Spiritual Abuse and Where Is God Now?

I am delighted to be able to share and promote this excellent article by my colleague, Brad Sargent. Brad has been blogging about spiritual abuse and recovery and related topics for a number of years. He has a keen sense of what has, is, and may be unfolding in the future regarding the Christian landscape.

You can check out Brad’s blog at: https://futuristguy.wordpress.com  

Brad seeks to provide some answers to the pressing questions that spiritual abuse survivors have. Questions such as:

* Why does God allow abusive people to stay in leadership roles?

* Why do “good” things still happen to “bad” people like that?

* Why did the perpetrator’s abuses and their protectors’ excuses cost me everything and seemingly cost them nothing?

When distress happens in our lives, one of our first questions, that is, our first ‘reaction’ is: Is God still in control? We each must wrestle with this one.

I am grateful for Brad’s permission to re-post this article on my website. I believe that this article is informative and should be helpful to many.

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January is Spiritual Abuse Awareness Month 

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January is Spiritual Abuse Awareness month, and this article on the bigger picture of God’s grace is the last that I plan on posting in my series on Recovery from Spiritual Abuse, which I started on my futuristguy blog in 2008 (see the link for an index of all posts).

Summary. It is January 31st – last day of “Spiritual Abuse Awareness Month” for 2011 – and I finally finished the last projected post in my series on recovery from spiritual abuse. It deals with our wrestling with the bigger picture of God’s providence and with what may be our biggest questions as survivors:

        * Why does God allow abusive people to stay in leadership roles?

        * Why do “good” things still happen to “bad” people like that?

        * Why did the perpetrator’s abuses and their protectors’ excuses cost me    everything and seemingly cost them nothing?

This is my best attempt to tease out some of the perplexities and complexities of trusting that God is truly in control, even over situations where spiritual power mongers do their thing and it SEEMS like they face no consequences.

Still, God is at work both behind the scenes and on the front stage to benefit each individual involved and the community as a whole, to bring them all to wholeness. He is keeping the entire system of both individuals and community in mind, doing what is best for everyone and not only any particular one.

The past few years, I have written extensively on the subject of spiritual abuse. The topics I’ve addressed include:

  • Personal lessons I’ve learned from surviving toxic leaders in all kinds of community-and ministry-related settings: church and parachurch, university and seminary, non-profit agency and for-profit business.
  • Practicing a process of discernment and applying it to situations that apparently are abusive.
  • Toxic versus healthy organizational dynamics.
  • Identifying different kinds of abusive leaders, and what might make particular people the most susceptible to falling into the traps of specific types of abusers.
  • Specific strategies and tactics that various kinds of abusive leaders use to gain and maintain control over their “subjects.”
  • Power dynamics and what drives most perpetrators of spiritual abuse.
  • Recovery and restoration processes.

These issues are not theory for me. They are based in multiple gut-wrenching experiences, processed over many, many, years. So, what knowledge and wisdom I have gained has come out of great personal cost through suffering and healing.

And yet, today’s post may be the most difficult one I’ve written on the subject to date–not because it will necessarily be so controversial. Instead, it is difficult because it deals with a cluster of complexities and perplexities that we who have survived abuse may be the most reluctant or ill-equipped to consider. And that revolves around issues of “theodicy”–God justifying His character when things in the world don’t seem to mesh with who He says He is:

  • Why does God allow abusive people to stay in leadership roles?
  • Why do “good” things still happen to “bad” people like that?
  • Why did the perpetrator’s abuses and their protectors’ excuses cost me everything and seemingly cost them nothing?


Perhaps these questions represent the pinnacle of:

  • Our anger and frustration about the abuse we endured.
  • Our secret revengeful hopes at times for punishment on those who abused us and those who enabled the abusers through their active complicity or their enabling passivity.
  • Our exasperation at a God who let this happen and seems to have done nothing about it.

We hurt. Others hurt for us. We hurt others because we hurt. And often, it looks like those who violated us through their false authority are doing just fine, thank you very much. But let me suggest that all is not necessarily as it appears with perpetrators of spiritual abuse.

Every person will be held accountable to God for every word and every deed. That’s future.

Whatever was hidden in the darkness will be revealed in the light. No one can escape that revealed reality, even when it looks like misdeeds are staying hidden. (Matthew 10:26, Romans 14:10, 2 Corinthians 5:10, 1 Corinthians 3:11-15, 4:5.)

So, a time of judgment is coming. But that’s in the far-away future. So, … what about now? What about right now and in the very near future?

I know this is speculative, but my gut intuition is that God is actually holding the larger situation in check, even while a toxic leader seemingly gets to continue doing exactly what they’ve been doing. Spiritually abusive leaders typically have a deep lust for power–to exercise control over others and over circumstances. Is it possibly the case that God has cornered them into situations that actually prevent them from achieving the full level of what their lust would drive them toward? Yes, some people are still being hurt thereby. But is it possible that God has providentially arranged to limit the destructive impact of a toxic leader so it is far less than it would be otherwise?

From my experiences I would suggest this:

Every perpetrator has likely already done some kind of irrevocable, irrefutable deed or patchwork of problems that reveals who they really are. The documentation, the depositions, the details on the internet–sooner or later, the evidences of their ill-done deeds will eventually catch up with them–perhaps far sooner than they, or we, expect. Not only that, but those who reinforced the perpetrator, either as an active protector or a passive bystander, likewise, often get found out.

I have known spiritual abusers in their 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, and 60s. Each and every single one of them did something that cannot be taken back … only covered up, or explained away, or met with a false apology that is not sustained by real repentance. The abuser’s attempt to retrench and retake their position of power does not remove the event, or the witnesses, or the damage, or the consequences. Their track record of lacking integrity will eventually catch up with them. For instance, here is what happened with some of those I know who perpetrated spiritual abuse:

  • Their toxic organization imploded and they lost their job.
  • They were asked to leave, were fired, or were forced out.
  • They succumbed to severe mental illness when they could no longer cope with or control their situation through manipulating others, and required psychiatric intervention.
  • They had to continue worrying about whether lawsuits, IRS investigations, or even criminal charges would be launched against them for malfeasance, misuse of non-profit resources, harassment, etc.
  • They wanted to become a “big fish in a big pond” and have great influence, and instead got stuck in a role as a minor celebrity–a small fish in a pond that is/was/will be evaporated.
  • They suffered from serious physical symptoms and health problems due to stress as their tactics began to fail and their façade of power began to crumble.
  • They became isolated from roles of influence as people heard stories of their toxicity. They eventually lost project partners, service opportunities, friends, co-workers, endorsers, etc.
  • Details and questions about abusive actions and unresolved indiscretions remain posted on the internet as permanent reminders of what they did and/or what they failed to do; like one’s credit rating, their internet reputation now follows them wherever on earth they go, from that day of posting forward.

Perpetrators are not happy people, regardless of how they appear on the surface and regardless of the adrenaline “rush” they get from exercising their addiction to power. Their ruse of spirituality will not remain intact forever, and the consequences and accountability for their masquerade of meanness will dog them. And perhaps that is exactly what must happen–the collapse of their illusion of control–for God’s grace and mercy to break through in their life in order for the Holy Spirit to bring in transformation. God cares as much about the conversion and Christlike transformation of a spiritual bully as He does about anyone and everyone else.

And here is what happened with some of those who protected, supported, and covered up for the perpetrators of spiritual abuse:

  • In the process of supporting an abusive pastor/leader and perpetuating the related toxic system, they ended up losing thousands of dollars in funds and other assets that they had turned over to the church/organization. This was the reality, regardless of whether they ever repented of their involvement in perpetuating a toxic system. What they gave was gone.
  • They came to their senses when they realized they themselves had been victimized – deceived, manipulated, controlled – or when they experienced some kinds of losses – funds, fame, or “face” – that hit them in the heart and softened them to the truth.
  • They experienced guilt and shame and remorse, and sought to make things right with those who’d been hurt by the abuser they had protected, and therefore had been hurt by them as protectors. Some even attempted to confront the abuser(s).
  • They apologized, or at least acknowledged that I was not crazy but had actually identified rightly that there were abuses going on. They became open to me where previously they had closed their heart and mind to me as a person and to my perspective on the situation.
  • They sought me out to inform me about what had happened with the perpetrator(s), and sometimes to ask me to help them process their experiences and find peace, resolution, and recovery.

Protectors are not happy people either. Their foolishness will eventually come to light and they will not be able to hide in the shadow of the abuser whom they shielded. And still, God cares as much about the conversion and Christlike transformation of bystanders who let a spiritual bully do his/her thing as He does about anyone and everyone else, including the perpetrators of abuse.

But still, that all is tentative (even if probable) and it is still lurking in the future. What about NOW?

The present is perhaps the most vexing for we who are survivors, when abusive leaders continue their counterfeit ministry apparently unimpeded. But let me offer two radical suggestions: (1) This is not all about us as individuals, and  (2) The Holy Spirit is doing far more behind the scenes in our community or congregation than we realize.

Grace has often been described as “God loving us unconditionally and providing things we DON’T deserve,” while the complementary counter-concept of mercy is “God NOT giving us what we DO deserve.”

So, here is a question for us to consider:

If we received retribution for what we have done in our own life, would the consequences be any less dire than what we feel the abuse perpetrators and their protectors deserve?

I believe the concept of gestalt fits here. The Wikipedia article on gestalt defines this term as the “essence or shape of an entity’s complete form.” In my understanding, gestalt is about being holistic in our observations, processing, and interpretations. Using it as a verb, if we “gestalt” something, we take in what appears on the surface as well as intuit the interrelations among various things in the situation. For instance, if you watch the TV programs Lie to Me or Human Target or Castle, you see how characters who have a lot of “people smarts” or “street smarts” can walk into a room where there a party is going on and “read” the body language and expressions to gather information instantaneously on who appears to be there for what reasons and who looks suspicious and why.

My main point here is this: We as individuals are not the only ones hurt by a spiritual abuser. An entire system of people gets harmed by the actions of abusers and those who shield them. In other words, abuse harms an entire community as a whole, not just a number of isolated individuals. And so, recovery is not only about what I as an individual must go through to find healing and then ongoing health, but what this whole interconnected network of people–perpetrator, protectors, survivors who escaped, and victims still in the situation–must undergo in order to find healing and then ongoing health (if possible).

Also, to sustain health, the congregation must confront and revamp their entire system of organizational structures (such as constitution, by-laws, doctrinal statement, ministry structure, leadership selection process, process of documentation for decisions, etc.) that supported the perpetuation of abuse. If that is never addressed, you can expect another user to take advantage of both individuals and the community.

But we cannot do this except from a “gestalt of God’s grace” with the Holy Spirit surrounding us, empowering us, transforming us to become more Christlike. If we try this purely in our own personal power, we will fail–and in fact, may become like the very people we are so focused on stopping from further abuse.

What about now? Yes, if at all possible, abusers should be confronted and removed from ministry roles through a biblically appropriate process. Nowhere does the New Testament indicate that abusive leaders get a free pass to stay in their roles of power. But if they are not removed, then we need to persevere with God’s providence in the situation and allow things to continue unfolding.

That does not mean being silent or protecting toxic people or toxic organizations. It does mean letting God render grace and mercy for everyone in the entire community system, and not just deal with the responsible individuals and the recovering survivors as individuals. It also means giving up our demands to control their destiny and perhaps to require a specific form of consequence; to attempt to control them–isn’t that just reversing what they did to us?

From all the Scriptures I’ve reflected on for years about “New Testament leadership,” authority, trust, abuse of power, grace, mercy, transformation, etc., I’m fairly sure that what I’ve just said is accurate. I’m not so sure that I like it. I see power-mongers as so prevalent in the churches–preying on both the naive and the courageous–that I’d rather see them all swept out at once. There are days when I’d like to see a little bit of fire and brimstone reign right in on those in a “BULLY pulpit”!

However, on my better days, I do hope for a more gentle and humble and persevering approach to change for all of us. And I suspect we together will be far more amazed at God’s goodness, power, and love, when we perhaps get a greater glimpse of His multiplicity of purposes that were accomplished through His kindness [not “niceness”] which led to repentances and helping everyone involved deal with consequences of abuse. And won’t that make an even more dramatic ending for the plotline of our interwoven stories as a community?

May we experience God’s grace and mercy in our sufferings caused by spiritual abuser, and may we extend Christlike grace and mercy to everyone, both inside and outside our community of faith …

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With Special Thanks to Brad Sargent for this article.

Original Post January 31, 2011



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For Further Reflection

You might enjoy an article on this website that also asks this equally pressing question: “Why Are Toxic Leaders Allowed to Remain in Power So Long?” 

The following are some passages that remind us about God’s faithfulness:

“God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.”    1 Corinthians 1:9

“I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” John 16:33  

“Ah, Lord God! It is you who have made the heavens and the earth by your great power and by your outstretched arm! Nothing is too hard for you.” Jeremiah 32:17

“The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness”   Exodus 34:6

Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good.
     His love endures forever.
Give thanks to the God of gods.
   His love endures forever.
Give thanks to the Lord of lords:
   His love endures forever.

to him who alone does great wonders,
His love endures forever.
who by his understanding made the heavens,
His love endures forever.”   Psalm 136:1-5

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© 2014   Barb Orlowski, D.Min.



Women in the Church and Evangelical Feminism


Over the past number of decades, the term ‘feminism’ has gotten a bad rap. Many Christians seem intent on contending that ‘feminism’ is an ‘enemy’–to be thwarted at every turn. I am not sure what some Christians have been taught, but when the topic of ‘feminism’ is raised in some Christian circles, a number of people go ballistic!

Some have even speculated that the word ‘feminism’ is the new ‘F-word’ in some Christian settings. The question that comes to mind is: Why is that?

One factor is that there is an overarching assumption that all feminism is wrong.

I would like to take a poke at the new F-word—Feminism!! Therefore, it is necessary to clarify the historical roots of feminism and to put it in the perspective of the three waves of feminism. It will be important to note that the word ‘feminism’ is not just a single- purpose, catch-all word that is both suspicious and should be maligned because it is linked with radical feminism.

The history of the church includes a serious look at changes in how society and the church viewed the place of women. It is imperative that we grasp the facts regarding the historical record in order to be better informed and not caught in a false interpretation of the facts.

History Matters

The following commentary has been taken from an excellent book which explores and resets the idea that ‘feminism’ should be anchored in church history. It should be correctly designated as ‘evangelical feminism’ in order to be historically correct.

Historian and theologian, Rebecca Merrill Groothuis, in her book: Women Caught in the Conflict: The Culture War between Traditionalism and Feminism has provided excellent research with insights into this topic. Rebecca’s work illuminates much of the uninformed and shallow thinking around these issues and bases them in historical happenings and in the context of the Christian church.

I, again, invite you to consider ‘evangelical feminism’ in order to understand its solid Christian heritage and then to recognize the impact that this 19th century movement has had on society as a whole. I ask you to reflect on what motivated people to change the way things were—and were motivated to make a significant difference!

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Let’s peel back a few layers of this onion and see what has gotten people thinking and/or reacting. Dr. Groothuis arrests our attention by using this colorful subtitle and then developing her astute perspective.

The Feminist Bogeywoman

“Feminist ideas are stereotyped; a one-size-fits-all definition of feminism —descriptive of the most radical secular feminism, of course—is used to characterize any idea that deviates from the traditional woman’s role at any point.

Traditionalism today equals   =    Antifeminism.

Many evangelicals have lately been concerned that the wall of demarcation between the church and the world has been breached by assorted evils, including feminism. . . . In this retrenchment effort, feminism is deemed wholly evil and traditionalism wholly biblical.   . . .

Falling back on tradition in order to circumvent the confusion and uncertainty of social change is not warranted, for the simple reason that that which traditionally has been understood to be biblical is not necessarily biblical at all.”

Agreed, it is mandatory that we need to get our facts straight in order to make informed assessments and draw valid conclusions regarding this topic.


Women’s Missionary and Reform Societies

Dr. Groothuis reminds the reader of the massive involvement of women in missionary and reform societies that was burgeoning forth in the 19th century.

“Women’s ministry in the 19th century initially took the form of evangelistic, missionary, benevolence, and reform societies founded and led by women. Numerous such organizations thrived from 1810 until 1920. In their zeal to involve women in ministry outside the home, these groups—without officially sponsoring feminism as a cause—were simply doing the things that evangelical feminists declare every woman should have the opportunity to do.”

Therefore, it can be clearly observed that: “biblical feminism is simply continuing along the lines of a tradition begun nearly two hundred years ago.”

Now we will look at what factors were in play during the 19th century that propelled godly women forward in making a difference in their society. We will consider the ‘roots’ of evangelical feminism in the social milieu of this era.


“Evangelical Feminism Compared with Other Views

The terms biblical and evangelical are used interchangeably to describe a feminism rooted in the Christian world view, which looks to the Bible—not “women’s experience”—as its final authority.

The biblical diagnosis for the “disease” of sexism recognizes that legal and economic inequity and the cultural institution of patriarchy are some of the factors that perpetuate gender injustice. But human sin is identified as the root cause of sexism as well as the factors that perpetuate it.

Genesis 3:16 spells out God’s commentary on sin’s consequences in the area of male/female relationships. Sin has resulted in women being ruled by men in every context—legal, economic, cultural, and personal.

The cure for this universal malaise is the same biblical cure prescribed for every ill effect of human sin: repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation. Men must repent of the tendency to use women simply to facilitate their own agenda; women must repent of their tendency to circumvent this male domination through sexual manipulation, as well as their tendency to give in to passivity and an unfaithful stewardship of the gifts with which God has entrusted them. . . .

Unlike mainstream feminists who often seem only to be trying to imitate men, and woman-centered feminists who seem bent on being separate from and superior to men, biblical feminists aim for both women and men to become more balanced people who are more harmoniously related to one another.

The goal of evangelical feminism is that men and women be allowed to serve God as individuals, according to their own unique gifts rather than according to a culturally predetermined personality slot called “Christian manhood” or “Christian womanhood.”

Also unlike many secular feminists, women who identify with evangelical feminism are not motivated by a greed for power or a self-centered desire to prove themselves equal or superior to men.

Rather, they are motivated by a sense of justice and the conviction that the traditional order which has been imposed on women and men is not in keeping with God’s will for his people. They desire to see women liberated from the stultifying effects of exclusively male leadership, and they are impelled to seek the opportunity to serve God and minister to others to the full extent of their abilities in obedience to the call of God.   . . .

Traditionally, evangelical feminism derives more from a spirit of “preaching the gospel to the poor” than an attitude of self-assertion and self-fulfillment. Speaking of the nineteenth-century women’s missionary movement, Ruth Tucker echoes similar sentiments:

“Women missionaries generally were motivated by the needs of others rather than their own. They may have looked and acted very much like feminists when they launched the women’s missionary movement in 1861, and when they individually fought for ministry opportunities equal to men’s, but beneath the surface the issues were very different.”

Far from being a struggle to gain power and dominance, the goal of biblical feminism is that men and women in the church might be liberated from the preoccupations with power and authority that characterizes the traditionalist agenda, so that everyone may serve God freely and whole-heartedly without the anxiety that one might be stepping out of one’s place in the “chain of command.”

Evangelical feminists believe that when male authority is billed as biblically mandated, this is not an inconsequential error. Such teaching entails the unavoidable implication of the male’s unique relationship to God—that he is more representative of God and closer to God in the “chain of command”—and it is therefore harmful to both men and women spiritually, socially, and emotionally.


Biblical Feminists and the Bible

Biblical feminists are distinguished from other feminists in their diagnosis and prescribed cure for the problem of sexism, and in their motivation for attempting to solve the problem. They also differ in their use of the Bible.

Other feminists either reject the Bible entirely or seek to interpret it from the perspective of “women’s experience.”

Evangelical feminists regard the Bible as authoritative in its entirety and maintain that sexism in the church derives from the traditional practice of interpreting the Bible in the patriarchal light of “men’s experience.”

The corrective to this androcentric hermeneutic is not a gynocentric hermeneutic, but one which is free of any hidden gender agendas.

  • A biblical feminist hermeneutic is no more woman-centered than it is man-centered
  • It simply seeks to correct a historic imbalance in traditional biblical interpretation as regarding the role of women.
  • It does not attempt to rewrite the Bible or to usurp biblical authority.

Naturally, male translators and interpreters with such a preunderstanding tended to find in Scripture what they expected to find—a central role for men and an ancillary, subordinate role for women.

But evangelical feminists believed that, although the Bible was written in the context of male-dominated cultures, it does not teach male domination as a universal, God-ordained norm.

Although evangelical feminism today has gleaned some truths from modern secular feminism, it is not a product of the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s or 1970s, nor does it find inspiration in the pagan feminist spirituality which has emerged since the late 1970s.

Rather, biblical feminism is simply continuing along the lines of a tradition begun nearly two hundred years ago.

For evangelical feminists, the Bible is more than a cultural and religious force with which to be reckoned. It is God’s infallible and authoritative word—every believer’s source of truth. It is for this reason that evangelical feminists for the past two centuries have sought the accurate translation and interpretation of Scripture.

Respect for the veracity and authority of God’s Word is central to the evangelical feminist enterprise, and this is primarily what distinguishes it from the theologically liberal feminist approach to Scripture that has developed in the last century.”


What Does the Biblical Feminist Hermeneutic Include?

“The biblical feminist hermeneutic includes the following eight strategies.

The first and most fundamental principle of biblical interpretation is to endeavor to be faithful to the biblical author’s intent in writing the specific passage in question. We must try to determine why the biblical author wrote what he wrote, and in determining the “why” we determine the basic biblical principle or message of the text. That principle can then be applied to our own situation. All other strategies of biblical interpretation follow from this basic objective.

In order to know why the biblical author wrote a particular text, it is essential to know exactly what he wrote. Therefore, a second hermeneutical principle is the accurate translation of the passages traditionally used to silence and subjugate women.

Biblical feminists have found that many texts which are in fact less than clear in the original language have been translated so as to appear unequivocally to support the idea of male authority. . . .

1 Tim. 2:12 The traditionalist prohibition of women occupying positions of church leadership hinges on the translation of the Greek word authentein in the usual way of “have (or usurp) authority over.” But because authentein is not used anywhere else in the NT, and because authentein seems to have a wide variety of meanings in ancient Greek usage, the traditional translation of this verse appears to be open to legitimate debate.

1 Cor. 11:3-16 is full of notorious exegetical difficulties.

The only appearance of authority is speaking of the woman’s own authority— “authority over (or on) her head” is augmented to read “a sign of authority on her head” (NIV). This leads conveniently to the idea that the veil or covering that the woman is to wear serves as symbol or sign of her submission to the authority her husband has over her.

Such an understanding of the verse is far from obvious when one considers only the literal translation of the text. But when the text is augmented and the meaning adjusted so that the authority to which the verse refers becomes that of the man under whom the woman is placed in the chain of command, then it seems to support the traditional interpretation of the passage.

Third, it is important to maintain interpretive consistency with the rest of a biblical author’s writings as well as the whole of Scripture. Toward this end, unclear and/or isolated passages are not to be used as doctrinal cornerstones, but are to be interpreted in light of clear passages which reflect overall biblical themes.

This hermeneutical principle prohibits building a doctrine of female subordination on 1 Cor. 11:3-16 and 14:34-35 and 1 Tim 2:11-15, for these texts are rife with exegetical difficulties. Principles clearly expressed elsewhere in the Bible must inform one’s interpretation of such “proof text” passages.

Fourth, texts couched in a context of culturally-specific instructions are not to be taken a priori as normative for the present day. Biblical texts that have a universal, doctrinal orientation are more likely to be considered directly transferable to the present day than those texts that were intended for immediate practical application in a particular cultural situation.

Millard Erickson points to water baptism and footwashing as illustrative of the difference between a biblical command that is put into a universal setting (the Great Commission, Matt. 28:18-20) and a command given in a culturally specific situation (John 13:14-16). The biblical principle behind the footwashing incident is that we always ought to maintain a humble attitude of servanthood, rather than that we ought to institute a permanent sacrament of footwashing. “In that culture, washing the feet of others would symbolize such an attitude [of humility].  But in another culture, some other act might more appropriately convey the same truth.”

This leads to a fifth hermeneutical principle, which is that culturally-specific instructions are to be interpreted not only in light of biblical doctrine and principle, but also in light of the culture to which they were written and the author’s reason for writing them.

For example, when Peter instructs wives to be submissive to their husbands (1 Pet. 3:1), it must be remembered that in Roman society civil law granted husbands absolute authority over their wives and that Peter’s instruction is couched in the context of similar exhortations for believers to submit to the civil authorities. The biblical message, then, would seem to be that Christians are to be respectable, law-abiding members of society by behaving appropriately in the society in which they live, rather than that God has commanded all husbands for all time to be in authority over their wives.

Sixth, events recorded in the Bible should also be understood in light of the culture of that time. For example, a woman leader in a highly patriarchal culture would have more significance than a woman in leadership today. While both instances indicate that women are capable of leadership, chances are that the presence of a woman leader in a patriarchal culture—unless she is the wife, mother, or daughter of a male leader—indicates that something other than cultural forces propelled her to that position. We can therefore surmise that women in ancient Israel of the NT church who were in positions of leadership were quite likely in those positions by virtue of God’s design.

Seventh, because of the progressive nature of God’s revelation in the Bible, NT texts concerning women should be considered more accurate indicators of God’s intent for women than those provided in the OT. The familiar traditionalist idea that a man is the priest of his home, for example, fails to consider progressive revelation.

The OT arrangement whereby priests were always male Levites (or, in pre-Mosaic times, the patriarchs of households) was superseded by the new covenant, wherein Jesus serves as the permanent high priest (Heb. 7:21-24) and the one mediator between God and humanity (1 Tim 2:5), and all believers serve as priests unto God (1 Pet. 2:5-9; Rev. 5:10; 20:6).

Concerning the priesthood of all believers, F.F. Bruce comments, “If, as evangelical Christians generally believe, Christian priesthood is a privilege in which all believers share, there can be no reason that a Christian woman should not exercise her priesthood on the same terms as a Christian man.”

In discussing progressive revelation, Millard Erickson notes,

“In some cases, the essence of a doctrine was not explicitly realized within biblical times. For example, the status of women in society was elevated dramatically by Jesus. Similarly, Paul granted an unusual status to slaves.        Yet the lot of each of these groups did not improve as much as it should have. So to find the essence of how such persons should be treated, we must look to principles laid down or implied regarding their status, not to accounts of how they actually were treated in biblical times.”

Eighth, the propensity for male translators and interpreters to read their bias into the biblical text exemplifies the ever-present need to guard against interpreting the Bible in conformity with one’s own cultural preunderstanding or personal expectations. In addition to safeguarding biblical interpretation from emotional interference, it is important to rely on the direction of the Holy Spirit as well as one’s God-given reasoning abilities in the interpretive process.


Engaging an Evangelical Feminist Hermeneutic

The net effect of the evangelical feminist hermeneutic is the discovery that—contrary to what both traditionalists and radical feminists believe—

The Bible does NOT teach male supremacy as a transcultural norm

BUT teaches instead mutuality and equality between women and men.

The biblical principle of the essential equality of man and woman—each made in the image of God—is set forth in Genesis 1 and 2.

In Genesis 3:16 God delineates some of the consequences of human sin; he does NOT issue a command for men to rule women, as some have believed.

The entrance of sin into God’s created order destroyed the equality and mutuality of the relationship between woman and man; cultural patriarchy was the result.

God revealed himself and his plan for his people by means of patriarchal cultures, but progressively made known his redemptive plan whereby the essential equality of all people would be restored and the practice of sexual hierarchy brought to an end.

This ethic of male/female equality was put into practice by Jesus Christ, who countered the prevailing patriarchal norm by treating women as persons in their own right. It was summarized by Paul in Galatians 3:28 and was put into operation by Paul and the early Christians as they sanctioned the service of those women who had been called by God to leadership in ministry.

In view of the existing customs of the surrounding cultures, however, the principle of biblical equality was exercised with restraint and moderation in NT times. It was important, for the sake of the testimony of the gospel, that Christians appear to the onlooking world as respectable, law-abiding members of society. Clearly, the highest priority of the early church was spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ.

The principle of human equality and liberation which was entailed by the gospel message could not be implemented on a widespread basis, at the risk of alienating non-Christians from that gospel message.

“Thus the early church, even while tolerating slavery for the sake of the missionary principle, pointed to a vision of Christian justice and community which would eventually leave slavery behind. So too, Christian feminists argue, does the Bible point beyond the patriarchy tolerated, yet progressively modulated, throughout salvation history to a vision of mutuality between brothers and sisters in Christ in marriage, church and society.”

Today, when non-Christians are offended, not by an equalitarian gospel, but by a hierarchical gospel, there is no reason to continue in the cultural practices that were initially intended for Christians living in a patriarchal society.


Far Deeper Issues Are At Stake

  • Far deeper issues about the relationship between men and women are at stake than that of who makes the (somewhat mythical) ‘final decision’.
  • Far more crucial is the teaching on love: self-giving and self-denying love which should characterize all relationships.
  • The way others will know that we are Christ’s disciples is in the way we love one another, and not in the way we exercise authority over one another.


Gender Is Not the Primary Determinative Factor

Unlike traditionalism and women-centered feminism, equalitarianism does not sexualize the entire person. Gender is not viewed as the primary determinative factor in a person’s life; spiritual, intellectual, experiential, relational, and personality factors are likewise important. A person’s sex does not deterministically and indelibly color all of a person’s character, being, and life experience. Sexual identity is not conflated with personal identity.”


In Conclusion

Dr. Rebecca Groothuis has again helped us to process the essential data regarding the motivation of the early evangelical feminists. We are brought up to speed regarding how to better approach the subject of ‘feminism’ from a biblical and Christian perspective.

Therefore, we must not equate all feminism with ‘radical feminism’ but discern better the implications of evangelical feminism. Also, we should not forget the impact of Christian women who blazed a trail for equality and justice in the 19th century and see how we can be inspired to do the same!


~ ~ ~ ~ ~


The quotations for this article are taken mainly from Chapter 7, but also from Chapters 4 and 8, of the book entitled:

Women Caught in the Conflict: The Culture War between Traditionalism and Feminism by Rebecca Merrill Groothuis.

Publisher:  Baker Books, 1994.

Later version:  Wipf and Stock, Eugene, OR, 1997.

The excerpts from this book provide a small taste of the expertise that Dr. Groothuis has regarding the context of evangelical feminism in church history and invites the curious reader to explore her entire book and her other works for themselves.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

For Further Reflection

Two sites which provide Free Articles for personal research are:

Christians for Biblical Equality and God’s Word to Women.

CBE           www.cbeinternational.org

GWTW       www.godswordtowomen.org

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ 

© 2014   Barb Orlowski, D.Min.






Women in the Church— American History, Slavery, and Feminism


Often we forget what was going on at various times in history. As we look at some American history and see how Christians were active in social issues at that time, we are reminded that not everyone believed the same way. It is, therefore, a good habit to look back at the historical record and grapple with what freedoms, or lack of freedoms, were experienced by people in their time.

I find that history is quite revealing. It allows us to better grasp how things really were, ponder the implications, and consider how we look at these things today. One topic that continues to draw my attention is how women were ‘considered and treated’ at various points in history! Let’s consider some of the implications of patriarchy found in the 19th century.

The following is an excerpt from a book detailing some history during that era.  I have taken these thoughts from historian and theologian, Rebecca Merrill Groothuis. Her book is entitled: Women Caught in the Conflict: The Culture War between Traditionalism and Feminism. This is an excellent book. It provides a keen historical overview as well as biblical and cultural insights. Rebecca clarifies much of the haze around these issues and provides excellent references for further study.

I invite you to consider ‘evangelical feminism’ in order to understand its solid Christian roots and then to recognize the impact that it has had on society as a whole. I ask you to reflect on what motivated people to change the way things were in favor of following Kingdom principles.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~


“In the 19th century, the political ideas of classical liberalism interacted with the religious zeal of the Second Great Awakening to energize numerous social reform movements in the quest of a godly society of free individuals. Many of these reform efforts were led and supported by Christian women and men.”

Women and Slaves

“The ideology of anti-slavery was equality and independence for all human beings; many abolitionists became feminists when they realized that the principle that “all men are created equal” applied as well to women as it did to slaves.”

The following is a look at the legal rights of women then and how some godly people saw the need to take action and oppose what was an unjust and unreasonable reality regarding marriage laws at that time. From our perspective, their situations are often hard to fathom while living with the many freedoms in our day.

“The similar state of women and slaves prior to the reform movements is particularly notable. The 18th century English common law of William Blackstone—which early America inherited from England—upheld the “civil death” of women who married. Blackstone asserted in his Commentaries: “By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law; that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during her marriage, or at least, is consolidated into that of her husband under whose wing, protection and cover, she performs everything.” Even as he owned his slaves, so a man owned his wife. Andrew Sinclair notes,

“Early American women were almost treated like Negro slaves, inside and outside the home. Both were expected to behave with deference and obedience towards owner or husband; both did not exist officially under the law; both had few rights and little education; both found it difficult to run away, both worked for their masters without pay; both had to breed on command, and to nurse the results.”

In early America, neither women nor slaves had rights as individuals. Both were under the legal cover and control of their male masters.

The early feminists’ objection to legalized domination of wives by husbands led some couples publicly to renounce such laws upon their marriage. Before John Stuart Mill married Harriet Taylor in 1851, “he wrote out a ‘formal protest against the law of marriage’ for conferring on the husband ‘legal powers and control over the person, property, and freedom of action of the wife’; and he made a ‘solemn promise never in any case or under any circumstances’ to use such powers.”

At the wedding ceremony of evangelical abolitionists Theodore Weld and Angelina Grimke, Weld disclaimed any right that the law gave him to own and control his wife’s person or property. Their marriage of mutual love and equality served as an example to others, particularly to Henry Blackwell who diligently courted suffragist leader Lucy Stone for some time before she agreed to marry him. In his letters of persuasion to her, he wrote concerning Angelina and Theodore Weld, “If ever there was a true marriage it is theirs—Both preserve their separate individuality perfectly.”

Blackwell also wrote . . . The idea of equality and mutual submission is rarely considered as a possibility. Only two options are recognized: either a man dominates his wife, or he is dominated by his wife. Because the idea of a man being dominated by his wife is particularly repugnant to most people, his “right” to dominate her is retained. But Henry Blackwell saw through this false dilemma and promised Lucy that he would “repudiate the supremacy” of either woman or man in marriage. “Equality for me is a passion,” he wrote to Lucy. “I dislike equally to assume, or to endure authority.”

The minister who married Henry Blackwell and Lucy Stone commented, “I never perform the marriage ceremony without a renewed sense of the iniquity of . . . a system by which ‘man and wife are one, and that one is the husband.’” . . .

Because of the blatant injustice of the law toward women, early feminist efforts were directed toward equalizing marriage and property laws. Also promoted, however, were women’s rights to education, to decent working conditions, and to public speaking and leadership. As American feminists were successful in legal reform, “it allowed American lawyers to boast of the superiority of their legal system to those of European countries, most of which now possessed a version of the Code Napoleon that was based on his dictum, ‘woman is given to man to bear children; she is therefore his property, as the tree is the gardener’s.’”

Women’s suffrage was slower in coming than other legal reforms. The idea of women having the right to vote struck at the very heart of male authority by presupposing that women had minds of their own, that they had thoughts and opinions independently of their husbands, and that the ideas of female minds should be counted equally with those of male minds in determining the laws and leaders of the country.

Nineteenth-Century Liberalism

The application of the principle of equal rights for all people—regardless of race, sex, or economic class—is characteristic of classical (pre-modern) liberalism. The legal rights that were traditionally granted only to free men began to be extended to slaves and women in the nineteenth century. This advocacy of the rights of the individual was part of a trend in Western society toward abandoning the traditional practice of ascribing roles to people solely on the basis of the circumstances of their birth—their sex, race, socioeconomic status, and father’s vocation. The pattern in Western society has been an increasing awareness that these characteristics ought not determine a person’s role in life and that the only valid determining factor should be each individual’s competence to perform a given role or job. . . .

Abolitionism and the Church

The anti-slavery impetus did not come only from 19th century political ideals. Christian abolitionists believed the abolition of slavery to be in obedience to biblical principles. Most of the exegetical arguments of northern Christian abolitionists went along the lines of Presbyterian minister Albert Barnes’s 1846 publication, An Inquiry into the Scriptural Views of Slavery. He upheld that “The principles laid down by the Savior and his Apostles are such as are opposed to Slavery. . . . the spirit of the Christian religion is against it; . . . it is an evil and is displeasing to God.”

The pro-slavery faction in the church responded by firing a volley of proof texts against the abolitionist appeal to biblical principle. . . . But “Christian abolitionists rested their hermeneutical case not just on what decontextualized, individual passages of Scripture said but on their perceptions of where scriptural revelation in its entirety was heading.”

As theologian Cornelius Plantinga explains, “Despite what Paul says to slaves about obedience, despite what Peter says about obedience even to bad masters, the bigger historical-redemptive line of Scripture tells us that humans made in God’s image cannot be owned by anyone but their maker . . . and especially, that Jesus Christ came to set at liberty those who are oppressed.” Those abolitionists who “learned to defend the egalitarian and liberationist ‘spirit’ of the Bible against status quo literal interpretations found that the same arguments could be used in support of the women’s movement. . . .

The pro-slavery proof text assault rested on the assumption that the apostles Paul and Peter simply accepted existing social institutions as God’s order for society.   Christian abolitionists, on the other hand, contended that, “for the sake of advancing God’s kingdom in a given time and place, temporary compromises can and often must be made with the societal status quo.”

Hence, a biblical command to cooperate with a particular cultural institution does not necessarily constitute an endorsement of that institution as God’s ultimate will for society. . . . Pro-slavery Christians had no patience with the notion that the Bible merely tolerated slavery rather than advocated it—any more than traditionalists accept the biblical feminist contention that biblical revelation accommodated itself to patriarchy but was not itself patriarchal.

Similar to the antifeminist of today, 19th century anti-abolitionists grounded the practice of slavery in order of creation, or the God-ordained order of things. African people were viewed as designated by God for poverty, hard labor, and subservience. Slavery was rationalized by the belief that the subjugation of certain classes of people to other classes of people is somehow built into the hierarchical order of the universe. . . . God, they said, had ordained slavery even as he had ordained the subordination of women.

In the biblical case for slavery, proof texts were exalted to the status of universal applicability, and fundamental biblical principles such as the equality of all believers in Christ were qualified and conditioned by cultural pre-under standing—the precise antithesis of the procedure that would normally occur in unprejudiced biblical interpretation.

In addition, anti-abolitionists claimed that because OT law allowed slavery and because people in both the OT (Abraham) and NT (Philemon) owned slaves and the Bible contained no specific rebuke of such activity, slavery was God-ordained. . . .

The assumption here is the same one that seems often to be made by antifeminists today: any aspect of the culture of biblical times that was not specifically condemned or prohibited in the Bible must be God-ordained. . . .

The correlation between the abolitionist cause and the feminist cause was not missed by the anti-abolitionists, who further defended their position by pointing out that if slaves were freed, women would most likely be next, and this, of course, would never do.

[T]he proof-text hermeneutic is still applied by evangelicals to the question of women’s roles but the broader hermeneutic of biblical principle is applied to the issue of slavery.

The traditionalist tendency is always to assume that tradition rests on Scripture and that any new or contrary idea is therefore a violation of biblical authority. Martin Luther exhibited this tendency when he wrote in support of slavery in his day, employing all four weapons of the anti-abolitionists: the example of the culture of biblical times, the proof texts commanding slaves’ obedience, emotional rhetoric, and an appeal to the God-ordained social hierarchy: “Did not Abraham (Gen. 17:3) and other patriarchs and prophets have slaves? Read what St. Paul teaches about servants, who, at that time, were all slaves.” The idea of freedom for slaves, therefore, “absolutely contradicts the gospel. It proposes robbery, for it suggests that every man should take his body away from his lord, even though his body is the lord’s property. . . . A worldly kingdom cannot exist without an inequality of persons, some being free, some imprisoned, some lords, some subjects.”

In propounding the biblical doctrine of justification by faith, the Protestant Reformers were able to counter elements of false theology in church tradition. Nonetheless, they were blinded by tradition when it came to defending not only slavery, but male supremacy, the divine right of kings, and a geocentric universe.

When Copernicus advanced his theory of a heliocentric cosmology in the 16th century, Martin Luther found biblical grounds for disapproving of that “upstart astrologer” in the fact that “sacred Scripture tells us that Joshua commanded the sun to stand still, not the earth.” John Calvin demanded, “Who will venture to place the authority of Copernicus above that of the Holy Spirit?” Puritan leader John Owen deemed the Copernican theory “a delusive and arbitrary hypothesis, contrary to Scripture.”

The lesson to be learned from such historical misuses of Scripture to support tradition is not that traditional biblical interpretation is always or even usually wrong, but that in some cases it can be wrong, and we ought not assume that the traditional is always the biblical. Neither may we assume that any traditional biblical teaching may be evaded simply by dismissing as proof texts those references which support that teaching, and by claiming allegiance instead to some overarching biblical theme or principles to the contrary.

In the first place, there are objective criteria for determining which texts are culturally specific (i.e., applicable primarily to biblical cultures) and which texts are universally applicable. These criteria must not be dismissed in favor of personal preference. In the second place, those texts which seem to contradict a clear biblical principle and are rightly deemed culturally specific nonetheless mean something for us today, and that meaning must be determined by understanding the biblical author’s reason for writing the passage to that specific culture.

Suffrage and Temperance

After the cause of abolition had been won in 1865, the cause of temperance drew the enthusiastic support and leadership of many Christians, including Jonathan Blanchard and A.J. Gordon, founders of Wheaton College and Gordon College, respectively. . . .

After women’s right to vote was legally acknowledged in 1920, traditionalist Christian leaders were obliged to regroup, they redoubled their efforts to keep women subservient in the spheres over which they still had control—a project which in some denominations extended even to denying women the right to vote in church elections.

Today, of course, few if any traditionalists believe that women ought not be granted the right to vote in public elections; it is assumed instead that the biblical texts are intended to place women under male authority only in the church and the home, and to silence women only in the public worship service. There are, however, some conservative denominations that even today prohibit women from voting on matters of church governance.

Evangelical Reform Movements

While abolition, suffrage, and temperance were broad movements that drew followers form both within and without the church, the extent to which these movements were fueled by the evangelistic and reformist zeal of the Second Great Awakening (1795-1840) should not be under-estimated. . . .

Charles Finney was a principal leader behind evangelical social concern. In an issue devoted to North American spiritual awakenings, Christian History magazine notes that when Finney “propelled the awakening onto center-stage in America” its “side-effects became more widespread than ever before: out of it came power for the antislavery crusade, women’s rights, prison reform, temperance, and much more.”

Although Finney did not identify himself as a feminist, his insistence on women’s freedom to testify and pray aloud in mixed gatherings flew in the face of the traditional silencing of women in church meetings. Bur Finney’s “new measures” regarding women were not without precedent. In 1825 Theodore Weld had urged women to speak and pray in public meetings, and a number of women had responded, confessing their sin of being “restrained by their sex.”

The refusal of revivalists such as Finney to consign women to silence and inactivity in church affairs served as an important first step for the 19th century evangelical women’s movement. Ahlstrom notes that “one breakthrough [for women’s rights] resulted from the revivals, especially in the West . . . notably by Charles G. Finney’s new measures.” . . . that women be encouraged to pray publicly in “promiscuous” or mixed meetings. “Traditionalists considered Finney’s practice of having women and men pray together the most dangerous of the new measures, for it implied new kinds of equality between the sexes. Indeed some harried husbands recognized the revival as subversive of their authority over their wives.”

Not only did Protestant church membership increase from one in fifteen Americans in 1800 to one in seven by 1850 as a result of the Second Great Awakening, but thousands of evangelical societies for social betterment were formed during this time—to which “the support of local women’s groups came gradually to be almost essential.” . . .

Finney and other revivalists and preachers helped women “to achieve an attitude of self-confidence and a sense of mission that infected many of their later activities. Surely it is no coincidence that the areas where Finney’s revivals and women’s religious education flourished . . . were early centers of women’s reform work and feminism.”

According to the Dictionary of Christianity in America, “The rise of American feminism had its roots in the Christian reform movements of the 1830s and 1840s that were in turn generated by the Second Great Awakening. Following the Civil War, as the women’s movement increasingly focused on the suffrage issue, the traditional link with Christian thought remained strong.” George Marsden notes that the “ministries [of prohibition and women’s rights] were a part of the wider holiness revival,” which followed the Second Awakening later in the 19th century.

As sociologist David Lyon points out, “A simple correlation of feminism with secularism is hard to square with 19th century evidence. . . .What may appear to some today as the permeation of ‘secular’ ideas into the churches as a 19th century precedent which was quite the other way round! The ‘secular’ movements were initiated or boosted by the ‘religious.’” Lyon notes, “Of course, these feminisms were pro-family—a far cry from some contemporary counterparts (not of Christian origin) which doubt the necessity of any form heterosexual relationship for the nurture of children.”

1920-1960s: The Decades Between

Feminism began to fall out of favor after 1920 as reformist zeal waned in both church and society. The slaves had been freed, women had gotten the vote, and prohibition was in full swing. Suffragists and other reformers believed there was nothing more to do after the legal battles had been won, so they gave up the fight for social reform. . . . Women, for their part, did not take advantage of the legal freedoms that had been won for them. Succumbing instead to the prevailing cultural climate, they retreated from the public arena and sank back into retiring domesticity.

Feminists had assumed that once women were granted equal opportunity under the law everything would turn out as it ought. But it did not. The hidden force of patriarchal social custom prompted a cultural return to female subservience. . . .

Traditionalists contend that women and men had been perfectly content with the gender role prescriptions of the 1950s until feminism came along to unsettle and disturb everyone. But there is evidence that change had been on the way for some time prior to the cultural revolution of the 1960s. . . .

The groundswell that developed in the wake of The Feminine Mystique instigated a wide variety of feminist thought, from the revival of the evangelical and classical liberal ideas of early feminism to the fairly recent woman-centered ideology of radical feminism.

Comparing Early and Modern Feminism

Both early and modern feminism developed in a general cultural milieu of social discontent and reformist idealism. Social concern for the rights of African-Americans (the anti-slavery movement beginning in the 1830s and the civil rights movement beginning in the late 1950s) served as a catalyst for both feminist movements. When women began to fight against racism, it did not take them long to become aware of the ways in which sexism violated their own civil rights.

Their awareness of discrimination against themselves was hastened by their systematic exclusion by the male leaders of the movements: in 1840 women were denied seats at the anti-slavery convention, and in the 1960s women who were active in the civil rights movement “increasingly became conscious that they were not included in any of the decision-making processes but were instead saddled with domestic and ancillary chores.

Although the women’s movements in both centuries have been diverse, with internal squabbles and factions, they hold in common an insistence upon the idea of woman as an individual, as her own person, who does not need to be dependent on a man for her value and identity. Fundamental to any feminist agenda, therefore, is that woman’s personhood and equality be established, verified, and protected through social change wherein inequitable laws and social customs are made equitable.

. . . There is a conviction that woman’s silence and subservience unfairly restricts her from important spheres of activities. Feminism has therefore encouraged qualified women to take part in political, social, or church leadership. . . .

Nineteenth-century feminism testifies to the fact that sexual license is not inherent to the idea of women’s rights. The accusation that evangelical feminism is an offshoot of modern feminism and therefore intrinsically endorses sexual immorality betrays historical and cultural ignorance.

The evangelical denominations at the turn of the century that were most committed to women’s equality were part of the holiness movement—which could hardly be said to be promoting sexual promiscuity. The only motivation of these groups to “liberate” women was the desire to open up all the channels through which God wanted to bless the church. The notion of using liberation to engage in a lifestyle of sexual irresponsibility could not have been more alien to the convictions of early evangelical feminism.

. . . But early feminists campaigned to make home and family values central to the lives of both men and women in both the public and the private spheres. . . . Domesticating the marketplace, not commercializing the domestic realm, was the central focus of much early feminist thought. . . .

While 19th century feminism was not composed entirely of Christians or supported by the entire evangelical church, its goals and motives were in line with biblical principles. A significant percentage if not a majority of those involved in the suffrage movement were Christians or at least “God-fearing.” . . .

The anti-Christian element was a minority one in the 19th century, whereas today it characterizes the secular feminist movement. The evangelical support for women’s rights in the 19th century is apparent in the fact that a significant number of evangelical institutions encouraged women to be pastors and evangelists. This situation can hardly be said to prevail today!

Nineteenth-century feminists—both Christian and non-Christian—rightly viewed abortion as an instrument of male oppression rather than as a means of women’s liberation. Specifically, it was seen as an act that devalued women and enabled men to evade responsibility for the children they fathered. . . .

The roots of early feminism are in the evangelical efforts of social reform following the Second Great Awakening, as well as in the premise of classical liberalism that “all men [including women] are created equal.” Early feminists understood inequality as a function of inequitable laws, so the solution was perceived in legal terms.

. . . Observing that sexism remained even after most of the legal inequities had been removed, modern feminists have focused on the force of traditional social convention that views women as essentially—even if no longer legally—the property of men. In view of this vestigial patriarchy, feminists are now putting more energy into changing discriminatory social structures.

In this respect the feminist movement has seemed to follow a pattern roughly similar to that of the black civil rights movement. In the 19th century, the goal was to secure equal legal rights for both blacks and women.   . . . The 1960s saw blacks fighting to realize their constitutionally guaranteed legal equality by protesting the segregation customs of the South.

Following the inception of the civil rights movements by about a decade, women began to organize resistance to patriarchal custom. While legal reform continued as an element in both movements, both women and blacks were realizing that there was something deeper than law which accounted for their social subjugation. It was a deep-seated attitude, a cultural mindset that even new legislation would not budge. Members in both movements tended to respond with belligerence and anger to this intangible, ineluctable creation of culture called prejudice.”



History is a great teacher.  What we have learned about how things were and what people then did to change things, by the power of the Holy Spirit, along with a clear understanding of the biblical message of freedom for all, inspires us to seek justice—especially for women in the church and in the home.


~ ~ ~ ~ ~

The quotations for this article are taken from Chapter 3 of the following book by historian and theologian, Rebecca Merrill Groothuis.

Dr. Groothuis’ book is entitled: Women Caught in the Conflict: The Culture War between Traditionalism and Feminism. Publisher: Baker Books, 1994.   Updated version:  Wipf and Stock, Eugene, OR, 1997.

The excerpts from this chapter provide a small taste of the expertise that Dr. Groothuis has regarding the context of evangelical feminism in church history and invites the curious reader to explore her entire book for themselves.


~ ~ ~ ~ ~

For Further Reflection

Two sites which provide Free Articles for personal research are Christians for Biblical Equality and God’s Word to Women.

CBE           www.cbeinternational.org

    GWTW       www.godswordtowomen.org


~ ~ ~ ~ ~

© 2014   Barb Orlowski, D.Min.



Women in the Church Women’s Headcoverings 1 Cor. 11:7-16

1 Corinthians 11:7-16

Man, the Glory of God, Woman, the Glory of Man.

Women’s Head Coverings in Corinth


This Corinthian passage has posed a challenge when it comes to interpreting it in light of what the Apostle Paul said in his other NT epistles. New Testament scholar, Gordon Fee, determined that: “this is a passage in which the apostle has been rather badly handled in the church.”* Many others would agree with this assessment. With this observation in mind, let us have a look at how Gordon Fee provides rich engagement with the text including how others have worked through the issues posed by this passage.

Beginning with Fee’s summary, we will briefly look at how he got to his conclusion. Fee also provides a stern warning to those who might jeopardize the intent of Paul’s aim in this passage:

“Although the paragraph begins with further arguments as to why women should be “covered,” Paul seems to leave that concern momentarily to affirm both that:

(1)  Women do have authority over their own heads (although that must be exercised in the context of not shaming their “head” and propriety) and

(2)  Even though in the new age the distinctions between male and female must be maintained, that does not mean that one is subordinate to the other.

To read the text as though it said the opposite of what vv. 10-12 seem clearly to say is to do Paul an injustice and possibly to put one in the position of disobeying the intent of God’s Word.”*

With that challenge and warning in view, the diligent student of Scripture can begin to examine more carefully Paul’s intent in this passage. The verses in this passage can be found printed out at the end of this article in the For Further Reflection section.


Looking Alittle Deeper

Paul looks at three areas of abuse in their assemblies:

  1. Concern about women’s head coverings or hairstyle when praying and prophesying (11:2-16),
  1. The abuse of the poor at the Lord’s Table (11:17-34), and 
  1. The abuse of speaking in tongues in the assembly (ch. 12 -14).

The 1 Cor. 11 passage has larger contextual questions and, even more, this passage is full of exegetical difficulties. Fee demonstrates the nature of these difficulties as well as the logic of Paul’s argument when the structure of this passage is illustrated. There is a simple comparison between the metaphorical usage of the word ‘HEAD’ and the literal use of the word ‘head’.

   2 Now I praise you

              because you remember me in all things,

                       and   even as I handed them on to you,

                                you keep the traditions.

  I.     3 But I want you to understand that—

                                            the HEAD of EVERY MAN is Christ,

                                    (and) THE MAN the HEAD of WOMAN,

                                    (and) God the HEAD of Christ.

            4 Every MAN                             shames his HEAD/head;

            praying or prophesying having down/against the head

            5 Every WOMAN

                  praying or prophesying uncovered as to the head

                           For it is one and the same thing

                                                 for her to be one who is shaved.

            6            For if a WOMAN will not be covered,

                                                      let her also             be shorn   

                But if it is disgraceful for her to be shorn or shaved,

                                                      let her                   be covered.


II.        7        For

On the one hand, MAN ought not to have the head covered,

                                being the image and glory of God;

On the other hand, THE WOMAN

                                                           is the glory of MAN:

8   [A]   For MAN is not from WOMAN

                                                     but WOMAN from MAN;

9   [B]    For also MAN was not created for WOMAN’s sake,                                                       but WOMAN for MAN’s

10   For this reason

        THE WOMAN ought to have authority over her (own)           head because of the angels.

         11 in any case (nonetheless)

                  [B’]   Neither WOMAN apart from    MAN,

                           nor             MAN   apart from WOMAN,

                                                                        in the Lord.

         12   [A’]   For just as the WOMAN (is) from     the MAN,

                            So also the   MAN   (is) through the WOMAN,

                                                but all things (are) from   God.

III.     13 Judge among yourselves:

             Is it fitting for a WOMAN to pray to God uncovered?

            Does not nature itself teach you that

14          On the one hand,

                              if a MAN grow long hair,

                                        it is a dishonor to him.

15          on the other hand,

                       if a WOMAN grow long hair,

                                it is a glory to her?

                       Because the hair is given to her

                                                           in the place of a covering.

16 Now if anyone seems to be contentious,

              We have no such custom,

              Nor do the churches of God.


The grammatical and structural signals point to a three-part division. By using sets of contrasts, there are distinct characteristics seen when reading about the man and the woman. In each instance, the argument seems aimed specifically at the woman. The problem has to do with her head being “uncovered” while praying and prophesying. These are made clear in verses 5-6 and 13.


Part 1   (vv. 3-6)

Argues from the metaphorical use of “head” that:

-The man would shame his “head” if he were to have (something) “hanging down the head”   and 

-The woman would shame her “head” if she were to prophesy “uncovered as to the head.” This shows an opposite.


Part 2    (vv. 7-12)

Although the argument here is more complex and full of surprises, it again seems to aim at the woman.

-The man ought not to have his head covered since his is God’s image and glory.


Part 3 

Paul takes up the issue one more time by appealing to their own sense of propriety.   Paul begins with a rhetorical question and ends with a word to anyone who would be “contentious” over this matter. That is, if they are contentious—the churches have no ‘such custom.”

The question is raised regarding what does it mean for the woman to pray and prophesy “uncovered as to the head”?

  1. The traditional view considered her to be discarding some kind of external covering. The difficulty with this view comes mostly from understanding v. 15 to say that a woman’s long hair is given to her instead of a peribolaion (lit. “a wraparound,” hence something like a shawl).
  1. It has been argued that the “covering” contended for in vv. 4-7 and 13 is actually the long hair of vv. 14-15, because some women were having their hair cut short. But, this is against the language and grammar of vv. 5-6—be shaved or shorn if they will not be “covered.”
  1. Some scholars have suggested “uncovered’ refers to “loosed hair.” That is, letting down one’s hair in public and thus experiencing shame.


While this may be an attractive solution in many ways, it still has its own set of difficulties:

a)  how the man’s not covering his head in v. 7 is the opposite of this;

b)  what to do with v. 15, which implies that long hair, not piled-up hair, serves in the place of a shawl;

c)  the fact that there is no sure first-century evidence that long hair in public would have been a disgrace of some kind.


Fee suggests that a modified form of the traditional view seems to have fewer difficulties. In either case, the woman’s action is considered shameful, and for that reason Paul is willing to offer theological justification for maintaining a custom.



So the question arises: Why were some women in Corinth apparently disregarding the customary mode of appearance? From church tradition, this passage provided a reasonable suggestion—that the problem had to do with some women who were being insubordinate to their husbands because of their new-found freedom in Christ. Interpreters regarded this passage as a way to “put women in their proper place” by insisting that they keep the traditional symbol of their subordination—which was the veil.

Fee suggests that it is much more likely that the problem is related to the overall historical situation in Corinth. It seems that some women were praying or prophesying or simply arguing for the right to do so without the customary “head covering.” Their concept of being “spiritual” (pneumatikos) was in play. They also may have had an “overrealized eschatology.” Fee clarifies:

“It seems difficult to understand Paul’s answer unless their spiritualized eschatology also involved some kind of break-down in the distinction between the sexes. Already they had arrived in the Spirit; they were already acting as those who would be “like the angels,” among whom sexual distinctions no longer existed. As part of their new “spirituality” they were disregarding some very customary distinctions between the sexes that would otherwise have been regarded as disgraceful. Paul feels strongly enough about the issue to speak to it, even if his argument lacks its customary vigor.”*


Paul Presents His Three Arguments

Paul proceeds to present his three arguments to them regarding how to appropriately look at this issue:

  1. An Argument from Culture and Shame (11:2-6)
  2. An Argument from Creation (11:7-12)
  3. An Argument from Propriety (11:13-16)


  1. An Argument from Culture and Shame (11:2-6)

Paul begins his argument by using the word “head” metaphorically to designate three kinds of relationships:

a)   Man and Christ

b)   Woman and Man

c)   Christ and God

The factor of shame for the actions of either the man or the woman is stressed.

“The metaphor in v. 3, which has traditionally been interpreted as defending the need for the woman to maintain her place of subordination to her “head,” namely her husband, is often seen as the point of the whole passage. More likely, however, this is simply an attempt on Paul’s part to remove the problem from the “head” literally by putting it into a broader context of relationships. In any case the literal problem came first, and Paul has used the word metaphorically at the beginning to set the literal problem into a larger theological framework.”

Though the Corinthians may be following the “traditions,” they may not be doing so in proper ways (11:2).

From 11:4, 5, we see the reference to “head”—used in three parts, each using the word “head” metaphorically to express a different relationship: man/Christ, woman/man, Christ/God. “What is not immediately clear, especially to the English reader, is the sense of the metaphor “head,” and thus the nature of the relationships that each of the clauses intends.”

Paul does not set out to prove this theological statement nor does he make it the main point of this section. What is important to him is the behavioral problem–having to do with women’s heads. This is seen in the fact and the form of this construct. Paul prods the Corinthian fellowship to go beyond individual freedom to a better focus of relational responsibility.

“The problem lay squarely on the women’s heads, but it was affecting male/female relationships in the present age.”

Even though the new age had been inaugurated, the behavior of the women in that society was bringing shame on the distinctions of the male/female relationship. This was not of benefit to anyone.

Regarding this section, Fee makes a significant observation. He highlights the fact that people have wrongly understood this passage to be a proof text for hierarchy. Yet, upon closer examination of this section, there is nothing that suggests this. Let us pay attention to what he exhorts:

“The metaphor itself is often understood to be hierarchical, setting up structures of authority. But nothing in the passage suggests as much; in fact, the only appearance of the word exousia (“authority”) refers to the woman’s own authority    (v. 10). Moreover, vv. 11-12 explicitly qualify vv. 8-9 so that they will not be understood in this way. Indeed, the metaphorical use of kephale (“head”) to mean “chief” or “the person of highest rank” is rare in Greek literature—so much so that even though the Hebrew word ros often carried this sense, the Greek translators of the LXX, who ordinarily used kephale to translate ros when the physical “head” was intended, almost never did so when “ruler” was intended, thus indicating that this metaphorical sense is an exceptional usage and not part of the ordinary range of meanings for the Greek word.”

The Corinthian understanding of the metaphor would have been that “head” means “source,” especially “source of life.” Paul confirms that man was the original source of the woman (v.12). Therefore, Paul’s concern is NOT hierarchical, that is, who has authority over whom, but rather relational, that is, one being the source of another’s being. This is further seen by the fact that Paul says nothing about man’s authority but that he is concerned with the woman being man’s glory–the one, without whom, he is not complete.

Anything that would blur that relationship in the Greek culture would bring shame on the woman’s “head.”

There is an interesting dilemma for the married woman in the Greek culture when it comes to the wearing of a suitable headcovering in public. Would the church gathering in one of the larger homes, be considered ‘public’ or not? Would their ecclesial gathering be considered being in a ‘home’ or being in ‘public’?

This would also be considered a ‘religious’ meeting where it would be in order for women to be able to prophesy, which would also include bringing a message from the heart of God, using the gift of tongues and interpreting that message in the language of those gathered.  Using the utterance gifts of the Spirit, as well as praying, were permitted spiritual activities for all present, including women.

The bottom line was that shame in the Greek culture needed to be addressed. If married women were not dressed in the way that their culture dictated, then it was wrong not to recognize that factor and then for the Christian women to comply when attending the gathering of the saints.

Paul’s summary was that if it is a disgrace for a woman either to have her hair cut short or to be shaved, which it was, then the end run was that: her head should be covered. This would not apply to her hair but would necessitate an external head covering. It seemed that some of the women did not sense the cultural shame of their own actions. Therefore, it was necessary for Paul to provide a corrective.

So, the question for today is: Should married women or women in general need to cover their heads when attending an assembled church? The brief answer is that Paul recognized that the issue was directly tied to the cultural shame of that society. This scarcely prevails in most cultures today.

Fee ponders the fact that “it would seem that in cultures where women’s heads are seldom covered, the enforcement of such in the church turns Paul’s point on its head.”

In addition, we simply do not know what the practice was that they were abusing. Thus, literal “obedience” to the text is often merely symbolic. Unfortunately, the symbol that tends to be reinforced is the subordination of women, which is hardly Paul’s point.


  1. An Argument from Creation (11:7-12) 

It a bit of a surprise for the reader to note, that it is Christ, and not God, who is designated as man’s “head.” “More difficult yet is what is said of the woman, who by way of contrast is called “man’s glory,” but with no mention of her being covered.” What follows explains why she is man’s glory (vv. 8-9).

“Then comes the truly surprising text (v. 10), which because of the verb “ought,” seems to correspond to v. 7a (over against “ought not”).” Instead of mentioning a covering, Paul argues that she should have authority over her “own” head because of the angels. Paul’s entire argument points to v. 10 as the crucial text. This is a very difficult text and scholars have guessed about it over the centuries. Yet, Paul has a rationale for his words and wants his explanation not to be misunderstood.

Fee confirms the point that the argument is quite involved and that it would pay to make the connection and not to miss it. What creates a problem here is Paul’s syntax.

In looking at Paul’s treatment of God’s image and God’s glory, in his reflections on the creation of man, he uses the term God’s ‘glory’. Obviously, this is a difficult term to define.

Fee summarizes his thoughts by stating: “By creating man in his own image God set his own glory in man. Man, therefore, exists to God’s praise and honor, and is to live in relationship to God so as to be his “glory.” What we are not told here is why being God’s glory means no covering; verse 4 indicates that it had to do with his not shaming Christ. But that, too, was left unexplained.”

Paul considers Gen. 2:23 and 18-20 which seems to affirm how man is the woman’s “head”—he is the source of her life. Since “the woman is from the man,” she is also his “glory” because “the woman was created for the man’s sake.”

The question posed is: “How does the woman’s ‘coming from the man’ and being created for his sake, make her his glory?”

The simple answer is that “She is thus man’s glory because she “came from man” and was created “for him.” She is not thereby subordinate to him, but necessary for him. She exists to his honor as the one who having come from man is the one companion suitable to him, so that he might be complete and that together they might form humanity.”

When the first man, Adam, sees the woman, he “glories” in her. Therefore, since man is the source of origin for woman, in Corinth, women in the church fellowship should not be uncovered when praying and/or prophesying. This would be a show of disrespect for one of the “visible expressions of differentiation” in that society and would bring shame on the man by trying to “dissolve the rightful male/ female relationship” that was there.

The key words: “author” and “angels” are very likely from the Corinthians . Verse 10 is “one of the truly difficult texts in this letter.” One crucial reason is the ad hoc character of the passage. There is only one side of the telephone conversation available with only these words as the clues.

Fee outlines the problems, being twofold: “finding a proper sense for exousia (“authority”), and determining the nuance of the preposition epi (“over” or “on”).” Fee shows the weaknesses in the traditional view, which he says “sees the context as referring to the subordination of women” and “tends to go one of two directions”:

(1)   Some take exousia in a passive sense. To “have authority over her head” means that she “has” someone else (in this case, her husband) function as authority “over” her. The “covering,” though not mentioned, is assumed to be the “sign” that this is so. . . . The difficulty with this view is that there is no known evidence either that exousia is ever taken in this passive sense or that the idiom “to have authority over” ever refers to an external authority different from the subject of the sentence.


(2)   Others take exousia as a metonym for “veil,” and epi as “on.” The difficulty with this “is to find an adequate explanation as to why Paul should have chosen this word as his metonym. Had Paul intended an external covering, he would surely have said that, since several such words are available to him.”


(3)   A third alternative is that some have thought that “the “authority” is to be understood as the woman’s new freedom to do what was formerly forbidden, namely to pray and prophesy along with the men.” That is, live up to her new found freedom in Christ. Though this sounds attractive, it is not adequately supported in the text.


(4)   This brings us to the possibility that the meaning “to have authority” is the sense of “freedom or right to choose.” Thus: “For this reason the woman ought to have the freedom over her head to do as she wishes.”


Since Fee assesses that “there is no evidence for a passive sense to this idiom, and that such a view basically came into existence for contextual reasons that do not seem to be in the text itself, solution (4) seems to be the best of the possibilities.

The next complexity is the phrase “because of the angels.” Over time, several solutions have been offered.  Fee affirms that Paul’s argument includes the fact that man should not be covered and that by implication that a woman should because she is man’s glory. Yet Fee suggests that this is not the whole story—since the woman is not independent of the man. In order that the woman properly exercise that freedom, she should continue the custom of being “covered.” That being said, there is still a lack of certainty since there is not enough information provided.

Fee observes that the structure of 1 Cor. 11:8-9 is a perfect double chiasm. (A chiasm is an X structure.)


     A      Not is man from woman,

              but     woman from man;

        B Not was created man for the sake of the woman,

              but                      woman for the sake of the man.


     B’   Neither woman without man,

              nor       man without woman,

                                                           in the Lord;

     A’     For just as the woman   from     the man,

                     so also the man       through   the woman,

                                and all things   from God.


From Paul’s teaching, Fee establishes that men and women are mutually dependent on each other:

“The qualifiers in the second sets (“in the Lord,” all things from God”) are what make the difference. While it is true that woman is man’s glory, having been created for his sake (v. 9), Paul now affirms that that does not mean that woman exists for man’s purposes, as though in some kind of subordinate position to his aims and will. To the contrary, God has so arranged things that “in the Lord” the one cannot exist without the other, not meaning of course that every Christian man and woman must be married, but that as believers man and woman are mutually dependent on each other.”

Fee goes on to say that the final qualifier, “and all things are from God,” which includes at least woman and man, puts the whole of vv. 7-9 into proper Pauline perspective that both man and woman, and not just man, are from God. At Creation, God made man from dust and made the woman from man, but after that, and as is now, both males and females come through the woman.

Again, it needs to be reiterated that this passage in 1 Cor. has been rather poorly handled in the church. Fee concludes this section by stating that Paul affirms both of the following:

(1)   That women do have authority over their own heads (although that must be exercised in the context of not shaming their “head” and propriety)     and

(2)   That even though in the new age the distinctions between male and female must be maintained, that does not mean that one is subordinate to the other. To read the text as though it said the opposite of what vv. 10-12 seem clearly to say is to do Paul an injustice and possibly to put one in the position of disobeying the intent of God’s Word.”


  1. An Argument from Propriety (11:13-16 )

Paul moved from “a concern over a woman’s being “covered” to a concern for her having “authority” over her head without being either independent of or subordinate to man.” This final paragraph now returns to Paul’s original argument of vv. 4-6.

“By appealing finally to their own sense of propriety, as “nature” by way of analogy helps them to see that, Paul brings to a close his argument over the “rightness” of women maintaining the “custom” of being covered. But Paul is never quite comfortable concluding an argument in this fashion. Hence he draws the whole together with a final appeal to what goes on in the “churches of God.” That he is dealing strictly with “custom” (church “custom,” to be sure) is not made plain, as is the fact that this argument, for all its various facets, falls short of a command as such.”

Fee notes that this is the third time that Paul has tried to correct Corinthian behavior by appealing to what is taught or practiced in the other churches. Although he has spent much effort on this issue, we can observe that it is not something which he has great passion for.

We can perceive that:

  1. Though Paul argues in this way, he does not give a commandment. This suggests that such a “church custom,” though important to the Corinthians, is not to be raised to Canon Law.

The very ‘customary” nature of the problem in that particular church makes it nearly impossible to transfer it to the multifaceted cultures in which the church finds itself today. This could be, if we knew exactly what the custom was to transfer—and we do not.

It is sensible to realize that in each culture there are likely to be modes of dress that are appropriate and those that are not.


  1. How Paul deals with this issue in comparison to how he takes on the abuses around the Lord’s Supper in the Corinthian church is noteworthy. Much more was at stake regarding their abusive practices of the Lord’s Supper.

To conclude, one notes that the “distinction between the sexes is to be maintained; the covering is to go back on, but for Paul it does not seem to be a life-and-death matter.”




To reiterate, Fee stresses that this passage has been badly handled in the church. This can be understood to mean that this passage has been unsatisfactorily, incompetently, and incorrectly dealt with in the church. By showing where there has been flawed exegesis and weak interpretive methods, these can be placed alongside a more precise handling of the passage for comparison. This should aid the enquirer to conclude the following points:

1.   Women do have authority over their own heads (although that must be exercised in the context of not shaming their “head” and propriety)   and

2.   Even though in the new age the distinctions between male and female must be maintained, that does not mean that one is subordinate to the other.

With careful study of a complex passage, a conscientious student of the Scriptures ought to have a reasonable understanding of these verses and be able to have answers for themselves and for others.

To conclude, in an interview with Gordon Fee by Julian Lukins in 2010, this interviewer finished their article with these words and a worthy admonition to the church from Dr. Gordon Fee:

“Clearly Fee loves the Word, noting that heresies are creeping into the church because of lack of theological understanding and misinterpretation of Scripture. What’s needed, he emphasizes, is Spirit-filled living and sound scriptural interpretation. “If I could say one thing to the American church,” he cautions, “it would be this:  Keep integrity with Scripture and spiritual experience.”**

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*  All quotes have been taken from Gordon Fee’s book: The First Epistle to the Corinthians, p. 491 -524. Grand Rapids: William Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1987.

** Julia Lukins is a writer based in Sequim, WA. This is an interview from Charisma Magazine, 9/1/2010. Link: http://www.charismamag.com/spirit/bible-study/11740-a-professor-with-spirit


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For Further Reflection

1 Corinthians 11:3-16 from The Message

3-9   In a marriage relationship, there is authority from Christ to husband, and from husband to wife. The authority of Christ is the authority of God. Any man who speaks with God or about God in a way that shows a lack of respect for the authority of Christ, dishonors Christ. In the same way, a wife who speaks with God in a way that shows a lack of respect for the authority of her husband, dishonors her husband. Worse, she dishonors herself—an ugly sight, like a woman with her head shaved. This is basically the origin of these customs we have of women wearing head coverings in worship, while men take their hats off. By these symbolic acts, men and women, who far too often butt heads with each other, submit their “heads” to the Head: God.

10-12   Don’t, by the way, read too much into the differences here between men and women. Neither man nor woman can go it alone or claim priority. Man was created first, as a beautiful shining reflection of God—that is true. But the head on a woman’s body clearly outshines in beauty the head of her “head,” her husband. The first woman came from man, true—but ever since then, every man comes from a woman! And since virtually everything comes from God anyway, let’s quit going through these “who’s first” routines.

13-16   Don’t you agree there is something naturally powerful in the symbolism—a woman, her beautiful hair reminiscent of angels, praying in adoration; a man, his head bared in reverence, praying in submission? I hope you’re not going to be argumentative about this. All God’s churches see it this way; I don’t want you standing out as an exception.


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© 2014   Barb Orlowski, D.Min.


Divorce: When Does the Bible Permit Divorce?  


In an online discussion that a number of us were participating in, the topic of divorce came up and I was asked what I understood from the Scriptures. The question put to me was: “When does the Bible permit divorce?”

I spent some time looking up a few well-known Bible passages and further pondering this topic. This was an opportunity to put into writing some observations about these Bible passages and to formulate some ideas into a reasonable answer. This is not an indepth look at this topic but a suitable response for the context of that discussion. The article below is that earnest endeavor.

I believe that this overview gets at the basics and includes an objective towards raising awareness about the plight of women when it comes to harmful advice given by church leaders–which so often hinders rather than helps serious marriage dysfunction.

To tell someone that spiritual, sexual, physical, and/or mental abuse has to be tolerated because of marriage vows, is not a message from God. Many clergy advise wives to stick with the marriage and avoid divorce at all costs. Under these types of circumstances, this advice is harmful and should be disregarded.

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“The following is an answer to your question: “When does the Bible permit divorce?”

We are familiar with these passages:  Mt. 5:31, 32; 19:1-13; Mk. 10:1-12.

To begin, in the Matt. 5 chapter, it is not hard to notice certain recurring phrases that are used many times by Jesus to make his point distinct among his Jewish countrymen:  “You have heard that it was said . . .” “But I tell you . . .”   Jesus gave clear explanatory teachings on what he felt was important to highlight–based on those Old Testament passages.

For example, Matt. 5:27:  “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’  But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”

The Context:  Notice that in the Matthew 5 and 19 and Mark 10 passages that the question of divorce was in the context of the Pharisees coming to Jesus to ‘test him’ regarding the words of Moses and the law. They were determined when they probed him: Is it lawful—for a man—to divorce—his wife?

Jesus explained to those Pharisees what the main reason was behind Moses permitting a man to write a certificate of divorce to end his marriage:

“2 Some Pharisees came and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”

3 “What did Moses command you?” he replied.

4 They said, “Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of divorce and send her away.”

5 “It was because your hearts were hard that Moses wrote you this law,” Jesus replied.”                                      Mark 10:2-5

This is similarly stated in Matt. 19:8, 9: “Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.” Their pressing question revolved around: “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for ‘any and every reason’?” That is where this confrontation centered.

Jesus was directing his words to the Jewish leaders, men, and husbands. He was addressing them, along with the people who Moses spoke to, about their own reasons to divorce their own wives. The “anyone who divorces his wife” refers specifically to ‘any man’ who divorces his wife. Any and every reason–was the pivotal issue. 

Considering Marriage Dysfunction Biblically

So, how should we look at divorce today? What should be our guiding principles for helping to minister to those who come to us with severe marriage dysfunction? Obviously, as Christians, our first priority is to grasp what the Scriptures say and to consider Christ’s words in particular.

My response would be to echo what Jesus taught: When the hardness of the hearts of men disables the marriage covenant by sexual and emotional infidelity and/or by physical, sexual, mental, financial, and emotional abuse, these are biblical grounds for divorce. These grounds for divorce allow for a legal dissolution of the marriage contract.

Such abusive men, many who claim to be ‘Christians,’ have by their words and actions dismantled and destroyed their marriage covenant and have created a horrific place for a wife and their children to survive, let alone live. The woman is no longer bound to such a man and such a marriage.

It would be easier to give a straight cut and traditional answer, encouraging women to stick with their husband and their marriage vows.  But, from being exposed to those who work with domestic violence victims and women who have had atrocities perpetrated against them, by their husbands, fiancés, or boyfriends, begs for these accounts of traumatized homelife to be heard and understood–by those in the church and by those who might minister directly to them.

There is suitable help available through lawyers, police, safe houses, welfare programs, and secular agencies while huge lacks can be found in the church.

Relationships are complex, yet there is a crucial need to avoid re-victimizing women by holding them hostage to an already shattered marriage, broken by their abusive spouse—and using the Bible to do it. We can do so much better.

That is my answer to your question: When does the Bible permit divorce?” 


The topic of marriage dysfunction and divorce is a huge one. There are no quick or easy answers. Using the Bible inappropriately in severe marriage situations is not only insensitive but does not reflect the heart of God who exhibits care and justice for those who are oppressed by unprincipled spouses in harmful situations.

There is a need for listening, care, and support for anyone experiencing marriage distress of any kind. Couples need to be ministered to on a case by case basis in order to help to guide both the husband and the wife in the best possible outcomes–for them as a couple and as individuals.

For women experiencing severe marriage dysfunction, it may be essential to remove her and any children from an unsafe home environment. There is much that church leaders and a supportive church can do to help those enduring ruptured marriages.

There is a need to forgo the insensitive ways of treating those who find that getting a divorce is the only reasonable solution for a couple’s relationship. There is a need to offer the help and support to both partners going through this distressing time in their lives. Suitable support can be part of the aid a nurturing church community can provide during and after a divorce has ended a marriage. It is important to realize that divorce can be the best and only solution for so many marriages and that new life can arise after the dissolution of a severely unhealthy marriage.


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For Further Reflection

The Lord promises wisdom for those who ask him. Marriage distress is one of those times. Men and women can look to the Lord for strength and wisdom at such a period in their lives.

This passage is taken from Proverbs 2:1-9, from The Message:

1-5 Good friend, take to heart what I’m telling you;
collect my counsels and guard them with your life.
Tune your ears to the world of Wisdom;
set your heart on a life of Understanding.
That’s right—if you make Insight your priority,
and won’t take no for an answer,
Searching for it like a prospector panning for gold,
like an adventurer on a treasure hunt,
Believe me, before you know it Fear-of-God will be yours;
you’ll have come upon the Knowledge of God.

6-8 And here’s why: God gives out Wisdom free,
is plainspoken in Knowledge and Understanding.
He’s a rich mine of Common Sense for those who live well,
a personal bodyguard to the candid and sincere.
He keeps his eye on all who live honestly,
and pays special attention to his loyally committed ones.

So now you can pick out what’s true and fair,
find all the good trails!

This same passage, Proverbs 2:1-9, from the New International Version:

My son, if you receive my words,
And treasure my commands within you,
So that you incline your ear to wisdom,
And apply your heart to understanding;
Yes, if you cry out for discernment,
And lift up your voice for understanding,
If you seek her as silver,
And search for her as for hidden treasures;
Then you will understand the fear of the Lord,
And find the knowledge of God.
For the Lord gives wisdom;
From His mouth come knowledge and understanding;
He stores up sound wisdom for the upright;
He is a shield to those who walk uprightly;
He guards the paths of justice,
And preserves the way of His saints.
Then you will understand righteousness and justice,
Equity and every good path.


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© 2014   Barb Orlowski, D.Min.