When I first started looking at the issue of women in the bible, I wasn’t attached to any particular set of ideas about women and men. As a child of our times a more egalitarian ideal made a lot of sense to me. But I also knew that we get a lot further by conforming ourselves to God’s ways than to our own ideas. I wasn’t closed off to the idea that a subordinate role for women was something I would need to make peace with.
In fact, it was trying to make peace with a subordinate role was what motivated me to study women in scriptures. I figured that if I could learn more about what God had to say and why, the idea of being under men would not be a source of pain, but would be a source of life, as all things which come from God are. Like many, many women I’ve heard from over the years, I wanted to have peace about this subject, but something deep in me kept rebelling at the idea that God had given me the role of less-than all my life.
If you read what I have written previously, you’ll see that the more I studied the matter, the more it became clear to me that using scriptures to demand that women take their place under men was an abuse of God’s word. At a bare minimum, it was blazingly clear that there is nothing in scriptures which would bar full equality between men and women. So, you can make an argument for a subordinate position for women from scripture. And you can make many, many arguments for the equality of men and women which rely not just on a few verses, but stories and themes found all through scripture. Both arguments can be made, so the real issue isn’t which on is biblical – they both are, if you just look at it a certain way. Either way is faithful to scriptures. As always, all that is left now is our own choices.
All of which still begs an important question. Why did God allow scriptures to be written in such a way that they were so easily manipulated to put women at a disadvantage? Surely God knew that this would happen and could have made things clearer – not left half His creation so vulnerable to abuse by those claiming to act in His name. Over the years I have heard from more than one young woman – usually a teen – who has just read some verse about how a woman was ritually unclean for longer with a girl child than if she had a boy child or some such. “Why does God hate me?” was the theme of those girl’s questions. Why would God allow verses that made young women think that God hates them?
Over time, I learned a couple of things. One was a broader view of history and a better understanding of the interplay between Christian egalitarianism and the place of women in the Christian world. In the first couple of centuries of the church, women did enjoy a more equal status than we have found in most other cultures. They held leadership positions at every level, chose who to marry and owned and inherited property. Unfortunately, like many of best teachings of Christianity from the early days, this equality between men and women did not persist intact. However, the fact of the matter is that women in the west continued to enjoy a higher place in Christian cultures than we find in many other parts of the world right up to today.
Although women were deprived of many legal rights and seen as subordinate to the men in their families, there is no record of a regular practice of abandoning baby girls or ritual disfigurement of women and girls. There persisted a general expectation that men would protect the women around them rather than exploit them. Of course, seeing women as needing protection can become disrespectful paternalism. But it’s still a good sight better than the still common practices of selling girls into sexual slavery and viewing a new daughter-in-law as slave labor. The bottom line is that while women in the Christian world did not enjoy full equality, they also were not routinely subjected to the sort of barbarity which remains commonplace on much of the planet to this day. This is directly related to Christian teachings and the yeast of equality left behind by those early Christians.
As I took a broader view of the world, it became clear that trying to blame the oppression of women on what some bible verses say was absurd anyways. People in India and China aren’t aborting unborn girls because Paul said that women should be quiet in church. The poor treatment of women is a human problem, not a religious one. To the extent that Christians have been aware of the poor treatment of women as a problem, it has been attributed to Eve’s supposed culpability in eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. They would point as iron-clad proof to the curse on Eve after the fall: “in pain will you bring forth children, yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.” Genesis 3:16.
However, a closer reading of scriptures finds that Adam was standing right there as Eve took the fruit and did nothing to stop her. And the curse of God after the fall doesn’t represent his desire for us. It’s a descriptions – not a prescription. IOW, God is not saying, “here will be my revenge on you.” Instead, God is laying out the consequences of their innocence lost. Again, there are those who would argue otherwise, but I think that an honest reading of scriptures at least leaves ample room for us to reject the idea that God intends for women to be subject to abuse and inequality as a punishment for Eve’s role in the fall.
If we focus too much on a few verses in scriptures and the denial of equality for women which has been supported by these verses, we miss a bigger picture. The idea that women ought to be less-than doesn’t come from God – it comes from the work of the enemy. While women have fared better under Christianity than under most other religions and cultures, the abuse of women in Christian cultures has the same evil source. The fact that scripture has been used to underguird this abuse means little – Satan has shown himself capable of using and abusing scriptures (Matthew 4:1-11).
I think that Staci and John Eldredge are probably close to the truth when they talk about the special hatred the enemy has for women in their book Captivating:
“But most especially, he hates Eve. . .
“More than anything else in all creation, she embodies the glory of God. She allures the world to God. He hates it with a jealousy we can only imagine.
“And there is more. The Evil One also hates Eve because she gives life. Women give birth, not men. Women nourish life. And they also bring life into the world soulfully, relationally, spiritually – in everything they touch. Satan was a murderer from the beginning (John 8:44). He brings death. His is the kingdom of death. Ritual sacrifices, genocide, the Holocaust, abortion – these are his ideas. And this Eve is his greatest human threat, for she brings life. . .
“Put these two things together – that Eve incarnates the Beauty of God and she gives life to the world. Satan’s bitter heart cannot bear it. He assaults her with a special hatred. History removes any doubt about this.” – Captivating, pg 84-85
Which brings us back to my original question of why God has allowed scriptures to be written and translated in such a way that it can create the appearance of allowing for the subordination and inequality of women. I now see these verses as a test for us.
For women, they are a test of faith. Do we know God’s love enough to refuse to accept it when people shove verses in our faces which seem to clearly indicate disdain or hatred of women? Will we turn to Him and wait on His answers, trusting that His love for us is pure and true? If so we will be rewarded.
For men, it is a challenge of character. Will you eagerly reach for something which seems to legitimize a corrupted heart’s desire to be above another? Will you listen compassionately when a woman shares the hurt these verses cause her or will you condemn her for not accepting “God’s ways” and her place in creation? These sort of verses make the substance of a man’s heart known.
In a post from the other day, I said that it is my opinion that our current culture which seems so egalitarian, is actually quite misogynistic in that it requires women to be like men in order to be viewed as equals with men. OTOH, it can be dismaying to find that there are still a fair number of Christians who believe that inequality between men and women is ordained by God. However, it is becoming less and less so. At this point, the secular world is largely enthralled with their own misogynistic vision of women while Christians are fairly quickly shedding theirs. I think it is probably up to us to take on the role of “Creative Minority” to show the world a superior form of feminism that requires women to be neither uniquely subordinate nor just like men. It is, IMO, a matter of faith and character on our part.
*This is an edit of a post I wrote back in 2008. I am thinking of re-working my writings on Christianity and Women into a $.99 ebook. If you have some editorial chops and would be willing to help me with this, please email me – firstname.lastname@example.org . I can’t pay anything up front, but perhaps we can trade services or make an agreement for when it goes viral? 😉