I always tread carefully before stepping into the muddy waters of writing about the Bible and gender roles. It’s an arena that usually ends up in greater separation not unity and proves to be an exercise in how not to engage charitably with those who don’t see things your way.
The first point is to pay attention to the title of this post; it’s a positive one. While that won’t stop any debate from ending up wrestling with the question, ‘is there anything the Bible says a woman can’t do?’ We all know there’s some gentle disagreement about that one. That question is not the one we’re looking at here.
Instead, I’ve been wondering whether churches that would call themselves egalitarian or complementarian actually embrace what the Bible clearly does say about women can do? Perhaps in the midst of all the arguing over what they can’t do in some churches what they could do everywhere has been lost and just perhaps some clarity and agreement over those things might be a small place to start.
Let me make a few basic disclaimers: not every example of the ‘Bible says’ means it’s a positive example for today’s Christians – so no driving tent pegs through the heads of your enemies ladies, OK? Secondly, I’m limiting the scope of this post to considerations about role, tasks and jobs that are performed or approved of in Scriptures. So, I’m not particularly going to discuss for example Genesis 1:27 which gives a creational identity but being human isn’t a role in the same way as say a businesswoman or teacher is. I know it’s important, it’s just not what I’m writing about here.
So, here’s a list to get us started. The list is not in any ranking order of importance but is in the order in which I found them having begun at Genesis and mostly worked forward from there – it’s also NOT EXHAUSTIVE. Just because the Bible doesn’t give an example of a woman being a data programmer, architect or engineer it doesn’t mean they can’t be one. That’s not the point, the point is examining the many positive examples rather than trying to focus on the disputed things.
- A helper – this is one that has been overplayed by both sides but Gen 2:18 & 20 calls women helpers. I’d say that this likely meant helping man in the increasing, subduing, ruling that God charged mankind with in Gen 1:26-28.
- A wife - I don’t think we should ignore the obvious but just as men can be husbands, women can be wives and this is a God-given role (Gen 2:25)
- A mother – another key one this. A unique role that only women can fulfil and men can only look on in wonder at. The experience of childbirth and motherhood is unique to women, a role only they can fulfil.
- Genesis records women working as maids, nurses, midwives and in caring for animals (Gen 29:9 for example)
- Miriam is (I think) the Bible’s first prophetess (Ex 15:20) and she led the Israelite women in worship, dancing and song. Other significant prophetesses include Deborah, Huldah (2 Kings 22:14), Anna (Luke 2:36) and Philip’s daughters (Acts 21:9). 1 Corinthians 11:5 gives clear permission to women to pray & prophesy.
- Givers: when it comes to contributing to the tabernacle, Ex 35:22 says, ‘men & women alike’ and that’s repeated in v29. In the New Testament examples like Mary, Joanna & Susanna (Luke 8:3) spring to mind. In another context so does the widow of Mark 12:41-44.
- Ex 35:25 picks out women as skilled weavers, spinning yarn and linen and goat hair.
- This one will probably be contentious so I’ll try and stick to the facts when it comes to Deborah (Judges 4 & 5). She was a prophetess (Jdg 4:4), and essentially today would be the chief high-court judge or whatever else it is you call the highest judge in the land (Jdg 4:5) and she had the authority to summon the tribes of Israel to arms. You can draw differing conclusions from Deborah but it would be hard to disagree with those two points as a starting point.
- Ruth was a hard worker and she went to the fields gleaning (Ruth 2:3)
- Proverbs 31:10-31 is full of positives. This lady provides food (v15), engages in multiple businesses (she ran a vineyard & was a cloth merchant) and makes money (v16, 18, 24), she is generous to the poor (v20) and she organises her house (v27), she teaches those in her house well (v26). Her many virtues include strength, dignity, wisdom, generosity, diligence and faithfulness. In the New Testament Lydia (Acts 16:14) is a merchant of purple linen and seems somewhat reminiscent of the woman in Proverbs 31 as perhaps Martha is. Tabitha (or Dorcas) in Acts 9:36 is singled out for ‘helping the poor and doing good’.
- They are to be involved in training & discipling (Titus 2:4) in this case older women training younger women. It’s not limited to that, as we see women like Priscilla involved in the discipling and training of Apollos (Acts 18:26) and with her husband Aquila hosting a church in their house (1 Cor 16:19; Rom 16:3). Nympha and Lydia also hosted churches in their houses.
- Women can be deacons (there is as usual a reasonable debate about what a deacon is and does) such as Phoebe (Rom 16:1)
- Junia (Rom 16:7) presents an interesting case depending on what you think ‘apostle’ means in this case, my own view is that here it likely means both a ‘witness to the resurrection’ (maybe one of the 500 – 1 Cor 15:6 but I’m speculating) and ‘messenger’. So I think Andronicus and Junia were a church planting husband and wife team.
- Women, and I say this without trying to sound patronising because it is to my mind startlingly obvious, can advance the Gospel. You only have to read the names listed at the end of Paul’s letter to see both how many women served with Paul and highly he regarded them. Many are ‘hard workers’ and Euodia and Syntyche (Philippians 4:2-3) ‘contended at [Paul’s] side in the cause of the gospel.’
- Women should be learners, students of the gospel – Martha’ sister Mary is an obvious example (Luke 10:39) and while all the attention is focused on 1 Tim 2:12, 1 Tim 2:11 says plainly, ‘a woman should learn…’. I know, I know there’s lot’s still to argue about, but can we agree on that?
There’s probably more, what have I missed? I’ll post some reflections and conclusions from this short study in the next post.
* Adrian Warnock also recently posted his thoughts with plenty of crossover here.