Women’s Roles
AUTHOR: MacArthur Jr., John
PUBLISHED ON: March 20, 2003
PUBLISHED IN: Christian Living

                            Women’s Roles

.    The feminist movement of the twentieth century has assaulted
traditional Christian values for women, and the result has been a
revolution in our country.

    Whereas women traditionally fulfilled
support roles and gained their greatest joy and sense of
accomplishment from being wives and mothers, today many have abandoned
their homes for the higher-paying and supposedly more prestigious jobs
of the work force outside the home.  Traditional sexual morality has
given way to promiscuity with women often in the role of aggressor.
Gentle, quiet women have become self-assertive and hostile, boldly
demanding their “rights.”  Divorce is rampant, with women frequently
initiating separation and divorces.

.    As if the secular feminist movement does not generate enough
confusion for women today, there has arisen a fast-growing group who
refer to themselves as “biblical feminists.”  This movement, which
includes both men and women of varying theological perspectives,
espouses most of the causes of the secular movement while seeking to
find their justification in Scripture.

                      WHAT DOES THE BIBLE SAY?

.    As Christians, our desire is to examine the Scripture as
carefully as possible in order to know God’s will and obey it.  We
believe in the authority and inerrancy of the Word of God and are
confident that it has a clear message for women today.  Only the Bible
can offer a final solution to the chaos and confusion with which
modern women are confronted.

                    The Old Testament and Women

.    In the creation account of Genesis 1 we find God’s first word on
the subject of men and women (verse 27) – they were both equally
created in the image of God.  Neither received more of the image of
God than the other.  So the Bible begins with the equality of the
sexes.  As persons, as human beings, as spiritual beings, standing
before God, men and women are absolutely equal.

.    Despite this equality, there is in Genesis 2 a more detailed
account of the creation of the two humans which show some differences
in their God-given responsibilities.  God did not create the man and
woman spontaneously at the same time, but rather He created Adam first
and Eve later for the specific purpose of being a helper to Adam.
Though Eve was Adam’s equal, she was given a role to fulfill in
submitting to him.  While the word “helper” carries very positive
connotations, even being used of God Himself as the helper of Israel
(Deut. 33:7, Ps. 33:20), it still describes one in a relationship of
service to another.

.    When craftily tempted in the Garden of Eden, Eve, rather than
seeking Adam’s counsel or leadership, took the lead herself, eating of
the forbidden fruit and then leading her husband into sin (Gen. 3:6).
Because Adam and Eve sinned in disobedience to the command of God,
there followed certain consequences for them and also for the serpent
(Gen. 3:14-19).

    For the woman, God pronounced a curse which included
multiplied pain in childbirth and tension in the authority-submission
relationship of the husband and wife.  Genesis 3:16 says the woman’s
“desire” will be for her husband but he shall “rule” over her.  In
Genesis 4:7 the author uses the same word “desire” to mean “excessive
control over.” 

    Thus, the curse in Genesis 3:16 refers to a new desire
on the part of the woman to exercise control over her husband – but he
will in fact rule or exert authority over her.  The result down
through history has been an ongoing struggle between the sexes – with
women seeking control and men ruling instead, often harshly.  Before
the fall and the curse there was true harmony in the husband-wife
relationship, but through the curse a new element of tension and
dissension entered into the marriage relationship.

.    It is significant to note that the responsibility of wives to
submit to their husbands was part of God’s plan even before the curse.
Feminists often dispute this, viewing submission as something which
came in through the curse and which should be eliminated through the
cross of Jesus Christ (just as we seek to relieve the pain of
childbirth through drugs and breathing techniques, and as we seek to
ease the toil of the field through modern technology, even including
air-conditioned tractors).

  But since a careful reading of Genesis
2:18-25 shows that God created the woman to support her husband an be
a suitable companion to him, we do not erase woman’s submission in
marriage through the cross but rather we add harmony to the

.    Thus, the Bible begins by establishing both the equality of men
and women and also the support role of the wife.  Many other Old
Testament passages support these two themes of equality and submission
for women (i.e., Ex. 21:15,17,28- 31;Num. 6:2; 5:19,20,29; 30:1-16).

.    Women were active in the religious life of Israel throughout the
Old Testament, but generally they were not leaders – with a few
exceptions.  Women like Deborah (Jud. 4), however, clearly were the
exception and not the rule.  In fact, Isaiah 3:12 in its context of
God’s judgment on unbelieving and disobedient Israel indicates that
God allowed weak leaders, either masculine women or effeminate men, to
rule as a part of His judgment on the sinning nation.
Jesus and Women

.    When we begin to look at women in the new Testament, the first
thing we observe is how Jesus spent time with women and apparently
enjoyed their companionship – in stark contrast to other men of His
day.  In the midst of the Greek, Roman and Jewish cultures, which
viewed women almost on the level with possessions, Jesus showed love
and respect for women.

.    Though Jewish rabbis did not teach women, Jesus not only included
women in His audiences but used illustrations and images in His
teaching which would be familiar to them (Matt. 13:33, 22:1-2; 24:41;
Lk. 15:8-10).  He also specifically applied His teachings to women
(Matt. 10:34f).

.    While the Jewish Talmud said it was better to burn the Torah than
teach it to a woman, Jesus taught women freely.  To the Samaritan
woman at the well (Jn. 4), He revealed that He was the Messiah.  With
her He also discussed such important topics as eternal life and the
nature of true worship.  Jesus never took the position that women, by
their very nature, could not understand spiritual or theological
truth.  He also taught Mary and, when admonished by Martha, pointed
out the priority of learning spiritual truth even over “womanly”
responsibilities like serving guests in one’s home (Lk. 10:38-42).

.    Though men in Jesus’ day normally would not allow women to count
change into their hands for fear of physical contact, Jesus touched
women to heal them and allowed women to touch Him (Lk. 13:10f; Mk.
5:25f).  Jesus even allowed a small group of women to travel with Him
and His disciples (Lk. 8:1-3) – “an unprecedented happening in the
history of that time,” said one commentator.

.    After His resurrection, Jesus appeared first to Mary Magdalene
and sent her to announce His resurrection to the disciples (Jn. 20:1-
18).  Jesus did this despite the fact that women were not allowed to
be witnesses in Jewish courts because they were all believed to be

.    In Jesus’ treatment of women we see how He raised their station
in life and how He showed them compassion and respect in a way that
they had never known before.  But Jesus still did not exalt women to a
place of leadership over men.  None of the Twelve he selected were

    Even at the cross where most of the men had fled and the women
remained faithful, Jesus did not dismiss His male disciples and
replace them with women.  And Jesus made a radical break with His
culture in so many ways that surely He would have done it in this way
also if it had been God’s will.  Jesus, in His treatment of women,
demonstrated their equality and worth as persons, but He did not
promote them to positions of leadership over men.

                        The Epistles and Women

.    In the Epistles we discover the same two principles side by side
– both equality and submission for women.  Galatians 3:28 points us to
the equality, indicating that the way of salvation is the same for
both men and women and that they are members of equal standing in the
body of Christ.  It does not, however, eradicate all differences in
responsibilities for men and women since this passage does not cover
every aspect of God’s design for male and female and since Paul makes
clear distinctions in other passages he wrote.

.    The passages which instruct us about spiritual gifts also make no
distinctions according to sex.  And most Scriptural exhortations to
Christian growth and behavior are directed to men and women alike
(i.e., I Pet. 2:1-3; Heb. 4:16; 6:1; Eph. 5:18; Gal. 5:16; Phil. 2:1-

.    However, throughout the New Testament and alongside these
passages on equality are also passages which make distinctions between
what God desires of men and what He desires of women, especially
within marriage and within the church.

                              The Family

.    While Christian marriage is to involve mutual love and submission
between two believers (Eph. 5:21), the New Testament, in four separate
passages, expressly gives to the wives the responsibility to submit to
their husbands (Eph. 5:22; Col. 3:18; I Pet. 3:1; Ti. 2:5).  This is
the voluntary submission of one equal to another out of love for God
and a desire to follow His design in His Word.  It is never pictured
as groveling or in any way diminishing the wife’s worth as a person,
but rather the husband is called upon to love his wife sacrificially
as Christ loved the church (Eph. 5:25).

.    The biblical picture is of a union filled with love and harmony
where both partners are submitting to one another, where both lovingly
sacrifice for the best interest of the other and where the husband is
the leader in a relationship of two equals.

.While husbands and fathers have been given primary responsibility for
the leadership of their families including their children (Eph. 6:4;
Col. 3:21; I Tim. 3:4-5), wives and mothers are urged to be “workers
at home” (Ti. 2:5), meaning managers of households.  Their home and
their children are to be their priority – in contrast to the feminist
emphasis today on careers and jobs for women outside the home.

.    The biblical pattern for raising and instructing children in
God’s truths was established in Deuteronomy 6 where children are to be
taught by parents “when you sit in your house and when you walk by the
way and when you lie down and when you rise up.”  Parents are
responsible for the spiritual education of their children, and mothers
who work full-time outside their homes usually lack the quality time
to instruct their children adequately.  Nor can the responsibility for
this instruction simply be transferred to someone else.  While
feminists emphasize that women should seek their own self-fulfillment
at all costs, the Bible urges Christian women to be humble, to
sacrifice their own needs to meet the needs of others, to do what is
best for their children, trusting that God will meet their needs in
the process.

                              The Church

.    From the very beginning of the Christian church women fulfilled a
vital role (Acts 1:12-14; 9:36-42; 16:13-15; 17:1-4, 10-12; 18:1-2,
18, 24-28; Rom. 16; I Cor. 16:19; II Tim. 1:5; 4:19).  Women played an
important role in the church from earliest days but not a leading

    The incarnation was in a Man, the apostles were all men, the
chief missionary activity was done by men, the writing of the New
Testament was the work of men (though some feminists would have us
believe Priscilla wrote the Book of Hebrews), and generally leadership
in the churches was entrusted to men.  Still, women had a prominence
and dignity in the early propagation and expansion of the gospel that
they did not have in Judaism or the heathen world.

.    While the Apostle Paul respected women and worked side by side
with them for the furtherance of the gospel (Rom. 16; Phil. 4:3), he
appointed no women elders or pastors.  In his epistles, as he wrote
instructions to the churches, he urged that men were to be the leaders
and that women were not to teach or exercise authority over men (I Tim

.    The ministry of women is essential to the body of Christ, but the
New Testament gives no basis for women becoming pastors or elders.
While women are spiritual equals with men, they are excluded from
leadership over men in the church.  The New Testament finds no
conflict here though twentieth century feminists insist that these
principles contradict one another.

.    The Apostle Paul is completely consistent with Jesus in regard to
women.  Paul had a high regard for women and shared his labors for the
gospel with many of them.  But, like Jesus, he never appointed them to
positions of authority over men in the home or the church.  As active
as women were in the early church, nowhere did Paul ordain them as

                    WHERE THE FEMINISTS GO WRONG!

.    If more Christians understood the methods of feminist thinking
and what kind of biblical interpretation they must do in order to
arrive at their conclusions, they would likely be more hesitant to
accept the feminist position.  To understand the feminist
interpretation process, we begin by examining their view of Galatians
3:28 and how their interpretation of that verse affects their
interpretation of the rest of the New Testament.

.    FEMINIST VIEW OF GALATIANS 3:28 – The foundation for all feminist
interpretation of the New Testament is Galatians 3:28–“Their is
neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is
neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Feminists interpret this verse to refer to an equality which is both
theological, regarding men and women’s standing before God, and also
social, regarding all of their relationships in day-to-day living.  If
men and women are equal before God, feminists say, then there can be
no differences within their roles and responsibilities in society.

Feminists therefore use this verse as the basis for the elimination of
all role distinctions between men and women in Christianity.  They
then interpret all other New Testament verses on women in light of the
feminist understanding of Galatians 3:28, thus demanding that no other
verse be allowed to teach role distinctions for men and women.

interpret Galatians 3:28 in its proper context.  The verse concerns
the subject of justification and the believer’s relationship to the
Abrahamic covenant.

    Paul was not seeking to establish social equality
in the relationships he mentioned.  Rather, he was showing that all,
regardless of their standing in society, may participate by faith in
the inheritance of Abraham to be sons of God.  He was teaching the
fundamental equality of both men and women in their standing before
God.  Even the feminists emphasize that this is a theological passage
rather than one dealing with practical matters.

.    Equality of being before God does not require the elimination of
all role distinctions in society.  Equality of being does not rule out
authority and submission in relationships.  We could point to many
examples of relationships in which there is equality and yet a
difference in roles involving authority and submission – the Trinity,
the President and U. S. citizens, parents and children, employers and
employees, Elders and church members.

.    The theology of Galatians 3:28 will result in certain social
implications, but they will be the ones given in the Bible.  Where
authority and submission are discussed in relationships in the New
Testament, instructions are given for how those relationships may be
regulated so that they function in Christian love and harmony and not
with abuse.

    The Bible does not eliminate authority but cautions that
authority should be exercised in a way that honors Christ.  Those in
authority (husbands, Elders, parents, employers) are instructed to use
their authority in a godly way.  And also, those who are to submit to
these authorities (wives, church members, children, employees) are
instructed to submit to authority in a godly way.

.    Because feminists want to rule out the submission of wives to
husbands and of women to male leadership in the church on the basis of
Galatians 3:28, they face a serious problem in biblical interpretation
when they come to the Pauline passages which explicitly teach the
submission of wives to husbands and women to the male leadership in
the church.

    Beginning with their interpretation of Galatians 3:28
that all role distinctions must be abolished in the name of equality,
they seek to interpret these other Pauline passages (Eph. 5:22; Col.
3:18; I Pet. 3:1; Ti. 2:5; I Tim 2:11-15; I Cor. 11:1-16; I Cor.
14:34-35) in light of that questionable interpretation of Galatians

  Feminists of various persuasions have come up with four
different ways of handling this biblical material in order to reach
conclusions favorable to the feminist viewpoint:

.    FEMINIST VIEW #1 – The New Testament passages which teach the
submission of women were not really written by Paul but were added by
scribes, and thus are not part of the inspired Word of God.

.    PROBLEM WITH VIEW #1 – This position reveals a low view of the
inspiration of Scripture.  According to this view, some of the Bible
was inspired by God and some was not.  Therefore, the Christian,
rather than submitting to Scripture, must function as the judge of
Scripture – always making decisions about what is inspired and what is
not inspired.

    Both II Timothy 3:16 and II Peter 1:20-21 indicate that
God inspired all Scripture, that he was overseeing the process of the
writing of Scripture in such a way that the end product is His Word,
not the product of human authors.  Thus, the Christian views all of
the Bible as God’s inspired Word and does not set himself as judge of
the Bible.

.    FEMINIST VIEW #2 – The New Testament passages which teach the
submission of women were written by Paul, but he was wrong.  Those who
hold this view believe Paul was too much influenced by his rabbinical
background and that in his writing of Scripture he had not reached a
full understanding of how the gospel related to relationships between
men and women.  Thus, he was mistaken in some of the passages he

.    PROBLEM WITH VIEW #2 – This position is also based on a low view
of the inspiration of Scripture.  In this view, too, the Christian
must become the judge of Scripture to determine for himself what is
correct and what is incorrect.  This view assumes that twentieth
century man has a better understanding of God’s truth than did the
Apostle Paul writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.  Again,
II Timothy 3:16 and II Peter 1:20-21 indicate that God worked in and
through the writers of Scripture in such a way that the end product
was God’s perfect Word and not a conglomeration of truth and error put
together by human authors.

.    FEMINIST VIEW #3 – The New Testament teaches the submission of
women, but the teachings are no longer applicable in the twentieth
century.  According to this view, Paul was teaching the world view of
his own culture in the first century, but our twentieth century
culture is more enlightened about the equality of men and women, so
the teaching no longer applies.  Or sometimes it is said that writers
of the New Testament knew that the ideal was to abolish all gender-
based roles but feared to hinder the gospel if they broke so radically
with their own culture.  Thus, these Pauline passages are relegated to
temporary cultural truth rather than universal truth for all cultures
and all times.

.    PROBLEM WITH VIEW #3 – The foundation for Paul’s teaching on the
role or responsibilities of women is never the culture of his own day
but rather the purpose of woman’s creation and the woman’s failure in
the fall as Paul points out in I Corinthians 11:1-9 and I Timothy 2:8-

    Adam was created first, and Eve was later created as a helper for
him rather than their being created simultaneously and independent of
each other.  Eve was deceived and led her husband into sin rather than
submitting to his leadership.  If the reason for the woman’s
submission is related to the creation and the fall, than it is not
something which can change from year to year and culture to culture.
Rather, it is a universal principle.

.    Some feminists say that there was no submission for the woman in
creation but only as a result of the fall, that Genesis 3:16 was the
beginning of authority and submission.  But Genesis 2:18-25 teaches a
submissive role for Eve in relationship to Adam, and Paul interprets
it that way in the New Testament.  Thus, the cross does not rid us of
authority and submission, but it brings harmony to authority and
submission relationships.

.    FEMINIST VIEW #4 – The New Testament, if rightly understood, has
never taught the submission of women.  If the literary context, the
historical context and the theological context were carefully studied,
Paul would be clearly seen to be egalitarian, and thus the New
Testament teaches that women may fulfill any responsibilities in the
marriage and the church that men may fulfill.  Thus, “headship” means
only “source” and never “leader” or “authority.”  “Be subject” means
only “relate yourselves to” or “respond to” or “adjust yourselves to”
and never “submit to.”

.    PROBLEM WITH VIEW #4 – In these last two views the confusion
among the various feminist representives comes to the surface.  Both
groups read these same passages, and some say they teach submission
and others say they do not.  Greek lexicons include “authority” as one
of the meanings for “head” and “submit” as one of the meanings for “be
subject” so that only prejudicial interpretation could limit these
words to pro-feminist definitions.  This last view is so unconvincing
that other feminists even reject it.

                        Feminist Gymnastics

.    If one wants to arrive at pro-feminist conclusions, there are a
limited number of ways to interpret the biblical context in order to
reach such a position.  These four are the alternatives which
feminists have devised thus far.

.    Each alternative has serious flaws which cause the Christian, in
the process of feminist interpretation, to sacrifice either a high
view of inspiration of Scripture or else to use a false hermeneutic,
or principle for interpreting Scripture.  Either is too high a price
to pay.

    All of these exegetical gymnastics become necessary just to
force the Pauline passages to harmonize with the feminist
interpretation of Galatians 3:28.  If Galatians 3:28 were interpreted
correctly in context to refer to the fundamental standing of men and
women before God, and if the feminists did not totally reject any
concept of authority and submission, harmony of all the biblical
material on the subject would be rather simple.

                        HOW WOMEN GLORIFY GOD

.    Men and women stand as equals before God, both bearing the image
of God Himself.  Yet, without making one inferior to the other.  God
calls upon both men and women to fulfill roles and responsibilities
designed specially for them in certain situations.  In fulfilling
those God-given roles taught in the New Testament, women are not

    They are reaching their fullest potential because they are
following the plan of their own Creator and Designer.  Only in
obedience to Him and in His design will women truly be able, in the
fullest sense, to give glory to God (I Cor. 10:31).

Note: This file was written by John MacArthur Jr., of Grace Community
Church, Sun Valley, California.  It originally was presented as non-
copyrighted material in a booklet titled, “The Biblical Position on
Woman’s Roles.”

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