1 Timothy 2:11: “A woman must quietly receive instruction with entire submissiveness. But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet.”
Modern scholars have a variety of interpretations of Christian teachings like this one. Some see a reason to keep women out of leadership positions in the church; others see an invitation for women to teach the gospel themselves.
But they have also become a roadblock — or at least a puzzle — for rising young women in Christianity. Even the most devout woman may have wondered about the expectations the Bible has for her. Some women have been able to reconcile with their faith but others have not.
“I think there have definitely been times where, you know, the Bible says things that I don’t necessarily agree with right off the bat,” said 19-year-old Kaitlan Michels, who attends Trinity United Presbyterian Church but considers herself nondenominational. “And I have to kind of work through that and understand it from a different perspective and look at the context over the time period [of] who wrote it.”
Attitudes toward the LGBTQ community have been another point of contention.
Many Christians believe that nonconforming individuals are undeserving of God’s love. But Julia Wright, another member of Trinity United, makes it known that she doesn’t discriminate.
“I go through my life loving people first because what God called us to do is to love people, [not] judging people based on their agenda or sexual orientation,” Wright said. “I’ve been called a bad Christian a lot … It really made me dive deeper into knowing what I believe and in being strong in that.”
Other girls have not been able to reconcile with Christianity. Sara Muraca is a former evangelical believer. She left her church at 18 after several years of questioning and research.
“I started questioning my faith around 15 when a good friend of mine came out as gay,” Muraca said. “I read the Bible cover to cover, and there were things in there that I couldn’t justify.”
Muraca has been troubled by a connection between rape and so-called “purity culture” — a movement that advocates abstinence and chastity for unmarried Christian teens and young adults. Over the past decade, purity rings have become popular among Christian teen girls mainly in the United States. The rings represent the wearers’ promise to remain abstinent until marriage.
Another trend in the purity movement is “purity balls” — formal events attended by fathers and daughters, designed to encourage commitment to virginity until marriage.
“I can remember wanting a purity ring and now I see how purity culture is toxic,” Muraca said.
Muraca said purity culture has led some girls to keep quiet in cases of assault, citing the way the Bible depicts women losing their value without their virginity.
She said that as an administrator for the Facebook group Atheist Freethinking Women, she had encountered stories of women who had bad experiences in their former or current churches.
“I see where girls were raped and were scared to tell anyone because they wanted to keep their purity,” Muraca said.
But many Christians have found answers that let them stay within their faith. Wright, for example, now sees Jesus’ emphasis on love as a way to see women as equal to men.
“God, he created both of us — both genders — for different reasons,” Wright said. “But I think, like, we all have our different gifts. And so he can see everyone differently as in, like, we all have our own reasons why we’re here, but he loves us all the same.”
This means Christianity and feminism can coexist, she said.
“That means men are not superior,” Wright said. “I think we’re the exact same level of respect because we’re both human and who God gave us a gift to do something in the world. It may be different, but we’re still on that same level of respect.”
Michels found answers when she discovered apologetics, the use of historical context and other arguments to defend ideas such as religious doctrine.
“Through that, I realized that this was real, and I started owning my faith from there,” she said.
For example, she contexualized one of the Bible verses in Deuteronomy Muraca said caused her to lose faith, which contains the punishment for raping an unmarried woman.
Deuteronomy 22:28-29: “If a man is caught in the act of raping a young woman who is not engaged, he must pay 50 pieces of silver to her father. Then he must marry the young woman because he violated her, and he will never be allowed to divorce her.”
Muraca considers this an instruction on how much to sell a daughter for if she’s raped.
But Michels has a different view.
“This passage was written in a very different cultural context,” Michels said. “In biblical times, women without a husband who had been sexually assaulted would have been cast out of society and left with nobody to provide for her, since women were dependent on their husbands in those days.”
Michels also has been able to reconcile with purity culture. She recalled watching her close friend go through a bad breakup after losing her virginity to her boyfriend of one year.
“She was devastated and completely heartbroken — I’ve never seen her like that,” Michels said. “Sex is more than just a reproductive process, more than biology; it emotionally ties the two parties together. This is why the Bible calls us to save sex for marriage.”
Purity culture, she said, “tends to objectify women because it says that they should be ashamed of their bodies since they catalyze sin. Men need to respect women’s bodies.”
But she also said women should return the favor.
“This is a two-way street,” Michels said. “Women also need to respect men and not become lust-filled over men’s bodies as well. Both parties need to be treated with respect.”
Christian theologians, professors and other believers have also thought about these issues.
Professor Kristen White of Multnomah University — a Christian university in Portland, Ore. — also saw the downside to purity culture and what it can represent to some Christians.
“I think it can be confusing for people, especially teens,” said White, associate professor of counseling. “It can be damaging, because they’re told that their sexuality is bad.”
White said the Bible considers sexuality a powerful gift given to humanity from God, intended to be used to connect with another person.
She said that waiting until marriage to share that intimacy with someone can be a good thing but that purity culture is an incomplete representation of the word of God — which also celebrates sexuality, as seen, for example, in Song of Songs.
“The issue is having a complete and accurate interpretation of Scripture,” White said.
The story of Adam and Eve has been used by pastors and scholars to justify the lower status of women in Christianity — a status that, for example, often prevents women from becoming ministers.
In the book of Genesis, Adam is created before his companion, which many take as proof that men should have more authority than women and are more important in the eyes of God.
Some people see that as a misinterpretation. Cece Carillo, a 19-year-old Trinity United attendee, has her own view of the Genesis passage. Carillo takes the rib bone that Eve was created out of as a sign of a partnership; even the fact that God created Eve was a sign that she had an important role.
“Adam couldn’t complete the work that God assigned him,” Carillo said. “[He] recognized that and then gave him an equally valuable woman.”
According to Carillo, if Eve had been meant to be seen as less than Adam, she would have been created with a bone from Adam’s foot — not his rib.
Professor Katie Deaver of Elmhurst College in Chicago believes the Bible promotes the uplifting of women in the church.
The story of Adam and Eve, she said, cannot prove men’s dominance over women, because of the second narrative of creation, which appears in Genesis 1:26-28: “Then God said, ‘Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and overall the creatures that move along the ground.’ ”
“You actually get a creation story where God creates humanity in God’s image, both male and female humans all created at the same time,” Deaver said.
According to Deaver, reading the Bible without taking cultural and historical realities into consideration can result in troubling outcomes.
“The Bible can easily be used to oppress and to harm,” Deaver said.
Deaver, who holds a PhD in feminist theology and is a member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, grew up in a denomination that ordained women and then went to seminary with people who had never had a female pastor. She said it was eye-opening to realize how poorly women are represented in the church.
She thinks women don’t try to pursue church leadership because of the way male pastors send out their message.
“As females, we don’t really imagine ourselves being that leader,” Deaver said. “Any time that you have a pastor preaching to young girls, they really need to be aware of how they say things and how they teach things.”
According to the 2018 State of Clergywomen in the U.S. statistical study by Eileen Campbell-Reed, a Christian scholar and lecturer, about 21% of clergy in the United States are women.
Michels said she has learned that despite the denominations and pastors that don’t let women lead, women participated in many monumental moments in the Bible. One of them involves the resurrection of Jesus on Easter morning, when women were the first to discover that he was missing from his tomb, and then the first to encounter him risen later.
“If Jesus didn’t rise again, our entire faith system would be nonexistent,” Michels said.
Recently, scholars and Christian theologians have also found a way to read the 1 Timothy 1:2-11 passage that doesn’t tell women to learn without having a voice.
According to BibleRef, an online Christian commentary, in his first letter to Timothy, Paul is expressing his concern over a violation of the cultural tradition of women not being allowed to teach. Instead of reading the phrase as “to remain quiet,” it suggests that Paul meant women should learn with a sense of “peacefulness, or stillness, or calmness.”
This kind of thinking doesn’t work for everyone. Muraca — though she dedicated herself to reading the Bible front to back — couldn’t find common ground with her faith.
“It was just an inability to reconcile my political beliefs and morals with things I have learned the Bible contains, particularly the sexism and homophobia,” Muraca said.
But Michels reads the same texts and finds inspiration. Interpretations that hold women to lower roles, she said, evolved because in Biblical times, women depended entirely on their husbands and weren’t allowed to have a voice in legal, business or other public matters.
She returned to the fact that it was women who discovered Jesus missing from his tomb — proving that women had importance and value in God’s eyes.
“God really does fight for women,” Michels said. “And he believes in their importance and their value, same as men, and he calls on men to love women and women to love men.”