There is a widespread belief around about the Bible that it is some kind of powerful patriarchal conspiracy that has been used to oppress women. As a female speaker I find that this question is frequently asked: “How can you as woman promote such a sexist book?”, “The Church has tried to keep women down!” As Christians we need to be sensitive to the issues that underlie such an emotive question.
While it may indeed seem to be the case that women have been discriminated against by religion, the Bible itself deserves closer examination on the subject. How is it that many of the greatest Jewish and Christian pioneers have been women? What does the Bible really say about this subject?
Throughout the Bible there are numerous positive images of women. In the Old Testament women share the image of God at creation. At the second coming of Jesus, the Church is represented as the bride of Christ. From beginning to end, the Bible includes the feminine as an integral part of the Judaeo-Christian tradition. While it is true that the Bible is written over a long period of time into specific cultures, and that some of these contexts did not give equal social advantages to women, it would not be true to say that the message of the Bible is sexist or discriminatory against women.
In the New Testament, there is a telling little sentence in John 4.27 that sheds light on just how radical the Bible is in affirming women. The disciples come across Jesus during His conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well, and we are told they ‘were surprised to find Him talking with a woman.’ Jesus goes against these cultural trends time and time again.
Besides talking to female strangers, He has female disciples. In a culture where the idea of women travelling around with a group of men or having the status of disciple was seriously questionable, Jesus has a number of women who are included in His circle who contributed financially to the needs of the group.
We also see Jesus teaching women in the New Testament. In Luke 10.38, we read of Mary who sits at the feet of Jesus and engages in theological study, much to her sister’s chagrin. This is exactly how Paul describes his training under Gamaliel (Acts 22.3). The clear implication is that Mary is worthy of a rabbi’s theological instruction. Indeed it is interesting that we later read of Martha, Mary’s sister, who is the first to be taught one of the most astounding theological statements of the New Testament when Jesus says to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live even though he dies’ (John 11.25).
In contrast to the cultural norms of the time, Jesus made a habit of revealing great theological truths to women. We must not underestimate how radical this is – Jesus was turning cultural taboos on their heads by teaching women and allowing women to be His disciples.
Jesus turned cultural taboos on their heads by teaching women.
Not only does Jesus act in a counter-cultural manner that affirms the feminine, His teachings include female imagery. For example, the parable of mending the garment, an everyday image from the female sphere, is coupled with the parable of making the wine, an everyday image from the male sphere (Luke 5.36-39). In Luke 15, Jesus follows a parable about a shepherd searching for a lost sheep with one about a woman searching for a lost coin. God is depicted as a woman down on her hands and knees, searching through her house for a coin!
This passage follows on from Jesus likening Himself to a mother hen: ‘0 Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings’ (Luke 13.34).
It’s also important to note that it was a group of women who stood at the foot of the cross, watching Jesus die and hearing His last words. It was a group of women who first witnessed the resurrection. Again, it is striking for us to remember that in this society the word of women was perceived as having less value than that of men. It is therefore enormously important that the most significant events of Jesus’ death and resurrection were witnessed first-hand primarily by women.
It is clear that women played a full and vibrant role in the ministry of Jesus, both as examples within His teaching and as recipients of it. While this may seem absolutely right and proper in our 21st century context, we must remember how radical this was in first century Palestine.
Jesus intentionally affirmed and included women. We see a continuation of this in the early Church, from Lydia and Tabitha to Philip’s daughters. The New Testament ascribes numerous roles to women in the early Church as teachers of theology, deacons, church leaders and prophets, and there is even a disputed reference to a female apostle called Junia.
While it is true to say that there are two particular passages in Paul’s writings which seem to go against all of this, by commanding some women to be silent and forbidding others from teaching, these must be read and interpreted in their specific context. Paul himself gives guidelines for women when they publicly prophesy and also affirms women who teach, like Priscilla.
When we come to the text of the Bible with the issue of sexism in mind, we must be clear that while God is predominantly spoken of with male imagery and ultimately incarnates Himself as the man Jesus, female imagery is also used for God, and Jesus constantly affirms the value of both men and women.