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?

Worship Not Thy Abuser

To worship means to fear, venerate, prioritize, protect the reputation of, sacrifice for, adore, and to lay one’s life down for.

It is what abusers demand of their victims.

But victims cannot in good conscience worship any person in this way: because it is written, “you shall have no gods before me.” This is why children, wives, employees, and churchgoers are never told to obey unquestioningly, but to obey “in the Lord.” When someone appointed to Christ-like leadership begins to act like a false god, demanding absolute loyalty and submission, then there will be conflict. And there can only be one god in a person’s life.

At times, the most godly thing that one can do is to rebel against ungodly authority.

Protecting the Church’s Reputation…?

It occurs to me that Jesus really didn’t seem to care much about protecting the reputation of the synagogues (proto-churches) or the religious leaders of his day. He pointed out their crooked financial practices, their hypocritical way of dressing, their ridiculous prayers, their pretentious religious paraphernalia, and their hard-hearted domestic lives. He called the temple a “den of thieves,” and the religious leaders “snakes,” “brood of vipers,” “sons of satan,” “white-washed tombs,” and “destined for hell.” Phew.

The Pharisees, on the other hand, were far more careful. They had a lot of private meetings about Jesus, but never called him out publicly. They were very tactful. They just asked him a lot of questions. They did not want to cause trouble or be seen as taking sides. They were very proper and correct. They would not have wanted to cause disrepute or lose esteem in the eyes of the public. They tried to deal with their problems internally, and probably would have killed Jesus secretly, if they could.

…and yet the Bible says, “The name of God is blasphemed among the unbelievers on account of you!” Whereas Jesus said, “I honour my father.”

In this day and age, I don’t think we are fooling anybody. With media shining an unfavourable light behind the doors of the church, sex scandals rocking the evening news, and situations close to home sending ripples through our communities…everyone knows that there are real people with real problems in the church.

…so tell me, what is more honourable? What brings more disrepute on the church, and glorifies God best? Being silent about abuse, sin, hypocrisy, legalism, and failures in the church, “to protect our testimony”? Or calling them out? And daring to point the way towards something better?

What do you think? What would Jesus do?

Abusive or Servant Leadership?

So Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers in this world lord it over their people, and officials flaunt their authority over those under them. But among you it will be different. Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must be the slave of everyone else. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

(Mat. 10:42-45)

…abusers love positions of authority. Whether it’s pastor, father, husband, or boss: they love being in control of others. Religion seems to provide just that excuse to have unquestioned authority over others. Except…for Jesus. Jesus said that a true leader is a servant of all. Jesus washed His disciples feet. A true leader, according to Jesus, changes diapers, takes out the trash, and sets his own goals and dreams aside to prioritize the needs of those under him. …but people who demand absolute allegiance, demand that people serve them, and demand that those under them sacrifice *their* lives, wishes, wants, and needs in service of the leader are not leading as Jesus did. It doesn’t matter if they claim to be Christians: maybe they even are. But in their leadership, they are leading “like the rulers of this world,” and not at all like Christ.

Churches: Ill Equipped to Help Survivors

Churches and Christians often seem ill equipped to help abuse survivors. This is because our religion has trained them to ask, “Is it right? Is it Biblical? Is it sinful? Will it harm our community?”

Whereas an abuse survivor needs to be asked, “Are you safe? Are you healthy? Are you speaking your own truth (and not just hiding behind a false self)? Are you taking steps that are right for you, (as opposed to living life to please everyone else)? What does your “gut”/heart say? Are you sure you are SAFE?

It’s not that most Christians are bad people. These are not even bad questions to ask: in certain contexts, these are exactly the questions to ask. For example, if a person is tempted to run off with his secretary, he aught to think long and hard about whether that would be right, or biblical, and what harm it would have in the larger community.

This is where our religion shines: in the black and white moments of average people tempted to sin. “The Bible says don’t do it.” That clarity has been helpful for many.

But these are not the right questions to ask survivors of abuse. In fact, they are exactly the wrong questions to ask. These questions will tend to re-trigger the deep shame that accompanies trauma. That shame will activate crippling self-doubt and brain fog, causing them to question themselves, doubt the survival instincts that are leading them out of a dangerous situation, and can cause them to robotically shut down and mechanically go back to their abuser.

And when the Christian community has these questions primarily in their minds, they will prevent them from caring adequately for an abuse survivor.

The more combative Christians will seek to silence or argue with the victim. The more thoughtful will withdraw to re-evaluate whether or not leaving is a sin. (This will take some time). Others will just not know what to say, since they lack the time or ability to render judgment on the matter, and they would not want to be caught aiding and abetting a sinner.

All this with the result that the simplest and most profound human gesture — simply being there, in a non-judgmental way, in a time of need — is precisely what many churches and Christians have such difficulty in giving.

Debate: Can a Victim Leave an Abuser?

I have been posting more on narcissism and spiritual abuse on my Facebook. Yesterday, I posted the following meme:

I wrote:

Words like “submit,” “obey,” “honour,” “forgive,” “reconcile,” “love”…were never meant to be used as chains. ⛓ You have permission to end a relationship with someone who is unrepentantly harming you. No matter how they are related to you, and no matter what they tell you God wants you to do. You have permission to protect yourself from abuse. Always.

This sparked a discussion with a friend I will refer to as Etienne, who started off the discussion by saying:

You didn’t find that teaching in the Bible. 
To find what love looks like look at how God treated Israel through the old testament, right up until He died to save those who were/are literally abusing Him.
If you want to see what selfishness and “toxic” look like, view the same passages from the opposite perspective.
The love God commands us to give, constantly requires us to set aside the justice we was to receive in order to give mercy and grace.

As I often do, I took a moment to write out my candid thoughts to myself in long form on notes, before taking a few breaths and responding to him. What I wrote to myself was:

“You did not find that teaching in the Bible”

…actually, I did. All throughout the Bible, we see God’s people following Jesus’ teaching, “whenever they persecute you in one city, flee to the next,” (Mat. 10:23). Jacob left his emotionally abusive father in law Laban. The Israelites fled from the deceptive and abusive king, Pharaoh. David fled from his verbally and physically abusive king and father in law, Saul. Abigail went behind the back of her stubborn and un-listening husband Nabal. Elijah fled from the unrepentant and moody King Ahab.

God instructs us to forgive our enemies. Forgiveness is something that happens inside. But reconciliation cannot happen when there is not true repentance. Repentance means a change of behaviour: and a change means at a certain point, harmful behaviours need to stop happening. Like David, there’s a time to just get out of town when one fears one too many times for their own safety.

Your choice of God as a symbol of someone who puts up with abuse is poorly chosen. Here is what God did in His relationship to Israel: he pointed out their sins; he stated that there would be consequences for their sins; he followed through on those consequences; when they repented, He forgave and reconciled; this cycle continued numerous times; eventually God identified that they were not truly repenting (no change in behaviours) but only trying to avoid consequences; His warnings became more severe, and he saw less and less hope in the cycle; Finally, God told Israel that He was formally divorcing it; God enacted a separation, by sending them to Babylon; when some repented, God made a new covenant with only the faithful Israelites; God sent His Son to make a way of salvation for those who repent; God follows through on His final consequence, of Hell, for those who persist in wounding Him by their sins and self-destructive actions. We are told that the same applies to Christians: “For if we go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a terrifying expectation of judgment and the fury of a fire which will consume the adversaries.” (Heb. 10:26-27).

Properly read, the Bible is on the side of victims, not abusers.

***

When I decided to talk with Etienne, I decided that it was actually best for him to clarify his rather confusing post first. I was not entirely sure what he was advocating. And so I gave him an invitation to make himself more clear by writing:

Myself: So it would seem that you do not agree with the statement, “You have permission to end a relationship with someone who is unrepentantly harming you.” Do you find this unbiblical, or incorrect, or both? Thank you for your comment.

Etienne: First, I’m not saying that abuse is ok. Abuse is not ok.
Second “love, respect, submit, unity, etc are not chains to hold one to bad relationships, if they are treated that way, that’s a great sign that there is abuse or at least very wrong thinking going on.
I am suggesting that pursuing ones “rights”, “protecting myself”, etc are the real chains in this scenerio.
Look at what the Bible teaches about how God thinks relationships work, it’s never pursuing justice for self. Pursue justice for those around you, but for yourself, pursue learning to give grace and mercy.
This is a hard lesson for every believer, but if it can be learned; they will be free of the chains that put themself first. That’s a lot of freedom.
Another way to describe it, don’t think of God’s commands as chains that restrict out freedoms, think of them as fences that protect us from harm that we don’t fully understand. Inside that fence we are completely free, and far safer than going beyond the fence.

***

At this point, it was bedtimes for my family, and I had work in the morning. I did not pick up this discussion until the afternoon. This gave a few other people a chance to chime in.

***

Sally (One of my friends): But you still haven’t answered whether a person should be able to leave an abusive relationship. I’ve seen people weaponize those commands to shame a person for leaving an abusive spouse. You didn’t pray hard enough, you didn’t trust God enough, you didn’t follow the commands correctly. Instead of acknowledging their abusive partner didn’t follow God’s guidelines for a relationship, how God never wanted his child to suffer at the hands of someone who is supposed to be a partner and love and care for and with them, they put the blame on the victim.

Etienne: I’m not going to answer that, God has already answered that, if you care what He thinks, you can find His words pretty easily.
All I’m saying is that responding to sin with sin, is sin.

Sally: So if a woman is being beaten by her husband, you would shame her for fleeing to safety because God would want her to stay?
I am honestly trying to understand.

Sally: Also to ask me to find the proof to your point is lazy. In no other discourse it is acceptable to say I’m right, look up the evidence to prove my point yourself. You are required to provide the scripture that explains your points.
If your lawyer goes to court and says “Your honor, the evidence is all there. Just look yourself.” You’d loose. If your doctor said “This is what your disease is, the evidence is all there. Research it youself.” You’d upset.
If a cop pulled you over and gave you a ticket and said “what you did all just happened. Remember it youself” you would fight that ticket.
It is the responsibility of the person asserting a notion to defend it, not the person questioning it.

Etienne: The answer to your question is, no. I would not shame her.
Unfortunately, it’s the wrong question.
The right question is, “if a woman is being beaten by her husband, what does the Bible teach?”
Then you must break it down into its parts,
One, what does the Bible teach about abuse, and how husbands should treat their wives?
Two, what does the Bible teach the believers response should be when someone is sinning against them?
In regard to “look it up yourself”, if you want an opinion poll, Facebook is the place to bring your problems; however, if you want to know what God says, that’s best by far if read yourself.
If you’re new to the Bible, an easy way to start is a Google search with something like “Bible passage abuse” or “Bible passage response to sin”.
After you have the relevant Bible passages in mind, reading some commentaries is helpful to some, talking about them with some mature believers is helpful to others.
Looking for people who tell you what you want to hear or else you’ll reduce their statements ad absurdum is not going to be helpful to you in finding the truth.

Myself (when I resumed the conversation the next day): I am glad to hear you say that “abuse is not OK,” and that Biblical commands to love, forgive, etc. should not be used to legitimize staying in an abusive relationship. 
…however, I am a bit confused, because you seem to be saying exactly the opposite in the rest of your comment, and elsewhere. You are saying that “rights” and “self protection” are really a form of bondage. You seem to be saying that an abused Christian has no rights, and should not flee, even to protect themselves. This stance should be understood as “freedom” I am just repeating your words back to you. Is this not what you meant to say?
You seem to be trying to have it both ways. What do you actually believe? Can an abused person leave an abuser? Or not?

Etienne: what I’m trying to say is, responding to sin with sin, is not ok.
So, find what God says is the correct response not what popular option says is right.
You have the tools, you probably have the relevant passages memorized.
After the Bible is read, it’s just a matter of interpretation and application.

Myself: OK, so what you are saying is that it is a sin for an abused person to leave their abuser? I disagree with that. 

Let me show you some biblical examples of Godly people leaving situations of danger and abuse by the person in authority over them:

Jacob left his emotionally abusive father in law Laban. The Israelites fled from the deceptive and abusive king, Pharaoh. David fled from his verbally and physically abusive king and father in law, Saul. Abigail went behind the back of her stubborn and un-listening husband Nabal. Elijah fled from the unrepentant and moody King Ahab. On several occasions, Jesus left an angry mob, sometimes mid-sentence. Paul left cities before he was killed. The early Christians fled Jerusalem, and from there, city to city. These godly people followed Jesus’ teaching: “whenever they persecute you in one city, flee to the next,” (Mat. 10:23).
These people did not “return evil for evil.” David in particular had reason and opportunity to exact revenge, but he did not. However, he also did not stick around to see if next time Saul’s aim would be better. Christians are not to retaliate: but there is a time to leave. It is not sinful or evil to simply walk away. In fact, this is what we are told to do.
I re-affirm that it is not a sin for a victim to leave an abusive relationship. I think these passages are a strong support of this pattern, and can provide others if you would like.

Etienne: great biblical examples!
Now keeping in mind the context and culture we’re in, how many of those examples apply to husband and wife divorcing, or friends ditching former friends at the first sign of trouble?

Myself: ”first sign of trouble”? No, we’re talking about abuse here. 
I would see them all as applying. As I said, these are examples of godly people leaving situations of chronic mistreatment and unrepentant abuse by civil or familial authority figures.

Etienne: ok, then at the interpretation level you and I differ slightly, as long as you’re being diligent before the Lord, God bless.
I will leave you with one reminder, in all interpersonal problems, the goal needs to be reconciliation; and reconciliation starts with forgiveness, not with making amends nor with justice (as the world likes to believe).

Myself: That is not correct. We are only responsible to reconcile “so far as it depends on you.” (Romans 12:18). Sometimes, as in the cases of abuse I mentioned above, that was not possible. We are to let go of bitterness every time that we pray. That happens in the privacy of our own hearts. But we only forgive and reconcile our brother/sister if they repent first. (Luke 17:3-4). We are not only allowed, but instructed to separate from those who continue to sin against us, and are not open to Godly rebuke. (Mat. 18:15-17).
I want to thank you for this interaction. God bless you on your journey, as you seek to honour Him in all things.

***

Clearly, there is much to be parsed out in the conversation. Among other things, we see fairly clearly that some people do indeed think that the Christian message states that an abused person should stay with their abusive partner, no matter what. These people seem to think vaguely that, “that’s what the Bible says,” and “that’s how God treats us”…but when pressed for specifics, they punt, go on the offensive or say, “well, you must know all the verses by now!” He shifted his position numerous times, but it seemed clear that he was still unchanging in his belief that an abused person should go back to their abuser, no matter what.

Another thing that is interesting is that I kept coming back to the word “abuse,” while he kept shrinking from it, trying to replace the word in our discussion with, “at the first sign of trouble.” This is gaslighting: our conversation was not about people giving up on one another “at the first sign of trouble.” It was about abuse. Abuse is a word in the English language that means something like, “ongoing, significant harm caused to a person.” It is not the same as, “minor annoyance.” When people try cheap tricks like this in debates, they show their true colours. I knew then that Etienne was not interested in learning anything: rather, he only wanted to justify himself and win an argument to prove that he was right.

He demanded that I do the work to prove that his view was right: which as “Sally” pointed out, was unreasonable. He was the one making a claim, and yet he provided no evidence for it. I also had made a claim, and so I provided logical and Biblical evidence for it. He retorted that my logic was not Biblical, and so I provided more Biblical evidence. He responded that these examples did not apply because the culture and times were different. Strange how culture and time only applies to verses that we find inconsistent with our beliefs. But I responded that actually, I think that these verses all spoke directly to the question at hand, at which point Etienne simply said that we had a “difference of opinion” about that.

The technique of asking for proof, then changing one’s demands when proof is given is called “moving the goal-posts.” This is another deceptive debate tactic.

Also, notice, Etienne never stated how he himself would interpret these passages. While trying to posture as someone who based their interpretations on the Bible, Etienne actually did not cite one single Bible passage. He referred broadly to “how God treats Israel,” but did not provide any specific Bible verses to analyze: this is because he had none on his side.

In a way, I should not have let him off the hook so easily. I certainly could have pressed him. How would he justify his belief that an abused person must remain with their abuser? What does he mean by that? And if he choses not to use the word “abuse,” what word would he use for continual, unrepentant, serious harm caused by an individual?

…but this is not my first rodeo. And I learned long ago that in online discussions, if someone choses to excuse themselves from a discussion, then it is just best to let them go. It is childish to try to get in the last word.

“if the unbelieving one leaves, let him leave; the brother or the sister is not under bondage in such cases, but God has called us to peace.” 1 Corinthians 7:15

These topics will be a major topic of discussion in future posts.

For a great resource on domestic abuse in the church, see Rev. Jeff Crippen’s carefully researched and groundbreaking book, Unholy Charade, Unmasking the Domestic Abuser in the Church.