This article is prompted by a recent conversation on Facebook about the roles of men and women. Let me begin, in case you have not followed my ministry and writing up to this point, by saying that I hold the Bible to be the Word of God, absolutely infallible in its original form, and the sole rule for faith and life for the believer. My argument is not with the Word, but with the interpretations that have been given value over the Word. So much of what has long been taught in the church as the Biblical standard is in fact a distortion of Scripture, based on poor interpretations made by a male-dominated society over many hundreds of years. I would like to try to correct some of those misconceptions.
(Note: It is not my purpose here to address the particular issues surrounding women in ministry. I have already written a whole article about that, which can be found on my ministry web site at http://wordandfireministries.com/women-in-ministry/)
Misconception #1: Woman was created after man, and therefore is inferior or at least subordinate to him.
Correction: Anyone who is capable of thinking an issue through should be able to see the glaring flaw in this argument immediately. If being created later means inferiority, then to be consistent in interpretation, the fact that man was created after the animals would mean that he was inferior to the animals. That, of course, in nonsense. Again, if we follow the argument to its logical conclusion in the other direction, we would have to say that if man,being created after the animals, is superior to them, then woman, being created after man, is superior to him. This also is nonsense.
Some scholars argue that the original “man” was both male and female, based on Gen. 1:27 “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them” and that the creation of woman in Genesis 2:22 is actually the separation of the man into two genders. Personally, I am not sure that I fully embrace this interpretation, but it is certainly worth considering. One way or another, Gen. 1:27 makes it clear that, whatever the actual process, in God’s eyes the creation of man and woman was a single act, and both bore the “image and likeness” of God.
Misconception #2: Woman was created as man’s helpmeet, a subordinate role which is all about supporting the man in whatever he does.
Correction: The word “helpmeet” or its Hebrew equivalent (if there is one) does not appear in the original. Rather, there are two words “helper” and “fit” or “suitable.” In King Jim English, “suitable” is “meet”, and the two words were joined to became “helpmeet.”
However, neither of the two original Hebrew words carries any implication of inferiority. The word for help is the noun form of a verb meaning “to surround, protect, aid, help, succor” and almost every time it is used in the Bible it is referring to the help given by God to man. Hardly a precedent for seeing the “helper” as inferior!
Also, the word for “suitable” comes from a word meaning “to stand boldly out opposite.”
Putting those two concepts together, we have a picture of the woman as a strong partner whose role is to help the man to be the best he can be, and if necessary to stand against him when he goes in the wrong direction. A far cry from the inferior servant that male-dominated society has made her role out to be.
Misconception #3: The “Proverbs 31” woman is the picture of perfect domesticity, and means that women’s role should be confined to looking after the house and caring for children.
Correction: Poor Mrs Proverbs 31 has been very badly treated. For a start, the word translated “virtuous” would be better translated “valiant.” It implies strength, and in every other place in the Bible where it is used it refers to men, and is translated in terms of strength, valor, courage. It seems that what the writer was actually trying to convey was a sort of pre-echo of Professor Higgens in My Fair Lady: “Why can’t a woman be more like a man?”
It then goes on to list the “manly” (rather than “womanly”) characteristics of this exemplary strong woman: she works hard (v13); she is a good provider (vv 14,15); she is a savvy business person (v16); she is physically strong (v17); she is a workaholic (vv 18, 19); she is a humanitarian (v20); she dresses well (v22); she has good associations (v 23); she is a teacher of the Law (the Hebrew word is Torah) (v 26); she is held in high esteem by those close to her (v 26) and those who know her only by reputation (v31).
If this list of virtues were applied to a man, we would have no hesitation in saying, “This is a great man.” Why, then, when it is applied to a woman, should it be seen as presenting a sweet little homebody? (I once heard a pastor say in a sermon, “I hate strong women.” I couldn’t help but wonder how he would have reacted had he ever actually met Mrs Proverbs 31 in person.)
Misconception #4: The man is head of the woman, therefore he is superior and her “boss.” All men are over all women. Women can only approach God through men.
Correction: Firstly, this passage is specifically about husbands and wives, not about the general relationship between men and women. Look at the passage in Scripture: (1Co 11:3) “But I would have you know, that the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God.” This verse contains three statements, and we cannot take one in isolation from the others. Nor can we interpret “head” as meaning one thing in one statement, and something different in the others.
The benchmark here is the third statement, “the head of Christ is God.” Obviously, Christ is not inferior to the Father, but was absolutely equal with Him in every way. (Phil 2:6, Jn 10:30) Equally obvious, the Father was not Christ’s “boss” even though Christ chose to willingly defer to Him.
Since these things are true of the relationship between Christ and the Father, they must also be true of the relationships between a man and Christ, and between a woman and a man.
Let’s now consider the relationship between a man and Christ. Some might argue that man is obviously inferior to Christ, but is that the Scriptural position? 2 Cor 5:17 tells that we are “in Christ.” Numerous passages in the New Testament refer to us corporately as “His Body.” Jn 17:23 tells us that the Father loves us as He loves Jesus. Eph 2:6 tells us that God has raised us up and caused us to sit in heavenly places with Christ. In Jn 16:26-27 Jesus told us that we can come directly to the Father in His Name. 2 Cor 5:21 tells us that all our unrighteousness was placed on Christ, and in return we were imputed with His righteousness. (The most amazing exchange in the history of the universe.) Romans 8:29 tells us that God purposes for us individually to be conformed to the image of Christ, and Eph 4:13 that He plans to bring us corporately into the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.
All of this speaks of a relationship in which we (both men and women) have been lifted out of a position of inferiority and raised to one of equality – not equality of nature (we do not “become gods” as some cults teach) but equality of stature, in which we stand only because we are “in Christ.”
But surely, some will argue, Christ is man’s “boss.” Again, this is not a Biblical viewpoint. Under the Law, God was the “boss.” He made the rules (which were not arbitrary, but in every case were a reflection of His nature) and man was expected to obey them. Under the New Covenant, things changed. The New Testament writings make it clear that we, as Christians, are not under the Law. (The references are far too numerous to list, and the subject of a different discussion.) That does not mean that we are free to do whatever we want, but rather that there is a different law in operation. This time it is not an external code written on tablets of stone, but an internal law that operates from within our human spirit, where the Holy Spirit has made His residence. Where the Law reflected the character of God, the Holy Spirit (who is God, equal with the Father and the Son) embodies His character. The essence of our relationship with Christ is not our obedience to an external “boss” but rather our living in accordance with the character and will of the One who lives in us – just as Christ Himself lived in accordance with the character and will of the Father.
So, where does that leave the relationship between woman and man – or, more specifically, between wife and husband, as this is what is being addressed in the passage, not general woman/man relationships?
Firstly, since Christ is equal to God, and man has been raised to a position of equality with Christ, we must see their relationship as being equal. That does not mean the same: woman will never be man, and man will never be woman, and vive la difference! It does mean that the wife stands beside the husband, no under him.
Secondly, it means that, far from the husband being “boss,” husband and wife are meant to come to a place where they share a heartbeat, where they are going in the same direction, and where each honors the other.
Essentially, headship is about honor. Christ honors the Father, even though He is His equal. Man is to honor Christ, even though he has been raised to stand beside Him. Wives are to honor their husbands, even though they are equal in the relationship. The passage goes on to talk about the woman covering her (physical) head in order not to dishonor her husband. This was a cultural requirement of the time. At other times and in other cultures, covering her head would have dishonored him, as it would have meant that she was a prostitute. (Gen 38:15) The cultural practice does not carry forward to today, but the principle of not doing anything which would bring dishonor to our spouse does. (Note that whilst this passage speaks specifically of wives honoring their husbands, 1 Peter 3:7 specifically tells husbands to honor their wives, and Rom 12:10 tells us that we should all “in honor prefer one another.”)
Misconception #5: The husband is priest of the household.
Correction: This is possibly the most insidious of the misconceptions, and the one with least (read: absolutely NO) Scriptural backup. There is not one single verse that supports this statement, yet it has become doctrine throughout many parts of the Church. The only passage I can find on which it could even have been based is the NIV translation of Isaiah 61:10, which has the bridegroom adorning his head as a priest. (KVJ translation: “I will greatly rejoice in the LORD, my soul shall be joyful in my God; for he hath clothed me with the garments of salvation, he hath covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decketh himself with ornaments, and as a bride adorneth herself with her jewels.”) Yet even if we take the NIV translation as correct, it surely must be obvious that this is a metaphor. It was written under the Old Covenant, and under that covenant not any man could be a priest, only those of the line of Aaron.
More importantly, under the New Covenant we are all priests. (1 Pet 2: 5, 9; Rev 1:6; 5:10; 20:6) Priesthood is all about access and representation. The priests were the only ones who had access to God under the Old Covenant. Everyone else had to go through the priests. Now, in Christ, we all – men, women, kids – are priests. We all have direct access to Him. To say that the husband is the priest of the family is to deny the wife and children that access, and to say that they can only go to God through the husband/father. The priests were the ones who represented God before man and man before God. As New Testament priests, we all have the responsibility of representing our families, our friends, our communities and our world before the Father, and of representing Him before the world. It is not a male role, but a believer role.
To suggest that, even though the wife and children (if they are believers) are New Covenant priests, the husband/father is still priest over them is to cast him in the role of High Priest – a role and title that belongs to Christ alone.
I realize that many have such a vested interest in clinging to these misconceptions about the relationship between men and women, and particularly between husbands and wives, that what I write is unlikely to change their thinking. I also understand that, for them at least, the fact that I am a woman means that my arguments carry less weight than they would if brought by a man. Nonetheless, it is my hope that some at least will read this article and be released from the shackles of misconceptions into a much more Biblical understanding of these relationships in which men and women stand side by side to advance the Kingdom of God.