“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28, NIV)
I read with great interest Paula Kirby’s blog post in the Washington Post on the church’s attitude regarding male and female roles. She concludes that Ephesians 5, where the apostle Paul directs wives to submit to their husbands, is justifying the repression of women: “Only the deluded or the disingenuous could claim to see equality where there is only subservience.”
Really? Look closer. In Galatians 3:28, also attributed to Paul, we hear that Christians – enslaved and free, male and female, Jewish and non-Jewish – are “one in Christ Jesus.”
This helps explain the context of Ephesians 5, which directs children to obey their parents and slaves to obey their owners. Kirby concludes that women are classed with children and slaves because they are asked to “submit.”
Slavery, as Kirby aptly notes, is loathsome. Indeed, Christian abolitionists such as William Wilberforce and the Quakers spearheaded the movement to end slavery.
Paul was writing, however, during the Roman Empire when some Christians were also bondservants and slaves (by poverty or force). This is not making out women to be slaves to their husbands. Women were leaders in the early church (e.g. Phoebe the deacon, Romans 16:1) and also leaders in society (Lydia the merchant, Acts 16:14, and Dorcas the philanthropist, Acts 9:36-42).
(Interestingly, youth are directed to “submit” to their elders in 1 Peter 5:5. Should we therefore conclude that the elderly are simply justifying oppression of the youth?)
Kirby writes, “The truth is that the Abrahamic religions fear women and therefore go to extraordinary and sometimes brutal lengths to control them, constrain them, and repress them in every way.”
I cannot speak to all Abrahamic religions, but I belong to the Christian faith, which borrows elements of Judaism. Contrary to Kirby’s interpretation, I suggest that the story of Adam and Eve illustrates that evil came through a fallen angel, who caused both Adam and Eve to disobey a divine order. Evil and disobedience are clearly equal-opportunity employers.
Women have always had the burden – and power – of reproduction through childbirth. To say that all religions stereotype women as baby-making machines, however, is unfair to both women and machines. What of the prophetess Anna, who does not appear to have any children and yet was highly praised in Luke 2?
As for abortion, the Catholic Church forbids it not on the basis of denying women control to their bodies, but on the argument that the fetus has an innate right to life – that terminating a pregnancy is tantamount to murder. Regardless of whether one agrees with that belief, opposition to abortion is not the same as stating that women have no rights.
I would be among the first to say that women have suffered many atrocities in the name of religion. People have taken the idea of submission and warped it into condoning physical and sexual abuse, manipulation and a host of other evils.
At the same time, warping an idea is hardly exclusive to the religious world. Hitler twisted the idea of “survival of the fittest” to create the myth of the Aryan – this “pure” race to dispose of lesser humans. Do people today condone genocide as a necessary consequence of evolution? I hope not.
Christianity’s founder, Jesus, elevated the status of women in many ways. As Kirby points out, the woman taken in adultery in the Gospel of John was hauled before Jesus and threatened with execution by stoning. He responds with one of the most gender-leveling statements of all time: “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone” (John 8:7, NIV).
In John 4, Jesus speaks to a Samaritan woman drawing water at a well. This was a cultural sin in many aspects – first, men were not to speak to women unless they were family relatives or else interested in marriage; second, Samaritans and Jews were not on speaking terms even in the best of times.
And who could forget the woman who poured perfume on Jesus’ feet? He praises her in front of the dinner guests, saying that her story will be told wherever the Gospel is preached.
As for virginity being the ideal for women alone, let’s not limit this to the ladies, please. Virginity has also been highly prized by the male sex throughout Christendom (think monks and monasteries, not just nuns and cloisters). Paul made himself a virgin for the kingdom of God (I Corinthians 7:7-8).
Significant female characters abound in both Old and New Testaments. Phoebe, Lydia and Dorcas have already been mentioned. In the Old Testament, who can forget the fiery prophetess Deborah, who scolds the wimpy Barak for his cowardice: “Because of the course you are taking, the honor will not be yours, for the LORD will deliver Sisera into the hands of a woman” (Judges 4:9)?
And yes, prostitutes appear throughout the Bible. The prostitute Rahab, however, earns praise for her faith and help in supporting the Israelites against their enemies in Jericho. Prostitute or virgin, tax collector or Pharisee – Christianity redeems us regardless of our backgrounds.
Contrary to what Kirby writes, a Christian woman’s highest ideal is not to be like Mary, the mother of Jesus. (Few of us aspire to another virgin birth.)
Rather, the ideal for Christian womanhood is commonly known as the “Proverbs 31 woman.” Like all ideals, this can too easily be twisted into a stereotypical wonder woman who has a horde of sweet children, a spotless house and a homespun business on the side.
But study the text, and you’ll find she is no cardboard cut-out of womanhood. A savvy businesswoman, she earns her own money and buys land (verse 16). A philanthropist, she opens her arms to the poor and needy (verse 20). A powerful role model, she “is clothed with strength and dignity” (verse 25). A public speaker, “faithful instruction is on her tongue” (verse 26). Her husband praises and honors her. She earns accolades not only at home, but also in public – “at the city gate” (verse 31).
I find myself increasingly leery of blanket statements such as “all Abrahamic religions fear women,” “every Muslim is anti-Western,” or even “all atheists are immoral.” My experience suggests that the truth lies somewhere else altogether.
If Kirby is interested in making a serious study of “submission” as is Biblically meant, I highly recommend Love and Respect by Dr. Emerson Eggerichs. But that is another story for another time. This article is only meant to question her claim that religion features the “lie that it views men and women as equal.” It is not a lie; it is the truth.
We all have our own prejudices, assumptions and pet theories. To load all the problems of the world on our own bogeymen does a disservice ultimately to ourselves, limiting us from seeing the bigger picture.