Rediscovering Womanhood in the Bible

Over the last year I have been exploring womanhood in the Bible and what it means for the Church and society. Things happened in my life, including very important changes, which made me think it worthwhile reassessing my view of women. One of the things that really struck me as I reflected on things over the course of various events is that it is much harder being a woman than a man.

For men it is quite hard to really identify with what women go through. Being Ghanaian, men are culturally privileged above women. I could cite a litany of examples and instances that demonstrate this. The interesting thing is most women do not only accept the status quo, they actually defend it. That is because this the worldview they inhabit. They know nothing else. A lot of feminists talk of male dominance as tyrannical, as if men all men are intentionally cruel and sadistic. Though there are a lot men who do wish to take advantage of women they are as much as a slave to this way of thinking as is everyone else to their ideological framework. However, this is not to say men are suffering just as much as women. That is manifestly not true.

If was to describe the culturally defined relationship between men and women in one line, it is summed up in this Akan proverb, “If a woman has a gun, it is propped up against a man’s wall.” I believe this to be very true in at least our part of the world. Basically it means no matter how capable a woman is, she is still dependent on a man. There are a lot of social ramifications of thinking women are dependent on men. Apart from the more obvious injustices that are committed in the name of such an ideology, there is a more insidious evil which quietly chips away at a woman’s humanity. Firstly, according to male supremacy, nothing a woman does will ever be as good or as worthwhile as a man’s because of her role as a perpetual dependent. This gnaws away at your confidence in your own abilities which leads to the second point. A woman’s ambitions should therefore be subservient to a man’s. This means there are limits set on how much ambition she can have. A dear woman in my life described a situation that helps illustrate these points.

She was at a restaurant with a few other people to celebrate her godfather’s birthday. As such things go people started talking about what they do and what their aspirations in life are. All the women at the party were university graduates. When the woman talked about what they wanted in life they all invariable moved to marriage and children. She was the only one who did not talk about that. She spoke about getting further education and attaining a PhD in her field before she turned 30. They all looked at her very weird. They had serious problems with the things she said, implying it was unwomanly. In our cultural setting yes it was very unwomanly since men are usually the ones who do it. However, the facts on the ground were nothing prevented her from pursuing it. There was a subtle implication that somehow women are less intelligent than men. As a male I have heard many times fellow males actually say it outright as a fact of life. This harks back to the observation I made that women are taught nothing they have is as worthwhile as a man’s. In reality she is one of the most intelligent and industrious people I know. She got the kinds of grades in school I and most other people never had. Recently on Facebook I saw a post about the best student among the graduating class of medical students at my local university. It was a woman who swept 12 out of 15 awards at the oath swearing ceremony. The whole idea that women are intellectually inferior is patently false. Women who have such gifts naturally have great ambitions but encouraging such desires to flourish disturbs the paradigm that privileges some over others. Women who don’t fit are somehow less womanly, they are social freaks. Instead of being seen as examples that falsify the assumed standards, they are rather treated as anomalies that happen once in a while because we live in crazy world.

I could go and on but these things hit home very hard as you talk to women in your life as they share their experiences. I have conversations with her where she asks me if she did the right thing. Her courage is mistaken for arrogance, her assertiveness being misconstrued for insolence. She can’t be aggressive for what she wants even though people are not really willing to give it to her. You recognize her potential and you want the best for her then you realise society just doesn’t feel that way about her because of something about her she cannot change: being a woman. It is simply unfair.

Ghana is a very religious country and Christians make up the religious majority. The Bible is as such regrettably used to justify this cultural mentality. I had problems with the quality of women’s position in society but it seemed the Bible indicated otherwise. Not to say I believed it permitted men to treat women as less than themselves. However, it seemed to have a standard that could be abused and used to justify such treatment. I then remembered what people say the Bible says is not usually what it says. Furthermore, there were several instances and passages in scripture that seemed to contend with that view. All this meant I had to study seriously and carefully what the scriptures had to say. A week or two ago after about a year of reflection, I came across information that brought me to some very interesting, and to be totally honest, surprising conclusions.

I came across the blog of Dr Jeremiah Gibbs who had plenty to say about this issue. What initially drew me to his material was something he wrote about the work of N.T. Wright. Upon discovering he was a Wright fan, I decided to check out more of his material. As I was reading his series of posts on female leadership, which you can find here, he brought up some new information about the meaning of “man is the head of a woman” in the New Testament. I had never heard it before and it was really shocking to me, in fact paradigm shifting. He referenced the work of New Testament scholar Philip Barton Payne which you can find here, that head in Greek idiom of the New Testament era does not mean leader or authority but rather source. He demonstrated incontrovertibly in sources both in and outside of the Bible, citing Greek lexicons as well, the idea of leadership or authority was not what it means for the man to be the head of the woman. It actually means women come from men which is an apparent allusion to Genesis 2. Since Paul is talking about origins he then immediately goes on to say all men are from women which is a straightforward biological fact (1 Corinthians 11:7-12.)

The reason why I think this finding is so pivotal is because those passages, according to the traditional misinterpretation, were the only explicit, direct statements of implicit male leadership of any kind in the New Testament. There are still difficult passages to contend with but this was for me the last bastion of defence that upheld a particular type of worldview. As a believer when you are interpreting the Bible, you have to get what the macro themes and positions are. Once you ascertain these things, it serves as a general interpretive framework for guiding and informing your understanding of individual passages. This is a very important heuristic so that when you see one verse that seems to contradict a view that is supported by a bunch of other passages you do not immediately disregard what had been previously established. Overall I think the New Testament has a completely positive outlook on womanhood, even subversively so when you consider the standards of the Greco-Roman world early Christianity inhabited. As far as the Church was concerned, women could occupy any leadership position as men and they did. Women were apostles, deacons, teachers, prophets, worship leaders etc. This all of course could not have happened without Jesus. Without his mission and example there would be no theological justification for any of it. A nascent movement that already faced many challenges would not want to add any more they could easily have avoided unless they believed it was absolutely true and right. Jesus’ resurrection not only restored humanity, he restored and reaffirmed the inherent goodness and dignity of womanhood.

If this was the position of the New Testament then I needed to consider what the Old Testament had to say. The first point of call in the former writings was obviously the creation story in Genesis. When Jesus dealt with the issue of divorce he referred to Genesis as the hermeneutical gold standard. This makes sense because there we find God’s original intent before things went awry. On account of what I discovered about kephale, the Greek word for head in the New Testament, it reminded me of something I had read months back about manhood and womanhood in Genesis 1 and 2. I finally found it and recently posted it here on my blog so you can find out more about it. Basically, a group of distinguished scholars of the ancient Near East (the world of the Old Testament) in their separate commentaries on the creation narratives in Genesis 1 and 2, all agreed according to the text men and women were equal. Men did not have authority over women and vice versa, they were peers in every sense. We are aware that in Genesis 3 things went very wrong but we can be certain that God created men and women as peers and equals, without privileging one over the other in anyway. (Even though it is not intrinsic to my argument, anthropologists have discovered evidence that seems to suggest in the earliest human societies men and women were treated roughly equally. It was later on when civilisations began to emerge that we find evidence of men having exclusive authority over women. Perhaps Genesis is not only mentioning a theological ideal but is also making an indirect historical observation of how things used to be among humans.)

Since Genesis 1 and 2 are the reference points for what God’s good design looks like it means the entirety of scripture does not provide an excuse for male authority and certainly not the abuse of it. This has huge implications on contemporary debates in the Church. One scholar in an article said that our modern debates about egalitarianism versus complementarianism were not issues that the text was concerned with. This is of course not to say these texts are not relevant in the debate but we should be careful not to squeeze the Bible into fitting our views. Let the scriptures speak for themselves. In letting it speak I realised the sort of language you need to adequately describe what is happening in the text fell into the opposing camps of egalitarian versus complementarian. As usual pigeon holing individuals into certain ideological camps is usually not helpful since it does not encourage dialogue but only assumptions. When someone does not identify with a view they tend not to use terminology that is associated with the opposing view. (I think this is what happened in the Arian controversy and which contributed to the well-known difficulties of Trinitarian doctrine.) I have found it is equally valid to use “complementary” and “equal” in interpreting Genesis without strictly belonging to either view of their respective ideological namesakes. This indicates to me there are problems with both views

Traditional complementarianism even though it does think men and women are equal, believes the God ordained role of a man, at least in the Church and home, is to be the leader. So in that view both men and women can lead but women cannot occupy the pinnacle of leadership. Practically speaking there is a glaring problem. Biblically this view, as we have just seen, is unsupported. The problem with egalitarianism is that aside from biology, it tends to screen out the fact there are other real general differences between men and woman. Natural inclinations, societal roles and gender stereotypes do exist. The Bible does acknowledges them and it is unbiblical not to. It does not only say what should be but provides historical commentary on what actually happened. It therefore gives us instructions and real examples on how to deal with such differences between men and women.

The Bible views stereotypes as just that stereotypes. They are generalizations and over simplifications. However the Bible does not confine anyone to these labels of convenience and regularly subverts them so that God’s standard for his Church is upheld. In general the Bible celebrates and affirms each one’s ethnic and cultural heritage and traditions. Instead of supporting everything about it, it too is brought under the lordship of Jesus and renewed in his image. This is what the New Testament in particular does to gender stereotypes. Men were admonished to have what were considered womanly dispositions and roles and vice versa because doing the right, God-honouring thing, is for both men and women. The Gospel does not deny culture but affirms their God-given goodness by bringing it in submission to Christ, renewing it to the glory of God. Jesus is Lord over everything.

For me the conclusions I have come to have massive implications on how we interpret and apply scripture in terms of our theology, praxis and culture. I recognise these issues are sensitive and difficult and there is quite a lot at stake. There are things I still have to grapple with even though I think I have come to a secure position. For the Church there is a whole lot more that needs to be done.

I have briefly recounted my own journey to fully appreciating the power and ability of womanhood as well as her struggles and flaws. I started this as a personal story because that is what it is to me and what it should be to you. It is about our mothers, wives, sisters, daughters and friends. It is about the women you treasure and hold dear being allowed to excel and blossom in life. It is about them fully enjoying their humanity. Make no mistake this is a question of our humanity. God made humans as male and female, equal and complementary parts. They are natural counterparts and without either one, we do not have full expression of our humanity. Even if you do not take the Bible into account, women make up half of the world population. Suppressing them has not helped our species and it will not help generations to come. Among the number of women denied positions of leadership, education or even life, there could have been solutions to the challenges we face. Gender equality is of practical importance and not simply of the optics of being seen as progressive. These are real world issues and for the Christian we are specially equipped by the Gospel message to continue to cause a truly positive change for womankind and all of humanity.

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