There is a widespread belief around about the Bible that it is some kind of powerful patriarchal conspiracy which has been used to oppress women. As a female speaker I find that this question is frequently asked: “How can you as a woman promote such a sexist book? The church has tried to keep women down!” As a Christian, I believe I need to be sensitive to the issues which 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?(1)
Throughout the Bible there are numerous positive images of women and stories that involve women. In the Old Testament women share the image of God at creation. At the end of time at the Second Coming of Jesus, the church is represented as the bride of Christ. All the way through from beginning to end, the Bible includes the feminine as an integral part of the Judeo-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 are quite a number of significant events involving women, particularly considering the conservative cultural attitudes of the context into which it was written. This context is demonstrated by a simple statement in John’s Gospel in the famous encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well. There is a telling little sentence in 4:27 which sheds a great deal of light on just how radical the Bible is in affirming women. The disciples come across Jesus during his conversation with the woman and we are told they “were surprised to find him talking with a woman.” This is the context of Jesus’s ministry and yet he goes against these cultural trends time and time again.
He does this firstly by having 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 travelling circle who also contributed financially to the needs of the group. In fact, when Jesus is told that his mother and brothers are waiting outside to see him, he points to his disciples and says, “Here are my mother and brothers.” This statement is unthinkable unless there were women among his disciples. In the Middle Eastern culture of the 1st century, it would be unspeakably offensive to point to male disciples and use female imagery to describe them. The group of disciples referred to must have included some women.
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 phrase “to sit at the feet of” is the same formulation as Acts 22:3 where Paul describes his training under Gamaliel. The clear implication here is that Mary is affirmed as worthy of a Rabbi’s theological instruction; indeed, it is interesting that later on in John’s Gospel we read of Martha, Mary’s sister, who is the first to be taught one of the most astounding theological statements of the New Testament. Jesus says to her, “‘I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live even though he dies.” In contrast to the cultural norms of the time, Jesus made a habit of revealing great theological truths to women. The first person who discovers Christ’s true identity in John’s Gospel is the Samaritan woman at the well. 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.
In reality, 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, where women undertook various roles. 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 the context of the rest of the Bible. Paul himself gives guidelines for women when they publicly prophecy and mentions women who do 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 is incarnated in the man Jesus, this is not to say that women are undermined or undervalued. Some female imagery is used of God, and Jesus constantly affirms the value of women, teaching them and interacting with them as human beings. Both male and female are created in the image of God and both are so precious that Christ comes to the earth to redeem both male and female with his blood shed on the Cross.
Amy Orr-Ewing is director of programmes for the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics and UK director for Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Oxford, England.
(1) A version of this article was first published in Idea Magazine, Jul/Aug 2005. See also Is the Bible Intolerant? by Amy Orr-Ewing (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006).