A mandate for female subordination in the church sometimes results as a cultural issue, and sometimes as a biblical interpretation issue. In this article, we will look at both.
A Cultural Issue
Female submission is highly related to culture. Hofstede (1980) labels masculine cultures as those that show maximum distinction between acceptable male and female behaviors. Hofstede notes that masculine cultures tend to pursue assertiveness and competition. Every culture includes some individuals who abuse females, some more and some less. Since masculine cultures are more assertive, however, they also tend to condone more aggressive behaviors including female abuse. Feminine cultures pursue harmony in relationships, lifestyle quality, and protection of the weak. A few cultures such as Japan pursue assertiveness (masculinity) but also pursue harmony in relationships (femininity). These cultures tend to allow female abuse, but the abuse remains secretive to preserve harmony and reduce shame.
Hofstede (2010, 149) notes that, “A U.S. best-seller was called Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus, but in feminine cultures both sexes are from Venus.” The masculine-feminine cultural factor is highly related to the agreeableness factor of personality. When the entire culture values sympathy, compassion, and friendliness (the agreeableness personality facets), Hofstede would call the culture a feminine culture. Table 4-1 shows masculinity cultural rankings for 76 countries.
High Medium Low
Ranking Country Ranking Country Ranking Country
Table 4-1: Masculinity in culture (source: Hofstede, 2010, 141-143)
A 2015 disagreement between Hillary Clinton and the Chinese government illustrates the cultural issue. Hillary Clinton criticized the Chinese government for a poor women’s rights record. China (with a masculinity rating of only 11 in Table 4-1) cannot understand or value her position. That is, their cultural filter for masculinity limits their ability to see women’s rights as a moral issue. To further her personal agenda, she tried to shame China (which represents a form of abuse) by making her criticism public. Like Japan, China values harmony and detests shame. Thus, she implemented an unkind method (shame) to support her personal “morally right” position. Since the Chinese see the issue through a masculine cultural filter, to them she appears merely like an “ugly American” who fails to understand an appropriate use of shame. The Chinese not only refuse to change their position, they now seem even more resistant to change than before the criticism. Each party feels morally right in their stance.
Similarly, churches in the countries listed in the first column above will possibly struggle with female equality issues more than churches in the countries listed in the last column. For instance, the United States is listed as a slightly masculine culture (rank #19). And, some church denominations in the United States endorse female subordination roles as part of their basic doctrine. They may base their doctrine on a strict biblical interpretation, but like the Chinese discussed above, their masculine culture sometimes affects their understanding and interpretation of Scripture. However, even feminine cultures sometimes include church sub-groups that condone female subordination and abuse. Regardless of what Scripture says, culture sometimes plays an overriding effect on the way that believers view the female’s role in the local church. For instance:
- The Apostle Paul said, “The woman ought to have a sign of authority on her head” (1 Cor. 11:10). Due to the cultural norms of his time, Paul seems to view a head covering as a sign that a woman has authority to pray and prophesy. Some masculine cultures take Paul’s guidance quite literally. For instance, I visited a church in Central America that still requires women in church to wear a head covering—every female donned a white scarf over her hair upon entering the church. In contrast, most North American churches in the twenty-first century regard Paul’s statement as culture-based guidance. That is, while some church cultures may require women to wear a head covering, many North American churches interpret this passage as general guidance that women should appear respectfully dressed when in public. The interpretation and application, however, seems to vary by the degree to which the local church originates in a masculine culture. Even in North America, the term “respectfully dressed” means entirely different things to different sub-groups.
- The Apostle Paul notes that, “The head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God” (1 Cor. 11:3). Speaking in Greek, Paul used the Greek word, “kephalē” that is commonly translated as “head” in English. In twenty-first century English, “head” indicates a hierarchy of position and authority. In modern English, the “head” of an organization is the leader or supervisor. So in some cases, the masculine church cultures of the twentieth and twenty-first century use 1 Cor. 11:3 as a proof text that males possess authority over females, and males should function as decision makers at home and in the Church. In the first century Greek language, however, “kephalē” meant “head” as in “source.” Marianne Thompson explains that, “kephalē means something more like ‘source’ as in ‘headwaters’” (see Women, Authority, and the Bible (91, 1986). The first century meaning “does not include “authority,” “superior rank,” “leader,” “director,” or anything similar as a meaning” (ibid, 97-98). Thus, when the Apostle Paul says, “the head of the woman is man,” he is noting that man is the source from which God made her. The latter meaning correlates well with Jesus’ words, “You know that those who are supposed to rule over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you; but whoever would be first among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of man also came not to be served, but to serve” (Luke 22:27). Regardless of Jesus’ words and the more appropriate translation of “kephalē,” churches originating in the more masculine cultures tend to understand the scripture through a cultural filter of a male dominated culture.
A Biblical Interpretation Issue
Alvera Mickelsen discusses the biblical interpretation issues on female submission very well in Women, Authority, and the Bible (1986). We will discuss three issues:
- Biblical views about women teaching.
- Passages about female roles.
- Passages about mutuality.
Biblical views about women teaching
- Mothers are instructed to teach their children (Prov. 1:8; 6:20; Deut. 6:7, 21:18-20). Notably, Timothy was taught by both his mother and grandmother (2 Tim. 1:5).
- Women taught men. For instance, Apollos was taught by both Priscilla and Aquila (Acts 18:26). Since the Apostle Paul lists Priscilla’s name first, some scholars suggest that she held the more dominant and assertive role as teacher and leader. And some believe that Priscilla may have authored the book of Hebrews.
- The Apostle Paul told women to pray and prophesy (1 Cor. 11:5). 1 Cor. 14:3 says that prophecy includes edification (teaching), exhortation (correction), and consolation (encouragement). Prophecy that includes teaching, correction and encouragement occurs in many ways including a public ministry, especially preaching.
- Women were leaders. Deborah was the leader over Israel and a prophet who wrote one of the chapters of the book of Judges (Judges 4-5). As an author in the Bible (Judges 5:7) she is inherently a teacher.
- The Apostle Paul recommended Phoebe to the church in Rome (Rom. 16:1) He called her a “servant of the church” but used the same Greek word that is translated throughout the New Testament as “minister.”
- The Apostle Paul called Junias one of the apostles (Rom. 16:7). Apostles were servant preachers and teachers.
- Miriam (Micah 6:4), Hildah (2 Kings 22:14, 2 Chron. 34:22), Isaiah’s wife (Isaiah 8:3), Anna (Luke 2:36), and Philips daughters (Acts 21:8-9) were all accepted as prophets. Among other roles, prophets preach and teach.
Passages about female roles
- The Apostle Paul provides specific guidance in 1 Cor. 14:34-35 and 1 Tim. 2:12 about women teaching in the congregation. Paul said directly that women should remain silent in church. In the first century, however, women almost never received an opportunity for education. Since females rarely received any education, he might conclude that women should remain silent and abstain from teaching. That is, no one should teach without an education, male or female. Indeed, Paul taught with authority partly because his teacher was one of the most recognized teachers of the century. By reflecting on the historical context of uneducated females in the first century, Paul’s statements seem understandable. His culture excluded education for females as a cultural norm. Taken at face value, the above two passages directly contradict Paul’s statements about equality and mutuality, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). Walter Liefeld (ibid, 153-154) concludes, “Paul is not writing to impose an arbitrary permanent restriction of women’s ministry. Just as he counseled submission on the part of slaves in order to make the gospel attractive, so, in order to avoid maligning that gospel through appearing to dishonor their husbands, he counsels women to accommodate to contemporary standards of decency.” Those without an education should not speak, but listen. In the first century, this generally meant that women should listen.
- 1 Tim. 2:11-12 provides perhaps the strongest statement in the Bible about the participation of women in ministry, “A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.” However, David Scholer (ibid, 201) looks at the context of the passage, noting that the local church in Ephesus suffered from false teaching that originated from uneducated women. Additionally, a local Ephesus religion esteemed the role of priestess prostitutes who taught the superiority of female priestesses. “The statements of 2:11-12 are thus ad hoc instructions intended for a particular situation in Ephesus of false teaching focused on women. These statements are not to be understood as universal principles encoded in a supra-situational ‘church order manual’ that limit women in ministry in all times and places. Rather, the instructions of 2:11-12 are directed against women who, having been touched or captivated by false teachings, are abusing the normal opportunities women had within the church to teach and exercise authority.” He concludes, “1 Tim. 2:9-15 should be understood as a unified paragraph on the place of women in the church in Ephesus. It provided instruction for and was limited to a particular situation of false teaching.” Unfortunately, churches originating in a masculine culture tend to omit looking at the historical context of the passage and interpret 1 Tim. 2:11-12 as a universal principle for a church manual.
Passages about mutuality
1 Cor. 11:11-12—“Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God.” In this passage, the Apostle Paul appears to be saying that based on redemption, males and females share equality in the sight of God.
Gal. 3:28—“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” F. F. Bruce notes the fundamental truth of this passage shows that “if restriction on it [the principles about mutuality] are found elsewhere in the Pauline corpus, they are to be understood in relation to Gal. 3:28, and not vice versa” (ibid, 83). That is, 1 Cor. 14:34-35 and 1 Tim. 2:12 teachings about the appropriate women’s role in the congregation should be understood only as it supports the central truth provided in Gal. 3:28. Any explanation that contradicts Gal. 3:28 cannot be truthful.
One criteria for working in a church is that we are given a gift for that work. “Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them” (Rom. 12:6). However, the Bible never indicates that the gifts are given based on gender (ibid, 93). Marianne Thompson notes, “the starting point for such a theology of ministry lies in the God who gives gifts for ministry and in the God who is no respecter of persons” (ibid, 94). Since God gives all the spiritual gifts to both genders, we must conclude that both genders are equally qualified for all functions.
Scripture gives considerable guidance about the spiritual gifts (ibid, 259):
- “Christ gives spiritual gifts to believers through the Holy Spirit.” (Eph. 4:8, 11; 1 Cor. 12:8-9,11)
- “Spiritual gifts are given to each believer without exception.” (1 Cor. 12:7, 1 Peter 4:10)
- “Spiritual gifts are gifts of God’s grace.” (Eph. 4:7, Rom. 12:6, 1 Pet. 4:10)
- “The Spirit gives many different gifts, providing for rich diversity of ministry in the church.” (1 Cor. 12:8-10. 28; Rom 12:6)
- “Spiritual gifts are meant to be employed for the benefit of others.” (1 Cor. 12:7, 25; Rom. 12:6, Eph. 4:11-12, 1 Pet. 4:10)
- “The gifted members of the church are parts of the body of Christ and therefore individually members of one another.” (1 Cor. 12:13, 14, 27; Rom. 12:5)
- “Gifts must always be used in love. Without love they are useless.” (1 Cor. 13:1-3)
Most noteworthy, “Women receive the same gifts as men” (ibid, 259).
Symptoms of Abuse
Abuse can occur at the hands of a female or a male. The first step in abuse recovery is recognition of the abuse. When you finally recognize abuse, you can stop blaming yourself solely, and start recognizing the truth—both parties share in the lack of communication skills that enable abuse, and the abuse results from insensitivity by the abuser.
To assess your symptoms of abuse, rate the number of times in a month (on the average) that the below statements characterize your relationship (1=almost never, 2=two or three times per month, 3=frequently, more than three times per month):
- You not only suffer from angry outbursts, but the angry person blames you for their anger.
- When socializing with friends or relatives, your abuse is hidden.
- The other person confesses to an abuse, apologizes, commits to reform, and then acts abusive again.
- Your abuser neglects to ask for your input in planning for future events or directions.
- Almost everything you do, including the way you dress or appear, must be approved by the other person.
- You feel blamed for the relationship problems.
- You feel like you are walking on “eggshells” to reduce conflict.
- When you share your feelings about a disagreement, your feelings or statements are invalidated.
- You do not feel understood.
- The other person seems to interpret your statements and behaviors more negatively than you meant.
- Miscommunication affects your relationship.
- Your abuser refuses to discuss your problems.
- Small issues escalate into an ugly argument.
Total your scores for the above symptoms. Your total score should be between 13 and 39.
Green light—your relationship is not showing signs of abuse = 18 or less
Caution light—your relationship is showing some potential for abuse = 19 to 27
Red light—your relationship shows significant signs of abuse = 28 or more
If you score totals somewhere between 19 and 27, compare your score for the first six items to your score for the last eight items. If your score results almost entirely from the last eight items, it results more from a lack of communication skills than from abuse. A score of ten or more from the first six items indicates a high potential for abuse.
Truths about Recovery from Abuse
- Your abuser will almost certainly deny abuse in your relationship. His or her scores on the above assessment will total much less than yours. However, the victim’s perception of abuse indicates the only appropriate score. Do not argue with the abuser about the scores—in this case, the victim’s perception is all that matters.
- Your abuser will probably see your assessment and effort at repair as a confrontation by you—an attempt to discredit him or her.
- Your abuser will probably refuse to get help. He or she is usually satisfied with their behavior and believe that you are the one who needs to change, not him or her.
- Upon finding that you will not accept further verbal abuse, your abuser may initiate physical abuse in a “last ditch” effort to control you.
- If you score 28 or higher on the above assessment and the abuser refuses to admit a need for his or her personal change, your relationship may need to die.
How to Start Recovery
Regardless what happens to the relationship, take the following steps to protect yourself:
- Get counseling help. You will need emotional support during recovery. Get professional help if available. If not, form a group of close friends who will hear your stories and support you emotionally. You will probably need these friends now more than ever before. Study the remainder of this book very carefully.
- Ask your abuser to go to counseling with you. If he or she refuses, go yourself.
- Set boundaries for your abuser. Let your abuser know what behavior is acceptable to you and what is not (physical hitting, yelling, threats, attempts to control you and your relationships, attempts to control your movement or activities, withholding financial support, locking you out of the home, throwing out your clothes, demands for sex). By establishing boundaries, you help to define abuse so the abuser can better recognize it. So, firmly let him or her know when they fail to comply with your boundaries, every time.
- Ask for changes that you want in your relationship. This may include setting boundaries for how much time you need to spend by yourself, how much time to spend with friends, how much time to spend together, a time of the day to discuss issues, the need to be included in discussions about plans for the future, and the need to be included in discussions about finances. Correspondingly, require changes in the abuser’s behavior. This may include how much time he or she spends outside the home, limits to drinking and gambling, limits to illicit drugs, limits to sexual conduct including pornography and extramarital affairs, a requirement for gainful employment, and limits to socializing with the opposite gender.
- Refuse to accept threats (e.g., “If you refuse to ask me for permission to go shopping, I’ll lock you out of the house.). That is, consistently “call the threat” by choosing to engage in the threatened behavior. By refusing to accept threats, you let the abuser know that threats are unacceptable, and that you retain self-worth.
- Leave the relationship if your abuser refuses to stop abusive behavior, or fails to give any indication that he or she is willing to control their behavior.
- Leave the relationship if your abuser sexually abuses your children. Incest is an addiction, so protect your children by staying away from those with the addiction. If the abuser gets psychological help to recover, avoid reconnecting with that person until you are absolutely sure that they have changed. Even then, avoid leaving your children alone with him or her.
- Identify another place to live in case you must flee your abuser. Ask friends, relatives, and anyone else for possible places. Make sure these people keep your requests confidential. Avoid tipping off your abuser about any plans.
- Always carry enough money on yourself (or have it available in a very safe place) to pay for transportation to a place that is safe for you to live. Keep a packed bag of clothing, personal items, and important documents in a safe place in case you have to suddenly leave. Make a plan of how to escape to a safe place in case you need to leave home suddenly. And avoid telling anyone else about your “safe place”—your spouse will probably try to follow you there with the intent of harm.
- Get a job, even part-time, outside the home. If you need to flee home, even a small income will help tremendously. No one should feel “stuck” in an abusive relationship because of finances. Gradually save a small part of your income to help pay for transportation and a safe place to live.
The Effect of Abuse on Self-Esteem
Abuse systematically destroys self-esteem. Thus, it gradually destroys your God-given identity and self-worth. Those who suffer from abuse always suffer from a damaged image of their self.
Self-Esteem—what develops it?
Self-esteem results from seeing a reflection (a mirror image) of ourselves as we interact with other individuals (Schiraldi, 1993, 17). It functions like looking into a mirror. When we see a reflection of ourselves through someone’s reaction toward us, we use that information to determine our self-worth. Thus, self-esteem might be more appropriately called “other-esteem.” It rarely comes from yourself, but it results from your perception of the other individual’s opinion about you.
Exercise 4-1: Please explain how the following affects you:
If self-esteem results from our perception of another’s opinion of us, what is the expected normal effect on your self-esteem:
- If someone yells at you?
- If someone threatens you?
- If someone hits you physically?
- If someone invalidates your feelings or statements?
- If someone spends money gambling that would normally be used to support you financially?
- If someone keeps you isolated, or restricts you from socializing with your friends?
- If someone fails to ask for your input when making plans that affect you?
- If your marriage partner has an extramarital affair?
Self-esteem is damaged largely due to the negative image that one sees of himself or herself in the eyes of others. Chronic false beliefs reinforced by an ungodly culture fuel this negative self-image.
We lack self-esteem only because we believe a lot of things that are untrue! (Schiraldi, 1993)
What common false beliefs kill a person’s self-esteem?
I am abused because I am a bad person. According to the Bible, we are all born sinful. That is, every person is inherently bad. Some people believe that they are abused as punishment for their sins. But when our sins are forgiven, we are given a new nature. Forgiveness means that God ceases punishment for our past. Bad things may still happen to us, but not as punishment for our past. For Christians, we were bad, but we are now redeemed. We were wearing filthy rags but we are now justified, aswhite as snow.
No one loves me. Some people believe that no one loves them. This, too, is false. It is unrealistic to assume that no one loves a person simply because he or she is unable to see that love, first-hand. When questioned, almost every person will acknowledge someone who is a parent, brother, sister, child, a church member, a pastor, or friend who cares about them. And, regardless of the love of others, God loves us enough that He died for us.
I should always please others (live up to their expectations of me). Some people believe that they should always be able to please others. Inevitably, such a person tries to live up to the unspoken and unrealistic expectations of their abuser. This attitude gives control to the abuser and leads to an unrealistically low self-esteem.
There is something wrong with me—I am defective and inferior to other people. Some people believe that something is wrong with them, personally. Instead of realizing that a failed relationship, an illness, or some other uncontrollable factor might have caused a disappointment, they blame themselves for every disappointment. Regardless, many people eventually feel that something is wrong with them simply because they experience emotional numbness, guilt, loss of appetite, sleep, concentration, and loss of energy caused by an abuser. These uncomfortable feelings are not normal for them. However, the belief that something is wrong with them is a misperception. It is normal to have negative feelings that result from an aggressive environment. These emotions and symptoms are a normal reaction to an ungodly environment. These are normal feelings for a very abnormal environment. The event and environment, not the feeling or person, is abnormal.
Almost everyone can feel inferior when compared to those with spectacular accomplishments. However, you possess many skills that have been honed over decades of practice. God values each individual equally, including the one who may be handicapped in some way. All are valued, equally. There is no inferior person. Even a one-month old baby who possesses no skills whatsoever is highly valued. If a one-month old baby is not inferior, neither are you. Each Christian has “run the good race, and fought the good fight.” The Apostle Paul was able to exclaim, “I have kept the faith, I have finished the course.” As a joint heir with Christ, you are an overcomer.
I am hopeless—there is no future for me. An abuser can easily leave the victim feeling defeated, especially when we have few friends. However, God gives us friends. With Christ as our leader, hope abounds. Even when we totally fail, there is a bright future. God redeems our future, especially those with abuse. The Bible says, “These three remain: faith, hope, and love.” God will change our most hopeless situation into hope and purpose. God will bring love when our abuser brings hate and despair.
I should always feel respected and viewed as perfect. Every person would enjoy being put on a super-spiritual pedestal of near-sainthood by others in their local church. Subsequently, as they start to feel anger and resentment during times of abuse, they naturally feel guilt, stemming from the belief that they should be perfect. They fail to accept that they are merely human, not yet perfectly sanctified. The truth is that while everyone likes perfection, we are all merely growing spiritually. No person is perfect this side of heaven.
I am unworthy. Many Christians believe that they are unworthy. The truth is that we all WERE unworthy, filthy, and wretched. However, we are now joint-heirs with Christ. We are no longer unworthy and filthy any more than our joint-heir, Jesus Himself. We are now spotless, redeemed, and made worthy through the blood of the Lamb.
Exercise 4-2: Explain which of the above beliefs plagued you in the past, or still provide a problem now.
Exercise 4-3: The following laws were adapted and edited for style from Howard’s Laws as described in Building Self-Esteem, A 125 Day Program (Schiraldi, 1993, 25). The Bible teaches the following five laws of our unconditional worth before God:
- God values you infinitely and eternally. Please search and be able to discuss at least two Scriptures that substantiate that God values you infinitely (see Jn. 3:16, Titus 3:4-7, 2 Peter 3:9, Ps 121, 139:13, Matt. 28:20, Jer. 31:3).
How has God shown you that He values you infinitely and eternally?
- God values each individual equally. Please search and be able to discuss at least two Scriptures that substantiate that the following externals neither add to nor diminish from our worth (see 1 Sam. 16:7, Acts 10:34-35, Rom. 12:4, Jer. 29:11).
- Our market worth (how much money we can earn)
- Our social worth (how many friends esteem us)
- Our ability to perform or accomplish tasks
How has God shown you that He values each individual equally?
- Your worth is complete in Christ, but it is not completed. Please search and be able to discuss at least two Scriptures that substantiate that your worth is complete in Christ, but it is not completed (see Eph. 2:10, Phil. 1:6, Rom. 12:2, 2 Cor. 5:17, Jer. 31:3).
How has God shown you that your worth is complete in Christ, but not completed?
- God’s assessment of your eternal value never changes (even if someone rejects you, or when—not if—you fail). Please search and be able to discuss at least two Scriptures that substantiate that your eternal value never changes (see Jer. 31:3, Jn. 3:16, Rom. 8:37, Jn. 16:7, Matt. 10:22).
How has God shown you that His assessment of your eternal value never changes?
- God never stops pursuing you and your children. Please search and be able to discuss at least two Scriptures that substantiate that God never stops pursuing you or your children (see Luke chapter 15).
Exercise 4-4: If self-esteem comes from seeing a reflection of ourselves as we look at others, describe the kind of self-esteem that is possible when we look toward other Christians, including our pastor and other church members, instead of looking toward God?
Exercise 4-5: If self-esteem comes from seeing a reflection of ourselves as we look at others, describe the kind of self-esteem that results if we fail to look toward God, i.e., fail to have daily devotional time with Him? What is your plan for devotions?
- We lack self-esteem only because we believe a lot of things that are untrue (Schiraldi, 1993).
- We cannot value our self if we do not spend time with the One (God) who values us in truth!
- “You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise (Galatians 3:26-29).”
- “So you are no longer a slave, but a son; and since you are a son, God has made you also an heir (Galatians 4:7).”
Exercise 4-6: Evaluate how the above four truths apply to you as a victim of abuse. Describe how these truths apply to your personal self-esteem.
Hofstede, G. Culture’s consequences: Comparing values, behaviors, institutions, and organizations across nations (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. 2001
Hofstede, G., Hofstede G. J., Minkov, M. Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind (Rev. ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill. 2010.
Schiraldi, Glenn R. Building Self-Esteem: A 125 Day Program. Ellicott City MD: Chevron Publishing Corp., 1993.