One of the marks of a good scholarly piece is that even when your opponents disagree with your main premise, they still appreciate the quality of your work. This is exactly what I have noticed as I’ve perused book reviews on “Beyond Sex Roles” By: Gilbert Bilezikian on Goodreads and Amazon. I’ve noticed that even though many people disagree with his conclusion, the majority have applauded him for his research, application, and writing techniques.
This book was lent to me by my pastor after a conversation surrounding the appropriate role of women in the church. As many of you are aware, this is a topic I have been wrestling through for a few years and ultimately find confusing as both sides present good arguments for their beliefs. Although I may not have agreed with everything that Bilezikian expounded on, his work definitely is one I would encourage any serious theologian to add to their collection.
One of the greatest assets of Bilezikian’s book is the care he takes in outlining God’s original intent for men and women. Unlike many other authors who simply proof-text 1 Timothy 2:12, Bilezikian actually starts right at the beginning of the Genesis account, moves throughout the Old Testament, addresses women in leadership in the New Testament, and finally ends with the Apostle Paul’s instructions for a woman to be silent.
In his book, he begins by stating the verse, doing an exegesis of it, exploring the socio-historical culture, and providing a practical application for today. Here are a few things that stood out to me in his writing:
#1: In the original creation account, Adam was formed first and then Eve. Nevertheless, it was not until after the fall that God informed Eve that her desire would be for her husband and that he would “lord” it over her (Genesis 3:16).
The original intent in Scripture is for the man to be the head of the wife and to love her as Christ loves the church, whereas, the woman is called to submit to her husband. But what exactly does this mean?
In English the word “head” often connotes “the person in charge” for example “the head of the board.” However, in other languages like French, it does not have the same meaning. Nevertheless, in this situation, the word “head” actually refers to a “life-source.” For Eve (and therefore women) were taken from man (Adam) and therefore are a part of him. Yet, what sets Christianity apart from the pagan society of the day, is the care for which the man in this patriarchal setting would have shown to his wife. Whereas, women in this culture were often seen as “second rate” and only useful as “baby machines”, men were taught to be servant leaders and both husbands and wives were instructed not to withhold conjugal rights from one another. Furthermore, in the context of family, both mothers and fathers were to be obeyed and respected by their children. The word used when Paul ordered children to OBEY their parents, is different than the word SUBMIT. This is because although the woman is to give preference to her husband and to honour him, it does not lower her own status or infantilize her.
#2: Proponents of the complimentarian approach often have difficulty accepting a women in pulpit ministry, but what does the Bible have to say on this topic?
It is evident throughout both the Old and New Testament that women were useful for the ministry of the church in a variety of ways, including in public settings. For example, both Testaments mention female Prophets (Miriam, Huldah, Deborah, Anna, Philip’s Four Daughters, etc.) The interesting thing to note here is that the prophetic ministry at that time was something often included in a public worship setting. The Apostle Paul himself noted that Prophesy was useful for the edification of the church, whereas tongues were merely useful for person edification (1 Corinthians 14:4). Moreover, there is an injunction in 1 Corinthians 11:5 that a woman who is engaging in public prayer or prophesy must cover her head whereas a man is expressly requested not to. According to Bilezikian as well as many other authors, this had to do with the cultural strictures of the day. There are, of course, some churches like the Brethren who still wear head coverings, however, for the most part I have always found it ironic that churches which don’t allow a woman to preach are fine without the use of a head covering. To me this is hypocrisy and merely a way of ensuring a patriarchal structure.
There are a few other notable women in the early church. There is Priscilla who along with her husband Aquila served as a co-pastor and mentor to the Apostle Paul. There are also mentions of female apostles including Junia who was considered “outstanding among the Apostles” (Romans 16:7). In this time period, the apostolic ministry was one of teaching and pastoral authority. In fact, an apostle was considered a higher rank than a pastor (almost like a bishop today). Therefore, it is erroneous to believe that there would have been a female apostle but not a female pastor.
Lastly, there was the church leader, Tabitha who was so influential that upon her death, two men sent for the Apostle Peter to raise her up. They were so saddened by this woman’s faith and virtue that no one else could have taken her place. What a remarkable leader she must have been!
So how exactly do we live in this tension of the Biblical world, while also staying true to the Biblical text? Here is a summary of Bilezikian’s beliefs:
Firstly, the original design in creation was for men and women to enjoy equal status to each other and to God. Any form of male patriarchy is the result of the fall. That being said, there is still a way Christ has redeemed it. The husband is to be the “life-source” of his wife and to provide for her, whereas the wife submits to her husband not merely out of obedience but out of love. At times, the husband and wife must submit to one another, showing preference and honouring the other. Decisions need to be made in a mutually edifying way that give the man his rightful place not as “dictatorial ruler” but as loving authority figure. Likewise, the wife must submit not out of childish obedience, but out of reverence and support. Situations like we see so common in our day where the man abuses his rightful authority and uses it is a means to manipulate or harm a woman, twisting Scripture and even justifying his abuse, are the result of sin and the fall. Instead, the Biblical mandate we see is that the husband is to “provide a source of life, of servanthood, and of growth.” (Bilzekian, 158). This is taken from the statement in Ephesians 5:23-29, that “Christ is the head of the Church. He is Himself the Saviour of the body. Christ loved the Church and gave Himself up for her. No man ever hates his own flesh, but nourishes it and cherishes it as Christ does the Church.” Bilezikian further notes, “the meaning of the head-body duality is not authority but reciprocity. BECAUSE Christ is the wellspring of the Church’s life and provides it with existence and sustenance, in RETURN the Church serves Him in loving dependency and in recognition of Him as the source of its life. In a similar manner, the head-body metaphor applied to the husband-and-wife relationships serves to emphasize their essential unity, deriving from creation. Because man as the fountainhead of woman’s existence was originally used to supply her with her very life, and because he continues to love her sacrificially as his own body in marriage, in return a Christian wife binds herself up to her husband in a similar relationship of servant submission that expresses their oneness.” (161) In this circumstance, Bilezikian acknowledges that “being subject to” or “submitting” is a “mutual (two-way process)” much different from the “unilateral (one-way subordination)” that would have been common in this time period (154). That is to say, submitting out of love is not the same as the way a slave would “submit” to his master. This is an important concept to grasp as many women wrongly feel that “submission” is a dirty-word and completely close their mind to the concept. In Bilezikian’s own words “among spouses it is possible to submit without love, but it is impossible to love without submitting.” (168; cf. Col. 3:18-19)
Ultimately, Bilezikian provides this conclusion: Our life is so much more than the merely defined sex roles of the culture. Yes, part of life is understanding what makes a man male or a woman female, but there is so much more than just what we see at the surface. Regardless of gender or the associated roles placed on us by society or the church, each one of us is made as an image-bearer of God. Thus, our personhood stems from the Holy Spirit and we are all called to represent Christ and the character traits that exemplify the Fruit of the Spirit (208). It is only then that we will find lasting and full freedom. Not in a man overexerting his influence and damaging women. Not in a woman becoming a radical feminist and abusing men or ignoring their status. But rather in the two separate yet unified sexes coming together under the Cross of Christ in a glorious exchange of willing servitude and submission, in both men and women entering into a relationship with Christ which they seek to emulate in their marriage and public roles, and in shunning our cultural expectations in favour of heavenly ones in accordance with the original design laid out in Scripture.