul’s commands are probably to be understood in its specific life situation and cultural setting in the 1st century, possibly only for Corinth and Ephesus.

(1)  In 1Co 14:34-35, the Greek word for “speak” (lalein) refers to conversation. The women were asked to “hush up”, not to “shut up”. The intention is an orderly worship.

(2)  In 1Ti 2:11-12, the Greek word “have authority” (authentein) means “domineering or usurping authority”. Paul was likely responding to specific situations in Ephesus where some women were influenced by heretical teachers (2Ti 3:6-7). Some also argue that the prohibition is culturally relative because of women’s general lack of education at that time.

(3)  Women in the 1st century were poorly educated and public teaching by a woman is regarded as improper. [This is probably why the Twelve Disciples of Jesus were all men.]

f.    What are the reasons given by Paul in placing restrictions on women?

(1)  accepted social practices (1Co 11:13-15)

(2)  the order in creation (1Co 11:3-12; 1Ti 2:13): Adam was created first

(3)  Eve was tempted (1Ti 2:14): possibly referred to the susceptibility of women; but some people point out that Adam was present at the temptation scene (Gen 3:6 “who was with her”).

g.   Additional arguments against restrictions on women:

(1)  Should female missionaries be prohibited from preaching and leading in their mission field? Of course not. Some argue that this is an exception. However, absolute truth allows no exceptions; therefore, the prohibitions are not absolute truth.

(2)  God gives spiritual gifts of teaching and leadership to some women (Ac 2:16-17). Spiritual gifts are given solely for the benefit of the church (1Co 12:7; Eph 4:11-12). How then can the church prohibit the use of those spiritual gifts?

h.   Conclusion: Most evidences show that women should not be restricted from any kind of work in the church. The only difficulty is Paul’s use of the order in creation to convince women to submit. In view of the presence of arguable points, any definitive positions should be cautioned. Instead, positions could be held tentatively. In the C&MA, women can perform ministry functions including preaching and leading, but they cannot assume eldership. Notwithstanding the interpretation above, conflicts with regard to women’s ministry in church should be avoided.

C&MA Manual on Women in Ministry

4. Eldership. It is recognized that the historical and biblical pattern has been that elders in the church have been men. The weight of evidence would imply that this pattern should continue.

5. Ministries of Women. Alliance women are aspiring to a deep walk with God and are exploring the full dimension of ministry possibilities within the church structure worldwide and in their private lives. Therefore, it must be recognized that the responsibility of the elders in each church is to give careful attention to the encouragement, equipping and utilization of women in the accomplishment of ministry.

6. Affirming Actions. The licensing of women accredited for ministry in Canada shall be according to ministry function. The local church leadership is responsible to prayerfully affirm ministry functions for women in the local church.