Are you curious about the existence of sexism in the Bible, in both the Old and New Testament? Read on to learn why God allowed gender inequality and how Jesus’ life on earth began the process of restoring harmony between the sexes.
What is Sexism?
Sexism is a form of discrimination based on a person’s gender. It is often linked to the belief that one gender is inherently superior to another. Sexism can affect anyone, but it primarily affects women and girls. It has been linked to stereotypes and gender roles and may include the belief that men are more suited to certain types of jobs or that women should be caregivers. This discrimination can manifest in various ways, including in the workplace, educational settings, and societal expectations and norms. It can also lead to harmful practices such as sexual harassment and violence. Sexism is a global problem that was present in biblical times.
What are Biblical Examples of Sexism in History?
Sexism in biblical times was largely tied to the cultural norms and societal structures of the period. Women were typically regarded as inferior to men and were often excluded from public life. They were not allowed to be taught the Torah publicly and were restricted from orally communicating it, indicating a clear gender-based division in religious practices. The story of Eve in Genesis has been cited as having a profound negative impact on women’s perceptions throughout history. However, interpretations of sexism in the Bible can vary, with some scholars arguing that there is evidence of gender balance in the scriptures and others suggesting that it’s not the God of the Bible who is sexist but rather people interpreting it. Nevertheless, the dominant patriarchal culture of the time often overshadowed these nuances, resulting in widespread gender discrimination.
Why Is There Sexism in the Bible?
The presence of sexism in the Bible reflects the societal norms and cultural context of the times in which it was written. It’s important to understand that “God must work within the parameters of human freedom and bring out the best good possible in humanly limited circumstances” (Jesus and Women, p. 35). Therefore, the sexism present in the Bible is a reflection of the patriarchal societies of those times, not a divine endorsement of gender inequality.
When Jesus arrived on the scene, he challenged these societal norms and worked to overcome the prevailing sexism. He treated women with respect and dignity, breaking with the societal conventions of his time. For example, Jesus spoke openly with the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:7-26), a radical act given that Samaritans were looked down upon and men did not typically engage in public conversation with women. He also had female followers, such as Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Susanna, who played significant roles in his ministry (Luke 8:1-3).
Jesus’ interactions with women demonstrated a break from traditional norms and highlighted the intrinsic value and worth of women. His actions serve as a reminder that while the Bible may contain instances of sexism due to the cultural context of its time, its fundamental message is one of love, equality, and respect for all people, regardless of gender.
What About Sexism in the New Testament?
Again, we have to remember that God operates within the constraints of human free will and the societal structures that humans have created. New Testament believers were not perfect. However, there are several instances where gender equality is evident, particularly in the Early Church. This was a significant departure from the patriarchal norms prevalent in society at that time.
One of the most cited examples comes from Galatians 3:28, where the apostle Paul writes, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” This verse emphasizes the spiritual equality of all believers, irrespective of their gender, race, or social status.
Furthermore, women played crucial roles in the Early Church, as seen in the book of Acts. For example, Lydia, a seller of purple goods, was one of the first converts to Christianity in Europe and offered her home as a meeting place for the church (Acts 16:14-15). Priscilla, along with her husband Aquila, instructed Apollos about the way of God more accurately (Acts 18:26).
Moreover, Romans 16 provides a lengthy list of people whom Paul commends for their work in the Early Church, and it’s notable that many of them are women. Phoebe, for instance, is recognized as a deacon of the church in Cenchreae (Romans 16:1), while Junia is noted as being “outstanding among the apostles” (Romans 16:7).
While it’s true that the Early Church was not perfect and had its share of challenges, these examples demonstrate that there were strides towards gender equality in the New Testament era, reflecting the teachings of Jesus and challenging the societal norms of the time.
So, What Happened? Why Is Sexism Still Prevalent Today?
“The revolutionary attitude of Jesus towards women is in stark contrast to that of the institutional Church, transcending time and place to such a degree that it provides further evidence for his divinity. As we have also seen, in the Early Church, women and men were equally involved in church ministries. With its change of status into the state religion of the Roman Empire, however, it became highly patriarchal and developed attributes common to religion, in general, that are at odds with the ministry of its founder” (Jesus and Women, p. 129). This underscores the transformative impact that Jesus had on society and the importance of returning to his teachings and practices.
The Way Forward for Women
So, what is the way forward for women within the Church? “The new historical phase of Christianity, facilitated by science, will require an egalitarian, non-hierarchical Church, in which the focus will be on encouraging and providing Christian individuals with the means to develop close relationships of loving kindness with God. So how should the roles of women be defined in this future Church? In order to clarify the optimum use of female gifts in assigning roles to them in a new Church order, let us remind ourselves of Paul’s description of the Early Church community: ‘Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers; then deeds of power, then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues’ (1 Corinthians 12:27-29).”
If you would like to dive deeper into the topic of sexism in the Bible and the way forward for women, I encourage you to read my book, Jesus and Women. In it, I explore the revolutionary approach Jesus had toward women, how this differed from societal norms of His time, and how it contrasts with the attitudes of the institutional Church. I also explore the roles and significance of women in the Early Church, highlighting their active participation in church ministries. Lastly, I discuss the shift towards patriarchy that occurred when Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire. In all, the book provides a comprehensive analysis of gender relations within the historical and cultural context of the Bible and proposes a path forward based on Jesus’s teachings and practices of gender equality.