What About Gender Roles?
This week we’re talking about the question, “What about Gender Roles?”
We are in a series at the moment called What About…? As God’s allies we often have questions about our faith. And we get asked questions by other people that we struggle to answer.
Last week we talked about the question, “What About Homosexuality?” I hope that was helpful and got you reading, praying, thinking and talking more about how we understand same sex attraction and how we respond to others. There were a record number of questions that I responded to in the midweek podcast.
Next week we’ll finish the series by talking about the question, “What About Church?” What is the church, why did Jesus begin the church and what did he have in mind? Are fulfilling what Jesus first intended, or not? How should we see and interact with this idea of ‘church’?
This week we’re talking about the question, “What about Gender Roles?”
This is a topic that is shaped very much by our own gender, our family experience growing up, our experiences with people, churches, groups and the general culture that we’ve grown up with. There is some variation of views on what the Bible says about gender roles, and you may have heard it spoken about before. I’m going to explore a number of passages throughout the Bible and explain our approach to gender roles as a church. From what I understand there hasn’t been any change in this for many, many years as a church. But it hasn’t been talked about much. It may raise more questions for you like: What about this passage or story from the Bible? What about this scenario? I grew up thinking this, but what about…?
What about Gender Roles?
I’m not sure what your background is in understanding gender roles.
- I don’t know what your family home was like growing up. If you lived with mum and dad. How they treated each other. What they did, how they operated, how they made decisions.
- I don’t know what your own family now is like. If you’re married, how you treat each other. Who does what, who decides what, how decisions are made.
- I don’t know what your workplace has been like. What gender your boss is. Whether you believe one gender is more suited than the other to your job. What the working relationships between men and women is like.
- I don’t know what your church background is. If you have been part of other church communities before ours. What roles women had in church. What they were allowed to do. What normally happened – the things women did and the things men did. What you’ve been taught before.
There is a wide range of experience, belief and practice about gender roles. Some range is in the room today, and there’s an even greater range across the global church and throughout history. Let me show you from two Bible verses why gender roles can be a difficult thing to understand.
1 Corinthians 14:34
Women should be silent during the church meetings. It is not proper for them to speak. They should be submissive, just as the law says.
There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus.
Are there gender roles or not according to the Bible? How do we understand these verses? And what do they mean in our lives, our families and our church?
My wife Laura & I spoke on a youth camp ten years ago back when we were interns, and before we were a couple. We were both invited as a team to speak on the camp, we engaged with the kids and leaders all week, we ran a few games in the downtimes, and we both prepared and delivered a session over the weekend. At the end of the camp the pastor handed us each an envelope to thank us for our time and contribution. As we drove away we opened the envelopes, which both had money in them. We’d done the exact same amount of work, but our envelopes had different amounts of money in them. Mine had more than Laura’sk
Another time at another church the pastor had asked Laura to pray for the offering before it was collected. When she did that, one of the church elders stood up and left the room. He objected to a woman praying publicly during a church service.
You’ll know even if you’ve been around for just a couple of weeks here at The Lakes Church that we have men and women involved in most aspects of church life. As part of our church family, men and women prepare morning tea and preach, clean the building and serve communion, have the role of pastoral leader (elder), ministry team leader and our Families Pastor position is open to a man or woman.
Why do we have a different view on and practice of gender roles than the other churches I mentioned earlier? Do we just pick and choose the verses from the Bible that sound right to us? Do we ignore the ones that don’t suit us? Are we feminists and those other churches are chauvinists?
Let’s start from the beginning so that we can answer the question, ‘What About Gender Roles?’
Genesis 1 & 2
In Genesis 1 & 2 we read about how God created the world and human beings. He created them perfectly, and they lived in perfection, without any angst about their gender, without any desire to be in charge or to be lead by each other. Without any different roles for men or women. They were both tasked by God to rule over the rest of creation. In God’s perfect creation there were no gender roles.
It says that God created Eve because it wasn’t good for Adam to be alone. Adam had God himself, he had all the animals, but God realised that Adam needed someone else. So Eve was created as a ‘helper’ or a ‘help-meet’ for him. This is not a derogatory term in ancient Hebrew, and in the context it’s not that he was in charge and she helped him. But in this context Adam was lonely, that wasn’t good, so God created Eve to fulfil his life and to perfect creation. The word for ‘helper’ (Hb. ezer) is most often used in the Old Testament to describe God helping his people. That’s not to say that women are more important than men, but to say that the designation in Genesis 1 & 2 of Eve as ‘helper’ is not a derogatory or lesser role. In God’s creation Adam & Eve were equal and they fulfilled what was missing in each others’ lives.
Genesis 3 curse
Then Adam & Eve ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and all of a sudden the concept of bad, evil, sin entered the world and entered their hearts. As part of the fall God pronounced a curse on his creation. This curse was as a result of the fall, these things were a natural consequence of choosing to reject God and a natural consequence of evil entering the world and the lives of humanity. In the curse we read these words to Eve in Genesis 3:16: “And you will desire to control your husband, but he will rule over you.”
This is a little like the first time you ever had a fight with your husband or wife, boyfriend or girlfriend. Before that fight you might have been blissfully unaware that there were major differences between you. Everything was perfect, you were head over heels in love. And then you had your first fight and it felt like the entire world was falling apart. In a similar but much more significant and catastrophic way, for Adam and Eve there is now division between them as husband and wife, male and female. The perfection of equality and fulfilment is now challenged by her having a desire to control him, and him having a desire to rule over her.
This continues to play out in a thousand different ways every single day. It plays out when a husband and wife have trouble making decisions together. It plays out when a man is uncomfortable having a female boss. It plays out when domestic violence impacts both men and women. In April 2014 Cairns police received 628 calls about domestic violence, and around two thirds of domestic violence cases are men hurting women.
How does Genesis 3:16 play out in your life? How have you experienced women wanting to control men? How have you experienced men ruling over women?
Male dominated world
Stereotypes don’t help when we’re talking about gender or gender roles.
There is a small minority, around 1 in 300-500 people who have some disconnection between their biological sex and their gender.
And for the other 299 in 300 or 499 in 500 who are more certain about their gender, there is a wide range of expressions of that gender. Stereotypes might come from some generalities but they don’t apply to every single person.
- It may be true that football is liked more by men than women. But we all know O, men who can’t stand footy and women who love it.
- It may be true that women often talk more than men. But we all know women who don’t talk much at all and men who won’t shut up,
- It may be true that women are often more nurturing and in touch with their emotions than men. But we all know women who aren’t very nurturing and don’t have much empathy, and men who have far more empathy and are much more nurturing.
- It may be true that more men tend towards leading others more than women do. But we all know men who are disastrous in leading others, or can’t stand the thought of it, and we all know women who are outstanding leaders.
How we express our gender is not bound to male/female stereotypes. We are influenced by the culture around us, our family of origin and our experiences.
But when you combine the curse in Genesis 3 with cultural stereotypes and influences you find that our Western culture is predisposed to a hierarchy of gender.
What does God say about this? What happens after the curse throughout the rest of the Bible?
It is true to say that the overall culture of the Old Testament is that men rule over women. This is an expression of the brokenness of gender, but God also doesn’t seem to challenge it in the way that we might expect. What we find in the Old Testament to challenge the angst between men and women are a couple of redemptive laws, and a couple of small examples.
For example, God commanded the Israelites to look after widows. That might seem like a small thing, but widowed women had nothing. These women were helpless, and God commanded his people to care for them.
We also find an obscure story in Numbers 27 of four daughters of a man named Zelophehad. Under God’s original law they had no legal right to inherit their father’s property and money. They asked Moses, who sought God, and God changed the law to raise the profile of women.
Another example we find is Deborah in Judges 4 & 5. Deborah is a female judge, speaking on behalf of God and giving wise counsel to Israel. She summons the king and tells him what God says about going into battle. The king listens and says that he will only do it if Deborah goes with him. Deborah was a wise leader and motherly protector of Israel. In this story, it’s not only a woman who hears from God, instructs the king and leads the army. It’s another woman, Jael, who kills the enemy king.
There were few people left in the villages of Israel — until Deborah arose as a mother for Israel.
There are many passages we could use to show that historically men were seen as more important than women. This represent the brokenness of gender since Genesis 3, and the patriarchal culture that developed. But we find examples like laws about female widows, the Daughters of Zelophehad, Deborah, Miriam, Moses’ sister in Exodus and a number of prophetesses that God used to lead and influence people. In the patriarchal (men over women) culture of the ancient world, God chooses to elevates women from their low position a number of times in the Old Testament.
Even with brokenness and stereotypes of gender roles throughout history, we can find examples of women who were great leaders and preachers. In your own life you might think of your grandmother, mum, aunt, friend, boss, colleague, ministry team leader, pastor, elder. There is still a culture of gender hierarchy around us, but it’s easy to find godly examples that don’t fit the mould.
Let’s turn to the life of Jesus to see what we find there.
If God was really working to redeem the role and status of women, you might think that Jesus could have been born as a woman. Or at least he could have chosen a few women in the 12 disciples. We don’t find that, which is confronting for some people.
What we do find is that Jesus never spoke negatively about a woman and never used a woman as a negative example. Never. There was a very interesting situation when to make a point about Jews and Gentiles Jesus said things that we find shocking to a Gentile woman. But compared to the amount of times he used a man negatively in his teaching, and the amount of men he spoke harshly to, Jesus treated women admirably. Jesus didn’t teach or speak specifically about the role of women. But he treated every woman as a person in her own right. He always spoke positively about women and used women as positive examples.
The ancient Jewish culture had women in en extremely low place in society. Men, especially godly men like Jesus, were taught to cross to the other side of the road when passing a woman. Jewish men prayed every morning, ‘Thank you God that I am not a gentile, thank you that I am not a woman, thank you that I am not a slave.’ Women were viewed by many Jewish teachers as the source of all evil. They were considered deceitful, lazy, fickle, ignorant, prone to immorality and witchcraft. They had to stay silent when around men, and shouldn’t be seen associating with a godly man. A menstruating woman especially, who was considered ceremonially unclean, had to stay as far as possible from a man of God.
To the woman who was constantly bleeding, an outcast of society, no money Kk, no hope left… When she reached out and touched Jesus’ cloak he didn’t get angry at her, he didn’t respond in horror and disgust. He spoke to her and healed her. “Daughter (a term of endearment, not for Jewish teachers to use of any woman), your faith has made you well. Go in peace and be healed.”
To the woman caught in adultery, Jesus doesn’t condemn her, even though it was his legal and moral right. He sets her free to leave her life of sin. There is no comment about where the man was in that situation, but Jesus treats the woman as a full citizen even when the law didn’t give her those rights.
Mary, Martha’s sister, wasn’t being lazy when she left Martha to do the work. Mary was sitting at Jesus’ feet, assuming the position of a disciple. She was learning from Jesus, a right and a position that all the other teachers only gave to men. Jesus affirms Mary’s choice to learn from him.
Jesus lived in a world where Genesis 3 and patriarchal culture had led to women being second, third, fourth class citizens. But he didn’t play that game. He saw every woman as a precious person, created in God’s image. He didn’t flip the culture and family structures on their head, but instead modelled and demonstrated seeing each other as both equal in God’s sight.
If you have ever been put down or mistreated because of your gender, know that that is not the way Jesus would treat you. That’s not the way he sees you. That’s not the way he would speak to you, or about you. That goes for men and women. Jesus didn’t live out of the curse or out of his male dominated culture, he lived out of God’s heart for men and women.
The curse and gender hierarchy oppresses women. But what we’ve found repeatedly through the Bible so far is that God elevated women to being equal in valueless and contribution to men.
We find this throughout the rest of the New Testament too, even in the life of Paul who wrote the two apparently contrasting verses we read at the start.
The Gospel writers record that women were the first to the tomb after Jesus had risen from the dead. Women were not credible witnesses in the ancient world, they weren’t listened to or believed. But the Gospels are consistent in recording that women were the first eyewitnesses to the greatest miracle in human history – the risen Son of God! In God’s Kingdom women are worthy and capable of sharing the most important information.
When Paul first met Aquila and Priscilla, a gifted and capable couple who partnered with him in ministry, he refers to them in that way – Aquila and his wife Priscilla. Then when Paul gets to know them and serves with them, he more often refers to them the other way around – l l Priscilla and Aquila. This is a highly unusual way to refer to a husband and wife in the ancient world. I believe Paul was recognising Pricilla’s gifting of teaching and leadership by referring to them in this way. There’s no reference that it was a put down on Aquila, in the same way that you might not think twice about whose name comes first in a couple. But it is a subtle way of reinforcing the status of women in God’s Kingdom.
In Paul’s list of greetings in Romans 16 he lists ten women who he considered partners in ministry. Phoebe, a deacon.,Priscilla (and Aquila), Mary, Junia – highly respected amongst the apostles, Tryphena, Tryphosa, Persis the Lord’s hard workers, and others too.
Paul wrote in the passage in Galatians we read at the beginning: Galatians 3:28
There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus.
In Christ Jesus, God has broken the barriers that once were between us. Between Jews and Gentiles (even between Aussies and Kiwis), between slave and free (even between bosses and employees, or between social classes) and between male and female. We are all one in Christ Jesus.
Paul didn’t do a lot to change family structures or cultural hierarchy, but in his life and writing he changed the fundamental understanding that men are better, more valuable and more capable than women. He elevated women and broke down the barriers between the genders.
It’s only in some small sections of the later New Testament teaching that we find a couple of things that make us wonder if there are particular gender roles for men and women. Let me read two of the more difficult passages:
1 Corinthians 14:34-35
Women should be silent during the church meetings. It is not proper for them to speak. They should be submissive, just as the law says. If they have any questions, they should ask their husbands at home, for it is improper for women to speak in church meetings.
1 Timothy 2:11-12
Women should learn quietly and submissively. I do not let women teach men or have authority over them. Let them listen quietly.
As a church we take the Bible very seriously. As Paul describes in 2 Timothy 3:16 the Bible is the Word of God, breathed and inspired by God and useful for teaching, correcting, training and equipping us to follow Jesus and live for him. We can’t just write some verses off because we disagree with them. But we do need to understand them in their own context and in the context of the whole New Testament and the whole Bible.
Throughout the New Testament we find God affirming the status and equality of l l men and women as his equal creation and as gifted and capable in all ministry roles. So when we come to difficult passage like 1 Timothy 2 and 1 Corinthians 11 we need to discern and study to see if they are saying something that disagrees with what we’ve already discovered throughout the Bible.
In 1 Corinthians, a few chapters before this pronouncement about women being silent in church Paul writes in 11:5 about women praying and prophesying in church. So straight away in the same letter we can see that he isn’t flat out saying that women should be silent. We don’t know for sure what was happening, but we know enough from everything we’ve already talked about today that there must have been some specific happenings for Paul to write that. It may have been that because before the church was born and the Holy Spirit was given, women hadn’t been allowed to learn the Scriptures in Jewish or Greek culture. So when they were allowed to all of a sudden, and the patriarchal culture was challenged, that the amount of questions the women had were creating chaos in their church gatherings. We know that the Corinthian church had a lot of other problems that Paul wrote to correct and give advice into. Because of the rest of the tone of Scripture we don’t see these couple of verses in 1 Corinthians 14 as saying that women aren’t equally created or gifted or called to serve. To believe that would be inconsistent with everything else God inspired to be written throughout the Bible.
In 1 Timothy 2 it’s possible that Paul was speaking about a particular woman. Throughout chapter 2 Paul talks about women, women, women (in most translations of the Bible). Until verse 11 when he says ‘a woman’. I do not permit ‘a woman’ to teach. Then at the end of the chapter he goes back to talking about women. It’s possible there was a particular woman who was a false teacher, but to maintain her dignity he didn’t name her. Everyone in the church receiving the letter would know who he meant. Or it’s possible in Paul’s letter to Timothy that he wrote some specific things because of the city and culture they were in. Ephesus, the city Timothy was pastoring in, was home to the Greek goddess Artemis, or Diana, a female fertility cult goddess. There was a huge temple there. And if he is writing as instruction about all women in the church it may have been in a pastoral response to a particular problem in their city and church.
These two difficult passages must have had more local meaning or else they contradict the rest of the Bible. For Paul to be writing restrictive words about all women in all churches everywhere doesn’t fit when he has honoured women in leadership. Why would he suddenly change his mind for only 2 short passages in his letters when he has lived and written so much to elevate the roles of women? There must be more local meaning than we understand from a distance.
These verses are still inspired by God and helpful for teaching, correcting, training and equipping us to follow Jesus. However, in the context of the rest of the letter, the rest of the New Testament, the rest of the Bible they must mean something different than they do at face value for us.
On the basis of the whole tone of the Bible and the equality stated about men and women in Christ Jesus, as a church we practice this by seeing men and women as equal in authority, leadership and gifting. Different roles come down to gifting, personality, character and calling, but not gender.
Men and women are both saved completely by Jesus when any of us call on him.
We are each baptised in the full Holy Spirit.
We each receive spiritual gifts from the Spirit, there are no gender specific gifts.
We are all able to step into any ministry role and to serve in any way.
There is no hierarchy of gender in God’s kingdom. It may still exist in the world around us, and our tendency may sometimes be to act out of that hierarchy, but that is not God’s desire for us.
There is still the effects of the curse in our lives, and we still live within a family and wider culture, but we are free to see each other as equal partners in life and ministry.
Any particular ministry opportunity or role is not a matter of gender, but of gifting, personality, character and most importantly God’s call to serve.
Submit to one another
In Ephesians 5 Paul writes the often quoted words, “Wives submit to your husbands,” and “Husbands love your wives.” What is less quoted is the previous verse that begins that whole section. Ephesians 5:21:
Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.
Regardless of gender or social status, what God is asking of us is to submit to one’ll another, out of reverence for Christ. Paul goes on and says: wives, this is how it can look for you and husbands, this is how it can look for you. Slaves and masters, this is what it can look like for you to submit to each other. But before and above all of those specifics is: submit to one another.
Men, submit to the men and women in your life, because of Jesus.
Women, submit to the women and men in your life, because of Jesus.
Men and women, be free to serve in any way that opens up before you. But do it in humility and mutual submission, not in arrogance or control. Use your gifts, your experience, your abilities to serve each other and build the Kingdom of God.
Don’t be constrained by gender stereotypes or a hierarchical culture, be free in the church and in God’s Kingdom to serve each other and submit to each other.
What About…? series
To listen in or read along with the rest of the series follow the links below: