At no point is faith in the entire Bible being so viciously and successfully attacked today as at the point of the “woman question,” and the Church so far attempts no defense here of her children. It assumes that the interests of merely a few ambitious women are involved, whereas the very fundamentals of our faith are at stake. (Katherine Bushnell, God’s Word to Women: One Hundred Bible Studies on Woman’s Place in the Divine Economy)
Here comes that “woman question” again!
The words above could have been written in 1978, at the height of the second-wave-feminism controversies of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, or even today, because it is clear that the “woman question” is very much alive. The funny thing is that Katherine Bushnell penned those words nearly one hundred years ago in her introduction to God’s Word to Women, a published series of one hundred highly technical Bible study lessons on the pertinent Bible passages.
The thing is that we’re still talking about it today, still amid much controversy.
Ancient materials and evidences revealing more about women’s lives, status, and roles have been newly discovered or freshly presented in the last one hundred years; and a whole boatload of new research and written materials on those evidences have appeared to accompany them.
Over the decades and right up to this minute, contemporary voices have added to the discussion among Christians regarding biblical research on the topic.
Clearly, it’s just as controversial today as it was over a hundred years ago—possibly more so.
The Woman Question: What’s the Problem?
Why is the “woman question” so controversial?
Well, for one thing, it’s confusing. Can I get an “amen”?
Yet, what makes it so confusing?
One element contributing to the confusion is the conflict surrounding the topic. During the time it took me to write this article, in fact, I saw several blog posts by prominent Christian personalities expressing a variety of opposing or nuanced viewpoints on women’s roles. They addressed how they believed women should reflect “a gentle and quiet spirit” (along with what “a gentle and quiet spirit” ought to or ought not mean), whether or not a woman working outside the home reflected a godly and biblical life, and whether or not or how woman is created as a “helpmeet,” “partner,” or “ezer” to man. And this is just the tip of the iceberg; we haven’t even considered the number of published titles on the topic that reflect very different, even opposing ideas.
In this article, too, I’m only considering the discussion within the Body of Christ, not the world-at-large. The primary difficulty is that even among Christians who love the Lord, believe in the atoning work of Christ for our sin and our need for that atonement, and hold Scripture as authoritative and even inerrant, there are differences of opinion and interpretation on the women’s issue. And, because we’re talking about Christians here, another confusion-maker is that each of the contributing voices typically supports their propositions with some type of biblical argument.
Additionally, the tone used in the discussions on the topic, published and otherwise, among Christian experts, clergy, and lay-people, has quite often been less than kind or generous. So, now, on top of confusion and controversy, you have hurt others.
As if that weren’t enough, in more academic and sociological terms, sweeping cultural changes throughout history both inside and outside the church contributes to the confusion.
Another component contributing to the controversial nature of this topic is time. The mere act of consuming all of the information and biblical interpretations involved—or even just enough to become knowledgeable of the basics—is daunting. If you also widen your research to include the general, age-old questions concerning women’s and men’s relationships, women’s roles in home and church, leadership identities, and all of that, well, there’s even more to consume.
Yet, even if you find time and ability to consume it, you still have the work of understanding it and filtering through it all. Then, if you are a Christian, your added challenge is to discern a biblical stance.
It’s a tall order.
This is particularly true if you don’t have seminary-level or Bible school training and don’t feel confident that you could study it thoroughly enough to produce a biblically reliable understanding.
Many people feel overwhelmed. They end up either doing nothing and, thus, remain confused by the issue or they rely on their emotions, the accepted practices of their church and other Christian groups, and the voices and interpretations of others: friends, pastors, families, scholarly experts, and other authority figures in their subculture.
Don’t read me wrong here. Learning about beliefs through observation, conversation, and reading the interpretations of experts and scholars within orthodox Christianity are all excellent ideas and have their place in the overall process; but difficulties still arise when solely collecting information this way.
Truly, you need to gear up for it. Yet, it helps to have a plan for studying it and some guidance on how to study it, rather than information about what you “should” believe.
I wanted to explore my own questions so that I’d have courage and confidence to “stand on my own two biblical and theological feet.” For me, that meant attending seminary for both a masters and a doctorate. From those years of study and experience came the following steps, which I hope will also help you sort through the issue with confidence and credibility. I share these more fully in my book, Women, Leadership, and the Bible: How Do I Know What to Believe?
5 Simple Steps to Thinking through the “Women’s Question” Biblically
These five steps will help you get started with thinking clearly about this topic, set you on the road to thinking for yourself about it, and hopefully demystify the process for you.
Put your process on pause for a minute, though, and imagine the confidence and freedom you’ll experience once you’ve gained understanding of the topic. What impact could that have on your conversations at home, relationships at church, and your flow throughout the rest of your life? Knowing why you are studying this will help you move with purpose and determination through the how of studying it.
Now, ask the Lord for wisdom on this, because you’ll need it. Remember that God has given those in Christ his own Holy Spirit, who gives guidance, wisdom, and illumination. Although this plan is challenging and you might feel frustrated at times, you can do it in the Spirit’s power; so start there.
Step 1 – Prepare
During the preparation phase, you will be adopting attitudes and perspectives—some new, some old—and getting your mind to a place where your study will actually mean something.
First, ask questions about everything. Assume nothing. List any and all questions that arise in your mind. Challenge every presupposition of which you’re aware, including (and especially) your own.
Second, add variety to your study resources and be fair to each of them. Include a number of resources and voices that come from outside your denomination/tradition, yet which are still within orthodox, Bible-believing Christianity.
Third, be prepared for ambiguity. Vagueness, uncertainty, doubt, indistinctness, and the like will surely crop up. Here is advice for handling ambiguity, once you’ve accepted the fact that it’s coming:
- Find a way to face the tension. Presumably, because I’m so exceedingly persuasive I’m sure, you’ve already acknowledged the possibility and probability of ambiguity. But you don’t have to fear it, because you know it’s coming.
- Recognize the sliding scale. The more you delve into your study, the more you’ll (most likely) see that the issue is not cut-and-dried, and that there are many nuances to opinions within the main positions on the issue. This creates more subtly varying positions and practices than the simple dichotomy represented by the two major groups of “complementarian” and “egalitarian.”
- Suspend your judgment. When you can’t wrap your mind around a concept, let it rest and return to it when you can give it fresh eyes.
Step 2 – Identify
In this step, you’re going to identify the major positions held concerning this issue and the major Bible passages used to determine each position. Also, you will begin to collect how those passages are interpreted and observations of how those who hold that position say their interpretations should be applied in day-to-day life.
Create a graphic—a spectrum—so you can see the various positions at a glance and where they lie in proximity to each other’s interpretations. In other words, “spectrum-ize” your findings. Start with anchor points showing the two most extreme positions you’re aware of. Here’s a simple example:
To your spectrum, add “tweaks” and nuances to interpretations where they’d logically go in comparison to the initial major positions you identified. However, judging each position will not come until step 4 (“Filter”).
Step 3 – Study
Now you’ll begin your Scripture study. You’ll find these techniques described fully in Women, Leadership, and the Bible: How Do I Know What to Believe?, without a lot of the jargon and extra technicalities present in many books on Bible interpretation.
Aim for studying—one by one—each of the passages you’ve identified on your spectrum at the very highest level of which you’re capable. Then fill out your studies with the studies and interpretations of experts who have more capabilities. Use commentaries, Bible dictionaries, study Bibles, Bible atlases, etc. In this brief article, my aims are modest in terms of teaching you how to do this effectively, but I will describe a few techniques by which to analyze passages and ideas and name a few resources to give you some traction.
Once you’ve studied the major/obvious passages, list and study any “silent” passages on women and humanity in general, along with feminine imagery for God. This will guide you toward a more comprehensive theology for human relationships in general, as well as women’s roles specifically.
3 Techniques That Will Help You Explore and Understand Passages More Accurately
Your mission, should you decide to accept it, is to examine each passage at three different levels: ancient culture, literary context, and literary content. Let’s briefly look at some questions to ask for each level.
1. Examine the Ancient Culture
Examining the ancient culture means the culture of the original writer. Some questions to ask include:
- What does the historical and cultural context tell you about these words and the scene?
- What can ancient archaeological and sociological discoveries and studies tell you about the text’s culture, the author, or the document’s recipients?
- What can a Bible atlas tell you about the geography, topography, or itinerary the author is describing?
Perhaps the most important takeaway here, though, is that the culture of the biblical authors and originally intended readers was vastly different from ours. Whatever we can discover in our ancient context studies will illuminate for us the priorities, interests, images, and understanding of the people who wrote, transmitted, or received the information.
2. Examine the Literary Context
The literary context of the actual passage includes both what the author has written in the passage and elsewhere. Many questions can help you dig into the passage, but here are a few that’ll rev your engine:
- What book contains the passage? Who wrote the book, and when? To whom? Under what circumstances? In what form?
- Where is this passage placed in that book? What comes before and after that passage?
- What themes, issues, and key/important words do you find in the passage? In the book?
3. Examine the Literary Content
When examining the literary content, you’re looking directly at the passage you’re studying: words and grammar. Ask these questions to get started:
- What exactly does the author say?
- How does he say it?
- What words does he use? (If possible, use original language study materials. A reverse-interlinear Bible can be useful for this. Additionally, check several English translations to see how various translators have interpreted it.)
- Look at the grammar. How do the words relate to each other? Also compare words and grammar the author of this passage uses in other passages and other books, if applicable. Does he use the same word(s) and/or phrases and/or grammar in other places? If so, does he use them the same way or differently?
- Use commentaries on the passage and the book as a whole to shed more light on these intricacies.
In the next step, you’ll put this all together so you can begin discerning how God wants us to live and what you think you’re supposed to believe about women’s roles!
Step 4 – Filter
We need to sort through the study we accomplish, but also the stimuli, input, information, opinions, and interpretations we encounter. Yet, how?
9 Filters for Determining What You Believe God Wants You to Believe
Let me offer you nine criteria—five external, three internal—for evaluating all of the positions you’ve identified, spectrumized, and studied. Line them up and examine each one carefully and methodically.
Begin with the external filters, in list-order. This provides you with an opportunity for some measure of objectivity.
|Scripture||The Holy Spirit|
It’s probably clear by now that in my opinion, as well as in my Christian tradition, Scripture study takes priority over other factors when discerning God’s will for our lives. That’s why I place it first in this list of external filters and why it got its own step. Knowing what God’s Word says helps us keep clear on what God’s reality is concerning an issue in comparison to, or even versus, what our feelings and other subjective inputs are.
So, a position must pass muster when it comes to Scripture. If you find one or more points at which the Scripture bolstering that position does not hold up to your scrutiny, at this point you can discard it.
While I believe Scripture study should take first place in a Christian’s discernment process, it may also be clear by now that I do not believe our Bible study takes place within a vacuum. That’s why it’s not the only filter.
Because he is God incarnate, we do well when we run our positions through Jesus’ words and actions. When it comes to the questions surrounding women’s roles, scrutinize each potential position, asking whether it is compatible with Jesus’ teaching, actions, and interactions with or concerning women.
Church (Historic and contemporary)
By “church,” I am referring to the Body of Christ, both historic and contemporary. A lot of Christians over a lot of centuries have thought, prayed, and studied Scripture about women’s roles. Those in your local church who have a level of expertise can be your starting place for helping you scrutinize the position(s) you’re considering. Then be sure to widen your circles of scrutiny to what you can understand about the historic church.
Your community should not ultimately define what decision you choose, but you should definitely notice the examples of what godly people the Lord has placed around you and with whom you live and share community and fellowship. Paying attention to your community (family, church body, denomination, etc.) as you filter is an important “check” in your discernment process. Hold the position(s) you’re considering up to the examples of the people you’ve come to respect as people who study, believe, and love the Bible.
The key component to utilizing conversation well as a filter in your discernment process is listening. Listen, listen, and listen some more, always to understand. You’re a student of this issue, trying to understand it biblically and theologically, so you can discern how to understand it in other ways: socially, emotionally, relationally, etc.
You’d do well to have many conversations with people you know have already studied the topic quite a bit. It’s like playing a sport with someone you know is better than you: it ups your game. The good news is that you have a lot of study under your belt by this time and the result will be more effective conversations. At this point, your understanding of particular positions, supporting passages used, interpretations of those verses, and applications of those interpretations is much more robust than when you started. So, as you listen and converse, you can also interact with and assess various ideas.
The Holy Spirit
We know that the Holy Spirit has many purposes and objectives, some of which include (1) illuminating our minds and hearts (e.g. John 16:13 and Ephesians 1:17), (2) uniting Christ’s Body (e.g. Ephesians), (3) loving all those in Christ (e.g. Romans 5:5), and (4) growing and maturing believers (e.g. Eph. 4:1–16). Knowing this, trust him to lead and guide your discernment. Keep an open, humble prayerful attitude. Consider each position in the light of these works of the Spirit: does it reflect and support those works?
What firmly-held beliefs and opinions, which we Christians commonly call “convictions,” do you hold already regarding women’s roles? Be specific. Next, hold your own personal convictions up to the fire: Where did they come from? Scripture or elsewhere?
By this time, you should be down to a “short list” of positions you’re considering, even if it’s with some “tweaks” and caveats. So, following prayer, consider these criteria:
- Does this position pass through all of the external and internal filters thus far?
- How well does it “sit” in your soul alongside your study of Scripture?
- How well does it further bringing the church toward maturity?
If you can provide satisfactory answers to each of these questions, then look to the Lord for a settledness in your heart and soul on the position you’ve identified. If settledness doesn’t come even after all of this study, analysis, and prayer, then you should probably look into why it isn’t coming. Consider seeking trusted counsel or running it through each of the filters once more.
Step 5 – Choose
This step comes in two parts: choosing and considering.
- First, what is your choice? Write it down: the position and all its various tweaks. What are the major Scripture passages, thoughts, ideas, filters, and feelings that led to your choosing that position?
- Second, consider what impact this choice will have in your life, relationships, and ministry. Note that we do this at the end of the process, as an effect of belief, rather than at the beginning of the process as a cause for belief.
At this point, I suggest you share what you’ve determined with one or more people. Tell them how and why you reached your conclusion. Be prepared that they might not agree with you on some or all points. Yet, consider their questions and ideas as further help to you in refining your own study and discernment.
Congratulations! You’ve done a lot of work to determine what you believe God says about women’s roles. I’m confident that your understanding of and facility with Scripture has grown, in addition to your understanding of this particular issue. As a bonus, you can use this same process for studying anything in the Bible, any tough topic, or any particular set of questions you want or need to understand better. As a double bonus, you’ll be able to converse with others about this topic with more confidence and grace from this point forward.
My sincere hope is that you’ll be able to listen more openly and with less defensiveness or fear, because you better understand why people believe what they believe about women’s roles. My prayer is that your biblical and theological growth, along with the grace your conversations and their tone bring to those within your sphere of influence, contributes to unity within the Body of Christ. Hey, if it’s good enough for Jesus (see John 17, among other passages), it’s good enough for me.
Daily Life in Biblical Times by Oded Borowski (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2003)
Daughters of the Church: Women and Ministry from New Testament Times to the Present by Ruth A. Tucker and Walter Liefeld (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1987)
Dictionary of New Testament Background, edited by Craig A. Evans and Stanley E. Porter (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000)
Discovering Eve: Ancient Israelite Women in Context by Carol Myers (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988)
The IVP Atlas of Bible History by Paul Lawrence (Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2006)
The IVP Bible Background Commentaries (any of them!). This series includes these titles (all published by InterVarsity Press):
|Old Testament by John H. Walton, Victor H. Matthews, and Mark W. Chavalas (2000)
Genesis–Deuteronomy by John H. Walton and Victor H. Matthews (1997)
New Testament by Craig S. Keener (1993)
Women’s Life in Greece & Rome by Mary R. Lefkowitz and Maureen B. Fant (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982)
How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth by Gordon D. Fee & Douglas Stuart, 2nd ed. (Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1993).
Interpreting Biblical Literature by Michael R. Cosby (Grantham, PA: Stony Run, 2009).
Women, Leadership, and the Bible: How Do I Know What to Believe? A Practical Guide to Biblical Interpretation by Natalie R. W. Eastman (Portland, OR: Cascade Books, 2014).
|Helps for English-only Readers:
Interlinear for the Rest of Us by William D. Mounce (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006)
The Complete Word Study Dictionary: New Testament by Spiros Zodhiates (Chattanooga: AMG Publishers, 1992) or Old Testament by Warren Baker and Eugene Carpenter (2003). AMG also publishes The Complete Word Study New Testament (1991) and Old Testament (1994).
Online Helps (Bible texts, parallels, maps, timelines, outlines, commentaries, etc. Lots!):