I grew up in Mexico, a country composed of contradictions. Many are too vast to undertake in this space, but the one dichotomy that squats at the front of my mind deals with human character. Mexico is notorious for its machismo attitude, yet our culture ardently venerates women. Sons look to their mothers all throughout their lives for guidance, even if it contradicts his wife’s opinion. It’s a machista culture with closeted matriarchal influences.
As a child, I lived within those contradictions, exposed and influenced by the lives of so many resilient and strong women. My grandmother quietly devoted every second of each day in the service of others – cleaning, praying, mending, and loving. My mother was a constant source of support and grace, of which I’ll need all the years I have to understand. The women in our neighborhood helped each other with household tasks and were there for each other in life’s pain. Plainly put, when I see women, I see strength embodied; yet when I hear about women as the weaker sex, I can’t help but wonder where that notion began.
Today in the West, on the whole, women occupy roles of leadership in numbers not seen before. Currently twenty women are serving in the U.S. Senate, more than any other time in history. Women have also filled top-ranking positions in notable companies like Yahoo!, with Marissa Myer as CEO, and Facebook, with Sheryl Sandberg as COO. Disney, a powerful force of societal influence specifically in gender roles, has taken note and produced several stories depicting women as leaders, whittling a new perspective for future generations.
The story of Malala Youzafsai, the young Pakistani girl who was shot – along with two other girls – by the Taliban because she refused to give up on her dreams of going to school, has grabbed the world’s attention. She spoke at the United Nations on her 16th birthday and shared how war has affected her country, her drive to fight for universal childhood education, as well as the benefits equal opportunity provides.  Her memoir, I am Malala, has nineteen weeks on The New York Times Best Sellers list, and counting.
With so much progress in various parts of culture and the world with women leaders, sadly the church is lagging behind. It still grapples with allowing women to lead in congregations, fearful of altering long-standing patriarchal hierarchies. Yet in looking to the scriptures, I am amazed to see just how much freedom there is when it comes to this topic.
The Apostle Paul – a man fully and vociferously acquainted with tradition – uses his letter to the Galatians to demystify false teaching in the congregation. In Galatians 3:26-28, he writes, “You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (NIV 2005)
Looking further into Paul’s letters, the Apostle frequently names the women he is in ministry with and notes their leading roles in the church. In Romans 16, Paul “commend[s]” to the church in Rome “our sister Phoebe,” a deacon, and he asks the church to welcome her “in a way worthy of the saints” for she has aided the church, and Paul himself, in ministry. He then mentions Priscilla, his co-worker who, along with her husband Aquila, taught Apollos, also an apostle, “the way of God” in their home. Later, Paul mentions Mary, Tryphena, Tryphosa, and Persis, all women who “work hard for the Lord.” In Philippians 4, Euodia and Syntyche are “women who have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel.” Also, in Paul’s travels to Caesarea chronicled in Acts, he stays “at the house of Philip the evangelist,” who has “four unmarried daughters who prophesied.”
However, while digging in Paul’s letters, a reader will also come across texts that seem to argue against women leaders.
In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul instructs women while they pray and prophesied, tasks that require oration, and then later he writes, “Women should remain silent in the churches.” At first glance, this seems to be quite a contradiction. Although, when the reader steps back and views the whole context of these two sections, the battle fades: the letter to Corinth, though inspired by the Holy Spirit, is still a letter to a specific group of people, at a specific time, addressing a specific issue. “Epistles are occasional documents of the first century, conditioned by the language and culture of the first century, which spoke to specific situations in the first-century church,” Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart wrote in their book, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth. In other words, the verse should not be removed from its original context. Paul’s later instruction of women to “remain silent” comes amid guidance of Corinth’s church service. A few sentences prior to his instruction to women, Paul writes, “If there is no interpreter [for anyone speaking in tongues], the speaker should keep quiet in the church and speak to himself and God.” He then guides the prophets of the church: “Two or three prophets should speak and the others should weigh carefully what is said. And if a revelation comes to someone who is sitting down, the first speaker should stop. For you can all prophesy in turn so that everyone may be instructed and encouraged.” Paul is establishing order to what seems to have been a fairly chatty and disorderly service in Corinth; it is here, specific to this church where Paul is building a framework, we find the instruction for women to be silent in church.
The first letter to Timothy also houses some verses against women leaders that need to be discussed. Paul writes there, in the third chapter, of people that seek to be a bishop (“overseer”) of a church. He says the person must be “above reproach, the husband of but one wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money.” Many have stood on the second character trait in the list as a reason against women as leaders; however, if the trait were a universal decree, wouldn’t that disqualify single men or widowers or divorced men from leadership roles as well? The resolution here is, again, to read this verse in the context of the first century occasion for the letter. In Paul’s description of a worthy church leader, monogamy is capital, and it is not beyond the realm of reason to suggest that monogamy was a struggle for men of that culture and of that time in Ephesus, the city where Timothy receives the letter.
This argument is furthered in the second chapter of that same letter. There, Paul instructs women on their dress (verse 9) and then on their submissive position to their husbands (verses 11-15). Fee and Stuart write that,
Full compliance with this text in the twenty-first century would seem to rule out not only a woman’s preaching and teaching in the local church, but it also would seem to forbid her writing books on biblical studies that men might read, teaching Bible or related subjects… in Christian colleges or Bible institutes where men are in her classes, and teaching men in missionary situations. But those who argue against women teaching in the contemporary church seldom carry the interpretation this far.
Indeed, Fee and Stuart continue to posit this text to be speaking “to a local problem” given the prior instances Paul encountered women prophesying and teaching (and seemingly encouraged in the case of Priscilla), and given the known issues of the church of Ephesus in the first century. Fee and Stuart wrote, “Certain women were troublesome in the church at Ephesus (I Tim. 5:11-15; II Tim. 3:6-9), and they appear to have been a major part of the cause of the false teachers’ making headway there.”
Paul’s words in his letters cannot be separated from the time and place of their creation and intention. Moreover, they need to be reconciled in light of Jesus’ ministry, which included women in many surprising and leading roles as well.
During His time on earth, Jesus ministered beautifully to women he met – forever changing them and restoring them into their full identities. The role of women in first century culture has been widely reported: outside of Jesus, women were not educated, their lives played out at home and not in public, and they were seen to bring only temptations to men. With Jesus, women experienced new life. They ventured with His ministry. Jesus invited Mary and Martha to learn from him. Jesus engaged with the ostracized woman at the well; she in turn proclaimed Jesus to her community, and “many of the Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony.”
Jesus released Mary Magdalene from bondage, and from that point on, even unto His final days, she followed and cared for Him while He preached. While the others hid in fear, she mourned and visited Jesus’ tomb. Then Jesus revealed himself to her in His resurrection – Jesus chose a woman as His first disciple to carry on the most wondrous news.
In the long line of women who devoted themselves to the care for Jesus, one of the most astounding realities of Christianity is whom Jesus chose to bring Him into the world; He chose a young girl, poor in status but filled with faith. I often imagine young Mary caring diligently for her baby boy, creating a lasting bond of tenderness and devotion. In Jesus’ final hours, He entrusted John with the care of his mother.
When I ponder His final actions towards Mary, I am filled with love for a man who did not see a weaker or lesser being in women. I see a man, our God, fully in love with the qualities He set upon us. Fully believing we are to live out His image and likeness.
 From these positions, both Myer and Sandberg have discussed the hurdles they’ve faced in a male-dominated society, enacted policies within their companies to bolster support and equity among genders, and created momentum in the discussion about equality.
 For instance, see the animated films Brave and Tangled.
 She also touched upon to the insufferable amounts of time and money spent on war and the little results it has yielded; instead she proposes changing societies views on gender and to finally allow girls the right to education. In her opinion, education has the power to quell war and create peaceful societies.
 See Acts 18:26.
 Romans 16:6, 12. In Romans 16:7, Paul also writes of Junias, an outstanding apostle imprisoned with him; however, scholars today debate the name should actually be Junia, the feminine usage because the masculine usage doesn’t exist.
 I Cor. 11:5
 I Cor. 14:34
 Fee and Stuart, How to Read (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 80.
 I Cor. 14:28.
 I Cor. 14:29-31.
 Why does Paul require order? Verse 33: “For God is not a God of disorder but of peace.”
 I Tim. 3:2-3; emphasis added.
 Fee and Stuart, How to Read, 85.
 Fee and Stuart, How to Read, 85.
 Luke 8:1-3.
 Luke 10:38-42.
 John 4:39-42.