What does the Bible say about women's rights?
Most of the Bible's teachings about women are based upon the foundation laid in Genesis. It doesn't matter whether we interpret the creation story in Genesis literally or figuratively; God's intentions for men and women are spelled out clearly.
God created the woman as a "helper" for the man:
The LORD God said, "It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him." (NIV, Genesis 2:18)
However, being a "helper" does not imply that the woman was inferior or subservient to the man; the same Hebrew word, `ezer, translated as "helper," is used to describe God, Himself, in Psalms 33:20, 70:5, 115:9-11. In fact, God created both men and women in His own image and made them equal custodians of all His creation:
So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. God blessed them and said to them, "Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground." (NRSV, Genesis 2:27-28)
When God created man, he made him in the likeness of God. He created them male and female and blessed them. And when they were created, he called them "man." (NIV, Genesis 5:1-2)
But the man and woman, Adam and Eve, disobeyed God in the Garden of Eden. God gave each of them punishments before evicting them from the Garden:
To the woman he said, "I will greatly increase your pains in childbearing; with pain you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you." To Adam he said, "Because you listened to your wife and ate from the tree about which I commanded you, 'You must not eat of it,' "Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return." (NIV, Genesis 3:16-19)
It is not clear in what sense the husband was to rule over his wife, and this been the subject of much debate. Regardless of how Eve's punishment was originally intended, this passage is key to understanding later Biblical teachings about women. The punishments on both Adam and Eve were clearly imposed by God Himself; God did not reduce women to inferior status, nor did He command men to rule harshly over their wives. However, in the course of history, it has sometimes been thought that God's punishment of Eve was justification for degradation and subjugation of women.
Old Testament era
Compared to other cultures of the time, Jewish women enjoyed great liberty and esteem, and many women distinguished themselves as prophetesses and leaders in Jewish society. Women such as Deborah, Esther, Hannah, Huldah, Jochebed, Miriam, Noadiah, Rachel, Rebekah, Rahab, Ruth and Sarah played important and decisive roles in Israel's history.
As evidence of the equality of men and women, the Ten Commandments require children to honor both their father and mother:
"Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be prolonged in the land which the LORD your God gives you. (NAS, Exodus 20:12)
By the time of Jesus, women no longer had the freedoms and status they had enjoyed in the Old Testament era. Jewish society had become very much male-dominated. Women were considered to be inferior beings and were assigned almost the same status as slaves. They were not educated, not allowed to take any leadership roles, and confined to mostly domestic duties.
Mary and Elizabeth
But two women of this time became models of faithfulness and virtue. Mary, the mother of Jesus, put aside her fears, doubts and shame to take on the role of mother of the Messiah. She simply placed her whole trust in God (Luke 1:26-38). Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist, also put her faith in God (Luke 1:39-45).
Jesus' attitude toward women was radically different from what was customary at the time. Women normally stayed home and attended to domestic duties. But Jesus allowed women to travel with Him and His twelve disciples (Luke 8:1-3).
"Proper" Jews did not speak to Samaritans, and certainly not to Samaritan women. But Jesus had a long conversation with a Samaritan woman at Jacob's well that led to her conversion (John 4:4-30, 39-42).
Jewish women were generally not educated or allowed any active role in the affairs of religion. But Martha's sister, Mary, sat at Jesus' feet in the role of a disciple while Jesus taught her. Jesus suggested that Martha do the same (Luke 10:38-42).
Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joses, Salome, Joanna, Susanna and other women were prominent among Jesus' devoted followers. Some remained with Jesus to comfort Him at His crucifixion when all His apostles had fled in terror (Matthew 27:55-56, Mark 15:40-41). Mary Magdalene and other women were privileged to be the first to discover that Jesus had risen from the dead (Matthew 28:1-10, Mark 16:1-7; Luke 24:1-11).
It is frequently pointed out that Jesus appointed only men as His twelve apostles, and this is taken as a sign of women's secondary status. But Jesus sent His apostles out to spread the gospel to the world, seeking food and shelter where they could find it, facing great danger and ultimately martyrdom. That would not have been considered an appropriate role for a woman in Biblical times just as it would not be considered appropriate today.
The early Christian Church
The early churches apparently followed Jesus' example. Women were treated as at least near-equals and allowed to hold positions of responsibility. Many women, including Jesus' mother, Mary, as well as Dorcas, Julia, Lydia, Persis, Priscilla, Phoebe, Tryphena and Tryphosa were important in the early Christian Church (Acts 1:12-14, 9:36, 16:14, 18:24-26, 21:7-9, Romans 16:1-16).
The Apostle Paul
Paul affirmed the equality of all Christians. There was no difference based on birth, status or gender. All had the same privileges and blessings as children of God.
You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise. (NIV, Galatians 3:26-29)
But Paul also affirmed the Biblical teachings dating back to Genesis that men were the leaders and authorities in the family. He also said women should continue to observe the custom of wearing a veil in public:
But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the husband is the head of his wife, and God is the head of Christ. Any man who prays or prophesies with something on his head disgraces his head, but any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled disgraces her head--it is one and the same thing as having her head shaved. For if a woman will not veil herself, then she should cut off her hair; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or to be shaved, she should wear a veil. For a man ought not to have his head veiled, since he is the image and reflection of God; but woman is the reflection of man. Indeed, man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for the sake of woman, but woman for the sake of man. For this reason a woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels. (NRSV, 1 Corinthians 11:3-10)
Paul also wrote this paragraph which seems to contradict some of his other teachings:
As in all the churches of the saints, women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church. (NRSV, 1 Corinthians 14:33-35)
We know from 1 Corinthians 11:5 that women were allowed to pray and prophesy. We also know that many women were prominent in the churches and that Paul approved and encouraged them. Chapter 14 of 1 Corinthians talks about the various abuses and disruptive activities of some church members, so this passage is probably directed at a specific problem that had occurred in the church at Corinth. We don't know exactly what that problem was, but perhaps some women had been disrupting church services by talking or asking inappropriate questions.
The following passage*, and the similar Colossians 3:18-19, also affirm the teaching from Genesis 3:16, at least as it was commonly understood at the time. But they also reject the harsh subjugation of women that was characteristic of society at that time. Husbands were to love their wives tenderly, not treat them as slaves:
Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Savior. Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, in order to make her holy by cleansing her with the washing of water by the word, so as to present the church to himself in splendor, without a spot or wrinkle or anything of the kind--yes, so that she may be holy and without blemish. In the same way, husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hates his own body, but he nourishes and tenderly cares for it, just as Christ does for the church, because we are members of his body. (NRSV, Ephesians 5:21-30)
Background of New Testament teachings
Paul and other Christian leaders urged all Christians, not just women, to comply with the standards of the societies they lived in. There were several reasons:
1) Christians are new creations in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17) and should focus their lives on spiritual things rather than worldly things. The evils and injustices of the world are of little importance when compared to things of the spirit:
Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. (NIV, Colossians 3:1-2)
But this does not in any way excuse those who live wicked lives. Those who live lives of holiness and purity will receive their reward in heaven, and the wicked and the oppressors will receive their punishment in hell (Luke 12:4-5, 1 Thessalonians 4:3-8, Colossians 3:22-25).
2) Humility is an important theme throughout the New Testament; suffering for our faith in this life will bring great rewards in the life to come. Virtue comes from obedience to God, not from rebelling against society's norms (1 Peter 2:13-17). Thus, slaves should accept freedom if offered, but, if not, they should be obedient to their masters in all things (1 Corinthians 7:20-24, Colossians 3:22-24, 1 Peter 2:18-21). Similarly, women should not rebel against their lot in life, but rather set a good example for non-believers by their purity and reverence (1 Peter 3:1-6, Titus 2:4-5).
3) The young Christian communities in the Mediterranean area were already looked upon as hotbeds of dangerous heretics by the pagan majorities. The apostle Paul and other church leaders were very concerned about avoiding any appearance of scandal that would make a bad impression on the people they wanted to convert to Christianity (Titus 2:3-8, 1 Corinthians 14:22-24), or worse, that could be used to justify persecution of Christians.
The example of slavery
Slavery was a fact of life in Biblical times. Several New Testament passages urged slaves to accept their lot in life and be obedient to their masters. It was not because of any virtue in slavery (1 Corinthians 7:21-22), but because there was no hope of reform at that time in history, and slaves would receive the reward for their patience in heaven. Those Bible passages were often used to justify slavery in the U.S. and other countries. But today, the vast majority of Christians view slavery as a horrible evil, incompatible with the teachings of Christ, and do not believe God decreed that people should be enslaved.
The subjugation of women can be seen similarly. In fact, many of the passages urging women to be submissive are grouped with those urging slaves to obey their masters (Ephesians 5:22, 6:5-6, Colossians 3:18, 3:22, Titus 2:3-5, 2:9, 1 Peter 2:18, 3:1). Supporters of women's rights argue that the secondary status of women was not decreed by God for all time; like slavery, it was primarily a concession to the realities of Biblical-era society.
God created both men and women in His own image and made them equal custodians of all His creation. But, because of their disobedience, God punished Adam and Eve and evicted them from the Garden of Eden. Eve's punishment was to suffer pain in childbirth and be ruled over by her husband.
Jesus broke with tradition and treated women in a much more egalitarian way than was normal in the society of that time. The early Christian churches followed Jesus' lead and gave women much higher status and more privileges than was common in the rest of the world. But Paul and other Christian leaders continued to affirm the principle of a husband's family leadership and authority over his wife.
Christians disagree over whether this principle should apply in the modern world. Is the man's authority over his wife and family a great spiritual principle decreed by God for all time, or is it just a reflection of the realities of Biblical-era culture? Today, many Christians believe women should enjoy all the same rights and privileges as men. Other Christians, however, continue to advocate a secondary role for women based on Genesis 3:16 and other Bible passages.
*Galatians and 1 Corinthians are undisputed genuine writings of Paul, but there is less certainty about Ephesians and Colossians. They are written in the form of letters from Paul. But, based on style, vocabulary, events recorded, and other factors, some Bible scholars believe these letters were put in final form by unknown persons after Paul's death.
Related article: What does the Bible say about women in ministry?