Society’s view on religion, Christianity especially, has shifted over the last 70 years. Between the horrors conducted in the Canadian residential schools that were run by Christians, to the tension over the pro-life/pro-choice argument in the United States, many are seeing the beliefs of Christians as outdated, even oppressive. Pulling verses out of context to be used to explain sexist and racist policies has been happening recently in the U.S, and it makes people hate the Bible even more than before. However, both churched and unchurched people hardly ever look at the context in which the verse was written. By looking at the context of the verses typically used to oppress women, reading the stories of the women that God used to drastically change history, and seeing how Jesus treated women while he was on Earth, it is obvious that the Bible is anything but sexist.
The Bible is unfortunately used quite often to defend one’s actions that others see as morally grey or wrong. Back in June of 2018, Attorney General Jeff Sessions used Romans 13:1-7 to defend the separation of children from their parents at the U.S-Mexico border. Without looking at the context of the verse that is being used, people have used the Bible again and again to justify hurting and oppressing others, especially women. Ephesians 5:22 is a classic example of this. The Apostle Paul wrote, “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord.” Out of context, it has been used to justify spousal physical and sexual abuse. It has been twisted to seem as if wives have no right to question their husband’s authority except in circumstances when he asks her to sin, and must deal with every hot tempered moment that comes her way. However, reading further on in Paul’s letter reveals that men have even more responsibility than usually referred to when this verse is quoted. Steven R. Tracy, a professor of theology at Phoenix Seminary states that, “[e]ven more importantly, Paul raises the bar for husbands as high as it could possibly be raised by commanding them to love their wives as Christ loved the church and gave himself for her.” To love someone as Christ loves the church is to treat them with respect and consideration, not being harsh or rude. It also means being willing to give one’s life up for that other person. While that may not mean literally, the emphasis is on sacrificial love. Men who use Ephesians 5:22 to control women either conveniently have only read that one verse, or don’t care enough to abide by the parameters that Paul laid out for good husbands.
Another verse that has been under fire is 1 Corinthians 14:34 which states “the women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says.” Silence and submission is a common theme among the verses that cause abuse in male-female relationships. However in this case, much more research needs to be done to understand the context of the verse. It is not as simple as continuing to read the letter. The problem that faces many modern day Christians when trying to understand the Bible is that it was not originally written in English. Elaine Storkey highlights this in her book “What’s Right With Feminism.”
“Language changes and develops within a certain culture, so that words and phrases within a given culture have certain connotations. We have to be sure that we understand therefore not just the translated words, but the syntax, morphology, context and idioms of the original.”
To truly understand a verse, there needs to be an understanding of the culture in which it was written. 1 Corinthians 14:34 is not written to suppress women during church services. Paul encourages women to pray, even to speak prophecy. In the case of this particular verse, commentary authors believe that Paul was writing specifically to this church because women were talking without ceasing, causing interruptions, or were purposely interrupting prophetic speech. That is rude for anyone to do, and to claim that Paul was sexist because he directed his instructions towards the women is simply wrong.
A lack of stories about women is a common complaint in modern society, and that complaint extends towards the Bible. While it is true that there aren’t many stories that have females as the central character, the ones that exist are phenomenal. Take the story of Deborah, the only female judge in the book of Judges. She is one of the few godly judges, and the only judge that is godly from the beginning of her recorded story. She was sought out by Barak, the commander of an Israelite army. When she told him that he would win against Sisera, the general of the opposing army, he asked her to go with him even after knowing that he wouldn’t be the one to kill Sisera and receive the glory for it. Sisera was killed in his sleep by Jael, a woman, in a very gruesome way: a tent peg through the temple. While the story is only a chapter long, it shows how God uses people despite the restrictions placed on them by their society. In a male dominated world, Israel was freed by two women.
Esther is one of two books in the Bible where a story about a woman is the central focus (the other being Ruth). Esther became queen in a land foreign to her and her people, and was able to protect the Israelites from certain death because of her position. While it is stated in chapter 2 verse 7 that she is beautiful, that isn’t the only description of her. Reading the book in its entirety, her bravery and clever mind are the centerpiece of her character. Additionally, the books of Esther and Ruth are abnormal in nature, not because they focus on women, but because all of the rest of the books in the Old Testament that are named after someone are named after a leader of the Israelites, or a prophet. Esther and Ruth don’t fall into either category, yet their stories were deemed important enough to be recorded, placed in the Bible, and given their own book, instead of tacking them onto another. Again, in a male centered society, both books are an amazing rarity.
Christians are told to look Jesus as a model of how to live, making the accounts of Jesus’ life of the utmost importance. Being a part of the Trinity gave Jesus the right to judge humans with true justice while he was on Earth in human form. However, there are two interactions that can show everyone how to truly love others, regardless if they deserve it because of their actions. First, the story in John 4, where Jesus speaks with a Samaritan woman at a well. He should not have even been speaking to her in the first place, but instead Jesus strikes up a conversation with her. He tells her things about herself that he could not have known, and encourages her. Even though she had had five husbands, and was currently living with a man who wasn’t her husband, Jesus spoke truth and life into her. Because of that interaction with Jesus, her life was changed.
Another powerful story can also be found in John, this time in chapter 8. A woman is brought to Jesus by the religious leaders of the day. She had committed adultery, and the punishment was death by stoning. They wanted to trap Jesus, but he had a very simple answer for them, “let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” Every one of them left, because every human has sinned. Jesus could have throw a stone, he is the only human to never sin, and had the authority to judge her in that moment. However, he did not. He told her that she was forgiven instead. Both of those stories show how Jesus cared for those in a society that was always looking down on them. He shows that everyone is worthy of love. The verse back in Ephesians 5 should be a reflection of this kind of love. Christ loves that church, and both these stories show how to emulate Jesus everyday.
The Bible is misunderstood because there is at least two thousand years and several languages of barrier between current society and the culture in which it was written. By analyzing the context, considering the stories of women in the Old Testament, and looking to Christ as the example of behavior, it’s obvious that the traditions in the time period of the Bible are what are considered sexist today. It should be noted that often times those who use verses out of context are trying to excuse their behavior. In those cases, don’t blame the source material. The Bible isn’t sexist, people are.
Burke, Daniel. “What does the Bible verse Jeff Sessions quoted really mean?.” CNN, June 15, 2018, https://www.cnn.com/2018/06/15/us/sessions-bible-quote-apostle-paul/index.html
Miller, J.r. “Residential Schools in Canada”. In The Canadian Encyclopedia. Historica Canada. Article published October 10, 2012; last modified September 21, 2018. https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/residential-schools
Thiselton, Anthony C. “ The First Epistle to the Corinthians.” In The New International Greek Testament Commentary, Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2000. 1155-1156.
Tracy, Steven R. What Does “Submit In Everything” Really Mean? The Nature and Scope of Marital Submission, 2008. 33
Storkey, Elaine. What’s Right With Feminism. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1985. 151