Okay, I have a confession to make. This article wasn't even supposed to get published. Well aware of the can of worms it may open, I tucked it away in my collection of drafts, intending it would never see the light of day. But I couldn't get rid of the nagging feeling I was supposed to release it "one day." Imagine my surprise when I discovered I'd accidentally hit "publish" instead of "save!" So, after much procrastinating, here is the full article...
A Bad Deal?
Have you ever read the Bible and wondered if sometimes women get a "bad deal?" Aren't there certain passages concerning women, for example, that seem all too easy to misinterpret? While I don't have the time here to delve into every single controversial verse, I want to address some of the misconceptions — to offer you a different lens than what you may have looked through before. We will focus on what the Bible does say about women and particularly on Jesus' treatment of women.
First, let me preface this article by saying that it is in no way intended to be some kind of a Christian feminist manifesto. Very briefly put (again, we don't have time to look at the topic in depth here) feminism is a notion completely at odds with Biblical femininity. By "Biblical femininity" I am not referring to some wilting, sappy concept either. The femininity of the Bible is gutsy, humble, audacious, surrendered and tenacious. When I use the term feminism, I am referring to an aggressive movement based on fighting for one's rights. As Christians however, (regardless of whether we are male or female) we need to understand that the only "rights" we have were gifted to us by God. We are sons and daughters of the King not because we have the right to be but by His grace. The cross restored our identity as children of God, made in His image. When we really get hold of this truth, it sets us free from the need to be combative and self-preserving.
To have a balanced understanding of how the Bible depicts women, we also need to recognize that while the Word esteems women, this fact does not override basic scriptural principles. Wives are still required to respect and honor their husbands, for example. Let's not make the mistake of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
The Truth About Women and The Bible
1) The Bible tells the stories of many women.
The Bible is full of vibrant, dynamic women, such as Deborah, Esther, Hannah, Mary and Ruth. In comparison, Mary (Jesus' mother) is the only woman mentioned by name in the Quran (all other women are referred to as "the wife/sister/daughter of".) The stage of the Exodus story is set with many strong female roles— Jochebed, Pharaoh's daughter, Zipporah and Miriam. In fact, in an indirect way, God used these women to bring about Israel's deliverance. Without Jochebed's unwavering faith, or the compassion of Pharaoh's daughter, Moses would likely have not survived infancy. And when Moses incited God to anger, Zipporah's quick thinking saved his life again (Exodus 4:18-31). The message is clear. Women have an important role to play and have unique, individual destinies.
2) Women are esteemed and valued in the Word.
No discussion of the Bible's stance toward women would be complete without making a distinction between the culture of the day and the actual Word of God. In Jesus' day, for example, men were permitted to divorce their wives for just about anything and everything. A woman could face divorce for something as trivial as burning the dinner (yikes!) Jesus resisted this practice, saying to the Pharisees;
"...what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
“Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning."
Jesus made it clear that although divorce was permitted by Moses, it was never part of God's original plan. God always intended women to be secure in their marriage. By protecting the sanctity of marriage, God wants to protect women from the pain of divorce and being unjustly "sent away." Women were also given special consideration in Levitical law and given rights they would not have had in other cultures. Numbers 27 and 36 records the story of Zelophehad's daughters, who were granted their own inheritance— something that would have been very unusual at the time.
That the Bible makes expectations of the husband as well as the wife was also revolutionary. It would have been a huge shift in thinking and a completely new way of living for most converts. In Roman culture, for example, a man could basically treat his wife however he saw fit— even if they were a woman of high status and wealth. In most ancient eastern cultures, women were seen as property, with few privileges. Paul's writing stands in direct contrast to this;
"Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.
Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself." (Ephesians 5: 21-28)
The "Weaker" Vessel?
I have to admit, for a while the word "weaker" just didn't seem fair. "But, wait...women stay up through the night with sick children, women often hold the household together when it's held together by sticky tape, women help bear their husband's burdens, offer support to other family members, women give birth, for goodness sake— how can women be "weak?!" But finally one day the light bulb went on. I realised that the word "weaker" was intended to suggest delicacy, like that of a precious object, not frailty or feebleness. The very next word in the verse, "vessel" supports this.
When my granny immigrated to Australia from Ireland in the 1970's, she brought a beautiful collection of china and crystal ware over. I remember her taking a particularly heavy crystal vase out of her china closet one day and letting me hold it in my 8 year old hands (a pretty courageous move, now I think of it!) As I felt the weight of it, she explained how crystal is made by mixing glass with iron.
Ladies, we are like that crystal vase. The Spanish word fino comes to mind— roughly meaning: excellent, refined, exquisite, valuable. That's us!
A woman is tender yet tough. She is glass mixed with iron, designed to reflect the intricate facets of the Father's beauty.
3) Jesus related to women with kindness and respect.
Jesus' attitude towards women stands out as being very different from many of his contemporaries. The work of Jewish historian Josephus, Against Apion, reveals the social norms of the day;
- A woman was considered inferior to a man in all aspects.
- Women had no legal status and were placed in the same category as slaves.
- Women were to be treated as property, transferred from the hands of one male authority figure to another.
- Women were not be permitted to testify in court, because of the "ignobility of their soul."
- Women were regarded as totally socially-dependant.
These beliefs are evident in an ancient prayer composed by the Sanhedrin: "Thank God for not making me a woman, gentile or slave." Jesus' attitude towards women, on the other hand, often caused a collision of culture, gender and spirituality in His earthly ministry. Just think of the woman at the well and the disciples surprise when they saw Jesus talking to a lone woman. Although they didn't say it out loud, you can just imagine them thinking,
"Wait— what? He's alone with a woman— out in the middle of nowhere? Does he realise how that looks?" The writings of the Jewish Philosopher Philo (who lived during Jesus' time) gives us further insight;
“If any man should choose to form an alliance with a woman [apart from his wife], he must be content to bear the reputation of effeminacy and a complete want of manly courage and vigour."
In other words, men who associated with women or had female friends were considered wusses! That Jesus reached out to women and had female followers, speaks not only of how secure he was in his identity as the Son of God, but also of God's tender heart for women.
On many other occasions, Jesus flies in the face of convention. He rescues a woman caught in adultery and defends an ex-prostitute who dares anoint his feet. The very fact that he allows her to touch him is unthinkable to those who witness it. Not only does Jesus relate to women in his own culture, he takes time to minister to women belonging to "minority" groups of the day, such as the Canaanites and Samaritans. He heals the Syrophonician woman's daughter and commends her faith (Matthew 15:21-28)
"But, wait a second," you might be thinking, "isn't that the passage where Jesus calls her a dog?" I'm glad you asked. You're probably thinking of Jesus' blunt statement:
“It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”
It sounds harsh, until we understand the Greek word for dog that Jesus uses here. When the Jews referred to gentiles, they would sometimes refer to them as dogs. In Greek, the word used was "kuon," roughly meaning "wild cur." When speaking to the Syrophonician woman however, Jesus uses a different word— "kunarion." Kunarion refers to a small dog, the type the Greeks were particularly fond of keeping as a family pets. Rather than insulting the woman by literally calling her a dog, Jesus uses a metaphor. Roughly paraphrased, he was saying, "would it be right for a father to take food from his own children and feed it to their pet puppy?" Jesus tested her faith by drawing attention to His ministry, first to the Jews, then to the gentiles.
4) The Bible Reflects God's Heart for Women— He "gets" us!
In 1 Peter 3:7, husbands are "instructed to dwell with their wives in understanding" (NKJV). This scripture is evidence that God knows one of the deepest cries of a woman's heart is to be understood. The Bible is full of the passions, desires, fears and innermost thoughts of women, uncensored. Hannah's heartfelt anguish in the temple...The woman who thought, "If only I can touch the hem of his garment...Sarah's laugh of surprise when she learns she will become a senior-citizen mother...Leah's longing for her husband's love...Abigail's frustration with her spouse...it's all there for us to see. That God would include these intimate details about women in His Word shows that he deeply cares for and understands his daughters.
So next time you read the Bible I encourage you to see it in a new light— as a love letter and evidence that God "gets" you!
A Special Honor
Although Eve was the first to fall from grace, by grace she received a special honor.
God could have chosen any way to bring His son into the world (think fiery chariot, descending from the clouds etc.) but he chose to use a woman! What a precious privilege Mary had, of carrying Salvation and Eternal Redemption to full term. She gave birth to the one who would save her own soul. That's why the Bible says "women will be saved through childbearing " (1 Timothy 2:15) Although some believe that this passage means a woman is somehow redeemed through childbirth, this is not the case. A woman's faith in Jesus Christ, not childbirth, assures her salvation.
Postmodernism. Paradigm shifts. Patriarchy. Feminism. Equality. As a young student teacher, I remember being confronted by a barrage of intellectual terminology the second I set foot on a university campus. My hair stood on end in that first lesson. Even as I struggled to grasp the meaning of the words, I could feel the hostility behind them. I learned very quickly just how opposed to the Word of God the "gods" of higher education are. It was in this atmosphere, thick with political correctness, that I realised that many see the Bible as a "patriarchal" text, and dismiss it as such. The world has since come up with a new term for patriarchy— "toxic" masculinity.
But just as masculinity is not toxic (sin is!), the Bible isn't repressive to women. The supposedly anti-female Biblical narrative the world has subscribed to is actually a perversion of the true Word of God. In every instance that a woman is set aside by the culture of the day, Jesus protects and accepts her. He stands up for the woman with the issue of blood who dared touch him, defends the woman caught in adultery and takes time to talk to a shunned woman at a well (who, incidentally, becomes one of the very first evangelists!) One of Jesus' last acts on earth was to ensure that His mother would be cared for after his death. And when He rose from the dead, the first people to witness His resurrection were women (astonishing considering a woman's testimony was regarded as invalid at the time!)
Your Greatest Ally.
In short, the Word does not oppress women— dead religion and human sin does. Perhaps you were taught differently. Or perhaps you were given the impression, through someone's actions or example, that to be a woman is to be restricted, looked down on or limited. Perhaps this even happened in the name of Christianity. If this is you, my heart goes out to you dear Sister. I am sorry for the way the Word was misapplied in your life. Know that the Holy Spirit also grieves when His Word is misrepresented and it causes you pain. Know that there is hope— that you can be free from the lies of the enemy brought against your femininity, against the core of who you are as a woman!
I speak life to your spirit and hope to your heart in Jesus Name— you can be free! Just as a true relationship with Jesus is the only antidote for dead religion, relationship with Him is the key to understanding who you were truly created to be and what you were created to do. Understand that to be a daughter of God, walking in holiness and surrender, is to be a force to be reckoned with. May God unlock your true identity in Christ today and His calling upon your life!