One of the problems some people have with Christianity is its apparent prejudice against women in its writings and history. Now where the latter is concerned, there is no doubt that Christianity as in many cases in its history, been oppressive to women. This sorrows me and on behalf of all Christians, I acknowledge this and seek forgiveness. As in the case of Christian involvement in violence and war, this is tragic and a distortion of the original intention of God concerning gender. Rather, I believe that the bible if understood correctly, promotes equality and complementarity while retaining gender distinctiveness.
This is seen in the clear patriarchal bias of the OT (see Gen 2:20; 3:16) and in certain key texts which appear to promote the leadership of the male in the marriage and home and in the church (see esp. 1 Cor 11:1-16; 14:34-35; 1 Tim 2:11-15; Eph 5:22-24; Col 3:18; 1 Pet 3:1-6). However to me, while it appears that Christianity is biased in this way in its writings, closer examination suggests no such bias. Here are some ideas in this direction:
1. The concept of woman as man’s helper in Gen 2:20 should not be understood as authoritative as God is also Israel’s helper in the OT implying that subordination is not necessarily in mind here (e.g. Exod 18:4; Ps 121:2). If subordination is read into the word, then God is subordinate to Israel which is out of the question.
2. The contention and dominance of men over women apparently referred to in Gen 3:16 is not God's ideal but the consequence of sin and caused by the Fall i.e. it is not God's intention. Both men and women are made in the image of God and on an equal footing before God (Gen 1:26-27). In the church this distortion caused by the fall of humanity is to be corrected.
3. The patriarchy of the OT law and life represents the patriarchy of the then world. It does not follow that such patriarchy should be universal for all of human history.
4. Jesus was highly positive toward women (Lk 8:1-2; 10:38-41; Jn 4:1-42; 8:1-12 etc.). He allowed them to be disciples as seen in the account of Mary and Martha (Lk 10:38-41). They formed part of his travelling team (Lk 8:1-2).
5. The first witnesses to the resurrection were women (Mt 28:1-5) which is actually remarkable in that their testimony was considered worthless in the age.
6. There is no gender limitation in the spiritual gift lists i.e. all can be gifted in such a way (Rom 12:4-8; 1 Cor 12:1-31; Eph 4:11-12). Of particular note here is the gift of leadership in Rom 12:8 where Paul places no limitation of gender on this appeal to let those with the gift of leadership lead.
7. There is evidence of women involved in ministry in the early church (Acts 16:13-15; 18:26; Rom 16:1, 3-4, 6-7, 12; 1 Cor 1:11; 11:5; Phil 4:1-3; Col 4:15). These include Junia an apostle (the best reading of Rom 16:7), church hosts (e.g. Nympha in Col 4:15), teachers including Priscilla who taught alongside Aquila and is named ahead of him in many references indicating her priority (Acts 18:26), Euodia and Syntyche who were evangelistic co-workers of Paul in Philippi (Phil 4:1-3). These women worked in the service of God.
8. There is evidence that where the culture allowed women greater involvement, Paul adapted his approach to allow more involvement in the church (see the higher role of women in Macedonia cf. Acts 16:11-15; Phil 4:2-3). That is, Paul was flexible where culture is concerned in terms of the involvement and role of women (cf. 1 Cor 9:19-22).
9. Husbands are to love their wives with a sacrificial love involving giving up their lives in the manner of Christ (Eph 5:24). This suggests giving up power leading to mutual submission. The main imperative of the passage is ‘submit to one another’ (Eph 5:22). In addition the whole concept of headship does not necessarily imply authority but may indicate source in the sense of creation i.e. from man came woman, not implying authority.
10. There are clear indications of equality of all in the church in terms of race, gender and socio-economic class (Gal 3:28). This verse which tells us that in Christ there neither Jew nor Greek, male nore female, slave nor free; subverts the three great social divides in the ancient world. Paul is not wanting to remove cultural nor gender distinctives, he is speaking of a new order in which these old divides of oppression and dominance are now overthrown in the idea of community brought by God.
11. The injunctions in 1 Corinthians 14:33-36 and 1 Timothy 2:9-11 probably should not be read a universal statements confinding the role of women but be read as injunctions to women in these particular situations who were causing contention. In the 1 Cor 14 context Paul has already allowed women to pray and prophesy in 1 Cor 11:5-7 and so here is probably seeking to quieten down those involved in the chaotic tongues and prophetic babbling of the Corinthian church. Similarly in 1 Tim 2, the women appear to be involved in the problem of false teaching which besets the Ephesian church and the injunction is targeting those who are involved. Hence, Gal 3:28 above sets the agenda for equality, but these injunctions are situational responses to problems.
12. Whether or not Paul held a patriarchal view, it is not stated whether these are to be applied in all cultures and in all times (see note 8 above). In fact indications in Paul are there that he advocated freedom where non-salvation matters are concerned. In 1 Cor 9:19-22 Paul speaks of adapting his lifestyle when among people of different ethnicities and persuasions in order to not put any obstacle in their way toward knowing Christ. Where gender then is concerned, I believe Paul today in our world, would advocate for mutual servanthood and submission and equality of opportunity in that this culture is framed in such a way.
I believe then that there is no real qualification on the involvement of women in church leadership. Indeed, where a culture is positive to the role of women as I suggest above, Paul and others would have argued for their involvement (cf. western European culture). On the other hand in cultures where women were subordinate he may have advocated a lesser role. That being said, Paul was not happy with the status quo as seen in Gal 3:28. In terms of practicalities, I believe in this complex age the church needs male and female leaders in equal measure to ensure effective pastoral care. In terms of life in the home I believe that a close reading of Eph 5:22f in particular suggests mutual submission rather than the headship of the husband in an authoritative sense. My own observation of good marriages suggests that in good marriages the husband and wife work as a team without any sense of domination, whatever view of marriage is taken. I conclude that on the basis of sexism, no one should write off the Christian faith. However, I admit we as a Christian people have a long way to go to truly reflect the freedom that is in Christ and for this we must continue to labour.