Is the Bible sexist?
Dr. Amy Orr-Ewing‘s powerful answer to this question may surprise you as she breaks down verses in the Bible you may never have noticed before.
In the Bible we see a vision for equality between men and women, both male and female bearing together the image of God.
And the story of the Bible plays that out in amazing ways. Even in the Old Testament, you see a woman like Miriam leading a whole nation in worship. You see a woman like Deborah leading a nation politically, making judgments, making decisions, and even leading her country to war.
You see that women didn’t require a man to be a kind of mediator between them and God. They could pray directly to God. They didn’t need a husband or a father to have a relationship with God. Now sometimes people say, “Yeah, but come on, in Genesis alright, women and men both bear the image of God, but doesn’t the Bible call women sort of “helpers”. Isn’t that word there in Genesis?”
The word that is translated there “helper” is the word ezer and it’s not a term of domination or subjugation because God uses that name ezer to describe himself in his relationship to us as human beings. God is our ezer. He is our helper. It’s a powerful, strong, amazing, not sexist image.
And then we come to the New Testament. We see that Jesus directly resists the sexism that he sees and observes around him. There’s a story in John’s gospel in chapter four where a woman is talking to Jesus and the male disciples come and they see this. They see Jesus one on one with the woman. It says they’re amazed, they’re horrified, they’re staggered. What? To see him just talking one on one to a woman. Jesus considered women to be worthy of theological instruction.
It was a woman called Martha who was the recipient of one of the most amazing doctrinal statements of the New Testament: “I am the resurrection and the life. Anyone who believes in me will live and they will never die.” Jesus just brought that to Martha.
And then you see this amazing pattern emerge as you read the New Testament where women sort of have this front row seat, and the extraordinary role of witnessing the core elements of the Christian faith. It’s Mary who is the primary witness to the incarnation, the virgin birth. It’s the women at the cross who are the primary witnesses to the crucifixion, to the atonement, to the cross of Jesus. The men have all disappeared apart from John. It’s women who were there witnessing the cross and then, of course, it is women who were first at the resurrection.
When you read the New Testament you see in the early church that women like Phoebe led the church in Rome. Women like Junia were considered to be outstanding by Paul among the apostles.
There are three verses which some people use to say that women should be subjugated.
In 1 Corinthians it talks about women being silent in church. Now how do we understand that? If you read the whole letter you see that in the same letter, the same author tells women how to prophecy when they prophesy in church, which meant speak publicly, and it says to have your head covered. That meant just modesty in those days. Don’t be showing off your body or your hair while you prophesy. So clearly, it didn’t mean women should never speak and be silent. It’s speaking to a specific group of women who were disrupting the services.
Another verse talks about men being the head of women. The Greek word is kephale and sometimes that has been taken to mean dominance or subjugation, but if you read the verse in context you see that God is the head of Christ. So if it means hierarchy, that doesn’t make sense of the Trinity. So whatever that kephale word means in terms of a relationship between a man and a woman in a marriage, it doesn’t mean domination. In fact, as we read anything about God’s kingdom, it is primarily about service, about love, about laying down our lives for one another.
Then there’s another verse in 1 Timothy 2 that talks about women not teaching, not being permitted to teach or have authority. Now remember, we’ve already been taught by women like Martha, by women like Mary. We’ve already seen that women like Priscilla taught. We know that Phoebe taught. She was in authority in the Roman church.
Paul was writing that letter of 1 Timothy to the leader of the Ephesian church, Timothy. And the context there was the worship of the goddess Artemis where women dominated and subjugated men in that culture and it seems that as those women got converted it had crept into the Ephesian church. So Paul is helping Timothy to correct that specific pastoral situation. And most likely those women were saying, “Well Paul says that everyone has sinned in Adam, that we all sinned in Adam.” They just heard about this guy Adam who caused the world to sin and then the second Adam, Jesus, and Paul is saying, “Timothy, you need to explain to them that Eve was involved.” She actually sinned first.
I want to finish with a quote from one of my favourite apologists, Dorothy L. Sayers.
She writes this about Jesus:
“Perhaps it is no wonder that the women were first at the Cradle and last at the Cross. They had never known a man like this Man – there never has been such another. A prophet and teacher who never nagged at them, never flattered or coaxed or patronized; who never made arch jokes about them, never treated them either as “The women, God help us!” or “The ladies, God bless them!”; who rebuked without querulousness and praised without condescension; who took their questions and arguments seriously; who never mapped out their sphere for them, never urged them to be feminine or jeered at them for being female; who had no axe to grind and no uneasy male dignity to defend; who took them as he found them and was completely unself-conscious. There is no act, no sermon, no parable in the whole Gospel that borrows its pungency from female perversity; nobody could possibly guess from the words and deeds of Jesus that there was anything “funny” about woman’s nature.”
― Dorothy L. Sayers, Are Women Human? Astute and Witty Essays on the Role of Women in Society
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