A Challenge for Proponents of Female Subordination
To Prove Their Case from The Bible.
By Dr. Gilbert Bilezikian
For a short bio of Dr. Bilezikian click here
"Open my eyes that I may see
Glimpses of truth Thou hast for me.
Place in my hands the wonderful Key
That shall unclasp and set me free"
Clara H. Scott, Hymn
The purpose of this challenge is to prompt Christians
to grapple with biblical facts rather than to accept traditional assumptions
about female roles. What is at stake is not the role of women as much as the
definition of the church as authentic biblical community. Is it possible for a
local church to aspire to define itself as biblical community when more than
half its constituency is excluded from participating in the most significant
aspects of its life?
In the course of history, the church has often lost its
way. For instance, during a thousand years, the church forgot something as
crucial as the way of salvation and replaced it with methods of salvation by
works that never worked. The biblical teaching was finally recovered by the
Reformers just a few centuries ago.
Likewise, many present-day Christians believe that,
along the way, the church has lost its own definition as community and replaced
it with false definitions that reduce it to the status of institution,
establishment, hierarchy, corporation and programs. This challenge provides an
incentive to help Christians rediscover for themselves the biblical definition
of the church as God's community of oneness.
To anyone who might be tempted to think that this
challenge is a feminist plot to subvert the traditional church, it should be
pointed out that feminism is a quest for equal rights and equal power. A basic
premise of this presentation is the exact opposite, the belief that the Bible
requires all Christians to pursue relationships of mutual submission and of
An effective approach to tackle this challenge would be
to go through this document one page at a time, to check the references with an
open Bible at hand, and to search the Scriptures in order to supply the
Responses will be evaluated by a panel of three Professors
Emeriti of the Department of Biblical and Theological Studies at Wheaton College
who, between them, represent more than a century of cumulative university-level
Responses may be sent to the address below.
For a fuller treatment of the themes presented in this
document consult the vast resources referenced in the catalog of CBE, online at
www.cbeinternational.org, or contact CBE where copies of this document may be
ordered: Christians for Biblical Equality, 122 West Franklin Avenue, Suite
218, Minneapolis, MN 55404-2451, (612) 872-6898
1. The Challenge
Cite a text from the creation account in Genesis 1 and 2
that enjoins or entitles men to exercise authority or leadership over women, or
that designates men as "head" or "spiritual head" over women.
There is not a hint, not even a whisper about anything
like a hierarchical order existing between man and woman in the creation account
of Genesis, chapters 1 and 2. In fact, the exact opposite is clearly taught in
these two chapters. Both man and woman were made in God's image (1:26-27) and
they both participated in God-assigned ministries without any role distinctions
The creation order established oneness, not hierarchy
(2:24). The first indication of a hierarchical order between man and woman
resulted from the entrance of sin into the world (3:16). The subordination of
women to men was not part of God's original design. It resulted from the
violation of God's creation order.
The use of the word "helper" for the woman reinforces
the relation of non-hierarchical complementarity that existed between the man
and the woman prior to the fall (2:18). In the language of the Old Testament, a
"helper" is one who rescues others in situations of need. This designation is
often attributed to God as our rescuer. The word denotes not domesticity or
subordination but competency and superior strength (Ex. 18:4; Deut. 33:26, 29;
Psalm 33:20, 70:5, etc.).
According to the text, the woman was instrumental in rescuing
the man from being alone and, therefore, from not being yet the community of
oneness that God had intended to create with both of them (Gen. 1:27.) As "helper," she pointedly enabled him to become with her the community
that God had intended to establish through their union.
The word "helper" is used specifically in this context
of God's deliberation to create community (2:18). The biblical text becomes
violated when the word "helper" is wrenched away and lifted out of this specific
context to be given other meanings that demean women by reducing them to the
level of "complements" or docile conveniences created to improve the quality of
In the account of the created order within which every
relation of authority is carefully spelled out (1:26, 28; 2:17), there is not
the slightest suggestion of a structure of authority existing between the man
and the woman. Instead, the explicit evidence provided in those texts
describes both as participating cooperatively in reflecting the image, and both
fulfilling jointly the tasks of rulership and dominion without the necessity of
a structure of hierarchy between them.
2. The Challenge
Cite a text from the Bible that assigns women
subordinate status in relation to men because Adam was created before Eve.
In the first chapter of Genesis, the sequence of
creation moves, in increasing levels of sophistication, from material things to
plants, to animals and, finally, to humans. According to chapter two, the
process culminates with the creation of the woman. Obviously, chronological
primacy was not intended to denote superior rank. No such lesson is drawn within
those two chapters from the fact that the man was created before the woman.
In 1 Corinthians, chapter 11, an argument is presented
for women to wear a head covering during worship. It is based on the differences
in status between men and women that derive from the fact that man was created
first (v. 7-10).
But, according to the same text, all those
considerations have been decisively swept aside "in the Lord," that is, in the
Christian community (v. 11). In the new covenant, both men and women are in a
relation of originative interdependence since men must recognize that they owe
their existence to women just as the woman was made from man. Only the primacy
of God as creator of all has significance since all things come from him,
including both men and women (v. 11-12). As a result of this leveling of the
ground "in the Lord", a covering is not even required of women since their hair
is their covering (v. 15).
The ministry restrictions exceptionally placed on women
in 1Timothy, chapter 2 are not based on the creation order. They are drawn from
the temptation account. No conclusion is made in the text from the fact that
Adam was formed first except for the one lesson that Adam was not deceived but
Eve was and she became the first transgressor (v. 13-14).
Adam had been instructed about the prohibition relative
to the tree directly from God while Eve was not yet in existence. For this
reason, of the two, she was the one less prepared to face the tempter. He was
present during the temptation episode but he remained silent (Gen. 3:6). Despite
this disadvantage, she boldly engaged the tempter and she became deceived. This
illustration from the Genesis temptation story has nothing to do with assigning
all women of all times a subordinate status in church life. It was cited in this
epistle to make the point that untaught and unqualified individuals should not
aspire to teaching functions or to positions of leadership. They should
first become quiet learners (1 Tim. 2: 11-12).
Cite a text from the Bible that defines the headship of
Christ to the church as a relation of authority or of leadership.
The New Testament defines the headship ministry of
Christ to the church as a servant relation designed to provide the church with
life and growth. This headship is never presented as an authority or lordship
Eph. 1:22-23. Christ is supremely and universally
sovereign, but as head for the church, it is not said that he rules over it. Instead, he provides his body with the fullness of him who fills all in all. He
causes the church to grow and flourish.
Eph. 4:15-16. Christ as head provides the body with
oneness, cohesion and growth. This is a servant-provider role, not one of
Eph. 5:23. Christ is head of the church, the body of
which he is the Savior. His headship to the church is defined as saviorhood
which is biblically defined as a servant, self-sacrificing function, not a
Col. 1:18. Christ is the head of the body, the church;
he is the beginning, the first-born from the dead. As its head, Christ is the
source of the church's life.
Col. 2:19. Christ is the head from whom the whole body
grows because it is nourished by him. He is servant-provider of life and growth
to the church.
Obviously, Christ is Lord of all and therefore Lord of
the church. But never does the New Testament define Christ's relation to the
church as its head in terms of lordship, authority or rulership. As head to the
church, Christ is always the servant who gives the church all she needs to
become his radiant Bride. So is the husband to his wife (Eph. 5:25-30), within a
relationship of mutual submission (v. 21).
The word "head" used figuratively in the English
language refers to boss, person in authority, leader. It never has that meaning
in New Testament Greek. There are hundreds of references in the New Testament to
religious, governmental, civic, familial and military authority figures. Not one
of them is ever designated as "head."
Even Christ, as "head" of all rule and authority,
remains their original giver of life and fullness (Col. 2:10; 1:16). Similarly,
Christ was never called "head" of the church until after his crucifixion, the
supreme expression of his servant ministry as the giver of new life.
Whenever Christ is described as "head" to the church,
his ministry is that of servant-provider. Similarly, as head to his wife,
a husband is a servant-provider of life, of fullness and growth, not one who
exercises authority over her.
Cite a text from the Bible that makes men head over
women, or a husband head over his wife.
There is no such statement in the Bible. The text in 1
Corinthians 11:3 is often cited as establishing a top-down hierarchy:
God over Christ--- Christ over man--- man over woman.
However, this biblical text must be radically
dismembered and its components reshuffled in order to produce such results. The
untouched biblical sequence is totally different and it does not present a
Christ, head of man--- man, head of woman--- God, head
The teaching in this text concerns the concept of "head"
as giver of life. In creation, Christ (as the Word, John 1:3) gave life to man;
man to woman (as she was taken from him, Gen. 2:21-23); and in the incarnation,
God gave life to Christ (Luke 1:35). This understanding of "head" as "provider
of life" is consistent with the immediate context which deals with the
significance of origination (1 Cor. 11:7-12).
The meaning of "head" as servant-provider of life in
this text is also consistent with the headship passage in Ephesians 5:21-33.
There, the church is described as being subject to Christ in the reciprocity of
servanthood because Christ as head is also servant to the church as its Savior
and as the source of its welfare. Saviorhood in the New Testament is not a
lordship role but one of self-sacrifice in radical servanthood.
Likewise, the wife is servant to her husband as she
submits to him because the husband is servant to her in radical headship as he
gives himself up for her as Christ did for the church (v. 25-30).
Both the general concept of headship in the New
Testament and this passage of Scripture are infused with the notions of mutual
submission (v. 21) and, therefore, of reciprocal servanthood. Such biblical
teachings reduce the imposition of hierarchical relations between husbands and
wives to irrelevance, if not to abuse in their relationship.
5. The Challenge
Cite a New Testament text according to which men are
given unilateral authority over women or are permitted to act as their leaders.
Once the fall shattered the God-given oneness between
man and woman, they both faced a dysfunctional relationship. The woman was
warned that, because of the disruption of the fall, the husband would rule over
her (Gen. 3:16). Oneness would turn into abuse. But no mandate was ever given to
the man to claim this rulership over the woman.
There is no allowance made in the New Testament or
license given for any one believer to wield authority over another adult
believer. The pledge exacted from brides in an older wedding ceremony, "Wilt
thou obey him...?" had no biblical warrant.
There is no text in Scripture that enjoins wives to obey
their husbands. The call is for mutual subjection (Eph. 5:21). Both wives and
husbands must relate to each other "in the same way" as slaves submit to their
masters (1 Peter 2:18; 3:1, 7 NIV) in order to follow in the steps of Christ,
their supreme example (2:21).
The New Testament singularly cites the case of Sarah who
obeyed her husband Abraham (1 Peter 3:6). Sarah's case was cited in full
knowledge of the fact that Abraham pointedly obeyed his wife just as often as
she obeyed him, once even under God's specific command (Gen. 16:2, 6; 21:11-12).
Christians are solemnly forbidden by their Lord to
establish among themselves structures of authority similar to the hierarchical
systems that prevail in secular society. Those who aspire to attain such
positions of leadership must, instead, become servants and slaves of those over
whom they wish to wield authority (Matt. 20:25-28).
Leadership is always defined in the New Testament as
shared leadership. In church life, leadership is a team function entrusted to a
plurality of persons such as elders. These act as servants who have recourse to
the exercise of authority only exceptionally when required to do so because of
disciplinary or crisis situations and then, only corporately.
In marriage, husbands and wives are bonded in a
relationship of non-hierarchical complementarity within which each partner
brings to the union his or her leadership gifts in a structure of shared
leadership. (For resolving biblically situations of decisional impasses, see Bilezikian, Beyond Sex Roles, pp. 212-214).
6. The Challenge
Cite a New Testament text that exempts husbands from
being mutually submitted to their wives.
Male rulership has prevailed since the time of the fall. For Christians, the new covenant in Christ should reverse this situation to the
original goodness of the created order, from rulership back to the reciprocity
of oneness (Matt. 19:4-5).
Submission to Christ requires of believers that they
submit to one another (Eph. 5:21). According to this text, where there is no
mutual submission, reverence for Christ is wanting. Because the newness of the
Gospel calls for new relationships, a paradigm shift has occurred that requires
of Christians, including husbands and wives, to be in mutual subjection.
Since the practical expression of subjection is
servanthood, this means that both husbands and wives are servants to each other. But perhaps in order to overcome the ruler legacy that men have inherited from
the fall, it is additionally specified that Christian men must also love their
wives to the point of Christ-like self-sacrifice for their sakes (v. 25-30).
For this precise reason, in the only New Testament text
where the word "authority" is used (in verb form) to describe husband and wife
relations, husbands are not exempt from coming under the authority of their
wives. A Christian wife has exactly the same authority rights over her husband
as a husband has over his wife (1 Cor. 7:4).
In this text, the Scriptures teach specifically that a
husband has no authority over his own body but that his wife does. (Interestingly, the NIV has considerably softened its translation of this
challenging statement). In fact, decisions that affect their marital
relationship may not be made unilaterally by either husband or wife (v. 5). They
require the agreement of both parties. They both have equal say in the matter
since either of the two may veto the proposed course of action.
Thus the New Testament requires that, beginning with the
most personal expression of conjugal life, the one that emblemizes par
excellence the union of man and woman, relationships be controlled jointly and
that decisions be made by consensus with the involvement of both partners on a
basis of equality. This call to mutual subjection and to joint
participation in the exercise of authority strikes at the very foundation of any
authority claim of husbands over wives.
7. The Challenge
Cite a biblical text according to which men are favored
over women in the distribution of spiritual gifts, including those that qualify
believers for ministries of leadership.
In the garden, Adam and Eve were jointly entrusted with
the dual responsibility of populating the earth and managing the environment
(Gen. 1:28). The two mandates were committed to both of them without any role
differentiations on the basis of gender. In order to fulfill this command, the
man and the woman must have brought their best abilities to the accomplishment
of both tasks in a relationship of equal partnership, best defined as
On the day of Pentecost, Peter gave the inaugural speech
that marked the beginning of the life of the church universal. The very first
statement he made concerned the consequences of the new availability of the Holy
Spirit to all believers. The outpouring of the Spirit promoted both men and
women without differentiation to the ministry of prophecy (Acts 2:16-18), a
function that was regarded as one of the highest ministries in the life of the
church (1 Cor. 12:28).
Consistently, the New Testament declares that all the
members of local churches are endowed with spiritual gifts by the Holy Spirit
(Rom. 12:4-8; 1 Cor. 12:7-12) without any mention of women being excluded from
such ministry roles. Furthermore, the text teaches that no individual has the
right to excuse oneself (v. 14-16) and that no one has the right to exclude
someone else from doing ministry (v. 20-22).
On such premises, all may prophesy (14:31), and both men
and women may lead in worship through prayer and the spoken word (11:4-5) such
as the four women who prophesied in the church of Caesarea (Acts 21:9).
In this light, it is evident that the statement in 1
Corinthians 14:33-36 forbidding women to speak in church has nothing to do with
women exercising their spiritual gifts. In this passage, the Apostle was dealing
with a different issue that did not concern the exercise of spiritual gifts. He
was actually opposing, by quoting their words derisively, abusive church leaders
who were intent on excluding women from active participation in the life of the
church. (For a commentary on this passage, see Bilezikian, Community 101, pp.
8. The Challenge
Cite a biblical text that exclusively disqualifies women
from exercising church leadership ministries.
The one passage that is ultimately adduced to claim that
the New Testament prohibits women to teach or to have authority over men is
found in 1 Timothy 2:11-15. However, the same section of Scriptures imposes
similarly restrictive leadership and ministry prohibitions on men. According to
it, a man's family status provides the indispensable credential for his ability
to lead the church (3:4-5, 12). The only men who may aspire to positions of
church leadership, which include the ministries of teaching and managing the
affairs of the church, must be married ("husbands of one wife"), and have
children who are submissive and respectful, and who are believers (Titus 1:6). According to this text, ability to manage family provides indispensable proof of
ability to manage the local church.
Such requirements disqualify from service not only
women, but also all men who are single; all men married but childless; all men
married but who have only one child; all men married but who have children too
young to profess faith; all men married but who have one unbelieving child or
children; all men married and whose children are believers but not submissive;
all men married and whose children are believers and submissive but not
These exceptionally harsh and restrictive requirements
are all the more amazing since the New Testament favors singleness for both men
and women as preferred status to do ministry (Matt. 19:11-12, 1 Cor. 7:25-35),
and since the New Testament emphatically requires the total utilization of all
available spiritual gifts in the ministries of the church, regardless of marital
status or gender.
Of course, the Scriptures provide an explanation for
those apparent contradictions. The singularly restrictive structure of ministry
prescribed in 1 Timothy and Titus was established as a remedial measure for
churches that had fallen into a state of terminal crisis. Its underlying
principle of restricting ministry in sick or immature churches to few leaders of
proven managerial competency is relevant today to churches that find themselves
in similarly extreme situations. However, the prevailing New Testament model of
full participation of the total constituency in the ministries of the local
church applies to healthy churches (See Bilezikian, Community 101, pp. 82-128).
It should be sternly noted that, for the sake of
biblical consistency and integrity of practice, churches that insist on keeping
women out of ministries of leadership on the basis of the prohibitions of 1
Timothy 2, thereby make themselves accountable to keep also men out of the very
same positions on the basis of the similarly restrictive provisions stipulated
in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1, and listed above.
9. The Challenge
Cite a biblical text that prohibits the ordination of
women to church ministry positions.
The evidence indicates that women were entrusted with
the ministry of the Word in New Testament churches. There were female prophets
(Acts 2:17-19; 21:9), female teachers (Acts 18:26; Titus 2:3), female church
leaders (Rom. 16:1, 3-5; Phil. 4:3; Col. 4:15), and even a female apostle by the
name of Junia (Rom. 16:7).
There is no text in the Bible forbidding women to be
ordained because, according to the New Testament, all believers without
exception are ordained by God to do ministry on the basis of their spiritual
gifts (Rom. 12:4-5; 1 Cor. 12:7, 11; 14:31; Col. 3:16; 1 Thess. 5:11, 1 Peter
4:10-11). In fact, those very ministries that are traditionally viewed as
requiring "ordination" carry only a supportive role according to the New
Testament (Eph. 4:11) while the executive part of the ministry, the works of
service that build up the body of Christ, belongs to the "non-ordained" people
of the congregation (v. 12).
The practice of ordaining select people to hold
positions of authority in churches should be viewed as an ecclesiastical
tradition rather than as a biblical prescription. Thus, Paul and Barnabas were
already among the recognized prophets and teachers of the church in Antioch when
they received the laying on of hands, not to make them prophets or teachers but
to commission them for a short-term sub-ministry (Acts 13: 1-3). It was their
recognized spiritual gifts as prophet/teacher that had validated their ministry,
not the subsequent laying on of hands.
This New Testament practice of the laying on of hands
can hardly be associated with the current practice of ordination since Timothy
received it twice, one at the hand of elders (1 Tim. 4:14), then from Paul
himself (2 Tim. 1:6). In both cases, the purpose was the impartation of a
spiritual gift, not the recognition of the ministry deriving from it as is the
case with ordination as currently practiced (see Bilezikian, Community 101, pp.
Since the institution of ordination is traditional
rather than biblically prescribed, there can be no valid objection raised on
scriptural grounds to women being ordained. According to the New Testament, all
believers, without exception, are ordained by God to do ministry on the basis of
their spiritual gifts.
10. The Challenge
Cite a biblical text according to which the differences
between manhood and womanhood warrant hierarchical relations between Christian
men and women.
The organization of the Christian community is never
described as a gender-based hierarchy in the Scriptures. To the contrary, it is
the doctrine of the community of oneness that sets the norm (Matt. 19:4-6; John
17:11, 20-23; Acts 4:32; Rom. 12:4-5; 1 Cor. 12:12-14; Eph. 4:4-6; etc.).
The practical implementation of this oneness is
summarized in Galatians 3:28: racial distinctions (Jew/Greek), class
distinctions (slave/free), and the gender distinction (male/female) are declared
to have become irrelevant to the functioning of Christian communities. The
compelling mandate for this radical restructuring of community is given as: "for
you are all one in Christ."
Proponents of female subordination often insist that
this oneness, which transcends race, class and gender differences, is limited to
the inclusion of new believers in the community through justification and
baptism (Gal. 3:24-27, 28; 1 Cor. 12:13). However, Scripture prohibits limiting
the principle of non-discrimination taught throughout the New Testament merely
to entrance of converts into the community.
The New Testament emphatically declares that the same
oneness, which transcends differences of race, class and gender as a condition
for entering the church, is also the driving force that energizes the
constituency of the local church into the performance of its ministries. This
oneness pertains to the functional life of the body (Rom. 12:4-5). The same
oneness sustains the corporate use of all the spiritual gifts invested in it by
the Spirit for the performance of the ministries of the local body (1 Cor.
12:11-12; Eph. 4:4-8, 11).
Oneness is always defined in the New Testament as the
basis for participation of all in the ministries of the local church. Oneness
and ministry are inseparably linked in the biblical text. Therefore, the
declaration according to which there is no male or female because we are all one
in Christ is a ringing mandate for all to participate in church ministry
functions without raising the gender difference as grounds for discrimination.
The Scripture absolutely forbids racial, class and
gender discrimination by reason of the oneness of the church as a body. This
oneness is consistently defined in the New Testament as full participation of
the total constituency in the ministries of the church. This and other teachings
of Scripture rule out gender-based hierarchy as a structure for biblical
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