Then and Now: Some thoughts on Gender and the Bible

I have been a complimentarian most of my life, which means that I believe in a traditional reading of the Bible, that although men and women are equal in worth, they have different roles in the home, in society, and in the church.

As with many of my beliefs, I am just putting that up for review right now. I am asking, “Is that healthy?”

I got to thinking about some of the things that were different 2,000 years ago, to now. Since things were different, wouldn’t it be healthy and normal to also shift our views on gender roles…?

Some things that were different then:

  1. Men normally married around ten years younger. Times were hard. It was a way of matching optimal fertility with optimal ability to provide. 
  2. Everyone worked, including women. This meant that everyone was an asset: if a woman left the family/clan, her loss would be compensated for by a dowry, to help the clan that had lost an able-bodied worker. Times were hard. 
  3. Society had to hold together to survive. There were no contraceptives. A teenage pregnancy was a disaster, as it broke down the family/clan structure. Adolescent sex was tightly controlled, and women sometimes sequestered until they were given in marriage. Clans were organized around a male patriarchal head. Dissension was like treason, and treated as such. The only way to survive was to stick together. Times were hard. 
  4. There were no feminine hygiene products, and very minimal medical supplies. This very greatly limited the mobility and health of women: especially in cultures with strict rules on ceremonial cleanliness. 
  5. There was no birth control, and many children died in infancy. By necessity, the role of a married woman was to watch children, and tend to the very busy domestic chores of life. Times were very hard. 
  6. When there was education to be had, the men usually got it first, as they had more ability, they were probably older than their wives, society was organized patriarchally, and the education would seem to be more useful in the hands of the family/clan leader. Remember, times were hard. 
  7. Although Jesus broke down stereotypes by making a missionary out of a woman, having female followers, and teaching women, Paul knew these practices would not go over well in the general population. Paul’s great passion was to get the message of the Gospel out, and “not cause offense” to the Jewish and Greek audience. The Jews of Jesus’ day often saw women as spiritually inferior and incapable of receiving the law. The Greeks often saw women as “less spiritual,” more “fleshly,” and emotional vs. Intelligent 

…and so just keeping this in mind as we read Paul…

  1. When Paul said, “let wife’s learn from their husbands,” (1 Cor. 13:35) he was speaking into a situation where the women would have been less educated, had less experience outside the home, less religious training (if any), and usually were a decade younger than their husbands. 
  2. When Paul said, “it is shameful for a woman to speak in the assembly,” (1 Cor. 14:35) …he may have simply been pointing out a fact. It was shameful for women to speak publicly in that context. (He was not saying it was always a sin for women to speak in church because…)
  3. …when he said that a woman should have her head covered when prophesying (speaking) in church, clearly that meant something to them in their culture and context (1 Cor. 11). There is much discussion about short and long hair, and coverings in this passage. Some interpret this as timeless commands: but Paul may also be guiding a church in how to be culturally appropriate in their own time: a great principle to apply in our own.
  4. When he says, “I do not permit a woman to teach or have authority over a man,” (1 Tim. 2:12) he may have been laying down a universal command, of he may have been sharing his personal rule in a private letter to his closest friend and protégée. If so, there were definite cultural reasons why this made sense at the time, but…
  5. …there were also Biblical examples of women with teaching capacity, such as Phoebe (Rom. 16:1), Acquilla (Acts 18:26), and others. 
  6. When Paul said that women should be “workers at home,” he was almost certainly not thinking of cooking and cleaning and looking pretty, with all of the modern conveniences, like a 1950’s “model woman.” The proverbs 31 woman bought fields, hired employees, and handled the finances for her (very fortunate) husband.
  7. In Titus 2:5, Paul tells wives to submit to their husbands, “…so that the word of God will not be maligned.” Well folks, we have the opposite situation today. People are more likely to “malign” the word of God if wives are not allowed to pursue careers because of outdated mandates: does this mean that it is also time to update how we see this verse?
  8. …when Peter told husbands to live with their wives in and understanding way, “as the weaker vessel,” (1 Pet. 3:7) he was not speaking about a lower worth (as he goes on to immediately say that they have equal worth as “co-heirs” of the gospel) but teaching husbands to be compassionate for the difficult plight of women in that day. Times were hard. 

…this is not a definitive list. However, I think this is the first time that I have pulled together these bits of information to review as a whole the question of gender roles within Christianity. 

In our very different times, when age, education, health, hygiene, kids, and the difficulty of life are not such a crushing burden on us all….is it not time to upgrade our view of gender?

…or must we continue in exactly the same patriarchal holding pattern that our ancestors developed to solve very specific problems back then?

Paul’s words are…interesting. “So that the word of God will not be maligned.”

What is the #1 reason people turn away from our faith today? As a campus pastor, one objection came up over and over.

“I can’t be a Christian because of their outdated and sexist views on women.”

🤔 Interesting…

So what would it look like if we prioritized our witness, and cultural sensitivity on this issue, in 2020?