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January 1976 · Vol. 5 No. 1 · pp. 11–26 

God's Word: To Women as to Men

Hedy L. Martens

I have just awakened from a dream.
I dreamed I was a man stumbling through a labyrinth of walls
stone walls
and I knew I was about to die
yet I kept looking for some end to the walls
some sign of salvation     some promise of light
and at last I found it
hidden around a corner
a door
and on the door
the words
echoing along the corridors
of some long forgotten memory
I am the Door, the Way, the Truth, the Life
no woman can come to the Father except by Me.

It is not new, this dilemma of woman and her relationship to God, the creator, and to man the first created. But now, with education instilling in women the same visions of self-fulfillment as in men, the dilemma has reached crisis proportions in parts of the civilized world.

The Christian church has not been exempt from this dilemma, and I have not been exempt. The role of the Christian woman has been a tremendous problem to me. I used to be endlessly torn between biblical passages seemingly forbidding women to speak in the church and passages saying that in the last days they shall prophesy. Whenever I would have the courage to face again the harshness of Paul’s words, “You women be silent in the churches” (1 Cor. 14:34), I would see before me all the “poor-me” women of our churches, nobly bearing their crosses of submission as they dragged themselves from room to room doing their monotonous housework. 1 And I could not accept that this was what God intended. {12}

I became convinced that the power of evil has made fantastic use of unenlightened interpretations of passages dealing with a woman’s submission and silence. I became convinced because the marks of her submission too often have not been Christian. Her attitude has produced in her not the fruits of God’s Spirit, but the fruits of the wicked one: self-pity, discouragement, and a burial of God-given talents.

Recently, my husband and I were listening to a radio-sermon on the woman’s place in society, praising again the successful mother who had made interior decorating her hobby, so she could be at home while her children were growing up. “It reminds me of the sermons we used to have when I was a child; on Mother’s Day, when all the mothers sat and cried,” my husband remarked.

I had seen them, too, and even as a child, the weeping mothers had troubled me. The fruit of the Spirit should be joy, not sorrow, yet these tears I remembered were no tears of joy; nor were they the tears of repentance which could lead to joy. I recognized suddenly that they had wept because they were being destroyed by the assumptions behind that sermon, and indirectly, though they probably could not have realized it, because of the men who were being destroyed by these same assumptions.

The radio minister we heard, like so many before him, did not recognize that the woman whose talents lie in the Direction of interior decorating or sewing or cooking has the least dilemma. She does not need particular encouragement to stay home with her children, because the role society assigns to her coincides with the role she is naturally equipped for.

But what of the woman whose main talents and training are intellectual? Or the women whose talent is singing, or speaking, or writing? Or the woman, especially the married woman, who senses persistently that she has a message and mission from God? And where, except from heaven, will support come for the poor woman who spent her childhood years investigating the intricacies under the hood of the car when her father wasn’t looking?

Though outwardly accepting her prescribed role as homemaker, inwardly she may alternate from feeling guilty about her inadequacy in this role to shaking her fist at heaven and asking, “Why have you made me this way?” Imagine the response of those men in the congregation who have long recognized that their fingers are all thumbs, if they were to sit through just one sermon telling them that the role of all males was to build houses!

I am aware, of course, that the contemporary woman often ignores these passages, seeing in the above descriptions a sad portrait of her mother, but building her own life on the freedoms nobly, and not so nobly, fought for under the persistent women’s rights movements of the past century. But the Christian woman cannot do this without a deep uneasiness, often torn between the apparent demands of the Book she has chosen to stake her life on, and the memory of her mother’s unhappy attempts at putting them into practice.

For a long time I have prayed seriously, asking God for an explanation to this dilemma of modern women but I couldn’t see any possibility of an answer consistent with all of the Bible, until a passage in Leviticus (25:44-46) caught my eye. Suddenly the seeming dichotomy began falling into place. I am not about to profess any dogmatic hold on truth, and I hope those who can, will add dimensions I have not yet discovered. But what the Holy Spirit showed me was light to my soul, and I pray it will be the same for those who, like me, are just {13} beginning to grasp the tremendous implications of what life lived in the Spirit is all about.

I write with a certain trembling, for I do not take lightly the fact that I may bring some woman to a first awareness of her situation. For before I began recognizing that men are as unconsciously bound by society’s expectations of sex roles as women are, I found myself going through an acute stage of defensiveness as I became aware of the many subtle ways society keeps a woman “in her place.” And defensiveness is not a Christian virtue!

However, I ask you to stay with me. Like Jeremiah I must “pluck up and break down . . . destroy and overthrow”, before I can begin “to build and to plant” (Jer. 1:10). And I must write the truth I feel God is speaking through his word and by the illuminating power of his Spirit to you and to me.


The scripture passage I found helpful had no direct connection to the male-female dilemma, but one in which God allowed Moses to institute a law in clear violation of his original intention for man and of New Testament principles: “As for your . . . slaves whom you have, you may buy slaves from among the nations. . . . you may bequeath them to your sons after you” (Lev. 25:44-46).

The Pharisees asked a similar question of Jesus concerning another law of Moses: “Why did Moses demand that a bill of divorce be given a women?” (Matt. 19:7, 8). I realized suddenly that Christ’s understanding of all Judaic laws was bound up in his answer. In that answer lay the key to all laws handed down to imperfect man, and also the key to our release from the bondage of those laws.

The law allowing divorce was given “because of the hardness of men’s hearts,” said the One who came to set us free. “In the beginning it was not so.” When Adam and Eve were driven from the garden of Eden (however we may interpret that account historically), they were in some deep sense severed from the Spirit of God, as were all their descendants. Christ was showing the Pharisees that laws were given because people could no longer be expected to fulfill the original intent of God’s creation. Their hearts were hard because they were spiritually dead. Yet God in his mercy reached down to help Moses formulate laws the Hebrews could keep in their fallen state.

Leviticus 25 begins with “If your brother becomes poor beside you, and sells himself to you, you shall not make him serve as a slave”, and ends with “but over your brethren the people of Israel you shall not rule, one over another, with harshness” (25:39, 46). Its aim then, was to restrict the slavery already existing, not to institute slavery; just as the law stating that a man was to give his wife a bill of divorce was intended to restrict the ease with which men were putting away their wives—not to institute divorce. God, through Moses, was meeting people where they were, even though it was not where he wanted them to be. Since men were too hard-hearted to love their wives as their own flesh or to give up slavery, Moses, inspired by God, gave them laws to keep the stronger from destroying the weaker.

Christ then, in responding to the Pharisees, was telling them that all laws were interim measures to hold back destruction until a cure could be sent—until his Holy Spirit could write his perfect law in their hearts (Gal. 3:19-29). They, however, taught the Mosaic laws as though they were the means of becoming acceptable to God. {14}

Paul reinforced this thought when he said that the truth of the Spirit of life—of moving forward after the One who calls us—would set us free from the law of sin and consequent death.

It is imperative of course, that we consider the cultural context of the Apostle Paul’s advice to men and women, and that we work toward more accurate translations of these passages. But as long as we believe that we can obey our master successfully only as we correctly translate and understand and obey the original meaning and context of every individual instruction or set of instructions, we will always remain the possessors of an uneasy peace, the fear ever lurking beneath the surface that we might after all be disobeying our Lord, for we might after all have misunderstood exactly what Paul was telling us to do in this or that passage. 2

For this reason, regardless of how we translate Paul’s instructions to men and women, or what conclusions we reach regarding their cultural context, we must first realize that Paul’s intention, and God’s ultimate intention, was never for these to become laws to the people of God. They were given, as once the laws of Moses were given, because of the hardness of people’s hearts.

Assuming, for the sake of simplicity, that most of us have long accepted the premise that all men are created equal, and that slavery is not God’s will for humanity, we encounter the same type of dilemma which women face when reading Paul’s words to the Ephesians, “Slaves, be obedient to those who are your earthly masters, with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as to Christ.” At first glance these words appear to be a vindication of slavery, just as the advice “Wives be subject to your husbands” appears to be a vindication of male dominance. However, a close study of Paul’s letter to Philemon, a Christian slave-owner, reveals that Paul believed God wanted Philemon to release his slave. Paul expected the Spirit of God to bring about the slave’s release, so he avoided making a rule of it. Rules are outside the realm of the Spirit (Gal. 3:10-12).

The fruit of the Spirit has never included domination; God wants only our willing obedience. Eventually the Spirit of God in Paul’s churches would have borne the fruit of gentleness and submission without intervention from Paul. But Paul felt compelled to make interim rules to prevent the gospel from being misunderstood by outsiders. This concern for the reputation of God’s Word—occurred again and again in connection with admonitions to submit to various human institutions. The people of God were repeatedly instructed to give up their rights, to suffer if need be, rather than to allow discredit to come to the Word of God.

The same concern motivated Peter as he carefully linked the submission which society required of wives to their husbands with the submission society required of slaves to their masters. He made it quite clear that the suffering of slaves at the hands of their masters was unjust. “One is approved if, mindful of God, he endures pain while suffering unjustly “ (1 Peter 2:19); then significantly, he praised Sarah’s submission to Abraham. This section is frequently used to illustrate that wives are to submit to their husbands. Seldom is it used to show that Abraham’s treatment of Sarah was as wrong as the master’s treatment of his slaves. Peter mentioned Sarah because she was a perfect example of a wife laying down her life for her husband’s. Sarah actually risked sexual molestation by heathen rulers. Yet she appears to have obeyed, for Abraham’s sake, risking her life to save his, because she trusted God. Her submission, like the submission of {15} the slave to his master, was intended as a demonstration of her faith and love at a time when Abraham’s were low. When Peter asked wives to submit to their husbands, he was asking for this kind of aggressive, fearless submission, that let nothing terrify it, but which manifested the long-suffering, self-giving love of God (1 Peter 2:13-3:7).


“Wives, be subject to your husbands as to the Lord”, writes Paul in Ephesians 5:22. And Peter echoes him, “Likewise you wives, be submissive to your husbands . . .” (1 Peter 3:1).

Remembering that Paul also states that in Christ there is neither male nor female (Gal. 3:28), and that he was hardly writing to a culture in which it was customary for wives to disobey husbands, the meaning of these passages on submission must be examined carefully to make certain that our interpretation of them does not violate for women the truth also written by Paul—that where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom (2 Cor. 3:17). We must look carefully at the reasons behind these instructions to discern the principles involved so that we can apply them in the spirit intended, rather than legalistically, to our modern situation.

Without the help of God’s Spirit—in the flesh, in Paul’s terms—some men will not listen to or learn from women. This attitude dates back to the Garden of Eden. Not only the relationship between God and man broke down there, but also the relationship between man and woman. They lost the uniting life of the Holy Spirit. Instead of the support woman was supposed to give her husband, she offered him destruction, and he yielded. She still had within her the desire to communicate with him, but he learned to distrust any pressure from her. Instead of being her friend and lover, his resistance changed him into her ruler.

Ever since, we have lived in a world of imperfect relationships. As Christians, we have to reckon with sin and its effects on the world we live in. We have to meet people where they are, as God does, even if it means giving up some of our own rights. Clearly, however, the goal of such submission is to move us all closer to the unity Jesus prayed for: “That they may be one even as we are one” (John 17:22).

Christ taught his disciples when involved with an enemy to take revenge by deliberate acts of love. He taught them to respond to a neighbor’s need by meeting that need. Always, to everyone, they were to be channels of God’s love.

These principles, however, had to be implemented in practical situations. How, for example, could a believing wife become a channel of God’s love to her unbelieving husband? How could a believing slave become a channel of God’s love to an unbelieving master, or to a Christian master who had not yet recognized the slave’s equal right to human freedom and dignity?

The questions continue. Now in the twentieth century, we are still asking, how can women, living in a culture still suffused with prejudice against them, best channel God’s love to that culture? The Biblical answer to all these situations seems to be; not by revolution, not by fighting for their rights—though in many cases they are their rights—but by a particular supernaturally instilled type of aggressive submission to their society’s expectations, intended to overcome coercive situations not by defensive protest but by offensively giving even more than is demanded of them.

But the Biblical answer often goes unheard. We dismiss it as impractical in real {16} situations, and Paul’s enlightening advice for exactly such situations is again converted into another list of do’s and don’ts.

Many of our problems come from a wrong definition of the word “submission.” Since Paul went on to advise the whole church to submit to one another, it follows that husbands are also required to submit to their wives. We submit to fellow believers because we see Christ in them and hear him speak to us through them. And if we are controlled by the Spirit of God, all of us will respond to any person’s need by giving ourselves to that person. This is the submission the Bible talks about. And as we respond with this kind of submission the principle will come true again: in dying we will receive life. God will replenish us with the same lavish generosity he showed the widow in Sidon, who gave away her last bread and oil (1 Kings 17:8-16), then found herself able to feed her entire household for many days.

But if we submit because we are forced to the result will be self-destruction. If we submit to human institutions as though they were laws of God to us, and especially if we see them as role assignments of positions in a static relationship to which we must conform, we miss the whole point of New Testament instructions. We end up dragging about our martyred bodies, doing the tasks we supposed God had assigned to us for all time, never realizing that Peter and Paul were not assigning positions to the people but were instructing them how to relate to one another within these positions—positions they already occupied. The intention of the Apostles was to help the people display Christ’s self-denying love within hierarchical relationships and so move these relationships toward the unity Christ intended in which all are submissive to one another.

Those who build elaborate chain-of-command systems for the church and for the home need to be careful; like Christ’s disciples on the day of his ascension (Acts 1:6), they are in danger of imposing an earthly kingdom where Christ intends a heavenly kingdom—a kingdom in which the concepts of greatness are completely reversed.

Submission is what the good news is all about. It is the core of the kingdom of God within us. Christ submitted to the Father because he loved him, and he submitted to the people instrumental in crucifying him because he loved them; the church submits to Christ; people submit to one another, always motivated by this same love. This submission must never be equated with inferiority. It cannot be, because in the kingdom of God he is the greatest who is the most submissive. This is the glory of the gospel. This is the paradox at the heart of Christianity. 3 Christ emptied himself. We are also to empty ourselves. To submit ourselves as God intended is to give up voluntarily the power and the self-will we actually have, and to seek instead the good of another. If we do so in the power of God’s Holy Spirit, the end result will be relationship—the unity between God and Christ and his church of men and women that Jesus prayed for (John 17).

To submit to one another in the Spirit of Christ, then, our submission must be motivated by true self-giving love, not, for example, by rules to remain unnaturally silent in church or in home, whether this submission is enforced by self or another. With such love, rules will not be needed to keep servants from rebelling against their masters, to keep women from dominating over men because of their new-found equality, or men from dominating over women because of their physical advantage and societal sanctions. All are to be “clothed” with humility toward one another. This implies a putting on of {17} something that is not naturally ours. For this, says Peter, God will give us grace (1 Peter 5:5).

Both Paul and Peter were writing to those caught in a society which did not allow them social and other human freedoms. They were reminding the oppressed they were no less called of God. They could use their bondage as an arena for practicing Christ’s kind of submission. Instead of feeling bound, they could set themselves free by converting everything they did for their husbands or masters into something done as to Christ. No one could stop them from being free in Spirit, displaying within their setting, no matter how repressive, the miraculous fruit of love, joy, peace, gentleness, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness and self-control (Gal. 5:22).


To establish that equality between males and females has not been the norm needs no more than a passing reference to history. Nor is this history of inequality surprising in a world largely dominated by a spirit of selfishness, greed, and pride. In such a society the weak are always in greater danger, not because they are less selfish, but because they are more easily exploited.

God’s foreknowledge predicted such domination centuries ago, when he explained to Eve the consequences of her disobedience: You will desire to be with him, and yet your union with him will lead to bondage because he will rule over you (Paraphrase of Gen. 3:16).

Some have assumed that God was reiterating here his intention from the beginning to institute a chain of command structure, moving from the angelic to male to female to animal world, with human males temporarily under their parents until they come of age, and human females permanently under the rule of a human male, but moving from the lordship of the father to the lordship of the husband. The assumption is then made that Paul, in relating his reasons for asking women in the Corinthian church to wear veils, and women in Timothy’s church not to dominate men, is verifying that Jesus came to carry over this structure into the new kingdom, since Paul uses in both cases the argument that man was created before woman (1 Cor. 11:8; 1 Tim. 2:13). This to me, is a devastating interpretation. It violates the spirit of everything Christ taught about the place of prestige and power in the kingdom of God, and makes a mockery of his tremendous sacrifice. Why would Christ leave his glory and take on the form of a servant, voluntarily emptying himself of his equality with God (Phil. 2:6), to institute the very structure that was already deeply entrenched in this world—the rule of the strong over the weak?

Everything on earth was made “according to its kind” says the writer of Genesis (1:11, 12, 21, 24, 25), implying that everything has its own uniqueness, with no implication of this being a ranked differentiation. Then, when man was created, he (including both male and female), was given dominion over the earth. There is no indication of subjugation according to sex in this passage. Nor should there be. Adam’s need for another “self;” someone to complete him, a helper fit for him, with whom he could rule the earth, could not have been met by another subordinate. He had enough of those. “It is not good for man to be alone,” said God. Nor is it good for woman. So Adam was given a counterpart; someone so made that he and she would “fit” together in a unique way—a way which had nothing to do with an authority structure. They would complement each other so perfectly, each {18} supplying the qualities the other lacked, that an authority structure would be not only unnecessary, but destructive.

Karen de Vos, 4 in an article on the place of women, points out that the word we translate “help-meet” or “a helper fit for him” (Gen. 2:18), in the Genesis story, does not designate a subordinate helper in its original usage. It is used fifteen times in the Old Testament to describe God’s help when man’s help is ineffectual, and only three times for man’s help. It indicates then, she says, the kind of helper God is—“a strength to rely on, a constant support, someone who loves and stands alongside in trouble and joy.” She points out that Paul’s words, “Woman was made for man,” are often taken to mean that woman is not to exist in her own right, but only to support the man. “But,” she says, “according to the Hebrew word, one would better put the matter, ‘Woman was made for man to rely on,’ which carries with it the connotation that woman was at least as strong and as competent as men.”

This reliance is part of what was damaged when the first man and the first woman sinned. In the beginning, “it was not so.”

What then of New Testament commands for a woman to “submit to her husband as unto the Lord” (Eph. 5:22)? The simple fact is that it will be impossible for her to “submit” truly as “unto the Lord,” unless she recognizes her equality to men. If she does not, her submission will not be voluntary, based on the Christ-like love his Spirit gives her for her husband, but coerced submission, forced on her by the demands of her society (which in a Christian woman’s life may be the church community). This is carnal submission under the old law and under the old curse.

Nor do I believe that we can use Paul’s comparison of the relationship between husband and wife to that between Christ and the church to prove either God’s original or ultimate intention of subjugation on the basis of sex. Paul was using the familiar to illustrate the unfamiliar. Paul compared his own relationship to Christ as that of a slave to his master. Surely we don’t read this as condoning slavery!

If by now some of you feel that the position men have held as heads 5 of the household is being threatened, do not. That position was never above that of Christ as head of the church—and he is the one who washed his disciples’ feet. Jesus deliberately chose a task that signified servant status within his society to demonstrate his definition of love and of greatness. Again it is important to look at any reference to a husband’s headship as Paul’s redefinition of such a headship. And again the intention of his redefinition is to help move a hierarchical relationship toward the unity of a reciprocal one. A husband may never be more Christ-like than the moment he gently takes the dishcloth from his wife’s hands, especially if at that moment she is unhappy about her status as a woman.

The equality of women in contemporary society must be stressed for the same reason that Paul instructed women in the early churches to be quiet and veiled in public gatherings—to prevent the Word of God from being maligned. The reputation of Christ can be hindered as much if men deny such equality to women as if women demand it in order to dominate over men.

However, the need to prove woman’s equality has other reasons. A woman must know that she is not inferior to men in God’s plan, so that she can take hold of God’s promises for her. She must know that she is an equal heir to the grace of God. And men need to be freed from the fear of humiliation and the {19} guilt haunting the captor who senses that his captive may be as intelligent as he. Have you noticed how often men say to their wives, “All I ask of you is that you be happy, that you smile”? If she responds, it relieves him of his guilt; for her unhappiness must mean his failure (since he assumes the awesome responsibility of providing her with the circumference of her existence) is his alone. A woman, on the contrary can respond to her husband’s unhappiness with a more genuine concern because she knows that many outside pressures and people share responsibility in his condition.

Some men are threatened by any evidence of their wives’ superiority or equality in areas outside the kitchen. They justify this resentment on the basis of “roles” or “divisions of labor,” presumably ascribed to husbands and wives by God, when they should be confessing their own jealousy and egocentricity to their Creator.

Of course, women in Christian cultures have expanded their roles and realized their potential in ways far beyond what their sisters a few centuries ago could have imagined, but much of the prejudice against women prevalent in Jesus’ day still exists. Our culture has a terrible hang-up on traditional roles for husbands and wives as being normative.

Ministers frequently use the “precious woman” in Proverbs 31 to illustrate the assumption that a woman’s place is in the home (I always wonder, doesn’t the poor man have a “place”?), yet upon closer examination, she appears to have been the breadwinner of the family, carrying on complicated business enterprises while her maids ran the household, and her husband was free to follow political pursuits. Of course, in our society both men and women may be spending too much time pursuing material gain or selfish pleasure and as a result neglecting their children, but this problem has to do with priorities, not roles. We must not restrict the roles of men and women any more than God restricts them!

Any man who has been telling his wife that she feels unfulfilled because she has never accepted her role, has probably only added to her frustration. She feels unfulfilled because she is unfulfilled; her role has been too narrowly defined, so that the existence of a part of her God-given nature is consistently denied. Should she be daring enough to express some of these qualities, she will soon be driven back by her own deeply trained sense of impropriety, or by the raised eyebrows of her neighbors, or by the threat she may sense she has become to her husband’s ego. Unless she becomes thoroughly convinced that it is right for her to use all of her talents, she may never emerge again.

And unless her husband becomes just as convinced, he may never lose his own insecurity enough to help her discover that life for both of them, especially life with Christ, can be a constant adventure of newness.

A Christ-directed relationship will never be based on rivalry, but rather, as Peter says, each member will clothe himself or herself with humility toward the other (1 Peter 5:5). In the marriage relationship, this attitude of mutual humbleness should be particularly obvious, for the union is to be so close as to form an entirely new entity—“one flesh,” as stated in Genesis, and verified by Jesus. A truly new entity cannot be a rival against its own elements. As Paul puts it, “No man ever hates his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body (Eph. 5:29, 30).

Yet a rivalry between the sexes, both within and outside of marriage, is deeply enmeshed in our society. As always, it involves overtones of {20} exploitation. Instead of relating to a woman as to a unique person of worth, men may relate to her on the basis of sex, yet rarely be aware of it. Our society is permeated with subtle ways of keeping a woman “in her place.” For example, while engaged in a serious conversation, would a man ever remind another man whose opinion he respected that he looked pretty when he was serious? Would a man ever imitate his friend’s facial expression if he got carried away by his fervor? Women and children get treated this way regularly. There may be a place for some of these comments when the relationship at the moment is intended to be sex-oriented. The point is that too few accept them as sex-oriented statements and actions, acceptable in the conversations of lovers, but, when used in serious conversations, implying subtly that, although a man has other, more important functions in his life, a woman has only one.

Women, too are caught in this trap of sexual rivalry. Well-meant advice to married women is permeated with it. The woman is told in a score of different ways how to run her husband, while making him think he is running her. Eventually, if she handles the situation well, puts on the right aura of pretended meekness and submission, she’ll end up with his entire paycheque in her lap!

This isn’t submission, bold or otherwise. This is intrigue! And it all still serves subtly to circumscribe the area in which a woman can move.

Equality, therefore, in the context of this paper, means a God-intended equal right to be a self-determining individual within society, and in the spiritual realm, the equal right to direct access to God through Jesus Christ, without a differentiating need of other protection or intercession. In other words, the sacrifice and continuing intercession of Christ is as sufficient for women as for men (1 Tim. 2:5).

Since we are Christ’s body here on earth we are in fact all mediators, or priests and kings within the house God is building through Christ. We no longer need the mediation of specifically assigned priests, since Christ has become the high priest for us (1 Peter 2:4, 5, 9; Heb. 4:14-16; 7:23-28; 8:6-13), including the role of priest of the home, a task traditionally assigned to the father. To teach otherwise is to teach that Christ’s sacrifice was not as sufficient for women as for men. This is not a denial of the father’s spiritual responsibility for his family; the Spirit of Christ will increase in him his feeling of responsibility, reminding him that his sons and daughters need his prayers and that they need the model of a father reading the Bible and praying with them and with their mother. But that same Spirit will produce the same result in the mother and she need feel no less effective than he would, nor any more guilty, should she find herself alone in filling this role.

Notice that the Bible says woman was bone of her husband’s bone and flesh of her husband’s flesh (Gen. 2:23). It does not say that she is flesh and he is bone; that he supplies all the strength and she supplies all the love, or he supplies the bread-earning qualities and she the home-making qualities. Or he the intelligence and she the carrying out of that intelligence. Essentially, each is in a certain sense, complete in herself (himself). A man alone can display all the fruits of the Spirit if he is obedient to the Spirit within him, even though society may see love and gentleness as signs of feminine weakness. A woman can display courage and possess a strong mind, even though society may consider these to be masculine attributes (Gal. 5:22; 2 Tim. 1:7). She cannot, {21} of course, display them fully in isolation, and neither can he. But such display does not require the context of marriage; it requires only the context of relationship, which without God is difficult to form and full of dangers.

It could perhaps be argued that women have always been able to find the freedom offered by Christ within their restricted status, since Christ’s kingdom is not a kingdom of this world. This is definitely true; however, Cornelius, too, could have found Jesus without the help of Peter, and the Gentiles could have realized inner freedom without ever leaving the court of the Gentiles. But Peter would not have been set free from his old way of looking at the law. Men as well as women need to be set free to take part in the self-giving nature of Christ, for they have been taught to dominate, to succeed, to be independent, to show no vulnerability—all qualities detrimental to a man attempting to surrender himself to God. In spite of all this conditioning, however, it should perhaps be no harder for twentieth-century man than for Peter to begin questioning which of our church’s expectations and assumptions about woman have their roots in American success ethics or in old Greek-Roman hierarchies of class and status, and which ones are in actual agreement with the Spirit of Jesus, who once told his disciples to let no man call them Father, or master (Matt. 23: 9, 10).


According to our investigations this far, submission to coercive situations and to rules and customs within society should be characteristic of Christians, but it is to be the kind of aggressively transcendent submission demonstrated by Christ as he voluntarily gave away his life for the good of others. However, before this submission can be put into practice, both men and women need to rid themselves of certain misconceptions: A woman, whose arena for this Christ-like submission is still most often her home, must rid herself of the idea that she is in some way innately inferior to men; and a man must recognize her equality before he can help her grow without seeing her ensuing growth as a threat to his supposed superiority. To do this, both will have to face fearlessly the prejudices that have blinded men and women throughout history and into the present.

In this context I would like first to touch on the cultural background of Paul’s seemingly harsh words, “The women should keep silence in the churches” (1 Cor. 14:34). As was traditional, the women of the church were probably sitting in a separate part of the building, possibly in a balcony. They must have been calling to their husbands from the women’s section, and so disturbing the meeting (1 Cor. 14:34-36). Even in our time, a situation like this might evoke a request to “be quiet” to maintain an atmosphere of worship. In Paul’s culture, speaking out was not only unseemly, as was the practice of being unveiled, 6 but it appears to have been actually illegal in public meetings (1 Cor. 14:34). Having partially realized the fact of their freedom and equality in Christ, the women were breaking this tradition. They had not yet learned that their new freedom was not to be used for their own selfish gratification.

The same self-indulgent attitude showed up in the Corinthian’s behavior at communion (1 Cor. 11:17-22), and in their undisciplined use of the supernatural gift of tongues in public services (1 Cor. 14). So Paul, in response to a complaint he had received in their letter to him, told these women to be quiet during the service, the way women were behaving in other churches. {22} The word Paul used was sigao, meaning “silent, quiet,” the same word used in Acts 15:12, when the parties arguing about the inclusion of Gentiles in the Christian church were finally silenced by Peter’s description of God’s visitation to the household of Cornelius. It is not the same word he used in 1 Timothy 2:11, 12. The word used there is hesuchia, which means “quietness, stillness, gentleness,” not silence in the sense of not speaking. It is difficult to find any justification other than unintentional bias on the part of scholars to translate this word to read that women were to learn “in silence” and not to teach men, but to “keep silent,” since the same adverb is used in both verses. 7

It is highly unlikely that Paul was telling Timothy that women were not to speak the word of God to his congregation, provided they had it to speak; women as well as men are needed to fulfill the prophesy of Joel (2: 28, 29); Paul was saying that a woman’s attitude or approach was to be gentle, not dominating or “teaching” or “judging” men when she spoke to a group with men present. The same word, hesuchia, is used by Peter to describe the Christian woman’s inner response to her unbelieving husband (1 Peter 3:4), and by Paul to admonish the whole church to gentleness and quietness in 1 Thess. 4:11.

However, in order to apply correctly to our century the instructions given to early churches, prejudice against women, not only in modern translations, but also within the language and culture of Jesus’ time has to be taken into account. Though the Scriptures are fully inspired by the Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit took care to reveal these social prejudices; He has never hidden from us the true condition of the people He writes about. The Holy Spirit knew and took into account that we have minds capable of discerning cultural and historical contexts of particular passages.

Evidence of prejudice against women in Christ’s time is not hard to find. Paul mentions that the secular law required women to be silent—presumably in public places. The Pharisees were quite ready to stone the woman taken in adultery without any apparent effort to find the man involved. The Sadducees attempted to give the woman unequal status with men after death, asking what man she would belong to, having been married to several. If life continued after death, they assumed she would have to remain under the old curse: “He shall rule over her.”

The disciples themselves were not free of this aspect of their culture, nor did the Holy Spirit hide this from us. At the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry, when he spoke to the Samaritan women, they were surprised, not because she was a Samaritan, but because she was woman (John 4:27). Later, they rebuked the women who brought their children to him (Matt. 19:13), and found it hard to accept a society in which a man could not put away his wife at will (Matt. 19:10). They were appalled when Mary anointed Jesus (Mark 14:4), and even Martha could not comprehend Mary’s right to learn directly from Jesus as the male disciples did (Luke 10:40). Matthew, in recounting the feeding of the five-thousand (Matt. 14:21), did not include women and children in his statistics, but we have to consider him less prejudiced than Mark; at least he acknowledge their presence. Mark actually stated that only five-thousand had been fed! (Mark 6:44).

All this evidence of prejudice against women in Jesus’ time, however, would do us little good if Jesus himself had responded to women according to society’s demands. There is no evidence that he ever did. At no time did he {23} ever remind a woman of her place in society on the basis of her sex. Rather, he defended her when others attempted to do so. The woman taken in adultery he forgave, while the men were reminded that they were equally guilty. He told the Sadducees, who were trying to trap him into admitting there was nothing after death that they were mistaken because they understood neither the Scriptures nor the power of God. Men and women worthy of the first resurrection would be a thing of the past. He used women as well as men to illustrate his parables of the kingdom, and was careful not to use them within his parables in subordinate positions to each other. He reached the entire city of Samaria through a woman, and did not even bother to acknowledge the disciples’ surprise because he was talking to her. He allowed a woman to anoint him for his death, an anointing which appears to have moved Christ deeply, for he asked God that she should always be remembered for it.

Though the twelve disciples were men, we have no indication that their wives were not included in that discipleship, nor that the seventy sent out two by two were all men (Luke 10:1-12). Christ, when his natural family tried to reclaim him, pointed to the people around him and said: those who do my will are my mother and brothers and sisters. We can hardly assume he was talking only to men (Mark 3:34, 35). In Luke 8:1-3, Luke tells us that Jesus went through cities and villages, preaching and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. “And the twelve were with him, and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod’s steward, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their means.” These women appear to have been women with a status in society which permitted them to move about freely, either because they were considered outcasts, and so not subject to the restrictions of “decent” women, or because they moved among the educated or elite of their society, and so were used to moving about in public. Christ in no way discourages them. He does not even send Joanna back to her husband in Herod’s court.

And after the resurrection, how significant that he should reveal himself first to a woman, and give her the message of his ascension to carry to the men (John 20:17). Surely he was trying to tell her that potentially when in breaking the bonds of death he had triumphed over all principalities and powers, he had triumphed, too, over all the forces of evil that had held her in bondage through the centuries, that potentially the wall between men and women was at last broken, and the messages of God could now be passed from women to men as well as from men to women.


Women are rising up in defense of their rights in many parts of the world. And some are falling into the trap of blaming men for their restrictions. As a result they often fight for equal rights to participate in structures that are in themselves coercive and evil. Instead of the lion and the lamb lying down together in peace, the supposed lambs fight for the right to become carnivorous, too.

Although Christ came to bring equality to all races and classes, and to both sexes, and although in many Christian circles this equality is not yet fully {24} realized, Christ never intended that equality to be fought for. Women in the church will get nowhere blaming men for their restricted status. Yet the time has come to move forward. My call to myself and to all Christian women now is stop being submissive to the system of this world which demands that you take an inferior position! There is a way out. Realize your intended equality before God and with men!

Then learn to walk after the Spirit!

A woman acting in the Spirit of Christ does not have to be told to be submissive to her husband. It will be her nature to serve. The Spirit will give her the same serving love it gives the men of the church—a serving love far more submissive than rules could ever make it (Gal. 5:22).

So I am not advocating that church women join the Women’s Liberation Movement, though some may find their arena of witness there. Those who do not have within them the Spirit of God cannot be blamed for resorting to political activity to gain their rights, but those who know Christ have available the powerful weapon of Christian submission which paradoxically makes possible the freedom every Christian woman—and man—longs to make their own. The reason we rebel against any requirement of submission is that we have not yet truly accepted what the kingdom of heaven is all about. Jesus gave the impossible principles out of which the admonition springs: you must not resist wrong. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. When anyone wants to go to law with you to take your coat, give him your cloak as well (Matt. 5:39). What we must realize is that there is no human way to fulfill requirements like this. They have to be God-motivated.

Having come full circle back to the conclusion that submission is after all required of all of us, I have visions again of some woman trying and trying to submit to her husband, then agonizing night after night about why God made her this way. I have visions of her frustrated in spirit, because she is antagonizing her husband by her domination, or by her superior knowledge of spiritual things, then setting her lips in grim silence all over again, saying “yes, dear” and “no dear”, like a characterless robot. It requires no deep insight to foretell what the result will be. Certainly not the lifting up of Christ that will draw her husband to him.

Listen. If the wife is the first to believe, she is automatically God’s channel to the rest of the family. That channel becomes more than useless if it is clogged up with self-pity and resentment. We dare not submit again to a yoke of slavery as if Christ had come only to institute a new law tougher than the old. The submissive nature of Christ, who, though he was equal with God, thought it not robbery to empty himself and to take on the form of a servant, must be placed within a person supernaturally (Phil. 2:5-8). Supernatural power exists. And it is available in the Holy Spirit. This, too, is the good news of the gospel. In the Holy Spirit, everything becomes The Given.

Then let us ask God to give us a love for our families so deep that everything we do for them will be permeated with our love and our longing for them to come into the kingdom with us. Let us ask him for his spirit of submission to lift us above the mere law of submitting to particular human institutions, allowed by God to limit the lawlessness of godless humanity. We will not feel this to be a degrading submission if we recognize that gentleness and humility are not an indication of inferiority. Satan is an expert at calling {25} what is good, evil, and what is evil, good. True humility and gentleness are simply true maturity, the maturity of a person who recognizes that every good gift, even within her own personality, comes from God (James 1:17).

I believe that when masters voluntarily, motivated by God’s love, released their slaves, they themselves realized a new freedom. And I believe, deeply, that as men begin setting women free out of the same motivation, they too will realize a new freedom. As they come to recognize her truly as an equal creation of God, her achievements will no longer constitute a threat to the male ego. If we are on the side of domination—over the weak, over women, over slaves, over undeveloped countries, over the poor, we are on the side of Satan. God’s ears are open to the cries of the oppressed. Just as it is not his will that any should perish, it is not his will that any should be in bondage. He sent his son to make us all free indeed. If a man is like God’s Son, he will see to it that his wife, or the women in the church, are truly free as well. He will plan in a practical sense for a release of his wife’s talents as well as for his own. And she will do the same for him. And together they will do the same for the church. And their mutual submission will not be a sacrifice either, because the church is one body. And the Church will give everything away to the world for Christ, and eventually that will not involve sacrifice either because Christ and the church are one.

There is still a dilemma. But the dilemma can no longer be seen as one of God’s making. It is the dilemma of a church still living in the world; the dilemma of a man or woman in the Spirit, still contending with the demands of the natural. “But as for us, let us walk after the Spirit, giving no heed to the flesh, nor making provisions for it.” There is no place for armed camps in the truly Christian church. Motivated by love for one another, let us join hands together, brothers and sisters, to claim the mighty promises of God. Everything that was given to Christ, including his Spirit of submission to the Father, was given to us “in Him”, when he rose to the right hand of the Father (Eph. 1:3, 15-23). It is within the realm of those who walk in obedience to the Spirit that the age-old bondage of men and women is loosed, that men and women are truly liberated to love one another as equal heirs of the kingdom of God. Here all distinctions fall away. Slavery, sex, race, denomination, nationality—these no longer matter because our highest status is to be found in our humblest service. We have come into a warfare that cannot be won with such hindrances. Our fight is not against the unjust hierarchical systems of this world, where employer rules over employee, white over black, first world over third world, or male over female. Our fight is the fight of faith against the perpetrator of all injustices, against the rulers and powers of wickedness in high places, powers fought most effectively through a people united in love and prayer.

Let us join hands and win the victory, oblivious of status. Here all listen to all because the Spirit speaks to all. Here women prophesy as well as men, but we know the source is neither man nor woman, but God, so we listen. {26}


  1. If you are praying and praising God while pushing that vacuum-cleaner, please keep on; you are bringing glory to God. He himself came not to be served but to serve. And please stay with me. I am not knocking women who are finding fulfillment within the boundaries set for them by society, but, if you’ve already found it, you need to read this article to understand the struggles of those who have not, and to understand the uniqueness of each individual as God has created her. There are always those who won’t fit this mold, not because they are rebels, but because they have unique talents. They are not “average” enough to fit in. They are this way not because something has gone wrong in their development (although I’m not denying that many things have; we are all offspring of fallen parents), but because God made them this way.
  2. Allen R. Guenther and Herbert Schwartz, “The Role of Women in the Church,” Mennonite Brethren Herald, May 4, 1973. Many have written on this subject since 1972, when this paper was first written. Of particular significance to me was the article above, because it showed me, and I acknowledge this with tremendous gratitude, that God through his Spirit verifies his word to us at various points in history, by giving the same illumination to various members of his body.
  3. Memo from Mrs. Valerie Reed, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Sept. 1975: Mrs. Reed, to whom I am grateful for a critical reading of this paper, pointed out that it is this paradox which “illuminates the whole of Christian belief and makes possible the mysticism and revelation of sudden insight that constantly turn people around to Christ.”
  4. Karen deVos, “The Place of Women: A Look at the Biblical Evidence,” The Reformed Journal (March, 1972), p.8.
  5. See Dick and Joyce Boldrey, “Women in Paul’s Life,” Trinity Studies, Vol. II, 1972, pp. 10-21, for a significant attempt to define the Greek word we translate “head” in Pauline writings.
  6. Loc.cit. In this difficult but thoroughly researched article, a convincing attempt is made to show that Paul was trying to show women that since their various cultural backgrounds required them to wear veils for a variety of reasons, they could use the veil as a symbol of the authority they now had in Christ, while at the same time not giving offense to the societies they came from.
  7. See also: D. Edmond Hiebert, “The Apostle Paul; Women’s Friend.” The Christian Reader (June-July, 1973), p. 48.
I acknowledge with deep gratitude the sustaining and critical encouragement of the following friends: John and Marianne Goertzen, Howard Loewen, Valerie Reed, and Elona Schellenberg and Joanne Schuster, whose prayers I value even more than their encouraging words, and to Hildie Braun, who also typed this paper.
Special thanks also to my children, Lloyd, Eric, and Ronda for their understanding and patience, and of course to my husband John, without whose help both as critic and supporter I could not have written this paper at all.
Above all to Jesus Christ who has given me inspiration and strength beyond my imagining and to whom belongs all glory, honour and praise.
Hedy Martens, of Winnipeg, Canada, is presently studying at the University of Manitoba where she is an honors English major. A mother of three (two teenagers), Ms. Martens writes fiction, poetry, articles, etc. Her contributions have appeared in the Mennonite Brethren Herald and Rejoice.

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