Repression of women by Afghanistan's toppled Taliban drew worldwide attention to the varied views within Islam. Christianity, too, has internal differences, especially about the milder matter of whether to allow women clergy.
Among U.S. Protestants, discussion occurs largely among the Bible-based conservative evangelicals. There are two sides on what the Bible says about women, typified by two organizations, both founded in 1987.
The Minneapolis-based Christians for Biblical Equality (CBE) believes men and women should be treated the same, period.
The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW), based in Louisville, Ky., believes the genders are "complementarian," equal in essence and spiritual standing but different in how they relate to each other in church and home.
It's no coincidence that CBMW President Bruce Ware teaches at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and that Executive Director Randy Stinson is also a Southern Baptist. Their denomination's doctrinal platform, revised rightward last year, has two controversial planks:
"While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture."
Spouses "are of equal worth before God," but the husband is to "lead his family" and the wife "is to submit herself graciously to the servant leadership of her husband."
At a recent CBMW conference in Longwood, Fla., reported by Baptist Press, Ware urged family leadership upon men: "Embrace it. Don't abdicate it. Don't neglect it. This is what God calls husbands and fathers in homes to do."
Making a biblical case, Ware contended that in the Garden of Eden "Satan knew God's design of male headship and he purposely went to the woman to indicate his disregard for what God had put in place." He said there's "a tendency for women to seek the place of authority" that God gave men.
Question of leadership
CBE, representing evangelicals, naturally disagrees. It says God established his creation with the man and woman sharing dominion (Genesis 1:27-28), but one result of the fall into sin was that the husband would "rule over" the wife (Genesis 3:16).
CBE notes that neither Jesus Christ nor Paul cites the "rule over" verse in discussing marriage, teaching instead the unity theme in Genesis 2:24: "They become one flesh."
Other biblical details:
Ware said man was created before woman and the Apostle Paul taught in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 and 1 Timothy 2:8-15 that this requires male "headship" in the church.
CBE says these two notoriously difficult passages must be read in context and in the light of the equality in God's original creation. For instance, 1 Corinthians 11 treats the cultural clash between Jews, whose women were often veiled and silent, and Greeks, whose unveiled women were temple prostitutes. The compromise: Women could speak in church but with covered heads.
And "head" does not mean "boss," CBE says, but "beginning" or perhaps "source," recalling that in Genesis the man came before the woman, though without subordination.
Ware said that both before and after the original sin in Genesis, Adam named his wife.
CBE says that's wrong. Originally, the man described the woman generically ("she shall be called Woman," Genesis 2:23) and named her Eve only after the fall and curse (Genesis 3:20).
Ware said in Eden, God gave his moral commandment to the man but not the woman.
CBE says the Bible doesn't report how the woman learned about God's commandment but it's clear she was given it equally, and thus held equally accountable for sin.
Ware interpreted Ephesians 5:33 as meaning wives must embrace "respectful, joyful, willing submission and creative assistance" in the family.
CBE contends this passage should be interpreted in light of its opening assertion to both spouses, "Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ" (Ephesians 5:21). Since the passage requires "mutual submission," CBE says, it's wrong to claim the text asks only wives to submit.
And "obey" is never applied to wives, CBE adds, but only to children.