Is Barefoot and Pregnant the Proper Role?
A certain college that I no longer teach at underwent a change a few decades ago with the arrival of a new president and administration. The changes were not good ones, by my reckoning. One change that was particularly horrible was the demotion of the head of the psychology department: she was removed from her position. As hard as this may be to believe, she was removed simply because of her gender. The incoming administration did not believe that women should have leadership positions. It wasn’t long after that they also eliminated the psychology department all together, since they didn’t believe in that either—but that’s another story for another day.
The largest church in the town in which I currently live insists that women must wear long dresses. At all times. Not just at church. Moreover, the women are not allowed to teach or hold any leadership positions whatsoever. They mostly have to keep their mouths shut.
Treating women as second class citizens is not as unusual as one might imagine among the more conservative branches of evangelical Christianity; and it isn’t just within the walls of their churches. It even extends to how they believe women should behave within their families and homes. To hear most of the male leaders in these branches of the church talk, God has established certain roles for the woman in the church and in the marriage relationship, and these roles are to be understood practically as:
Any housework that is to be done is to be done by the woman. It is not the man’s place to wash the dishes, mop the floors, clean the toilets, do the laundry, change the diapers or do any of the other tasks that need to be done to keep a household functioning.
Caring for the children is exclusively the role of the mother, except that fathers are supposed to take the boys to ball games and teach them sports, along with other masculine activities like wood working, auto repairing, belching, and the like.
The wife must sit at home while the husband makes all the money; perhaps, if the children are grown, the wife might be allowed to get a part-time job, so long as her income is less than her husband’s, and so long as it is less prestigious as well.
While this may be the popular view among certain fundamentalist sorts, a view endowed with a status of divinely blessed appropriateness, the reader of the Bible would be hard pressed to discern that this is the ordained scriptural picture of things, unless one sets out ahead of time to prove the position by pulling a handful of phrases out of their contexts and ignoring what the rest of the Bible has to say—which is, of course, the standard practice of the fundamentalists. In fact, I would suggest that fundamentalists have raised cultural tradition to the status of the divinely inspired, and then searched scripture after the fact to “prove” the already assumed position.
The fundamental problem with the misogynistic view of women is very basic: it violates the core point of the Bible: to love others as ourselves. Mistreating women is inconsistent with “love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18) and “do to others as you would have them do to you.” (Luke 6:31) Jesus argued that the entire contents of the Bible could be boiled down to just two commands: “love God” and “love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:34-40). Telling women what they can do, where they can go, and what and whether they can talk seems inconsistent with the most basic point of the Bible.
Abraham Lincoln told people to ask themselves a simple question: would you care to be a slave? If the answer is no, then clearly slavery is obviously evil. I would suggest that those men who believe women should be excluded from positions of authority, who must not work outside the home, and so on should ask themselves the same question that those who wondered about the goodness of slavery asked: would you want to be treated the way you think women should be treated? Would you care to have such restrictions imposed on you? Would you like being told what jobs you can and cannot have simply by virtue of your gender? When you think certain people, certain groups, must be restricted, must behave, must do certain things that don’t apply to you—then probably you’re wrong.
Consider these words of the apostle Paul to the church in Galatia:
There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28)
One of the most remarkable things about this verse is the reaction to it by those who insist that women are to have a subservient role. Look at the reaction of the author of a pamphlet produced by a megachurch in Southern California on the role of women, typical of the fundamentalist position:
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 Role of Women, Grace Community Church, 1985, p. 14)
Ignoring the problems with some of their examples (especially with the Trinity and their understanding of American democracy), consider the import of the statement: that theology really has no practical significance—in this case. Or more specifically, it has no significance on the male/female relationship. The elimination of slavery and the elimination of the racial superiority inherent in early Jewish-Christian relationships with gentiles is laudable and appropriate, but when it comes to women—it doesn’t really mean they’re equal.
The thoughtful reader might be wanting to object at this point: “Isn’t the wife supposed to be subject to her husband? I seem to recall a passage of scripture...”
Perhaps actually taking a look at the passage in question would be helpful:
Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.
Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.
Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it, just as Christ does the Church—for we are members of his body. (Ephesians 5:21-30)
I suggest that “wives submit” and “husbands love” is saying the same thing with different words: Paul’s point to his readers in Ephesus is the importance of mutual submission, that is, mutual concern and care for one another. You know, what love is all about. It is instructive, in this light, to notice two other passages which have a profound impact on the subject, though they are rarely considered by people who want to either condemn Paul as a misogynist or by the men who are misogynistic:
The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. The wife’s body does not belong to her alone but also to her husband. In the same way, the husband’s body does not belong to him alone but also to his wife. (1 Corinthians 7:3-4)
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails. (1 Corinthians 13:4-8)
Also notice two other instructive passages:
Jesus called them together and said “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:42-45)
Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God
something to be grasped,
but made himself nothing,
taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to death —
even death on a cross!
Interesting picture considering husband and wife should relate to each other as Christ does to the Church. Leadership in the Christian setting, the concept of the husband being the head of the wife, must be understood in the light of what Jesus said about the nature of leadership. The one who leads is servant of all, and what is entailed by that is illustrated well by the incident where Jesus washed the disciple’s feet. Love does not mean that you make others do stuff for you; love means that you do stuff for them—and without expecting anything back in return!
Regarding the conservative idea of how bad it is if women work outside the house, since they’re supposed to take care of the children—consider common statements like this from fundamentalists, illustrating their position:
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. (The Role of Women, p. 10)
Notice the puzzling and unwarranted switch here from “parents” to “mothers?” And the whole premise is wrong besides. Biblically there is very little said about the role of mothers in the raising of children—though a lot is said on mothers bearing them. But the raising of children was the work of fathers. The passage in Deuteronomy just quoted in the pamphlet above, Deuteronomy 6:6, is written to men—not women. In Hebrew there are four forms of the pronoun “you” available: masculine singular, masculine plural, feminine singular, feminine plural. Guess which is used in Deuteronomy 6:6? Masculine singular. Women aren’t even being addressed!
Oh dear. If the pamphlet author’s argument is to be taken seriously, then obviously the Bible is telling us that men must never be allowed to work outside of the home: the men have to stay home and care for the kids.
If the reader were to look in a concordance under the words “father” and its related forms and the word “mother” and its related form, he or she would discover the following (from a computer search):
1612 occurrences of the word “father”, “father’s” or “fathers”.
Only 338 occurrences of the word “mother”, “mother’s” or “mothers”.
Fathers seem to be discussed more frequently. Moreover, one will discover, in looking at the word “mother” that in most contexts the mother is either bearing or nursing the children; little is said of a mother’s role beyond that.
Look at Ephesians 6:4 as an example:
Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.
It is mothers and fathers both who are to be obeyed (Deuteronomy 5:16, Ephesians 6:1-3), not one more than the other.
It was David who was criticized for how he raised Adonijah, not Adonijah’s mother:
(His father had never interfered with him by asking, “Why do you behave as you do?” He was also very handsome and was born next after Absalom.) (1 Kings 1:6)
In a similar vein see 1 Sam. 3:13 (Eli), 1 Sam. 8:3 (Samuel), Luke 15:12-13 (the prodigal son). Notice that it is the men raising children in Prov. 13:24, 19:18, 23:13, 22:6, 1 Timothy 3:4.
Regarding women working outside the house, notice 2 Corinthians 12:14:
Now I am ready to visit you for the third time, and I will not be a burden to you, because what I want is not your possessions but you. After all, children should not have to save up for their parents, but parents for their children.
Notice “parents” are saving for their children, not just the father.
Perhaps most disturbing of all for the male chauvinists would be finding out how the ministry of Jesus and his disciples was financed:
After this, Jesus traveled about from one town and village to another, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. The Twelve were with him, and also some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out; Joanna the wife of Cuza, the manager of Herod’s household; Susanna; and many others. These women were helping to support them out of their own means. (Luke 8:1-3)
Women were making money and then giving it to Jesus and his disciples so they could wander about Israel proclaiming the Good News.
Consider all the women of the Bible working outside the home:
- The mighty woman of Proverbs 31 (she has children!)
- Ruth gleaning grain (Ruth 2)
- Deborah, judge of Israel (Judges 4:4, 5:7)
- Lydia, seller of purple (Acts 16:14-15)
- Priscilla, a tent maker (Acts 18:1-3)
- Wisdom, personified as a woman, is active in the creation of the world (Prov. 8:27-31)
Regarding the odd statement quoted from the pamphlet above, “Nor can the responsibility for this instruction [of children] simply be transferred to someone else [other than the mother]”: perhaps the author of the misogynistic pamphlet chose to ignore the work of nurses and servants as mentioned in the Bible? (cf. Gen. 24:59, 35:8, Ex. 2:7-9, Num. 11:12, 2 Sam. 4:4, 2 Kings 11:2-3, 2 Chron. 22:11). We perhaps shouldn’t even bring up how Samuel was raised in the temple by the priests (1 Samuel 1-2), you know, a group of men...
Of course there are those who might argue that the only reason women want to work outside the home, get careers and the like, is because the feminist movement has filled them with wrong-headed dreams and aspirations. Those darn feminists are the ones who’ve made women unhappy and dissatisfied with their “proper, God-given roles” in the home.
Like the slave holders of a different era, who complained that “If it weren’t for those durn abolitionists filling the slaves with wool-headed ideas they wouldn’t be near the trouble; getting them all riled up about liberty and equality and who knows what other gosh durn foolishness!”
The reason a woman might like a career and be dissatisfied fulfilling the role of a slave is because she is a human being, created in the image of God, with the same common ideals and aspirations, hopes and fears, that fill the male half of humanity, since woman, too, is as much a part of humanity as man:
So God created humanity in his own image, in the image of God he created it; male and female he created them. (Gen. 1:27)
Those who insist that women must be kept down will produce the words of Paul from his letter to Timothy as their proof that their view of women is without doubt the one true will of God:
A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. (1 Timothy 2:11-14)
But what of the context of Paul’s words?
Why will we argue that “greet one another with a holy kiss” (Romans 16:16) or “women must wear head covers” (1 Corinthians 11:2-16) are culturally conditioned, but are not willing to consider the same possibility with Paul’s statement about not letting a woman “teach or have authority” over a man? Why is that universalized, while other statements are comfortably localized?
Context matters. But some people like to ignore context if it creates problems for their way of looking at something.
Consider this example from the Gospel of Matthew:
When Peter came into the house, Jesus was the first to speak. “What do you think, Simon?” he asked. “From whom do the kings of the earth collect duty and taxes—from their own sons or from others?”
“From others,” Peter answered.
“Then the sons are exempt,” Jesus said to him. “But so that we may not offend them, go to the lake and throw out your line. Take the first fish you catch; open its mouth and you will find a four-drachma coin. Take it and give it to them for my tax and yours.” (Matthew 17:25-27)
We recognize that we are not physically with Jesus now, and so his command to Peter to catch a fish and pay the temple tax with the money he takes from the poor creature’s mouth is obviously localized. I’m unaware of anyone who suggests that this incident—a command from Jesus no less—tells us about how we must pay our taxes. Perhaps we could get a general principal from it: that we should live by faith and that we can trust God to provide for us.
So what was the general status of women in the place that Timothy was living? In many cities dominated by Greek culture, the status of women was very low; they were not educated and they were not permitted to participate in much outside their homes. They shouldn’t teach simply because they still needed to be taught.
Thus, perhaps, when Paul is prohibiting teaching by women in Timothy’s community, we should take it more as a general prohibition against teaching by those who are unqualified, rather than as a general rule regarding the place of women, since the women in places such as where Timothy lived were uneducated and thus ill equipped to take on a public teaching role.
When looking at biblical texts, their cultural and historical context must always be kept in mind. The opportunity and status of women has changed considerably since Timothy’s time and place. There has been a tremendous shift in the opportunities and education of women; women of today, in most respects, are not in the same position as those of Timothy’s experience in a Greek community. (Just as Jesus is no longer around, and so that simple change in circumstance between then and now has an impact on how we fail to universalize his command to Peter to go fishing in order to pay the temple tax).
What of the story of the woman being duped by the serpent that Paul uses to illustrate his point? Just that, it illustrates the point: that the women in Timothy’s town, like Adam’s wife, were naive and easily lead astray. Would this be the case with all women, even in Timothy’s day? Of course not. And how does a universal prohibition on teaching by all women reconcile with the examples of women teaching in the Bible (for example, Paul’s friend, Pricilla [Acts 18:26]) or even serving as prophets (Huldah [2 Kings 22:14], the four daughters of Philip [Acts 21:8-9]). Generally, I believe that an interpretation that is correct must not create contradiction, particularly if it creates absurdity. If it creates a contradiction, you know the interpretation is wrong; work to resolve the conflict. Only those interpretations that do not lead to a contradiction can be correct in my estimation (this does not mean, of course, that just a lack of contradiction means the interpretation is correct; it might still be wrong). Paul even mentions his esteem, at the end of his letter to the church in Rome, for Phoebe, a deacon, and Junia, whom he describes as being outstanding among the apostles (yes, there were female deacons and apostles!) (Romans 16:1and 7). Given what else we see in Paul’s life and in the Bible, the idea that he thinks women must be kept down seems improbable.
If there is not a universal prohibition on women teaching men in the Bible, then there is nothing inherently unscriptural about a woman being the senior pastor of the church, or taking on any other leadership position. In the church, as in society, a woman would be able to participate and function in any role she chooses. Competence alone should be the qualifying factor for any task. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, it should be the “quality” of one’s heart, not the “color” of one’s skin, that is determinative (or in this case, “quality,” not “gender”). Women and men should be treated equally and have equal opportunities in the church and in life in general.