I’ve been putting off writing this post as long as I can get away with. 🙂 It’s the third in my series comparing the Bible’s teaching on gender with the Quran. This is the one where I’m supposed to speak to some of the tough passages in the Bible related to gender equality. I always love a challenge, right?? Riiight…
Fortunately, I ran across a YouTube video the other day in which the essential question was posed to an eminent Bible scholar. “Does God favor a gender?” (Saved!) Please check out Ravi Zacharias’ heartfelt answer. I found it stirring—I imagine you will too.
Just in case, after Dr. Zacharias’s response, you’re still looking for an explanation of some of those aforementioned tough passages, here’s an attempt at it. An exploration of everything the Bible says that bears on gender is clearly outside the scope of a measly blog, but I’ll focus on one of the passages the young man in the video clip was probably referring to.
Like everything else in the collection of 66 books we call the Bible, the Bible addresses this question in a context. And the context on gender goes back to the very beginning.
Genesis 1:1: In the beginning God (Elohim) created…
Elohim is the name the Hebrew scriptures use for God throughout the creation account, as well as in thousands of other places, and it’s fascinating. It’s actually a plural word—the –im is the plural ending in Hebrew. But it’s generally used with singular pronouns and verb conjugations. So from the very first sentence in scripture (“In the beginning, Elohim (plural) created (singular)…” Gen 1:1), God tells us that He is somehow a compound unity—a fellowship in a single being!
The Bible tells us that we are created in God’s image (Gen 1:26-27), but it is a bit mysterious about exactly what that means. What aspects of our nature precisely reflect His? There are many ideas on the subject but I’m convinced this is part of it:
In the diversity of masculine and feminine there is also a compound unity that reflects the image of Elohim.
Gender isn’t some cosmic accident. It’s a deliberate reflection of our Creator’s own nature.
Humans are defined by our interrelatedness. As is our Creator Himself. And we are specifically defined by the interdependence between male and female.
Are men and women different? Obviously. Yet both are made in God’s image.
Does God prefer one gender He made in His image (male) over the other gender He made in His image (female)? The answer to this is a resounding no. How do I know that for sure?
Because… Jesus. Jesus told us that if we want to know what the Father looks like, we can look at him (John 14:9).
I get it. Most cultures in human history have gotten this wrong. Many men have seen our physical weakness, and the vulnerability that comes with bearing and rearing small children, as an opportunity to exploit.
Further, I’ve been blessed with a rewarding business career that would have been unimaginable to a woman a couple of generations ago.
I wouldn’t want to trade the breadth of experience and the financial freedom my career has given me. I am grateful for the pioneers ahead of us who worked and sacrificed to gain those freedoms for me.
I am determined that my daughter will also enjoy those freedoms.
“Truly I say to you, wherever this gospel is preached in the whole world, what this woman has done will also be spoken of in memory of her.” (Matt 26:13)
But I say again… Jesus.
“As a woman, I have never met a man who makes me feel more human, dignified, and respected than Jesus does. Far from being sexist, in Jesus we encounter a God who is committed to confronting culturally oppressive attitudes against women and completely smashing them.”
– Dr. Jo Vitale, Dean of Studies at the Zacharias Institute and an Oxford PhD in Old Testament Studies
I gave some examples of how Jesus consistently defied convention to reach out to women in my previous post in this series.
However, a critic might point out that I still haven’t hit those dreaded difficult gender-equality texts….
Umm. There are specific passages in the New Testament in which something that resembles this is stated. But as always the first rule for understanding the Bible is context. As David Stern states in his Jewish New Testament Commentary:
It must be admitted that Paul’s manner of argument does not appeal to the modern mind. But he was not writing for the modern mind. We owe it to the text to place ourselves in the shoes of his readers and not to measure his style against the assumptions of our age.
The passage that gives us some of the most specific detail to chew on is 1 Cor 14:33-35, so in the interests of time and space we’ll focus on that one.
By way of context, Paul tells us he is answering a set of questions the believers at Corinth had sent him. Since we don’t have those questions, a critical piece of the context is lost to us. Apparently the church at Corinth was having issues with unruly church services and the questions focused on the general topic of order in church meetings.
The women are to keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak, but are to subject themselves just as the Law also says. If they desire to learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is improper for a woman to speak in the church. (1 Cor 14:33-35)
First, let me point out that Paul’s instruction here is specific to the church—he says that twice. This passage does not mean that I need to be silent or in subjection to men in every circumstance.
Second—back to that missing piece of context—Paul’s instruction in this passage is all about keeping order in church meetings. Paul gives the same direction to “keep silent” to the men, too, in two other places in the same chapter (14:28-30). And in Acts 15:12-13, Luke uses the same language to indicate that the entire congregation listened attentively to Paul and Barnabus. So “keep silent” here doesn’t have the same disrespectful feeling it does in English. It’s something more like “listen with peaceful attention.”
Really, the problem in this passage is two phrases.
1. What does Paul mean when he says “not permitted to speak”?
Here’s what he does not seem to mean. He does not seem to mean that women are never to pray out loud or speak out in church meetings. Earlier in this same letter he mentions women praying and prophesying and seems to have no issue with it—as long as they dress modestly while they do it! (1 Cor 11:5)
Again, Paul’s remarks are to encourage orderly conduct within a group of believers, many of whom had recently come out of paganism. And here’s a bit of context I think gets lost. The church service probably looked a lot different than it looks today. It probably followed traditional Jewish practice of seating men and women in separate sections.
Can you imagine the distracting buzz that would arise in the women’s section as a group of women, largely uneducated and unaccustomed to a formal classroom setting, chattered among themselves trying to understand the teaching? Or worse yet, shouted to their husbands across the dividing screen? Far better for them to ask someone later at home.
2. What does Paul mean when he says “subject themselves just as the Law also says”?
“As the Law also says” is generally taken to refer to Gen 3:16, where God tells Eve how the Fall will affect her.
Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you. (Gen 3:16)
There it is—the age-old battle of the sexes explained. Marriage was designed to paint a beautiful picture of the harmony within diversity which reigns within the Godhead. A single purpose; diverse roles.
Instead, we often wind up with a power struggle between husband and wife. This tension and disharmony is the result of our collective decision to rebel against God—a result of the fall.
I want to underscore here that “subject themselves just as the Law also says” does not mean that a woman is subject to all men in all spheres of life.
There are exactly two spheres in which, according to the Bible, the Divine order decrees I must choose to be subject to men:
As I tried to highlight in my last post, none of this makes me less valued or favored than a man. But it does make me different and complementary.
Is it fair that, because I was born female, I must let my husband be the leader within our home? That no matter how mature I become in the Lord, I am not supposed to provide authoritative spiritual direction to men*?
(*Nothing keeps me from doing so for other women and for children, by the way. And I would argue nothing keeps me from teaching in, say, a university setting, where I may be handing out grades but I’m not taking overall responsibility for male students’ spiritual progress.)
Maybe it’s not fair. But doesn’t the Creator of the Universe have the right to ask that much of me? He created gender and marriage for a purpose. If part of that purpose is to show a fallen world how two equal but complementary people can lead interwoven lives that follow His orderly pattern marked with love and respect, can’t I sign up to that?
God has always felt He has a right to be prescriptive—even in ways that don’t make sense from our perspective. In the Garden, there was that one tree that was off limits. Our father by faith, Abraham, had to give up his foreskin. (Really?? His foreskin??) During the exodus from Egypt, only those who painted their lintels with the blood of a lamb sacrificed according to God’s precise guidelines were “passed over.”
Even the heavenly bodies keep their proscribed orbits—or imagine the chaos! But as it is, “the heavens declare the glory of God” (Psalm 19:1).
I didn’t have to choose to marry. But I did. So is it too much for God to ask me to give my husband the final say on things in our home? Assuming we both play our parts, the reward should be a harmony and order in our relationship that will speak volumes to the world about His glorious nature. (Eph 5:32)
Again, I get it. This ideal of Christian marriage is elusive. All of us are damaged goods. Husbands often fall far short of the mark. Rather than caring for us, some men neglect or abuse or abandon.
There were several years when my own marriage was deeply troubled. I know how horrible that feels.
But in the end, faith and trust in Jesus won out. We both wanted God’s best for our marriage and our lives. We looked to Jesus, we forgave each other, we got Godly counsel through our church and we resolved our differences. Now we’ve passed the twenty-seven year mark.
Because… Jesus. And because we both wanted what He wants for our lives more than we wanted anything else. I am blessed in my husband—although I didn’t always see it. But I realize not everyone is as fortunate and if you’re struggling here, my heart goes out to you.
Let me wrap up by quoting Ravi Zacharias again:
That is our God, who treats all of us with intrinsic worth and reflective splendor. I thank God for the beauty He has created in this complementariness.
This is the third post in a series comparing the Bible’s teaching on women to the Quran’s. If you’re interested, you’ll find the previous posts here: