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Have Christians Had Gender Roles Wrong All This Time?

The first dust-up I ever experienced over gender roles within the church as a woman left me feeling insignificant and second class. Apparently, it was ‘okay’ for me to teach Sunday School but not lead a Bible study class filled with women and men. Situations like this have happened on more than one occasion and in light of Beth Moore’s recent tweets, she’s making the world question, “Have Christians had gender roles wrong all this time?”

Last week, Beth asked Christians for forgiveness via Twitter because she had been too ‘complicit’ in making “complementarianism a litmus test for faith.” On the heels of Beth’s split with the Southern Baptist Convention, she apologized for supporting theology that restricts women. As one of the most well-known preachers in the world, she has rankled the feathers of many who believe women are not allowed to preach, which is why Beth has made the declaration for years that she is a teacher, not a preacher.

She followed that tweet with the one that has the world questioning gender roles and gnashing their teeth:

The Gender Role Debate

Beth’s tweet took aim at gender roles that are the foundation of several doctrines within the realm of Christianity. For those who question complementarianism, it’s seen as undermining the entire Bible and God’s “natural” order that’s reinforced via 1 Timothy: “Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet,” (1 Timothy 2:11-12).

But why would Paul include this passage as well as several other passages, when clearly women had a role in supporting the church? In the Old Testament:

Esther saved a nation.

Deborah was a military heroine and the only female, judge of Israel in the Old Testament.

 Jael took down Sisera, the Canaanite general of King Jabin.

Anna the Prophetess was a Jewish prophetess who prophesied about Jesus at the Temple of Jerusalem.

Athaliah was the Queen of Judah during the reign of King Jehoram, and later became sole ruler of Judah for five years.

Priscilla was a powerful church leader in the book of Acts.

Phoebe was a deacon of the church in Cenchreae.

Mary Magdalene was the first evangelist sent back to the disciples to tell them Christ had risen.

 As with every Scripture in the Bible, all of it is useful for teaching and “God-breathed.” As believers, we are to take every word within context, context, and yes—context. 1 Timothy was written during a crisis of false teaching. In 1 Timothy 1:3, it says that Paul left Timothy in Ephesus to “command certain people” not to teach falsely or continue teaching “myths and endless genealogies.”

At the time the people believed Artemis (see Acts 19) was the goddess who kept women safe during childbirth (2:15). Women believed that if Artemis wasn’t appeased, both the mother and child would die. Artemis was worshiped everywhere, and her cult was so deep in the Ephesian worldview that women were terrified to birth without offering sacrifices. Like many would believe in superstitions today about lucky charms, rituals, or the curse of a broken mirror, these women eased their fears by offering sacrifices to Artemis on the side while also worshipping Jesus.

This context is crucial to interpreting 1 Timothy as modern believers. Knowing that the Ephesian Christians were receiving false teaching helps to explain why Paul was concerned about how women were leading and teaching in the church. In verse 2:12, Paul was addressing these false teachings when he instructed, “I do not permit women to teach or dominate a man.”

The word authentein is usually translated as “to exercise authority.” However, in later Greek writing, authentein is a harsh word that articulates dominance: taking advantage of someone or a business deal, violence, and sometimes murder. But when Paul speaks of authority in the church he uses the term, exousia meaning, “the ability or strength with which one is endued,” which he either possesses or exercises the power of authority (influence). The reason for the letter to the church at Ephesus may have been because some women might have been dominating men through false teachings and beliefs about Artemis in the church.

However, the situation in Ephesus is no reason for faithful women of today not to teach elsewhere. In fact, Paul tells Titus that the elder women of the church in Crete should be “teachers of good.” But where does this leave us today in the wake of gender roles and the debate between complementarianism versus egalitarianism?

Complementarianism versus Egalitarianism

For those who question or disagree with complementarianism, it’s seen as undermining the whole Bible. Is complementarianism better than egalitarianism? What is the difference?

Complementarian theology considers men and women as being of equal worth in the sight of God but having different roles in marriage and church leadership. It is contrary to egalitarianism which believes men and women can serve the church in the same manner. “Complementarianism” is a label defined by the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. Among the distinctions in roles is the claim that God intends only men to be leaders in the church and home, with specific bans on women serving as pastors. Some complementarians go so far as to prohibit women from teaching any male, whether he’s a grown man or a young boy. Outside the church, women are to be in submission to men.

Biblical Support for Complementarianism (for further reading, visit Bible Study Tools):

Genesis 2:18

Ephesians 5:21-33

Titus 2:3-5

1 Corinthians 14:34

1 Timothy 2:9-15

Egalitarianism is defined as “a belief in human equality especially with respect to social, political, and economic affairs” or “a social philosophy advocating the removal of inequalities among people” by Merriam-Webster. In the church body, it’s believed women and men have no gender role restrictions whatsoever. Women can pastor a church right alongside men.

Outside of church, roles are “ability-based” rather than gender-based. They also believe both are equally responsible in the care of their family and both spouses are to submit to each other (Ephesians 5:22-25). One of the most pivotal scriptures in support of this view is Galatians 3:28. Paul writes, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Biblical Support for Egalitarianism (for further reading, visit Bible Study Tools):

Ephesians 5:22-25

Romans 16:1-7

Colossians 4:15

2 John 1:1,13

Acts 16:13-15

Galatians 3:26-29

Which of These Should Christians Practice?

Both gender roles have morphed since the days of Eve. Women have gone from being the property of men to winning the rights to vote, obtain an education, and work outside the home. Today, more and more women hold positions in the workforce, and more men are changing diapers, taking active roles in parenting, and assisting women in their businesses.

It does make one wonder what Paul would preach to today’s generation. Perhaps there isn’t a name for what it would be called—a blend of both complementarianism and egalitarianism. Families are strong when women are educated and follow their callings, as well as when both parents take active roles in child-rearing, as well as following the principle of the male headship (1 Timothy 3:15, Galatians 6:10, Hebrews 3:6).

There is a distinct ebb and flow woven into Scripture from beginning to end between complementarianism and egalitarianism. Perhaps we are putting man-made definitions onto something that God alone created and defined. After all, His ways are not our ways, and His thoughts are not our thoughts.

Perhaps, we as Christians aren’t called to support one definition over the other. Our calling is to put the work in and seek God. It will require the work of the Holy Spirit, meaningful conversations, submitting to one another, and believing in faith that God will show us the way.

Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/fizkes


Heather Riggleman is an award-winning journalist and a regular contributor for Crosswalk. She calls Nebraska home with her three kids and a husband of 22 years. She believes Jazzercise, Jesus, and tacos can fix anything and not necessarily in that order! She is author of I Call Him By Name Bible Study, the Bold Truths Prayer Journal,  Mama Needs a Time Out, and a contributor to several books. You can find her at www.heatherriggleman.com or on Facebook.  

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