The Bible and Women? We Need to Talk

Michal Beth Dinkler

At a recent meeting of the largest academic organization in my field, the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL), another scholar told me God would bless me if I teach “from behind a lectern” but not if I teach “from behind a pulpit.” “After all,” he declared, “Paul had some things to say about that.” He promptly walked away. 

Had he stayed, I might have shared that I’m not only a New Testament scholar; I’m also an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA). And perhaps – if we could have given one another the benefit of the doubt – we might have had a real conversation about the Bible and women. Because the man was right about this: Paul did indeed have “some things to say about” women’s roles. How we understand and apply those “things” today, however, is a more complicated matter. 

Embers of Hope

There are rumbles of revolutions and reckonings: #MeToo headlines, feminist and womanist protests against misogyny, unprecedented backlash against sports industries for the unequal pay for female athletes, new awakenings about the pervasive dangers of toxic masculinity, and the insidious intersectional nature of racism, sexism, and classism. The Christian landscape in this country is clearly shifting in response: #ChurchToo has resulted in the resignations of prominent religious leaders in nearly every denomination. Closer to home: I’m raising two young children – a boy and a girl – who visibly bristle when they hear God called “him,” because, they insist, “God is not a boy!” 

For me, these embers of hope threaten to die too quickly in the overwhelm of hateful tweets spewed by our president, the unfettered chauvinistic fury of white supremacists, the persistently patriarchal daily operations of our most hallowed institutions. The importance of discussing what the biblical texts say about women – and how we should understand what they say – becomes more urgent with every passing day. 

The truth is this: Justification is there, in the New Testament, for whatever view one wants to espouse on women. 

A Swirl of Attitudes

If you want to justify women’s leadership in the church, you can turn to the Gospels, where Jesus travels with and accepts support from women (e.g., Luke 8:1-3). Or look to Romans 16, where Paul hails Phoebe, a deacon and benefactor, and Junia, “prominent among the apostles.” If you believe in equality, you can appeal to 1 Corinthians 7:2-4, where Paul advocates mutuality in marriage, or Galatians 3:28, widely viewed as erasing differences altogether (“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus”). 

If you wish to argue for male headship in the home, you might turn to 1 Cor. 11:3 (“Christ is the head of every man, and the husband is the head of his wife”); to Titus 2:5, which says women should be “submissive to their husbands, so that the word of God may not be discredited”; or to any of the so-called “household codes” (e.g., Ephesians 5:21-6:9; Colossians 3:18-4:1; 1 Peter 2:18-3:7). If you want to argue for female submission, you can draw on 1 Cor. 14:34-35 (“Women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says … it is shameful for a woman to speak in church …”); or 1 Timothy 2:11-12 (“Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent”). 

If you want to make a claim about women based on the texts in the New Testament, you can find your verses. The texts simply do not speak with one voice regarding women. How, then, should we adjudicate between these disparate messages, especially as Christians who hold these texts to be the Word of God for the people of God? How can we hope to communicate with Christians who hold different views about women/gender if we do not understand their approach to interpretation? 

I want to outline three major hermeneutical options employed in the church today, and I’ll keep 1 Timothy 2:11 as my focus to show how various interpretive strategies can lead to entirely different conclusions even with respect to one passage. It’s crucial to keep a few things in mind: First, these interpretive strategies are not always distinct in practice; people are often inconsistent, moving between hermeneutical approaches without even being aware that they’re doing so. Second, remember that there are folks who consider the New Testament to be the timeless and eternal Word of God in all three of these interpretive “camps” – they just understand “timeless and eternal” in different ways. Thus, the operative question should be: What about this particular passage is timeless and eternal? Or: In what way is this timeless and eternal? 

Interpretive Approach 1: Extract and Apply

From this perspective, if God’s Word is universally applicable in every time and place, then we can and should extract New Testament passages from their historical settings and apply them in a straightforward way today. This is how the current-day Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, for example, can declare that 1 Tim. 2 means that every woman in every time and place ought to submit to men. This mandate for human hierarchy is, in their view, unqualified by historical or literary context. 

Most who take the “extract and apply” approach to biblical interpretation consider New Testament injunctions about household and church to be analogous – that is, whatever a New Testament writer says about the home applies to the church and vice versa. Some, though, do distinguish between women’s roles in public (i.e., churches) and women’s roles in private (i.e., in the home). The man I met at SBL would have agreed with complementarian George Knight, who writes that 1 Tim. 2 does not say that women “may not teach anyone, but that within the church she must not teach and have authority over a man.” A common exception is when women are allowed to teach children in the church (as long as a male pastor oversees them). In this sense, setting is significant, but only insofar as it circumscribes women’s roles in particular settings, not as a way of softening a text’s claims about female submission. 

Approach 2: Contextualize

The second major approach is to situate specific New Testament passages historically and literarily in order to determine their meaning. These practitioners might point out that women typically weren’t educated in the ancient world. Thus, the reference to Eve being deceived in 1 Tim. 2.14 doesn’t mean all women everywhere are easily deceivable; it means that the women in that community were being deceived by teachers of false doctrine (mentioned in 1 Tim. 1.3) because they were uneducated. 

Such readers sometimes point out that 1 Timothy claims to be written to Timothy in Ephesus, which was the seat of the cult of Artemis, the goddess of fertility. In that historical context, these interpreters suggest, the reference to the created order of Adam and Eve would have been a balancing corrective to those who were claiming that women, like Artemis, should be in a position of superiority over men. 

Some who take this approach hold that these hierarchical structures do not apply in the 21st century, but the underlying principle of submission continues to be relevant in various forms. One version of the principle is that if Christians experience opposition from non-Christians, especially those in positions of authority over them, they ought to endure for the sake of those people’s salvation. Another variation of the principle of submission shows how God’s economy of love works, and it’s about self-sacrifice: Whoever is most likely to abuse power should choose to be humble first. Those who take this view would say that Paul defined what that principle looked like for Christians in the first century CE; in today’s world, we can live into the intention of the message without holding to the literal exhortation. 

Approach 3: Reject These Texts

Approaches #1 and #2 above generally seek to value or redeem New Testament texts about women for our world today. Advocates of #3 instead consider texts like 1 Timothy 2 (sometimes dubbed “texts of terror”) to be harmful to women and thus reject them outright. Reading with a “hermeneutic of suspicion” or reading “against the grain,” these interpreters consider oppressive tendencies in a text to be traces of humanity’s fallen nature. 

To be clear, this is not necessarily a denial of divine inspiration of Scripture. Those who reject specific texts are often committed Christians who believe the New Testament is the Word of God. The difference is that they believe that when God inspired (literally, breathed into) the words of Scripture, God did not dictate the words and thereby erase human influence in the writing of the texts. This is why these interpreters say they don’t believe texts advocating female submission should be applied today in the same way they might have been in antiquity. 

Many who take approach #3 rely on historical contextualization of a different sort than we saw in #2. Some see a chronological development from the egalitarian views in the undisputed Pauline letters to an endorsement of cultural accommodation and patriarchy in the later letters like 1 Timothy. For these folks, there is a Pauline equality tradition preserved in Galatians 3:28 that the earliest Jesus-followers were trying to enact, but that drew criticism from outsiders. 1 Tim. 2 is evidence, they say, that over time, the church turned to patriarchy as a means of placating hostile outsiders who were suspicious of Christians. For those who take interpretive option #3, such dividing lines around gender are more harmful than healing today and ought to be rejected. This interpretive option considers New Testament texts as only one side of arguments that were ongoing in the early church (with no privileged status simply because they were later included in the Christian canon). 

I’ve laid out three major interpretive approaches to New Testament texts about women, with some bias (of course). Obviously, each could be expanded in many directions, and I’ve had to skip over far too many details due to space. My main point, however, is this: When Christians make claims about women based on the New Testament, we ought to be doing so with full awareness of the interpretive strategies we employ and the criteria by which we’re drawing our conclusions. 

I am not neutral on the topic of God’s truth about women. I’m an ordained minister. My sister is an ordained minister. My pastor is a woman. Many of my female students have become pastors and priests. We’ve all been told at one point or another, in ways both subtle and direct, that we’re working against God’s will instead of for it. If I’m honest, it can be tempting to ignore those who read the Bible differently than we do. But then we get stuck in echo chambers, surrounded by our own interpretive communities, where it’s too easy to lapse into stereotypes and imprecision. When we’re frustrated or baffled by other Christians’ positions on women, we ought to engage on the level of interpretation, understanding their approaches to the text and being clear about our own. 

Questions about the New Testament and women raise even larger questions about authority, inspiration, relationship, human nature, and gender broadly construed (not just the male/female binary). We can’t discuss these matters unless we know where and why we disagree about biblical interpretation. Christians who care about God’s love and justice cannot ignore these conversations. There’s simply too much at stake. 

Michal Beth Dinkler is associate professor of New Testament at YDS. Her books include Silent Statements: Narrative Representations of Speech and Silence in the Gospel of Luke (De Gruyter, 2013) and Literary Theory and the New Testament, to be released in November by Yale University Press.