Reconciling faith and culture is never easy. There are many issues Christians face that require a thoughtful approach in order to discern how to both love God and love people in the world around them. Today’s media is rife with discussion of gender roles and identity, which inevitably brings us to a tough question: Is the Bible sexist?
The Oxford English Dictionary‘s definition of sexism is as follows: prejudice, stereotyping or discrimination, typically against women, on the basis of sex.
At first glance, passages like 1 Corinthians 11, Titus 2, 1 Timothy 3 and Ephesians 5 appear difficult to reconcile in today’s culture of equality. These passages discuss the roles of women in the church and marriage, promoting principles that sometimes contradict what our culture says is the norm.
Some sects have interpreted these passages to mean women are subservient and unequal to men. Certain movements within Christianity indicate husbands are a totalitarian authority within the home, with wives silently submitting to their leadership without any input or respect. When people hear the word “submit,” this is what they envision. But this twisted submission is not God’s actual design, which leaves arguments that the Bible is “sexist” baseless and invalid.
The Apostle Paul’s message to Ephesian husbands and wives depended entirely on mutual love and respect (see Ephesians 5:2). Paul’s designation of husbands as the “head” of wives (Ephesians 5:23) is distasteful to many at first glance, but a closer observation of the Greek reveals that Paul avoided Greek terms—specifically arche, which indicated total authority (as in a chief, general or ruler), in favor of the word kephale, which can be translated as “physical head” (as in a human head on a body) or “first soldier into battle.”
Additionally, Paul’s command for wives in Ephesians 5:22 to “submit themselves therefore” or “be subject to” their husbands uses a different Greek word than the one used in Ephesians 6:1 for children to “obey” their parents. Wives are not commanded to bow to their husbands’ every whim or grovel at their feet; Paul instead emphasizes the voluntary nature of submission. In English, a better word to describe this action would be to “defer” to one’s husband out of love and humility while still acting as his equal, his teammate and his helper.
But even more interestingly, Paul’s command for husbands to love their wives was likely the most controversial statement he could have made in the historical context of that time. In today’s day, we think, “Well, duh! Of course you love your wife!” But back then, women were marginalized, often to the point that wives were nothing more than elevated servants in the patriarchal culture of the day. So when Paul commanded husbands to LOVE their wives, it was a far more earth shaking command than his challenge to submit to a husband’s authority. It was, in fact, counter-cultural.
Fast forward to today, post-sexual revolution, and the words Paul meant to protect and edify women have been misconstrued to represent limitation and disrespect. But if Paul was an apostle of Jesus, proclaiming His gospel and representing Christ, the words Paul wrote should reflect the heart of Jesus. Did Jesus want women limited and disrespected? Was Jesus sexist? To get the answer, we have to look at the example Jesus set.
Jesus is the author and perfecter of our faith (Hebrews 12:2), on whom the entire foundation of Christianity is built (Ephesians 2:20). By looking at Jesus’ interactions with women, we can get a grasp on how He intended women to be treated by those who claim His name.
- John 4:1-26: In this passage, Jesus is traveling through the land of Samaria when he stops at a well to ask a woman for a drink. There are several noteworthy points in this passage. First, God-fearing Jews never went through Samaria. The Samaritans were Jews who had intermarried and had created their own temple, thus making them “impure” to their distant relatives in Israel and Judah. Jesus, as a traveling teacher, should never have set foot in their country. Secondly, Jewish males did not speak with women alone or in public. And finally, Jesus waited at the well at high noon. This is significant because women generally came to get water early in the morning. The woman at the well was likely an outcast, and she certainly had a checkered past (“you have had five husbands, and the man you are living with now is not your husband” (v. 17)). Yet Jesus asked her for a drink, spoke with her at length and, even knowing her past, invited her into a future of hope and restoration.
- Luke 7:36-50: In Luke 7 we see the “sinful woman” who approached Jesus in a Pharisee’s house to anoint his feet with oil. Once again, it was culturally inappropriate for a woman to approach a teacher like Jesus in this manner. Jesus should have sent her away for being impure. Instead, he welcomed her in, accepted her elaborate gift and forgave her sins.
- John 8:1-30: In John 8 we see Jesus once again surrounded by the Pharisees—this time because they have brought a woman into their midst, asking Him to judge her. She was “caught in the act of adultery” (v. 3). Some theologians believe the woman was actually set up by the Pharisees, since she was “caught in the act” but there was no man present for judgment with her. It would not be out of character for the Pharisees to use a woman to trap Jesus, disrespecting her value and using her as a pawn in their plans. But Jesus turned the accusation around on the Pharisees, saying, “He who is without sin, cast the first stone.” (v. 7) Jesus stood in the gap for the woman, extending her forgiveness to “go, and sin no more” (v. 11).
Over and over through scripture—in far more than just three occasions—Jesus showed the men of His day how women should be treated. Jesus constantly elevated women to levels of respect and value. His action toward women was one of continual “lifting up”—lifting up the sinner (John 8), the prostitute (Luke 7), the woman at the well (John 4) and the bleeding woman (Mark 5), and regularly spending time with female disciples such as Mary and Martha (Luke 10). Jesus valued women.
If Paul claimed to be an apostle of Jesus, he had to reflect the same honor and value toward women. And he did: Paul regularly thanked the women who were pillars of the early church, such as Timothy’s relatives Lois and Eunice; the disciple Tabitha; Priscilla, wife of Aquila; and Lydia, a successful businesswoman. Paul could not simultaneously honor them the way Jesus emulated and disrespect them with his words. If that were the case, his testimony would be hypocritical and untrustworthy—and certainly could not be in the canon of scripture today.
In approaching these delicate passages of the Bible, we must keep a few final things in mind:
- Historical context: Remember that these passages were written to specific people in a specific historical context, but the principles are still very applicable to our lives today.
- Jesus’ example: Jesus loved men and women equally, and Jesus and God are one. The God of Christianity did not design men and women to be unequal, because ALL have equal value in His eyes and all are equally eligible for salvation. “There is no partiality with God.” (Romans 2:11)
- Paul’s testimony: Paul was one of the great apostles of the early church, and the majority of the New Testament is made up of his letters. Paul consistently admonished the churches he addressed to refrain from showing partiality, which is the other side of sexism. Favoritism toward one can be discrimination against another. As Paul wrote to the Galatians: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28)
To read more about gender roles in marriage and the biblical definition of submission, you can read more on Phylicia’s blog.