Gender roles & taking the Bible seriously

Just as it is a huge and unforgiveable mistake for followers of Jesus to buy the “racism is a thing of the past” mantra, it is also a tragic mistake to think that gender oppression is a thing of the past in American culture.

Are most American women better off than many women in Egypt or Zimbabwe? Yes. Is religion often used as an excuse for oppressing women in these countries and other similar situations?  Yes. Is Christian church preaching often at fault for furthering gender oppression and prejudice in American culture? Yes. It has not gone away, and this does not please God.

Three times in the last three days someone has told me about a sermon or blog that has used the Bible to challenge women to be sure they please God by staying in their “roles.”  Of course, some Bible verses are typically used to “prove” that this is God’s will and God’s word.  Here are a few of the prime examples:

Genesis 3:16
To the woman God said, “I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children, yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.”

Titus 2:3-5
3  Likewise, tell the older women to be reverent in behavior, not to be slanderers or slaves to drink; they are to teach what is good, 4  so that they may encourage the young women to love their husbands, to love their children, 5  to be self-controlled, chaste, good managers of the household, kind, being submissive to their husbands, so that the word of God may not be discredited.

1 Corinthians 14:33-35
33  As in all the churches of the saints, 34  women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says. 35  If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.

Now it is certainly possible to counter the way each of these passages is used to attempt to oppress women (intentionally or unintentionally) by more careful exegesis of the specific text in its context:

Genesis 3:16 was not meant to be prescriptive, but is descriptive of what the humans have already done to themselves and to their posterity by alienating themselves from God and one another.  And, few Christians or Jews in the world take the Genesis 3 statement that men will labor and sweat in the fields to mean that men today should give up their air conditioners, city desks, and computers in order to insure more sweating.  Why is it only the woman’s “role” that is must stay exactly the same as “God’s will?”

Titus 2, which can sound as though all believing women are—or will be, or should want to be—married needs at minimum to be balanced with Paul’s instructions in 1 Corinthians 7, where he instructed young women to stay single if they could talk their legally empowered fathers into it and wished to do so.

1 Corinthians 14 should at least be balanced by the instructions only a few paragraphs earlier in 1 Corinthians 11 where the author tells the same church how women should be dressed when they pray aloud in the assembly.  And, the word “silent” needs to be traced through the rest of the chapter as well as the rest of the New Testament where it is used not of never talking, but of exercising proper restraint when talking.

And, all of these instructions which were mostly freeing in their time, but seem quite limiting in many ways to us, should at least be balanced by the fact that women were central to Jesus’ entourage, that at least one-third of the church leaders Paul greets and commends in Romans 16 are female, and that the man who many today think of as anti-feminist was the one who wrote what in his time were startlingly radical words of freedom and change:  “In the Messiah there is neither male nor female….And, you are no longer a slave, but a child, and if a child, then also an heir of God”  (Galatians 3:26, and 4:9).

Having said this, I think there is a much larger interpretative matter that needs a lot more exploration: It is not just specific exegesis, but an overall interpretative paradigm that needs to be examined.  Many Christians seem to fear that they will make a mistake if they do not “take the scriptures literally” and let them “just say what they say.”  I would argue that to take the scriptures “literally” is to let them be what they meant to be. And, they did not mean to sacralize the cultures in which they were written.

In fact, both the Old Testament prophets and the New Testament writers are constantly referring to their cultures in terms that make it clear that they do not think they reflect God’s ideals or God’s permanent wishes.  They call them principalities and powers at war with God, they call them “this wicked generation,” they call them the “futile ways of our ancestors,” and they designate them as idols and beasts (Daniel) and as dragons (Revelation).  Hardly the kind of talk you would expect from people who think that their current cultural structures and mores were God’s ideal. But, these writers lived in the times they lived in, and it was into those times that God spoke to them with love and guidance, but not with revelation concerning political democracy, capitalism vs. socialism, electrons and galaxies beyond the Milky Way, nor with how to vote in a world where almost no one, and certainly not women, were privileged to vote on anything.

In an attempt to “get it right” and “be biblical,” we can easily get it all wrong and be very unbiblical. In an attempt to take the scriptures for just what they say, we can make them say things God never intended to say since God never intended to communicate that the structures into which God spoke were the permanent and sacred structures of human society. In fact, from Genesis 3 forward, every page of the Bible is predicated on the fact that our cultural structures are broken and bent.  And, there are all kinds of changes in God’s instructions to his people within the 2,000 or so years spanned by the cultural shifts from the earliest Old Testament writings through the last New Testament writings.  God did not like or idealize patriarchy, but God did care enough to speak into a very patriarchal world with instructions that allowed people to draw near to God and honor one another in their real world – the only world the people and the writers knew.  God surely was not limited to the scientific understanding of the writers of Genesis and Job, but God seems to have been delighted to comfort, challenge, and confront people who did live with those limitations in terms they could understand and respond to.

If God chooses to speak into the real world, God will always choose to speak into the world as the currently living humans know it.  If the current human science believes that there is some structure holding the waters above us so that they will not pour down upon us, God will speak into a world that believes in a “firmament.”  How else could God talk to them?  If God is speaking into a world where rulers are “kings,” we do not expect God to tell those to whom God is speaking how to vote in a democratic republic.  And, if God is speaking into a patriarchal world and culture, we should expect God to instruct people on how to live in that culture, not on how to live in a culture of gender equality. If God is speaking into an economy where workers are mostly indentured servants rather than “employees” who come and go at will, God is likely to instruct masters and servants on how to treat one another in that structure, not to give instructions on how to improve your employment status—though Paul says in 1 Corinthians 7 to improve your status from servant to free it if you can do so justly and wish to do so.

None of these culturally conditioned instructions means that God approves of these structures or wants them to be permanent social structures.  The fact that God speaks into our real world means that God is a God willing to accommodate God’s self to our current reality in order to speak to us, guide us, and challenge us to be open to God’s presence, God’s healing, and God’s empowerment.

We 21st century Christians who live in America (others have to work it out in their current culture too) should not be attempting to preserve the culture of the B.C. world, nor the culture of the 1st century AD, nor the crusader culture of the Middle Ages, nor the culture at the time of the Protestant Reformation, nor the dress and roles of 17th century Europe, nor the lack of reliable birth control of the 18th century, nor the culture of the 1776 Constitution of the USA, nor the culture of the 1950’s America or the 1970’s America.

We must take the risk of asking God how to take these instructions that God did not speak to our culture, but did have his people save for us, and let the Holy Spirit guide us in letting God speak yet anew to our reality and our world and our time.  The Scriptures are an absolutely irreplaceable treasure with which God and God’s people have gifted us.  As John H. Walton of Wheaton Seminary likes to say, “The Scriptures were not written to us, but they were written for us.”  It takes a lot of humility, honesty, and seeking to honestly listen for God through these scriptures since we all, conservatives and liberals alike, are prone to be enslaved by our current paradigms and prejudices.

Certainly, taking God and God’s word seriously today includes addressing the fact that many women are still slighted in hundreds of unjust ways in the culture where we Americans live, and not least of all in many of the churches and Bible studies across this country.  We do not need to ignore, nor do we need to fear, the Scriptures that gave instructions for living in a patriarchal world, but neither do we need to attempt to recreate a structure that God and justice-minded humans are delighted to see “receding into the rearview mirror”—a phrase no 1st century writer would have any idea how to understand!  (And, perhaps if God allows human history to continue another century, and if Google and others perfect their driver-less cars, a phrase that 22nd century people will not understand either.)


As always, if you have any questions or thoughts or personal stories and examples related to this post, or if there is another topic you’d like me to explore in a future post, please leave a comment. I always enjoy your questions and thoughts.

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