by Hannele Ottschofski | 26 May 2023 |
Some evangelical churches in the United States teach a subject they call “biblical womanhood”: it’s about how (they believe) women should behave in light of the Bible. They see the patriarchal world in which women were subservient to men as God’s original will.
The pattern is still valid today, they say; they use the word “complementarian” because as men lead and women follow, they are “complementary” in their roles.
The subservience of women to men is applied not only to marriage but also to the church, where in some congregations women are not allowed to have authority over men or to teach males above the age of 14. Some churches have made this a test of faith and true Christianity.
In her book The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth, university professor Beth Allison Barr, the wife of a Baptist pastor, traces how the subjugation of women was twisted into biblical “truth.” She concludes that what churches teach about biblical womanhood is not biblical at all.
It wasn’t always been this way. In the Seventh-day Adventist Church, which was co-founded by a woman, many women preached the gospel as evangelists and led people to faith and commitment to Christ. God still calls women into His service. Ellen White wrote in 1901,
It is the accompaniment of the Holy Spirit of God that prepares workers, both men and women, to become pastors to the flock of God (Testimonies for the Church 6:322).
Can the church restrict who the Holy Spirit is able to commission? Some men, it appears, think so—and are willing to distort the Scriptures in order to keep it that way.
The ezer distortion
In the creation story we read that God created both male and female beings as “adams“—that is, human beings. The word “adam” (Hebrew אָדָם ādām) simply means “person” as opposed to animals and other living things.
So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.’ Genesis 1:27, 28 NIV.
The triune God, who created man in His image, did not want him to remain without a counterpart. That’s why we read,
The Lord God said, ‘It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.’ (Genesis 2:18 NIV)
Some translations provide a note here saying that the word ezer, which is translated as helper, is more accurately understood as “counterpart” or “equivalent.” The woman was to be a counterpart for the man. So with His own hands God formed the woman from Adam’s side so that she would find her equal place beside him.
When we read these verses, the King James Version translation rings in our ears: “I will make him an help meet for him”—whatever that means. In the German translation, Luther’s word “gehilfin” presents the “helpmate” as somebody of lesser worth who is supposed to assist.
Ezer, however, is used in other places in the Bible to refer to the help of God, an ally who is actually superior to the one being helped. The woman is created as a partner, and nothing in this passage suggests that they are not equal partners who serve each other equally or that the woman should be subordinate to the man or that they have different “roles.”
Sarah Fischer in her Hebrew Word Lessons writes,
This word, translated as helper, is not about making brunch and darning a man’s socks. This word means an ally or rescuer, someone who comes running when the people cry out for help. An ezer drops everything to save those in need… An ezer is a hero.
The authority distortion
In the second account of man’s creation, in Genesis 2, we encounter the word usually translated as rib—but actually, the word means “side.” The woman is created from the whole side of the man. They were to live side by side and fulfill their mission. God gave them equal dominion over creation so that they would care for creation together as equal partners.
There is no explicit or implied mention of man’s authority or leadership over woman, except as a sad result of the fall. And even there, the Bible’s statements have mostly been translated to support the patriarchal ideas that the mostly male translators experienced in their culture.
When the man beheld his mate, he said, “‘This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called “woman,” for she was taken out of man.’ (v. 23)
In Hebrew, this is a play on words: Ish = man, Ishah = woman and shows how closely they are connected. God created women and men for mutuality, equality, co-responsibility, intimacy, and to love and glorify God together, as full and equal partners.
In his book Women in the Church, Samuele Bacchiocchi sides with complementarian theologians, propagating functional dependency and subordination of women. He throws out other interpretations as being the work of feminist theologians, thereby implying their worthlessness.
The curse distortion
The Vulgate Bible translation of Genesis 3:16 has influenced thinking through the centuries:
He also said to the woman: ‘I will multiply your sufferings and your conceptions: in pain you will give birth to children, and you will be under the power of the man, and he will rule over you.’
Again: remember that patriarchy was a result of sin! At the fall, man took dominion over woman, and the Bible describes this as a consequence of sin, not as a divine demand.
Many see Genesis 3:16 as a curse upon the woman. But nowhere do we find a Bible passage where God curses the woman. He curses the serpent and the ground—but never the woman.
Bruce C.E. Fleming, in The Book of Eden, based on the work of his wife, Dr. Joy Fleming, traces the roots of the abuse of women back to tendentious translations of this text. He gives us a more correct translation of Genesis 3:16, one in which God instructs the woman about what has happened, to her and to them, now that they are mortal and fallen.
(Line 1) I will surely multiply your sorrowful toil in fieldwork and your conception.
(Line 2) With effort you will bring forth children
(Line 3) Your [loving] desire [is] to your husband
(Line 4) But he [is rebelliously ruling over himself and] will rule over you.
The male lens
The world in which women have always lived is a world of men. So it is no wonder the Bible is often interpreted through a male lens. Texts have been hijacked to say that women are second-class citizens: after all, they are the daughters of Eve, the original troublemaker. The result is a patriarchy that values men and their achievements more than women and their achievements. Men dominate, and the oppression of women is a result of this system.
- We see it in the unfair treatment of women in countries where they are denied human rights.
- We feel it when women are victims of abuse, whether physical or psychological.
- We hear it in gendered language that excludes women.
- It comes through when women are ridiculed, when men are overbearing and arrogant.
Of course, the fall changed the ideal state of human beings. The consequences of sin are described in the Bible. Eve received her punishment, and that was pain in childbearing. What else could women do? Accept it all and have children, behave and be quiet?
Interestingly, we don’t insist that all men must be farmers, toiling in the ground, because of sin. Yet some continue to hold that patriarchy was instituted by God in Genesis, rather than simply described. Humankind has fought back against every result of the fall—sickness, toil, death, and unhappiness—except, insist some theologians, the subjugation of women under men must stand forever!
Yet let us remember that patriarchy, though described in these early passages of the Bible, wasn’t God’s plan. It was the result of sin. The Bible contains the story of humanity, but also the story of redemption. God is a loving parent who loves His children—His daughters as much as His sons.
Why hold as a sacred theology a system that was instituted by Satan?
Hannele Ottschofski writes from Hechingen, Germany. She is the author of Tired of Waiting: Women in Church and Society.