Is the Bible a chauvinistic book?
by Bob Siegel
The following is a brief excerpt from a larger book.
For a fuller treatment of this subject as well as a better context, see:
I’d Like To Believe In Jesus But..(The harder, less frequently discussed questions) By Bob Siegel
Published by CSN Books Copyright © 2007 by Bob Siegel All Rights Reserved
Published by Campus Ambassador Press Copyright © 1999 by Bob Siegel All Rights Reserved
This article is not to be reproduced without written permission from the author.
“Isn’t the Bible kind of backwards and behind the times where the roles of men and women are concerned? How can I take seriously, any document that teaches a wife to obey her husband like some kind of slave? How can I respect commands which insist that women refrain from leadership in the church?”
You have certainly expressed a common and serious concern. But have you considered the possibility that this may not be an authentic problem with the Bible, but rather, with the way many Christians are interpreting the Bible? Sincere and well meaning people often read passages out of context.1
Appraising the common Christian view
It was a Christian advertisement for a Christian bookstore being broadcast over (you guessed it) a Christian radio station. According to the friendly commercial, Grace Reading was no ordinary run of the mill bookstore. They had more than just books. They had items that would be of interest to women also.
“For you men, commentaries, concordances, Greek Lexicons. For you women, perfume, jewelry and praise tapes.”
True story; extreme example. Still, it tells us something about how today’s market views women. Unfortunately, it also helps explain our culture’s current viewpoint of Christianity, namely that Christianity is several light-years behind the times.
When conducting evangelistic dialogues on college campuses, I am inevitably faced with the question: “Is the Bible a chauvinistic book?”
While attempting to answer, “No, actually Jesus and the apostles were very liberating,” I am frequently interrupted and “assisted” by some helpful Christian in the audience who explains that although God will, of course, love men and women equally, women must be under the spiritual covering of a man. Spiritual Covering. Interesting expression. Interesting because I’m convinced that nobody really knows what this overused buzz phrase means.
“It’s so frustrating,” I’ve heard many women say. “My husband doesn’t assert himself as the leader of our household. Indeed, I am more interested in spiritual things than he is, and I know that isn’t right.”
Hmm. That’s a problem for sure. The very audacity of a woman being more interested in spiritual things than a man. Why did she grow so fast? How ever did she get ahead of her husband? Who dared to disciple her so well? What an assault on the cosmic order!
Is it possible that these mandates of male leadership are putting undue pressure on both men and women? People usually do feel pressure when they submit to principles that don’t make any sense. Just imagine. Some poor man just gave his life to Jesus. All of a sudden he’s supposed to be his wife’s spiritual leader.
“Can somebody explain this?” I like to ask, “Are men closer to God than women? Do men have more of the Holy Spirit than women?”
“No,” is the typical conservative answer.
“Well, are men more intelligent than women?”
“Then why must women be in submission to men?”
“Because the Bible says so.”
The Bible. Okay, at least some hope for objective discussion. The Bible is a common ground for settling differences of opinion between Evangelical Christians. Some movements in Christianity (such as the liberal movement) deal with hot topics by assuming that the Bible is not completely the word of God. They believe the apostles may be mistaken in many of their teachings, including their teaching on marriage. This is not an option for me. Instead, I acknowledge that two people believing in the authority of Scripture can come away with different conclusions. I do not see this as a problem with the way the Bible was written, but rather, as a human problem, since our biases sometimes keep us from viewing the Scripture in its proper context.
Some controversial passages
Now it’s true that the Bible contains some very crisp imperatives about the submission of women. Wives are commanded to obey their husbands and women are forbidden to teach in the church.
Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which He is the Savior (Ephesians: 5:22-23).
I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man. She must remain silent (I Tim 2:12).
Many who do not like these verses try to imagine that Paul and the others didn’t quite say what they seemed to say: “Maybe being a leader means being a servant.” “Maybe Paul is just talking about an attitude.” Those holding the patriarchal view find it difficult to respect this kind of cut and snip job on scripture. In their minds, it verifies what they suspected all along, egalitarians are not being honest with the Bible.
Personally, I consider it a waste of time to argue about whether these troublesome commands say what they mean and mean what they say. Obviously they do. Even a third grader could tell us that words are clear. Instead, we should ask ourselves why the Bible issues such commands.
I find it quite interesting that the passages commanding wives to obey their husbands are found right next to passages about slaves obeying their masters. If we keep reading in Ephesians it says;
Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear and with sincerity of heart just as you would obey Christ (Eph. 6:5).
Not only is this found shortly after the husband/ wife passage but it uses a similar analogy with our relationship to Christ.
In Colossians and I Peter the commands are also found together. This doesn’t surprise me, for in the ancient world, women were generally viewed as the property of men. One could purchase a wife very much the way he purchased a slave. Marriage was essentially a form of slavery.2
Could we justify slavery today? When we read passages such as “Slaves obey your masters” do we not assume that Paul had some unique reason for his unusual request? If we were to take those passages at face value, out of context, we might conclude that God condones the idea of owning another human being. But this would be a false conclusion. After all, Paul made it clear that slave trading was an evil practice (I Tim 1:10).
How then, do we handle this apparent contradiction? We may actually find a clue by first observing a different apostle. In I Peter 2-3, Peter explained that as far as God is concerned, Christians have been liberated from all earthly institutions, including the institution of slavery. However, for the sake of testimony, Peter still insisted that submission to these institutions continue. Evidently he did not want the peaceful revolution of Christ to be spoiled by a violent revolution. At the time of his writing, Rome had more slaves than citizens. Declaring the slaves free would have been no less than declaring war on Rome, something Jesus, his Lord and Savior refused to do (Matt. 22:15-22).
If this was Peter’s approach, it makes sense that Paul would have a similar strategy. After all, this is the same Paul who bridged the gap between Jew and Gentile (Acts 15), who instructed Christians to respect each other’s differences of opinion (Rom 14), and who took a vow he considered unnecessary just to preserve the peace with fellow Jewish Christians (Acts 21:20-26). Finally, it is the best explanation for his opposite statements about slavery;
Were you a slave when you were called? Don’t let it trouble you, although if you can gain your freedom, do so ( I Cor 7:21).
But perhaps, Paul’s most liberating text is found in Galatians 3:28.
There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
Paul is describing three strong social distinctions of his day. What’s interesting to me is that Christians seem to understand the elimination of the first two classes as they hold on to the third. Imagine someone coming into the church and listening to an orientation that says, “In our church there is no racial division. Israel may have been a chosen nation by God ,but Gentiles are now a part of this Israel spiritually, and in our church we recognize no difference between Jews and Gentiles; however, only Jews can be in positions of leadership. Got that? We are all equal before God, but only Jews can preach.”
Does that sound ridiculous? How about this? A church introduction in ancient Rome: “When you enter these walls you leave the world behind. Out in the world, slaves and masters exist. In here there is no such order. We have neither slave nor free for we are one in Christ; however, I’m sure you can understand, slaves do not teach in our church.”
Sound crazy? Of course, because our present day American culture has long since abolished the institution of slavery and our hindsight shows us how horrible it was. We recognize these Bible commands about slaves obeying their masters as temporary limited injunctions due to the special situation of Ancient Rome. For Paul’s clear theology of slavery, we turn to his liberating teaching in Galatians (as seen above).
Of course, only a little over a hundred years ago, right here in the very same America, the Pre-Civil war south would have still been wrestling with slavery. My point is this: Much as we’d like to think that one can open the Bible and simply read it, we are all influenced by our cultures and today’s Christian sub-culture has not yet settled the gender issue. Certainly one can read the Bible without the interpretation of a pastor or teacher, but all too often, that is not what happens. Christians are not used to cold readings of certain passages. Instead, they are used to expositions of these passages, and most verses about the submission of women have not been approached in the same manner as the slavery issue, although, as demonstrated above, this would be a more consistent method of interpretation.
“But I have heard many Christians describe a difference between gender based submission and slavery. ‘After all,’ they say, ‘God created men and women differently.’ ”
There are differences but nobody knows for sure what these differences are (aside from the obvious physical and biological differences).
I can discuss politics with a woman, and she may make all the same points that a man would make. Still, the conversation has a different feel, because I am talking to a woman. This intuition can be accepted without the temptation to analyze and figure out what the differences are. We walk off a cliff when we try to define the differences. For example, many will say that women feel more than men and men think more than women. The Margaret Thatchers and Amelia Earharts of the world seem to dispel this notion. So do the “feeling oriented” men in the Bible, like David, Jeremiah and even Jesus, men who were not shy about showing their tears and other strong emotions (Psalm 6:7-8, Jer. 13:17, John 11:35).
But again, without the analysis, we still conclude some undefined differences between men and women. The question remains: Does a difference forbid leadership? After all, we have different leadership gifts in the church (prophet, teacher, apostle, pastor), and children need both a father and mother. Indeed, Deborah the prophet was called the mother of Israel (Judges 5:7), because she ruled her people for some 40 years. The frequent rebuttal says she did this only because no man would take the job. This is an argument based upon silence, for the Bible does not say anything of the kind.
Going back to creation, the only description of submission comes after the fall when men and women were cursed separately. Adam’s curse was that work would lose its fulfillment and be filled with drudgery. As for Eve’s curse,
“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 rull over you” (Gen. 3:16).
I have to assume that if obedience to her husband was some kind of new curse, then obviously back in the garden prior to the curse, Eve was not living under a mandate to obey Adam.
“But according to your Bible, we still live under the curse, so shouldn’t women still obey their husbands?”
Christ’s death and resurrection started a process which will eventually do away with the effects of the curse(Gal. 3:13-14). In Heaven, women and men will be joint heirs, kings and priests (Gal 3:29, I Pet. 2:9). We conclude that women were co-rulers with men before the curse and that women will continue to be co-rulers after the Second Coming of Christ when the curse is completely abolished. It is the present in between time that raises questions.
“Okay. Well then let’s concentrate on the present in between time. Work is still difficult and women certainly experience pain in childbearing, so the curse is still in operation. Therefore, if Christians want to take the Bible seriously, women should still obey men.”
Yes, the curse is still here, because Christ’s kingdom has only begun to enter the world and will not reach fruition until the Second Coming. But the church still represents the kingdom of God here on earth. In other words, we model the ideal, not the curse. When men receive spiritual gifts and do works of ministry, are they not fulfilled with a sense of the enjoyable and important? The very word for gift, (Charisma) comes from the Greek word Char, which means joy. Therefore, the curse of unhappy work for men has been at least partly eradicated. What right do we have to say that the church will try to free men from their curse but leave women to remain under theirs?
“Then why does Paul forbid women to even speak in church?”
As in all the congregations of the saints, women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission as the Law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home, for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church ( I Cor 14:34-35).
We know Paul did not forbid women to speak, because he already told us in this very same letter that women could pray and prophesize in church (I Cor 11). Remember, a prophet was one of the five authoritative offices listed in Ephesians 4. Paul’s topic here in I Corinthians 14 is order in the worship service. He had already expressed concern about tongues without an interpretation and prophets who interrupted each other. Now he asks women to save their questions instead of speaking out of turn. The early church modeled their services after the Jewish synogogue, where men and women sat on separate sides.3 For women to ask their husbands questions, they would actually have to shout across the room. It is easy to understand how disruptive that could be. Therefore, Paul isn’t objecting to the education of women. He is instead asking them to wait for the appropriate time.
1) Some may wonder why I included this chapter, for it deals with an issue of hot disagreement amongst Christians. Sincere Christians have held varying degrees of opinion on this subject for years, and certainly my modest little chapter will not settle the debate. But this is an issue of grave concern to many unbelievers. They view the Bible as oppressive and demeaning to women. Since I wrote my book primarily for them, I wanted to remove this barrier by helping people to see an alternative way to interpret certain passages about women, an alternative which may pleasantly surprise them. This does not mean that I have an agenda or that I am insisting people agree with me. And it certainly does not mean that I disrespect those who take more conservative positions on this theology. What then, is my point? If the gender issue is the primary set back to investigating Jesus, it may be refreshing to hear of a different approach to the subject. That’s all.
2) The New Testament comes from a unique time in history when the Jewish, Greek and Roman cultures converged to a large extent in many places. For this reason, we should study how each of these three cultures treated women.
The Jewish Talmud tells us that money was one of three ways to acquire a woman. Deed and intercourse are the other two ways (Kiddushin 2a, Babylonian Talmud). Ancient Rabbis also interpreted Exodus 20: 17 as references to property (Mishna Ketuboth 4:6 and 6:1, Palestinian Talmud).
In ancient Rome, women were purchased if they came from the lower class. With upper class women, a special dowry arrangement was made when a man took a wife, but the woman still had no choice in the matter. (Will Durant, Ceasar and Christ , p. 57) The ancient writer Plutarch tells us that husbands had control over the lives and educations of their wives. (Conjugal Precepts, from Essays and Miscellanies pp. 4, 48, 29, 11, 33, 16) Clough and Goodwin translators)
The ancient Greek writer Xenophon said that marriage was arranged for women at an early age to men they did not know. (Within the Home p. 626 Greek Reader tanslation)
3) Clement, in his letter to the Corintians, written early in the second century, tells us that early services were based on the worship of the Jews and modeled after the synagogue. The ancient Jewish commentator Philo mentions a structure which seperated men and women in the synogogue. (On The Contemplative Life vs 32)