Biblical Womanhood 101: What We Really Teach at Southwestern
Southwestern Seminary is a great place to be a woman! We have the largest women’s programs faculty of any evangelical seminary and offer specialized concentrations and degrees at the certificate, college, masters, and doctorate levels for women preparing for ministry who want to know what the Bible says specifically about women and to women. We want to think intelligently about what God says about biblical womanhood, a concept that is often grossly misunderstood in our contemporary culture.
So, biblical womanhood—what does that really mean?
I had a student ask me that when she signed up for a class I teach called Biblical Theology of Womanhood. She understandably wanted to know what we would be studying for the whole semester as we worked from Genesis to Revelation because another student (who hadn’t taken the course) had discouraged her because she “heard” we didn’t believe women should be involved in ministry. (Ugh…I hate being misrepresented!)
So, to start off, let me share a few things we don’t teach in our programs (based on a few things people have erroneously said):
- We don’t teach that women are less valuable, less intelligent, or less important in God’s plan. In fact, I think our women’s programs students are some of the sharpest women I have ever met!
- We don’t teach that women should not be involved in ministry, though we do believe there are some passages in Scripture that give specific guidelines to women involved in ministry.
- We don’t teach that women should not be thoroughly trained and equipped for ministry. We encourage women to study hard to be prepared for whatever area of ministry God may be calling them. We believe there is incredible value in equipping women who know how to intelligently handle God’s Word and apply it in our contemporary culture in woman-to-woman ministry.
- We don’t teach that the only way to honor God as a woman is by being a wife and mom, though we do believe that being a wife and a mother is a high calling, which unfortunately is often ridiculed in today’s world. Though I did not get my degrees in homemaking, I do see the value for any woman who wants to be better trained in this area just as I do for the woman who wants to be better trained in missions, theology, girls’ ministry, counseling, teaching, women’s ministry, archaeology, or any other sphere of ministry.
Okay, now that we have that out of the way, what do we teach? What is really going on behind the doors of our Women’s Programs classes?
Our basic approach to women in ministry is that we believe that God has created men and women in equal worth and value and that He has some specific and distinct roles for men and women in the home and church.
This understanding of gender roles is often called complementarianism (I know, it’s a mouthful!). It may be helpful to define a couple of terms that are helpful in understanding our approach to biblical womanhood.
Coming to Terms with “The Terms”
Complementarianism: Equal yet distinct —The Bible teaches that men and women are both created in the image of God (equal in essence) and that God has distinct, yet complementary roles or functions for men and women, especially in the home and church. This position is the one that we hold.
Egalitarianism: No distinction in roles —The Bible teaches that men and women are both created in the image of God (equal in essence) and that God has no distinction of roles or functions for men and women in the home or church. Some Bible-believing evangelicals and some of my good friends hold this position, but I believe that this position is incorrect based on some biblical passages. (Keep reading for the specifics.)
Equality: This word is thrown around a lot, but it is important to understand what people mean when they say it. Many people think that for things to be equal they must be the same. So, if men and women are truly equal, many egalitarians believe they must have the same roles or functions. However, I believe the Bible teaches that something can be equal in value and worth yet have distinctions. An example of this is that each member of the Trinity is equally God, but God the Father has some roles distinct from God the Son and God the Holy Spirit and vice versa. Each member of the Trinity is equally God and equal in value yet distinct in some of their functions. Another example is found in 1 Corinthians 12 regarding spiritual gifts. Every Christian is equally part of the body of Christ, but each has distinct gifts to serve that body.
Presupposition: I had never heard this word until I came to seminary, but it is really important because it describes what you believe ahead of time before you start trying to understand the Bible. Are there any ground rules you follow when trying to understand Scripture? For me and my colleagues at Southwestern, we believe the Bible is without error and contradictions because it is the Word of God. That guides us as we try to interpret difficult passages.
Scriptures to Study
If you want to get a good idea about why we believe and teach certain truths about gender roles, spend some time studying the following passages:
Genesis 1—3: These three chapters are foundational—you won’t understand what God is doing in the rest of the Bible if you don’t understand His unique plan at creation for man and woman.
Galatians 3:28: This verse is often used to argue that there are no longer distinctions in roles. However, if that were the case, then Paul (who wrote this verse) contradicts himself when he articulates role distinctions in other passages like the ones noted below. This verse actually teaches that each person comes to salvation the same way—through the cross of Christ.
Marriage Passages (Colossians 3:18-19, Ephesians 5:22-33, 1 Peter 3:1-7): These passages teach that there are distinctions in roles for a husband and wife in a marriage. Ephesians 5:22-33 is especially important because it explains why God designed it this way—it is so a marriage could communicate the truth about how Christ relates to believers. Each Christian marriage is intended to be a witnessing tool!
Ministry Passages (1 Timothy 2:8-15, 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, Titus 2:3-5): These passages show that women should be involved in ministry, and the only boundaries given to women is that they should not teach men or have authority over men in the church.
Things to Keep in Mind
I understand why many women and men have trouble embracing a complementarian understanding of gender roles. Abuses by people of faith regarding gender roles in the home and church make it hard to want to follow these teachings. However, I encourage you not to base your beliefs on the bad examples and abuses of sinful people; search the Scriptures yourself to see what God really says.
Also, this issue is deeply personal for women and men. It is sometimes hard to even have a discussion about gender roles with someone who holds a different position because both sides end up talking past each other and offering the worst examples of each belief system as the stereotype. That is not helpful. And, it does not honor the Lord. No matter what your conviction, we all need to represent another Christian’s beliefs accurately.
If you are interested in learning more about Southwestern’s approach to gender roles, a good introductory book (that is short, too!) is Alexander Strauch’s book Men and Women: Equal Yet Different. Or, if you want to look at some commentaries that examine the passages mentioned above and others related to gender roles, check out the Women’s Evangelical Commentary (there is one on the OT and one on the NT).
If you are ever in Fort Worth, consider dropping by our offices or sitting in on a class. We have some wonderful classes offered each year for women like Women’s Issues, Women’s Ministry in the Local Church, Feminist Theology, and Women and Missions! Or, if you are located elsewhere, drop us an email. We’d love to hear from you!