Hello, my name is Eric Wilson. I was raised as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses and was baptized in 1963 at the age of 14. I served as an elder for 40 years within the religion of Jehovah’s Witnesses. With those credentials, I can say without fear of valid contradiction that the women in the Organization are treated as second-class citizens. It is my belief that this is not done with any bad intention. Witness men and women believe they are merely following the direction of Scripture with respect to the role of each sex.
Within the congregation arrangement of Jehovah’s Witnesses, a woman’s ability to worship God is severely restricted. She cannot teach from the platform podium, but can participate in interviews or demonstrations when a brother is chairing the part. She cannot hold any position of responsibility within the congregation, even something as menial as managing the microphones used for getting audience comments during meetings. The only exception to this rule occurs when there is no qualified male available to do the task. Thus, a baptized 12-year-old boy can perform the work of handling the microphones while his own mother must sit by submissively. Imagine this scenario, if you will: A group of mature women with years of experience and superior teaching skills are required to remain silent while a pimply faced, recently baptized 19-year-old presumes to teach and pray on their behalf before heading out into the preaching work.
I’m not suggesting that the situation of women within the organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses is unique. The role of women within many churches of Christendom has been a source of contention for hundreds of years.
The question facing us as we strive to return to the model of Christianity practiced by the apostles and first century Christians is what is the real role of women. Are the Witnesses right in their hardline stance?
We can break this down into three principal questions:
- Should women be allowed to pray on behalf of the congregation?
- Should women be allowed to teach and instruct the congregation?
- Should women be allowed to hold positions of oversight within the congregation?
These are important questions, because if we get it wrong, we could hamper the worship of half of the body of Christ. This is not some academic discussion. This is not a matter of “Let’s agree to disagree.” If we are standing in the way of someone’s right to worship God in spirit and truth and in the way God intended, then we are standing between the Father and his children. Not a good place to be on Judgment day, wouldn’t you agree?
Conversely, if we are twisting the proper worship of God by introducing practices that are prohibited, there could also be consequences affecting our salvation.
Let me try to put this into a context I think everyone will be able to grasp: I am half-Irish and half-Scottish. I am about as white as they come. Imagine if I were to tell a fellow Christian male that he could not teach nor pray in the congregation because his skin was the wrong color. What if I claimed that the Bible authorized such a distinction? Some Christian denominations in the past have actually made such outrageous and unscriptural claims. Would that not be a cause for stumbling? What does the Bible say about stumbling the little one?
You might argue that that is not a fair comparison; that the Bible does not prohibit men of different races from teaching and praying; but that it does prohibit women from doing so. Well, that’s the whole point of the discussion isn’t it? Does the Bible actually prohibit women from praying, teaching, and overseeing in the congregation arrangement?
Let us not make any assumptions, okay? I know that strong social and religious bias is at play here, and it is very difficult to overcome bias ingrained since childhood, but we have to try.
So, just clear away all that religious dogma and cultural bias from your brain and let’s start from square one.
Ready? Yes? No, I don’t think so. My guess is that you’re not ready even if you think you are. Why do I suggest that? Because I’m willing to wager that like me, you think the only thing we have to resolve is the role of women. You may be working under the premise—as I was initially—that we already understand the role of men.
If we start with a flawed premise, we’ll never achieve the balance we seek. Even if we properly understand the role of women, that is only one side of the balance. If the other end of the balance holds a skewed view of the role of men, then we will still be out of balance.
Would you be surprised to learn that the Lord’s own disciples, the original 12, had a skewed and unbalanced view of the role of men in the congregation. Jesus had to make repeated attempts to correct their thinking. Mark recounts one such attempt:
“So Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers in this world lord it over their people, and officials flaunt their authority over those under them. But among you it will be different. Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must be the slave of everyone else. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:42-45)
We all assume that men have a right to pray on behalf of the congregation, but do they? We’ll look into that. We all assume men have the right to teach in the congregation and exercise oversight, but to what extent? The disciples had an idea about that, but they were wrong. Jesus said, that the one who wants to be a leader must serve, indeed, he must take on the role of a slave. Does your president, prime minister, king, or whatever act like a slave of the people?
Jesus was coming up with a pretty radical posture to governing, wasn’t he? I don’t see the leaders of many religions today following his direction, do you? But Jesus led by example.
“Keep this mental attitude in you that was also in Christ Jesus, who, although he was existing in God’s form, gave no consideration to a seizure, namely, that he should be equal to God. No, but he emptied himself and took a slave’s form and became human. More than that, when he came as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death, yes, death on a torture stake. For this very reason, God exalted him to a superior position and kindly gave him the name that is above every other name, so that in the name of Jesus every knee should bend—of those in heaven and those on earth and those under the ground— and every tongue should openly acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:5-11)
I know that the New World Translation gets a lot of criticism, some of it justified, some of it not. But in this instance, it has one of the best renderings of Paul’s thoughts about Jesus expressed here. Jesus was in God’s form. John 1:1 calls him “a god”, and John 1:18 says he is the “only begotten god.” He exists in the nature of God, the divine nature, second only to the almighty Father of all, yet he is willing to give it all up, to empty himself, and more to take on the form of a slave, a mere human, and then to die as such.
He did not seek to exalt himself, but only to humble himself, to serve others. God, it was, who rewarded such self-denying servitude by exalting him to a superior position and granting him a name above every other name.
This is the example both the men and women within the Christian congregation must strive to emulate. So, while focusing on the role of women, we will not overlook the role of men, nor make assumptions about what that role should be.
Let’s start at the very beginning. I’ve heard it’s a very good place to start.
Man was created first. Then the woman was created, but not in the same way as the first man. She was made from him.
Genesis 2:21 reads:
“So Jehovah God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep, and while he was sleeping, he took one of his ribs and then closed up the flesh over its place. And Jehovah God built the rib that he had taken from the man into a woman, and he brought her to the man.” (New World Translation)
At one time, this was derided as a fanciful account, but modern science has shown us that it is possible to clone a living being from a single cell. Further, scientists are discovering that stem cells from bone marrow can be used to create various types of cells found in the body. So, using Adam’s genetic material, the master designer could easily have fashioned a female human from it. Thus, Adam’s poetic response to first seeing his wife, was not just a metaphor. He said:
“This is at last bone of my bones And flesh of my flesh. This one will be called Woman, Because from man she was taken.” (Genesis 2:23 NWT)
In this way, all of us are truly derived from one man. We are all from one source.
It is also vital that we understand how unique we are among physical creation. Genesis 1:27 says, “And God proceeded to create the man in his image, in God’s image he created him; male and female he created them.”
Humans are made in the image of God. This cannot be said about any animal. We are part of God’s family. At Luke 3:38, Adam is called a son of God. As children of God, we have a right to inherit what our Father possesses, which includes eternal life. This was the birthright of the original pair. All they had to do was to remain loyal to their Father so as to stay within his family and receive life from him.
(In an aside, if you keep the family model in the back of your mind throughout your study of Scripture, you will find that a great many things make sense.)
Did you notice something about the wording of verse 27. Let’s take a second look. “God proceeded to create the man in his image, in God’s image he created him”. If we stop there, we might think that only the man was created in God’s image. But the verse continues: “male and female he created them”. Both the male man and the female man was made in the image of God. In English, the term “woman” means literally, “man with a womb” – womb man. Our reproductive capacities have nothing to do with being created in the image of God. While our physical and physiological makeup differs, the unique essence of humanity is that we, male and female, are children of God made in his image.
Should we disparage either sex as a group, we are disparaging God’s design. Remember, both sexes, male and female, were created in God’s image. How can we demean someone made in the image of God without disparaging God himself?
There is something else of interest to be gleaned from this account. The Hebrew word translated “rib” in Genesis is tsela. Of the 41 times it is used in the Hebrew Scriptures, only here do we find it translated as “rib”. Elsewhere it is a more general term meaning the side of something. The woman was not made from the man’s foot, nor from his head, but from his side. What might that imply? A clue comes from Genesis 2:18.
Now, before we read that, you may have noticed that I’ve been quoting from the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures put out by the Watchtower Bible & Tract Society. This is an often-criticized version of the Bible, but it has its good points and credit should be given where credit is due. I have yet to find a Bible translation that is without error and bias. The venerated King James Version is no exception. However, I should also point out that I prefer to use the 1984 version of the New World Translation over the latest 2013 edition. The latter isn’t really a translation at all. It is just a re-edited version of the 1984 edition. Unfortunately, in an attempt to simplify the language, the editorial committee has also introduced a fair bit of JW bias, and so I try to avoid this edition which Witnesses like to call “The Silver Sword” because of its grey cover.
All that being said, the reason I’m using the New World Translation here is that, of the dozens of versions I’ve reviewed, I believe it offers one of the best renderings of Genesis 2:18, which reads:
“And Jehovah God went on to say: “It is not good for the man to continue by himself. I am going to make a helper for him, as a complement of him.”” (Genesis 2:18 NWT 1984)
Here the woman is referred to both as a helper to the man and his complement.
This might appear demeaning at first glance, but remember, this is a translation of something recorded in Hebrew over 3,500 years ago, so we need to go to the Hebrew to determine the writer’s meaning.
Let’s start with “helper”. The Hebrew word is ezer. In English, one immediately will assign a subordinate role to anyone called “a helper”. However, if we scan the 21 occurrences of this word in the Hebrew, we will see that it is often used with reference to God Almighty. We would never cast Yehovah in a subordinate role, would we? It is, in fact, a noble word, often used of one who comes to the aid of someone in need, to give succor and comfort and relief.
Now let’s look at the other word the NWT uses: “complement”.
Dictionary.com gives one definition which I believe fits here. A complement is “either of two parts or things needed to complete the whole; counterpart.”
Either of two parts needed to complete the whole; or a “counterpart”. Of interest is the rendering given this verse by Young’s Literal Translation:
And Jehovah God saith, ‘Not good for the man to be alone, I do make to him an helper — as his counterpart.’
A counterpart is an equal but opposite part. Remember that the woman was made from the man’s side. Side by side; part and counterpart.
There is nothing here to indicate a relationship of boss and employee, king and subject, ruler and ruled.
This is why I prefer the NWT over most other versions when it comes to this verse. Calling the woman a “suitable helper”, as many versions do, makes it sound like she’s a really good assistant. That is not the flavor of this verse given all the context.
At the start, there was balance in the relationship between the man and the women, part and counterpart. How that would have developed as they had children and the human population grew is a matter of conjecture. It all went south when the pair sinned by rejecting God’s loving oversight.
The result destroyed the balance between the sexes. Yehovah told Eve: “your craving will be for your husband, and he will dominate you.” (Genesis 3:16)
God didn’t bring about this change in the male/female relationship. It grew out naturally from the imbalance within each sex that resulted from the corrupting influence of sin. Certain traits would become predominant. One has only to look at how women are being treated today in the various cultures on earth to see the accuracy of God’s prediction.
That being said, as Christians, we do not look for excuses for improper conduct between the sexes. We can acknowledge that sinful tendencies may be at work, but we strive to imitate the Christ, and so we resist the sinful flesh. We work to meet the original standard God intentioned to guide relationships between the sexes. Therefore, Christian men and women have to work at finding the balance that was lost due to the sin of the original pair. But how can this be accomplished? Sin is such a powerful influence after all.
We can do it by imitating the Christ. When Jesus came, he did not reinforce old stereotypes but instead laid the ground work for the children of God to overcome the flesh and put on the new personality fashioned after the model he set for us.
Ephesians 4:20-24 reads:
“But you did not learn the Christ to be like this, if, indeed, you heard him and were taught by means of him, just as truth is in Jesus. You were taught to put away the old personality that conforms to your former course of conduct and that is being corrupted according to its deceptive desires. And you should continue to be made new in your dominant mental attitude, and should put on the new personality that was created according to God’s will in true righteousness and loyalty.”
Colossians 3:9-11 tells us:
“Strip off the old personality with its practices, and clothe yourselves with the new personality, which through accurate knowledge is being made new according to the image of the One who created it, where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, foreigner, Scythian, slave, or freeman; but Christ is all things and in all.”
We have much to learn. But first, we have much to unlearn. We will begin by viewing what roles God has assigned to women as recorded in the Bible. That will be the topic of our next video.