Is Christianity Sexist?

March 13, 2024

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In order to address what the Bible has to say about men and women, it’s important to consider the broad sweep of the Bible’s message. When we do that, we discover that the Bible affirms the equality, the complementarity, and the unity of the sexes.

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    One reason why people refuse to accept the teachings of the Bible is because it at least appears to support views and social structures that subjugate women. We could cite innumerable examples of people who have used the Scriptures down through the centuries to denigrate women. The question is whether that is an example of the right use or the abuse of the Bible. Does the Bible divide the sexes and elevate men at the expense of women?

    What does that Bible have to say about men and women? In order to address that question most helpfully, let’s consider the broad sweep of the Bible’s message. When we do that, we discover that the Bible affirms the equality, the complementarity, and the unity of the sexes.

    First, let’s begin with the equality of the sexes. In Genesis 1, God not only creates human beings in general, but he creates male and female in particular. The opening chapters of the Bible stand out in comparison to other writings from the Ancient Near East because Genesis emphatically states that both men and women are created in God’s image and, therefore, both men and women are imbued with equal dignity and worth. There is no suggestion that one sex is more like God or more responsible for the earth than the other. There is not even a hint that one gender is superior or inferior. The Bible affirms the full equality of men and women.

    If Genesis 1 stresses the equality of the sexes, Genesis 2 affirms the complementarity of the sexes. After each day of creation (regardless of how you interpret these “days”) God evaluates what he has made and declares it “good.” After the creation of human beings on the 6th day, God declares his work “very good.” But when we turn to Genesis 2, we learn that there is something “not good” in the garden. “It is not good that the man should be alone.” Accordingly, God declares, “I will make a helper fit for him.” Men and women alike have abused these passages, so let’s be clear about what they are really saying.

    First of all, the word “helper” in Hebrew appears 19 times in the Old Testament and 16 out of those 19 times it is used to describe God. Clearly this does not imply that the woman is a second-class citizen. The word describes the woman’s essential contribution, not her inadequacy. Second, the expression “fit for him” should be translated as “suitable.” The woman is suitable because, unlike the rest of creation, the woman is equal and adequate to the man. She is complementary to—but opposite of—the man. God proceeds to take one of the ribs from the man’s side and uses the rib to make the woman. Even commentators living hundreds of years ago in firmly patriarchal cultures understood the true importance of this statement. Writing in the 1200s, for example, Peter Lombard wrote that the woman was taken not from the man’s feet to be his slave, nor from his head to be his lord, but from his side to be his partner.

    What do we learn from this? God made male and female, but he also made us different. There is enormous cultural pressure to eliminate all talk of difference for fear that it will lead to inequality. But Genesis suggests that gender difference (as difficult as it may be to define) is a good thing to be celebrated rather than eliminated. There is no inequality between men and women in terms of dignity, ability, or giftedness, but there is some kind of creational difference that makes male and female non-interchangeable.

    The inequality, domination, and oppression that exist in our society today is not the result of God’s good creation—it is a distortion resulting from humanity’s fall into sin. In Genesis 3, God describes part of the curse that has fallen over human beings. He says to the woman: “Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.” A nearly identical expression is used in the following chapter when God warns Cain not to kill his brother, Abel. “Sin is crouching at your door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.”

    This is a description of how sin distorts human relationships, not a prescription of what God intends. God is suggesting that the woman’s desire will be to dominate the man, but the husband will dominate her. In other words, rather than men and women cherishing and loving one another, their relationships will be marked by power-grabs!

    What then will restore the unity between men and women? The prophets looked forward to a day when the equality of men and women would be restored. And in the fullness of time, Jesus was born of a woman to redeem all of us from the curse of the fall. But it was not only Jesus’ birth from a woman, but his attitude toward them that restored that measure of dignity that had once been lost.

    In the first century, a Jewish male was forbidden to speak with a woman in public or to instruct her in the Scriptures. But Jesus broke these rules of tradition and social convention. He engaged in a theological discussion with a Samaritan woman at Jacob’s Well. He risked his reputation and allowed a prostitute to wet his feet with her tears, dry them with her hair, and cover them with her kisses. Jesus received these demonstrations of love as expressions of gratitude for her forgiveness. Along with the twelve men Jesus chose to be his apostles, many women accompanied Jesus on his travels from the beginning of his ministry right up to the very end. In fact, all four Gospels attest to the fact that women were the very first witnesses of his resurrection from the dead. Several of these women supported Jesus financially out of their own means, and in profoundly counter-cultural fashion, Jesus regarded them as disciples in their own right. When Jesus’ friend Mary assumed the posture of a disciple by sitting at Jesus’ feet to receive his teaching, he praised her for her choice. Jesus’ affirmation of women was unmistakable.

    Christianity is often denounced as patriarchal and sexist, but it is no wonder that women embraced Christianity in far greater numbers than men throughout the Greco-Roman world of the first and second centuries. Christianity was rightly seen as a radically equalizing—rather than a dehumanizing—force.

    Written by Jason Harris
    Produced by Mary-Catherine McKee
    Filmed and edited by Andrew Walker