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The Image of Woman in Scripture


Montgomery Paul Webb

Universal Focus

The great challenge confronting those who look to Scripture as inspired by God lies in discriminating the culturally relative content from what must be held as universal and a word for all times.1 Deuteronomy 21:15 begins, If a man has two wives, one beloved, and another hated…, and polygamy appears in the Old Testament as early as Genesis 4:19, And Lamech took unto him two wives….Yet, today Jews and Christians believe that God sanctioned marriage as monogamous, and that a man of God must love his wife. (All citations KJV unless indicated)

Deuteronomy 24:1 refers to a man writing a certificate of divorce for a wife displeasing to him, but at Matthew 19:8, Jesus states, …Moses because of the hardness of your hearts suffered you to put away your wives: but from the beginning it was not so.

The Old Testament specifies conditions for the proper treatment of slaves (Exodus 21:1–11; Leviticus 25:39–55; Deuteronomy 15:12–18), as the New Testament also provides guidelines on slavery (Ephesians 6:5–9; Colossians 3:22–25; 4:1; I Timothy 6:1; I Peter 2:18–21), but in the United States at one time the land was drenched in blood in the belief that no man created in the image of God morally could be subjected to slavery.

The modern scholar scrutinizes the Bible in search of the underlying principles that may be applied to all cultures, but no common format exists as the proper procedure for religious findings, as the scientific method is utilized in natural fields of study. The theologians’ formulas are as diverse as modern religions are numerous.

Nevertheless, if establishing the image of Woman in the Bible is considered relevant to our time, for those practicing religion there must be a primary focus on how the portrayal is universal rather than cultural. Though the risk is ever present that the method of such an endeavor may be abused, the true motive of the goal requires that nothing less should be attempted.

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Old Testament Law2

By Mosaic Law, the woman was accorded an inferior legal status. She was considered the property of her husband (Exodus 20:17), and she was always subject to the authority of a male head in her family (Deuteronomy 25:5–10). Divorce was a male prerogative (Deuteronomy 24:1–4), and if a husband even suspected his wife of unfaithfulness, he could have her tested by priestly ritual (Numbers 5:11–31), a right which was not reciprocal. A husband or father could annul a vow made to the Lord by a wife or daughter (Numbers 30:3–154). If a fetus were lost by negligence, it was the husband who determined with the court the restitution owed (Exodus 21:22).

In cultic matters, only males were admitted to the priesthood (Deuteronomy 21:5), and the sign of the covenant with God was a male ritual, circumcision (Leviticus 12:3). In honoring the Sabbath, a man, his children, and his servants refrained from work, but the mandate did not apply to his wife (Exodus 20:18). Only males were required to attend the three main religious festivals (Deuteronomy 16:16). A woman was considered ceremonially unclean following childbirth for seven days if the infant was male, but 14 days if female (Leviticus 12:1–5). Special vows dedicating persons to the Lord by setting equivalent values specified 50 shekels for adult males, but 30 shekels for adult females (Leviticus 27:22–8).

However, the Law also protected the woman’s rights to some extent. Hebrews who sold themselves into bondage were required to be released in the seventh year, male or female (Deuteronomy 15:12). If a daughter was sold to a man, she could not be resold by him. She could not be denied her marital rights to support, if he also married another woman. If he gave her as a wife to his son, she had to be granted full rights as a daughter (Exodus 21:7–11). If a marriage was arranged due to a rape, the husband lost all rights to divorce (Deuteronomy 22:28, 29).

In cultic matters, the woman could bring a sacrifice in her own name (Leviticus 12:6,8). She participated in sacred meals (Deuteronomy 12:12,18; 14:22, 29). She offered prayers at the shrine (I Samuel 1:9–12), and confessed her own sin (Numbers 5:7). She also performed as prophetess (Judges 4:4; II Kings 22:14).

The woman’s inferior status was also reflected in the legal customs of the age of the Patriarchs. The father was responsible for his daughter until her husband took over (Genesis 16:2; 28–31). If a woman could not present children to her husband, to prevent divorce she would offer him a female slave for childbearing (Genesis 16:1–3; 30:1–3).

However, in all ancient cultures women had an inferior status to men. The woman’s role was foremost to be a wife and to have children. Mosaic Law protected the family as the basic social unit in making the father and husband the head. It should be noted that men in general did not rule over women, but husbands ruled over wives (with the next male kin in his stead until marriage). A woman still had access to the courts to maintain her legal rights, but only at the discretion of her husband, as noted in the above example at Exodus 21:22. Even in the United States, it was just in recent time that a woman acquired the right to initiate legal action without the name of her husband. Yet, in her prior status her rights were always protected for the most part through him.

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Old Testament History

Still, in beginning to deal with specific characters of the Old Testament, the tragic consequences are seen of the woman’s lower legal status. At Genesis chp. 38, when Judah refuses to grant Tamar her right of marriage to his last son, Shelah, her only recourse to obtain children is deception and incestuous prostitution. At Judges 11:34–40, Jephthah’s vow leads to making his daughter a human sacrifice, with no remedy available to her. At I Samuel 18:20,21, Saul does not hesitate to use Michal as mere bait for David. At II Samuel 13:1–21, Amnon only sees his sister as an object of lust. At I Kings 1:1–4, David takes Abishag only to function as a heater for him. However, it is most significant to note that these images are set forth in the Bible only as a historical record of events which actually transpired. Nowhere is it indicated in the Scripture that God ever approved or condoned the abuse of these women, and Old Testament historiography is distinguished by its frequent expressions of the divine viewpoint.

If we begin to examine other women of the Old Testament in light of their characters rather than their cultural legal status, quite another image arises rather than one of inferiority. Indeed, much respect is even found for women. At II Kings 22:3–20, when the priest Hilkiah finds the Book of the Law in the temple during the reign of Josiah, he goes to the prophetess Hulduh to have its full significance explained. At II Samuel 20:1–22, when Sheba rebels against David, Joab takes the army in pursuit, making siege at Abel Beth Maacah. A wise woman of the city first reviews the situation with Joab, then negotiates with the people to have Sheba’s head thrown over the wall to end the rebellion.

For another example, enter Abigail, I Samuel chp. 25. She is described as intelligent and beautiful, but her extremely wealthy husband, Nabal, which means fool, as surly and mean in his dealings (verse 3). Nabal does not perceive David as being any threat when he demands tribute, but Abigail loses no time in assessing the gravity of the circumstances and responding with appropriate action. She immediately goes to David with a generous gift, and in employing all diplomacy, she not only flatters him into conciliation but eventually into becoming her husband.

At Judges chps. 4,5, Debra is a prophetess, both leading Israel and holding court. She is contrasted with the general of the Israelite Army, Barak, who still needs to have her at his side in battle, after receiving her prophecy to engage Sisera. The precise day of attack is set by her at the directive of the Lord (4:14), which is the decisive factor in defeating the Canaanites. While Sisera’s mother speculates he is delayed in returning home by some girl he has taken for a spoil of war, one of the Hebrew women actually is nailing a tent peg through his skull.

It should come as no surprise that Sisera is defeated by women. In Exodus, when Pharaoh orders that all Hebrew males are to be killed at childbirth, to prevent this people from becoming overly powerful, it is the midwives who resist and scheme, so that not only is Moses saved, Pharaoh’s daughter actually pays his mother to nurse him in the palace. When Joshua begins his move to conquer Canaan, it is Rahab who assists and saves his spies, because of her fear of God. And, when Xerxes’ highest official plots to have all the Jews of the land killed and annihilated, it is the beauty, courage, and persuasion of Esther who saves her people.

For the classic confrontation of man verses of woman, perhaps Samson and Delilah should be in mind, wherein beauty is pitted against strength. It is time honored to muse which is superior, or whether two things so different can also be equal. The story’s theme is certain to catch a listener’s interest. Ultimately, Simpson is defeated, but is it caused by feminine beauty? Perhaps, but this beauty is of a foreign woman, one of another god, and Samson’s humiliation comes only due to her maneuvering him into breaking his Nazirite vow.

From the time the law was first given to the Israelites, God warned them not to choose wives from the daughters of foreigners, for they would lead them to the worship of foreign gods (Exodus 34:16). It was because Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines, that temples to foreign gods were built throughout Israel, and that the kingdom was torn in half and eventually destroyed (I Kings 11:3–13). The worst example of a foreign woman in the Old Testament may be Jezebel, who had a zeal for the worship of Baal and little concern for morality, as even she had the innocent Naboth murdered. Her husband Ahab was also as immoral and did sell himself to work wickedness in the sight of the Lord, whom Jezebel his wife stirred up, I Kings 21:25.

However, the true problem with a foreign woman was only that she worshipped a foreign god, for the most beautiful image of a woman in the Old Testament, or perhaps anywhere, is that of Ruth. She was a Moabite, a foreigner, but when she finds Naomi widowed, childless, without hope, she does not abandon her. She sacrifices herself for her mother-in-law, and with no promised reward, she says,

…Entreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God: Where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried: the LORD do so to me, and more also, if ought but death part thee and me.

(Ruth 1:16–18)

Oprah, the sister to Ruth, chooses instead to turn back to the security of her own land and her own people. Yet, Ruth is rewarded, for her descendant was no one less than David.

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Old Testament Literature

In determining the Old Testament image of a woman, the distinction to be made of one who fears God from one who goes her own way is most important. In general, the Bible holds the man who fears God as wise, and the man who rejects God as a fool. This theme seems to be set forth best in the Book of Proverbs, wherein also is found an illustration of a God fearing verses a foolish woman. What Proverbs states about women is most important to our study, for these sayings are timeless, applying equally to all cultures. The wisdom of Proverbs was appointed from eternity, from the beginning, before the world began (8:23). Therefore, the feminine image of this book more closely must be considered universal.

It should be noted that wisdom itself in Proverbs is personified as a woman (Proverbs 4:5-13; 8:9–12), as to lesser extent is folly (9:13–18). As children are admonished in the Law to honor both their mother and father, in Proverbs this reference is again emphasized, with wisdom as the reward for heeding a mother’s teaching and a father’s instruction (1:8; 6:20; 10:1; 15:20; 17:25; 19:26; 23:22; 29:15; 30:11). As a wife, a woman is portrayed as being of noble character, a husband’s crown, prudent, good, a gift from the Lord, a captivating lover, sensuous and graceful (5:18–20; 12:4; 18:22; 19:14).

The primary image of a woman in Proverbs is that of a wife and mother.

Every wise woman buildeth her house:

but the foolish plucketh it down with her hands.

(Proverbs 14:1)

At one point, she is again contrasted with man.

A gracious woman retaineth honour:

and strong men retain riches.

(Proverbs 11:16)

As in contrasting beauty with strength, again in Proverbs, we are confronted with different but equal images, mothers/fathers, wives/husbands.

The foolish woman is portrayed as the adulteress (2:16; 5:3,6; 6:24–35; 7;32; 23:27,28), and the quarrelsome wife (19:13; 21:9; 25:24; 27:15).

Proverbs 31:10–31, presents the outright model for a woman, the wife of a noble character. She is worth more than rubies, bringing good to her husband, and caring for her family. She provides for the poor and needy. She does a little business on the side, making and selling garments, supplying merchants, considering a field to buy, planting a vineyard from her earnings. She is industrious, never idle, full of dignity, respected and praised by her husband and children. She speaks with wisdom and instruction, and we are admonished to give her the reward she has earned.

In the Song of Songs a celebration of sexuality is found, and the woman is portrayed as beautiful, sensuous, and as equal to her male lover, in both initiating lovemaking as well as accepting his advances.

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A Consequence of the Fall of Humankind

Thus, we find in the Old Testament an image of woman both varied and conflicting. The underlying basis for this circumstance can be explained by a review of the account of creation and the fall of humankind. The first two chapters of Genesis set forth God creating the world, living creatures, and man, with each narrative being a separate version of the same events. In chapter two, after God notes that for the man to be alone is not good, the living creatures are brought to him for naming, but no suitable helper is found. God then causes a deep sleep to come on Adam, and Eve is made from a part of his side chamber (translated rib). When the woman is presented to Adam, the Hebrew manuscripts record his reaction in poetic verse, an indication of the climax of this story, a format followed by the NIV and NKJV.

This is now bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh
She shall be called ‘woman’
for she was taken out of man.

For this reason a man will leave his father and mother
and be united to his wife and they will become one flesh.

(Genesis 2:23, 24, NIV).

In other words, Eve was Adam’s wife, part of him, equal to him, not an animal, sexually bonded to him in a monogamous relationship.

In the first chapter account, again the equality of the sexes is emphasized as the climax.

So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.

(Genesis 1:27, NIV)

However, in the third chapter, the Fall is recorded, and as part of the curse which then comes upon the earth and humankind, God says to the woman,

I will greatly increase your pains in childbearing;

with pain you will give birth to children.

Your desire will be for your husband,

and he will rule over you.

(Genesis 3:16, NIV)

Though the woman was created equal, the process of childbearing became a curse to the point that her husband ruled over her. Note this verse does not state men rule over women, or even husbands are superior to wives. It merely refers to the woman’s familial role. It is entirely consistent with all that follows in the Old Testament on the portrayal of women.

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Christ and Women

The New Testament brings the special revelation of God to humankind to completion. Christ is held as being the Messiah, having come not to abolish the Law and the Prophets, but to fulfill them (Matthew 5:17). Therefore, no radical alteration should be suspected in these Scriptures of the woman’s image from the Old Testament, but as already referenced above, Christ not only changed the nature of religion, he modified to some extent the interpretation of what already was written. In Christianity, the image of the woman does find a new perspective, though still essentially consistent with what already has been presented as universal.

In the Old Testament, Moses and Samuel appear as the most significant prophets of God, and with them the role of their mothers as fundamental to their development is inescapably implied. Psalm 22:9 may even be construed as such a case for David. However, in the Gospel of Luke, Mary and Elizabeth are immediately brought to the forefront to honor their roles as the mothers of Jesus and John the Baptist.

Mary is not what one might expect as the mother of the successor to David. Though a virgin, she is a teenager from a poor family of an obscure village. In all humility she thanks the Lord for being chosen, and God shows his concern for her, in having her reassured when afraid of the revelation, and in directing her husband, who is suspicious of her fidelity. Actually she does not in any way seem unlike Ruth, her ancestor.

Mary and Joseph do everything required by the Law of the Lord, and as Jesus grows, he becomes strong and full of wisdom (Luke 2:39). While Jesus is still in the womb, the significance of his life is announced by a woman, the prophetess Anna, who never leaves the temple, but who worships night and day, fasting and praying (Luke 2:36).

Women were a vital part of Jesus’ ministry, and as a rabbi, he treated them with an unprecedented love and respect, raising them to a new level of dignity. Jesus consistently broke with religious law and custom to look to the spiritual needs of women. In his day, Jews would not eat with a Samaritan or even touch one. Jewish men were not supposed to speak to a woman in public. Yet, at John chp. 4, at a well Jesus asks for water from the cup of a Samaritan woman. She is one of first persons that he reveals himself to as the Messiah, for he has compassion over her sinful state of marriage. He shows her that the place of worship is not so important as the motive and attitude of the worshiper, and that God loves even a Samaritan.3

At Luke 7:14, though Jesus is not supposed to touch a dead body, he raises from the dead the son of a widow woman. At Luke 8:43, though an issue of blood is held unclean by Levitical law, Jesus stops to heal such a woman. At Luke 13:10–13, Jesus breaks the Sabbath to heal a crippled woman in the synagogue, calling those who object hypocrites, for they even water their cattle on the same day. At the Luke 7:36–50, when the Pharisees complain that Jesus lets a sinful woman wash his feet, he forgives her sins, for she has loved much. At John 8:1–11, when the Pharisees bring a woman caught in adultery to be stoned to death, again Jesus forgives her sin and restores her dignity.

Mary and Martha of Bethany, the sisters of Lazarus, were Jesus’ dear friends. At Luke 10:38–41, while at their home, against custom Mary sits at Jesus’ feet, the place for a student, while Martha is preparing the food. When Martha complains that her sister is not helping, Jesus says that she has chosen what is better.

Though not one of the 12 disciples, women were among Jesus’ followers (Matthew 20:20–23; 27:56; Mark 15:47) and financial supporters (Luke 8:1–3), and Jesus often spoke of women in his teachings (Matthew 13:33; 25:1–7; Luke 13:19–21; 15:8–10; 18:1–8). At John 20:10–18, Mary Magdalene stays at the site of Jesus’ tomb following crucifixion, and on noticing the body is missing, she is weeping from her deep love for him, and to her the risen Christ first appears.

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Women in the Church

After Christ’s ascension, the improved status of women continued in the early church. Both men and women were baptized and added to the church (Acts 5:14; 18:12), and women were included in receiving the Holy Spirit at Pentecost (Acts 2:16,17). Women were granted full membership in the church as equals, There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28). Women were fellow workers, holding church in their homes, as did Mary, the mother of John Mark (12:12), or serving as a deaconess, such as Phoebe (Romans 16:1 — wherein the Greek term has a masculine ending, suggesting an official office).

In the epistles women are freely greeted and addressed (Romans chp.16). At I Peter 3:4–7, the apostle writes that a wife’s beauty should come from her inner self, from purity and from a gentle and quiet spirit. He refers to Sarah as an example, and then he reminds husbands that their wives are equal heirs. Indeed, immediately after Abraham received his new name and became the first person to undergo circumcision, God also changed his wife’s name to Sarah and blessed her to be the mother of nations (Genesis 17:10–14).4 And, at Galatians 4:21–31, Paul reminds the believers that by faith they are as much the children of Sarah as of Abraham.

The New Testament recognizes the woman who does good deeds, showing hospitality, helping the poor, being temperate and faithful (Acts 16:15; 9:36; I Timothy 3:11; 5:9). At II Timothy 1:5; 3:15, Paul notes that the sincerity of the Timothy’s faith first lived in his grandmother and mother, who taught him the Scriptures from his infancy.

Wives were still held as subject to the authority of their husband, but the matter is presented in a new light. At Ephesians chp.5, Paul writes that all believers must be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. Then he states the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church. Thereafter he admonishes husbands to love their wives, even as Christ died for the church, and as they would love themselves. In the headship, all authoritarianism is renounced, and the relationship is still one of equality.5 Even in sexuality, at I Corinthians 7:4 Paul writes that the bodies of the husband and wife belong to each other equally. No longer was the wife a mere chattel.

Some find the Pauline epistles contrary to this concept of the equality of women in the church. However, at II Peter 3:15, 16, this apostle notes,

…Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him…His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.

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Church Overseer

The real difficulty of Paul’s writings for the modern age is the instruction on the selection for church overseer. The present day controversy over whether a woman can assume higher office in the church brings the issue of distinguishing what is culturally relative in Scripture from the universal to a climax. Clearly, the qualifications for overseer outlined at I Timothy 3:1–12, (cf. Titus 1:5–9), are addressed specifically for men, but some church authorities hold this restriction merely accommodates a cultural norm. I Timothy 2:12, states a woman is not permitted to teach or have authority over a man; she must be silent; but again, some Christians hold this verse should be translated a wife cannot teach or have authority over a husband.

However, verses 13,14, refer to Adam and Eve as the basis for a woman not having teaching authority over a man. Adam was Eve’s husband and their marital relationship is an example for all humanity, which is not culturally relative. These verses emphasize the authority relationship between husband and wife, not men and women. The language clearly states the woman should not have teaching authority over a man in church, and the reasoning seems to be based on protecting the status of the husband as the head of the family, which should not be threatened by positions and appearances created through church structure. No other conclusion is implied. (Note the allusion to salvation for women through suffering of 2:15, refers to perseverance in the Christian life, as the apostle Paul indicates the same circumstances for himself at Philippians 1:12, 19).

Note at Acts 18:26, a wife is teaching another man, but with her husband, or under his authority, and outside of functioning in an office of the church. Already noted above, at II Samuel 20:1–22, a woman acts as a counselor to an entire city; and at II Kings 22:3–20, a woman is an adviser to the king; but, these are not temple situations. As noted at Proverbs 31, the ideal woman undertakes business ventures, but only after putting her family first. It appears the question regarding the woman’s position in the church is not one of her ability, but when does her acting as an authority challenge the family headship of her husband.

The proper basis for the position of the woman in the church can seem even more confusing, when attempting to adapt her role to an organizational structure established by human tradition, rather than Scripture. At I Corinthians 11:3–16, Paul writes a women must pray or prophesy with her head covered, for it is a disgrace otherwise, as the woman ought to have a sign of her husband’s authority. At 14:33–35, he writes women should remain silent in the churches but learn from their husbands at home. At these points, Christians often wonder if the apostle Paul is even contradicting himself. However, chp.11, applies to cell-unit meetings, whereas chp.14, addresses the whole church meeting for special occasions, cf. 14:23. See — What is the Non-Institutional Church?

However, the admonition for a woman to wear a covering on her head to acknowledge her husband’s authority addresses cultural concerns of the time. Then, a married woman wore a veil or hair braided on top of her head as a sign that she was not available but belonged to her husband. Available women and prostitutes wore their hair loose. A woman’s head was shaved, if she was found guilty of adultery.6 Thus, Paul actually is stating that in acknowledging the husband as head, a woman is to respect the current social customs, for otherwise a disgrace is brought upon the church.

The underlying principle on the woman’s formal participation in the church is, that it should not in any way interfere with the husband’s position as spiritual head of the family. Does the way the woman functions in a church meeting establish an image of authority in a manner that could be construed as her having spiritual authority, which could be used as a basis to challenge the headship of her husband in the family? However, no inequality from this principle is necessarily implied. Headship does not have to mean superiority. We do not consider ourselves inferior to those who govern our political and social institutions. It is from the feminist movement to believe a woman is not equal, unless she also is running the organization and held up as the heroine. Throughout most of time, a woman recognized her role as different but not inferior.7 There was never a hint present that the noble wife of Proverbs 31 was downtrodden or unhappy, rather than fulfilled, until the 20th century.

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In concluding, it is well to note that to review the Scriptures for the image of Woman is much like desiring to know what God thinks of her. Yahweh considered Israel his wife, as Christ holds the church to be his bride. Thus, in one sense, we are all women.

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1. Gordon D. Fee & Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible For All Its Worth — Grand Rapids, Zondervan Publishing House, 1982, Chp.4.
2. This chapter actually began as a term paper for a course on the Old Testament image of woman, taught by Dr. Fred Greenspahn of the Center for Judaic Studies at Denver University in 1991. The interpretive insights from the Law and History sections are derived largely from Professor Greenspahn’s lectures.
3. Julia Staton, What the Bible Says about Women — College Press Publishing Co., Joplin, 1980, pp. 87–91.
4. ibid, pp. 49–53.
5. ibid, pp. 133,134.
6. ibid, p. 127.
7. E. E. Pritichard, The Position of Women in Primitive Societies and in Our Own — London: Faber & Faber, 1965, pp. 37–58.
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The Image of Woman in Scripture constitutes a chapter from Church Essentials: Relevant Issues for a Spiritual Community. Copyright 2004 by Montgomery Paul Webb. All rights reserved. However, permission is granted solely to private individuals to make ten copies of any disc containing this book, to include whatever other publications are available therein from the Church of the Love of Christ, for distribution to friends and acquaintances, on the conditions — 1. that the entirety of the contents of the disc is copied;— 2. and that absolutely no change, addition, or omission is made.

From printed material, photocopies only of any chapter can be made privately by individuals for distribution to friends and acquaintances, on the conditions — 1. that the entirety of the chapter is copied and distributed, including the pages of the chapter rendering the name The Church of the Love of Christ, the author’s name, and the copyright notice; — 2. and that absolutely no change, addition, or omission is made.

Chapters include — Introduction | What Is The Non-Institutional Church? | What Is Love? | Seeking Christian Humility | The Image of Woman in Scripture | Corinthians Un-Compromised | A Brief Synopsis of Jonathan Edwards’ RELIGIOUS AFFECTIONS. | Charles Finney on Evangelism: Brief Synopses of REVIVAL FIRE and POWER FROM GOD.

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