Evangelicals need to develop a deeper theology of women; one that accurately reflects the fact that women and men were created in the image of God and given a mutual mandate to nurture and rule, without restrictions based on gender. There are some promising signs that the conservative church is moving in this direction.
SIGNS OF THE TIMES
In addition to anecdotal stories about people and churches leaving complementarian theology behind (Pastor Luke Geraty and Grace Church in Indiana are two examples in recent years), it is encouraging to see more women being appointed to senior leadership in church, college, and seminary settings. The appointments of Carla Sunberg as president of Nazarene Theological Seminary and Deana Porterfield, as president of Roberts Wesleyan College and Northeastern Seminary come to mind. Another sign of positive change is the amount of research and writing produced by women academics. While some of this writing comes out of more liberal camps, there is plenty of scholarship produced by conservative evangelicals.
SHORTCOMINGS OF TRADITIONAL TEACHING
Traditionally, few scholars (male or female) have concerned themselves with how the biblical narrative relates to women, or with the details of the lives of the women whose stories are found in its pages. As a result, Christian teaching has suffered in these ways:
- Women are rarely featured as primary subjects in sermons
- Commentaries and other resources marginalize the importance of women in the biblical story
- Negative traits are emphasized in teaching about women (Rahab, Mary Magdalene) but minimized in teaching about men (Abraham, David)
- Women are presented as one-dimensional characters (the virgin Mary, Sarah who laughed at God, Rebecca the deceiver)
In the introduction to his 1998 book The Word According to Eve, Cullen Murphy wrote:
“The Bible is famous for being the world’s most overstudied book- overstudied by male scholars and commentators, that is to say. It has not, however, been overstudied by women. Indeed, until recently, it was studied by female scholars hardly at all, let alone by female scholars who were interested specifically in what the Bible had to say about women. This has changed, to put it mildly, owing in large measure to the influx of women into fields of study from which they once were virtually absent and effectively barred. Today the Bible is being confronted not only by women who are theologians, who bring to the task an overtly religious perspective, but also, and more pertinently from the point of view of this book, by women who are biblical scholars, linguists, historians, archaeologist, and literary critics”.
Scholarship by women and about women continues to flourish in the 21st century. Both male and female scholars are studying the Bible with greater sensitivity to women’s experiences and to God’s intentions for them.
CONTRIBUTIONS OF WOMEN SCHOLARS
Here are four ways women scholars contribute towards a deeper theology of women in our time (and some titles to explore):
1. New insights about the cultural and social contexts of the Bible
Understanding the contexts in which women in the Bible lived out their faith gives us new insight into their actions and behavior. For example, knowing that some ancient marriage contracts stipulated that after a bride had been barren for a specific number of years she would be expected to give her husband her slave as a surrogate, helps us to understand Sarah’s actions in sending Hagar in to Abraham (Frymer-Kensky). And knowing that married women had a surprising amount of authority and autonomy in their own homes in New Testament times gives insight into the role of women in the early church (Osiek & MacDonald).
- Reading the Women of the Bible: A New Interpretation of Their Stories by Tikva Frymer-Kenski
- A Women’s Place: House Churches in Earliest Christianity by Margaret MacDonald and Carolyn Osiek
2. New insights about lesser-known women in the Bible
Until recently, little attention had been given to more obscure or unnamed women like the Widow of Zarephath (1 Kings 17), the five daughters of Zelophehad (Numbers 27), or the apostle Junia (Romans 16:7). When scripture references to women are brief, new scholarship fills in the contextual gaps so that the value of these stories can be gleaned. New ways of interpreting such stories are emerging.
- Back to the Well: Women’s Encounters with Jesus in the Gospels by Frances Taylor Gench
- Jeroboam’s Wife: The Enduring Contributions of the Old Testament’s Least-Known Women by Robin Gallaher Branch
- The Lost Apostle: Searching for the Truth about Junia by Rena Pederson
3. New insights about well-known women in the Bible
All too often, teaching on the more prominent women in the Bible has been one-dimensional. There is a tendency to focus on a weakness (Sarah laughed at God, Rebecca deceived her husband) or a snapshot in time (the Virgin Mary), and ignore the depth and breadth of the stories. Additionally, misinformation that paints women in the biblical narrative in a negative light is being corrected. Case in point – there is nothing in the text to indicate that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute. New scholarship helps us avoid such shallow caricatures.
- Stories of Biblical Mothers: Maternal Power in the Hebrew Bible by Leila Leah Bronner
- Commentary on Esther by Karen Jobe
- JPS Bible Commentary: Ruth by Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Tikva Frymer-Kensky
4. New paradigms for understanding God’s intentions for women
Helen Lee’s “missional mom”. The “blessed alliance” envisioned by Carolyn Custis James. The model of “complementarity without hierarchy” presented by Rebecca Groothius and others. Kate Cooper’s “band of angels” in the early church. These are just a few examples of how women scholars are helping the church re-envision life for women in the New Community. In addition to helping the church remove obstacles that limit women’s service, these new paradigms offer ways to bridge the growing divide between the Church and the more egalitarian values of Western culture.
- The Missional Mom: Living with Purpose at Home and in the World by Helen Lee
- Half the Church by Carolyn Custis James
- Band of Angels: The Forgotten World of Early Christian Women by Kate Cooper
- Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity without Hierarchy edited by Pierce and Groothius
These contributions provide balance to interpretations that often leave women of the Bible in the shadows and present a skewed perspective on the value of women in communities of faith. If you want to develop a more robust theology of women, select one or two titles to read over the next year. While you may not agree with all of an author’s conclusions, I guarantee that your understanding of how God views women will be enriched. And if you like what you read, take it a step further and share what you learn with your pastor and others who teach in your church.