This week’s question comes from my Facebook friend, Abram. Abram. has read the Bible thoroughly and sincerely and, like me, has a LOT of questions. I like people who have a lot of questions.
“Why does the Bible not address gender equality?”
Oh, but it does, young Padawan.
Here’s the part where, yet again, I offer a treatise on What the Bible Is Not. If you are already up-to-date on this material, feel free to skip ahead.
In American Christianity, particularly the Evangelical brand, we have a super unhealthy relationship with the Bible. The technical term is “bibliolatry.” We have made the Bible into an object of worship in and of itself. We have, in many ways, made the Bible into God.
The two are not interchangeable.
- The Bible is not a single book. It’s really more of a library of books with writings of many genres and styles. It certainly has a cohesive theme of love, specifically, God’s love for the world he created and the people who live in it. But within its pages you will find a variety of kinds of literature—everything from codes of law (various passages within the Pentateuch, Genesis – Deuteronomy), poetry and hymns (Psalms, Lamentations, Song of Songs, etc.), prophetic writings, history (Kings and Chronicles, Joshua, etc.), moral stories (Ruth, Esther, the synoptic gospels)—to theological treatises (the gospel of John, parts of the epistles, Hebrews), pastoral newsletters (much of the content of the epistles), and apocalyptic writings (the last part of Daniel and the Revelation, among others). This wide variety of literature needs to be considered in context of each genre, audience, social-historical setting, and the intended message of the author. That doesn’t always come out to a valid literal reading.
- The Bible is not a record of God’s All-Powerful Text Messages to Earth. When some people use terms like “infallible,” “inerrant,” or “authoritative,” what they really mean is that “you can’t argue with my interpretation of scripture.” I affirm the divine inspiration of the scripture. I’ve experienced divine inspiration myself every time I’ve prepared a sermon or written a blog posting about theological subject matter. Divine inspiration doesn’t mean that God has given me word-for-word dictation about exactly what to say. There are certainly scriptures, especially in the prophetic writings, where the author makes clear “thus says the Lord.” But in most other cases, I believe the divine inspiration is the same thing I’ve experienced—the spark of an idea and the whisper of the Holy Spirit prompting me to use my own intellect, my own unique voice, and my own experiences to communicate divine ideas.
- The Bible is not a constitutional document. Only some parts of the Bible are a code of law, but we want to read the whole thing like we can quote chapter and verse, within or without context, and come up with the answer to any situation we face. I don’t find this to be true. If it is, then we are in violation of large parts of it where we are specifically forbidden to do certain things (like eat shrimp cocktails and bacon cheeseburgers) and specifically commanded to do other things (like sacrificing animals or stoning adulterers). It’s not always like the West Virginia State code, where if I want to know what my responsibilities are if I dig up my sidewalk and block the road, I can go to Chapter 17, section 16, sub-sections 2 and 3 to find out that I’m not allowed to block the road with my rubble pile and if I do and fail to remove the obstruction, the state can come remove it and charge me with the expense. When we read the Bible like a constitution, we have a tendency to take scripture out of context and apply it in ways that the original writer never imagined. Especially if the genre of the scripture in question is not legal code.
- The Bible is not an Owner’s Manual for Every Life Issue. We get into deep trouble when we try to piece together scripture to address issues that the Bible never imagined, like stem cell research, by trying to create a “biblical ethic” based on a sort of case-law precedent. A good example of this is when I hear people talk a “biblical definition of marriage between one man and one woman.” This comes from taking Genesis 1-2and reading those passages alongside Matthew 19:3-9 (which is really about divorce) and 1 Timothy 3 (which addresses the qualifications for holding the office of bishop and deacon). What is happening in this case is that we’ve already got a moral construct in mind: that monogamous marriage is the moral gold standard, and we’ve cherry picked scriptures, a practice known as proof texting, in order to justify the moral standard. The problem with proof-texting is that it damages the very authority of the Bible we’re trying so hard to protect and maintain. That’s what happened when the American church used the scripture to condone slavery and then to further condone segregation and Jim Crowe. In trying to justify our wrong view, damage was done to both the church and to society that still has not been fully repaired. I have a feeling that a hundred years from now, our descendants will be able to come up with several more examples of where the church got it wrong and caused more harm than good.
- The Bible is not a science book and it’s also not a history book. Our understanding of science has grown and changed since the dawn of time. Similarly, ancient people had a different idea than we do about how one goes about writing history. When we try to force the Bible to function as the basis for literal science and literal history, we get into all kinds of crazy arguments, like insisting that the world is only 6,000 years old. Then we have to insist, like crazy people, that the Devil obviously put dinosaur bones into the ground to deceive us about the creation accounts in Genesis 1-3. More than anything else, the Bible is a collection of faith stories that explain how people in different times, places, and situations understood who God is, how he relates to human beings, and what he’s trying to accomplish in the world.
- The Bible is not monolithic. By that, I mean that if you read the Bible carefully, you will notice that this view of God evolves from Genesis to Revelation It’s an accounting of how people have understood God and how they perceive his relationship to us over a long period of history. God doesn’t change, but the way people understand him and his agency in the world does.The God of the first several books of the Old Testament is vengeful and angry. He needs to be appeased through sacrifices and rituals. He demands that the enemies of his people be completely destroyed. Imagine yourself living in a world where everything that happened, from the weather to attacks by random neighboring tribes to disease seemed utterly random. Looking through that hermeneutical lens, it’s pretty easy to understand how the most ancient monotheists understood God to be angry and vindictive. By the time we get to the prophets, God is much less concerned with what people do towards him than he is about how they are treating one another. The writings of the prophets show a God who is deeply concerned with both personal and corporate righteousness as well as social justice. In the New Testament, the God of the Old Testament puts on skin and walks around on earth, proclaiming that the Kingdom promised in the prophetic writings has come to pass. The Jesus of the gospels becomes co-equal with God in the Christ Hymn of Philippians 2:6-11.
So back to gender equality. Just as with the issue of slavery, the American Evangelical Brand of Christianity™ has taken a variety of scriptures and ideas from all over the Bible (treating it as monolithic) and interpreted those scriptures with some seriously busted hermeneutical lenses. It’s not that the Bible doesn’t address gender equality. It’s that as the church, we’ve done a horrific job of interpreting the Bible.
As Christians, we always have to tie our ethical outcomes back to Jesus. Look at the way Jesus treated women. Women take on a greater role in the gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) than anywhere else in the entire Bible. The gospels preserve interactions between Jesus and more than a dozen specific women. Women follow Jesus as disciples and financially support his ministry. In every case, Jesus raises up the status of women (think about the woman at the well, the woman caught in adultery, the woman who anointed his feet). Jesus’ treatment of women is scripturally, culturally, and historically unprecedented.
Paul’s writings, which make up much of the remainder of the Christian scripture, also give us a glimpse into how the Bible addresses gender equality. There’s a lot of stuff in the epistles that, taken out of cultural and historical context, seems to be misogynistic. I sincerely do not believe Paul was a misogynist, as he is often portrayed. Paul celebrates women who served alongside of him and mentions them by name: Priscilla, Junia, Phoebe, Claudia, Julia, Nereus’ sister, Rufus’ mother, Tryphena, Tryphosa, Mary, Persis, Eunice, Lois, and Chloe. Would this be true if Paul were really a misogynist who thought women were only meant to be barefooted, pregnant, and silent?
The epistles, for the most part are addressing specific questions or problems in specific congregations. We cannot seriously take verses meant to instruct women in the First Century to behave in ways that were culturally appropriate as mandates for modern times. I feel like I need to say that again, only bigger and bolder.
We cannot seriously take verses meant to instruct women in the First Century to behave in ways that were culturally appropriate as mandates for modern times.
This brings me around to my favorite verse of course. If I accomplish nothing else writing this blog, I hope that someone memorizes and takes Gal 3:28 to heart.
There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus (NLT).
Galatians 3:28 is Paul’s mission statement. Everything he teaches and preaches is about bringing unity to the body of Christ. Without equality in the church, there can never truly be unity in the church.
I’ve heard the argument made that Paul is talking about “spiritual equality.” We’re all equal in the eyes of God, but he has different roles for us. Of course he has different roles for us. But I reject the idea that those roles are defined by gender. Here’s why:
- If, as a woman, some gifts of the Spirit are denied to me because of my gender, I am not equal.
- If, as a woman, I am permitted to teach and preach, but only to other women, I am not equal.
- If, as a woman, I can sit under the teaching of another woman just because we’re both women, I am not equal.
Either I am equal and the full measure of the Spirit is permitted to me, or I am not equal. Spiritual equality is an empty promise without actual equality.
The Bible addresses gender equality in a radical way that is well ahead of its time. It’s the church that has profoundly failed to properly address gender equality.
If you have a question for a future Ask Dande, contact me!