Across the centuries there have been people who have used the Bible to propagate chauvinistic, sexist, denigrating views. But this ideological conclusion can only be drawn when Scripture is mishandled, misinterpreted, or misapplied. Jesus’ life and teachings not only uphold the value and dignity of women, they also promote a beautiful synergy between men and women as God’s image bearers that strongly counters Christianity’s misogynistic reputation. Watch this sermon as we consider the biblical opposition to sexism.

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    In the past, people might have struggled to believe, but they at least viewed Christianity as a positive benefit to society. That may have begun to shift, because there's an increasing number of people who believe that Christianity is harmful. And therefore the first question that the average skeptic might ask is not “Is Christianity true?” but rather “Is Christianity good?” That changes things a bit for someone in a position like me, because now, in addition to trying to show you that Christianity is true and that there are good reasons to believe, I also have to try to show you that Christianity is good — so good that you should want it to be true.

    Accordingly, we have engaged in a new sermon series in which we are tackling some of the common contemporary challenges to the Christian faith in order to help show that Christianity is good for you and good for the world. We have already covered questions like is Christianity an escapist fantasy? Is Christianity irrational? Is Christianity intolerant? Is Christianity repressive of our identity?

    Today I'd like to take up another question. This will be a controversial topic, so I enter into this with more than a little trepidation, but it's important, and therefore we can't ignore it. The question today is “Is Christianity sexist?” It's a question that we need to address with sensitivity and thoughtfulness and care because we all know that human history tells a long, painful, sad story of conflict and tension between men and women. Even in our supposedly modern civilized world, I'm sure that we could all cite personal examples of where we have seen women treated in appalling ways by men or vice versa.

    The culture of the church is not immune to patronizing attitudes or to denigrating behavior. Down through the centuries, people have misused the Scriptures in order to propagate misogynistic views. So the question is, is Christianity sexist? Does Christianity support views that denigrate women? Of course this sermon will not be the end all, be all sermon on the topic. It will only scratch the surface, but I hope that it does at least prove to be somewhat helpful. In reply to that question, I'd like to zero in on a completely amazing episode, a remarkable scene where Jesus crosses barriers of gender and ethnicity and religion and even morality in order to engage in a conversation with an unnamed Samaritan woman. As we turn to John 4, I would suggest that rather than perpetuating the battle of the sexes, Jesus empowers the harmony between the sexes.

    13Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” 15The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I will not be thirsty or have to come here to draw water.”

    16Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come here.” 17The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; 18for you have had five husbands, and the one you now have is not your husband. What you have said is true.” 19The woman said to him, “Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet. 20Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship.”

    24“God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” 25The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming (he who is called Christ). When he comes, he will tell us all things.” 26Jesus said to her, “I who speak to you am he.”

    27Just then his disciples came back. They marveled that he was talking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you seek?” or, “Why are you talking with her?” 28So the woman left her water jar and went away into town and said to the people, 29“Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ?”


    John 4 opens by telling us that Jesus had to go through Samaria in order to get to Galilee. He's exhausted by his journey, so he sits down beside a well. There he meets an unnamed Samaritan woman. He asks her for a drink of water. This startles her; even she is surprised. She says, “How is it that you, a Jew, could ask me, a Samaritan, for water,” because Jews and Samaritans don't mix. What's striking is not only that Jesus speaks to her and asks her for water, but also that he is willing to share the same water jar. As a devout Jewish man in the first century, you would expect that Jesus would be concerned about his own ritual purity, and that he has to keep away from someone like a Samaritan. But no, he's more than happy to speak with her and to share the same cup.

    Then he proceeds to engage in a theological conversation with this woman about the true nature of worship. He concludes by offering her living water. He says the water that you draw from this well will satisfy your thirst for a moment, but then you'll be thirsty again. But he can offer living water that will become in those who receive it a spring, welling up to eternal life — the kind of life that lasts, the kind of life that we all long for, the kind of life that we were made for. That living water is the only thing that can satisfy our existential thirst.

    Through this conversation, within just a few moments, Jesus tactfully pinpoints where this woman places her identity. Beginning in verse 16, he asks her to call her husband, and she replies that she has no husband. He says, “You're right about that. You've had five husbands, and the person that you're living with now is not your husband either.” Notice that that's all that Jesus says. But he must not have said it in a harsh, judgmental, or condemnatory way, because in verse 29, this woman goes back to town, back to her village, and says, “Come meet a man who told me everything I ever did.” That should strike you as odd. Surely this woman did more in life than engage in these relationships. But as far as she's concerned, Jesus hit the nail on the head and explained that this is what her life has been all about. Her entire life could be summed up in terms of these romantic relationships. And yet she reveals that none of them have truly satisfied. 

    What I want you to notice is that Jesus' male disciples had gone into the town to try to buy food, and when they return, they are shocked. They're absolutely shocked that Jesus is speaking with a woman, though they don't say anything. They don't ask any questions. We're just told that they marveled that he was speaking with a woman. Why is that? Why are they so surprised? Why are they so amazed? The answer is because in this one conversation, Jesus crosses 1) a gender barrier, 2) an ethnic barrier, and 3) a moral barrier because this person was a woman, a Samaritan, and a moral outsider.


    First of all, men in the first century in Jewish culture were not allowed to speak to a woman in public, even if it was that man's wife, sister, or daughter. Some people even said that a man could bring evil upon himself if you spent too much time speaking with a woman. There were rabbis from that time who said that women should never receive any kind of religious instruction; one even said that it would be better to take the words of Scripture and burn them than to teach them to a woman. And yet Jesus is utterly unconcerned with that tradition or that social convention. He not only speaks with this unnamed woman, but he talks theology with her. They have a conversation about the true nature of worship.


    But this is not only a woman, it's a Samaritan. What you need to realize is that the conflict between Jews and Samaritans was not unlike the kind of animosity that we see taking place in the Middle East right now. The animosity between Jews and Samaritans ran deep. You could trace it back for 800 years. The Jews despised Samaritans not only because of their ethnic background, but also because they believed that the Samaritans had distorted the worship of the God of the Bible. In addition to worshiping God as he had revealed himself in the Scriptures, they added syncretistic elements. They introduced pagan superstition. Rather than worshiping God in Jerusalem, they worshiped God at their own shrine, which they set up on Mount Gerizim. That's why this woman asked Jesus, “Where is the right place to worship God?”

    Moral Outsider

    This person is not only a woman, not only a Samaritan, but she's also a moral outsider. Notice, she comes to the well all by herself. Why doesn't she come with other women from the village? She comes at noon, the hottest part of the day. Why then as opposed to coming early in the morning or late in the evening? Presumably she comes in the middle of the day, the hardest part of the day, alone, because she's trying to avoid bumping into people from her village. Very likely they did not respect her. They did not like her because of her sexual history. And yet, what's so amazing is that after she encounters Jesus, she runs back to the town to try to find the very people that previously she was working so hard to avoid, in order to tell them about Jesus. She asks the question, “Could this be the Christ? Could this actually be the Messiah?” Jesus crosses all these social boundaries of gender, religion, sexual history, morality, without even thinking twice about it. Why is that? Because Jesus has come to reestablish the equality, complementarity, and unity of the sexes.

    The Equality Of The Sexes

    In Genesis 1, God not only creates human beings in general, but he creates men and women, male and female, in particular. The opening chapters of the Bible stand out in stark contrast to much of ancient Near Eastern literature. There's nothing like this, because Genesis emphatically states that not just men, which would have been more typical, but both men and women are created in the image of God. Both men and women are told in Genesis 1 to be fruitful and multiply. Both men and women are told to fill the earth and subdue it. Both men and women are given dominion over the earth and its creatures. Both men and women are equipped for leadership in God's good world. There's no suggestion that one sex is more like God than another, not even a hint that one is more responsible for the earth than the other.

    There's no suggestion that one sex is superior or inferior to the other, but rather, the Bible affirms the full equality of men and women. Men and women not only have dignity and value but also equal dignity and value because they are both God's image bearers. That is right there — act one scene one, very first page of the Bible.

    The Complementarity Between The Sexes

    The Bible very strongly affirms 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 — whether they should be interpreted in a strict, literal way or a more figurative, metaphorical way, either way — after each day of creation, God evaluates what he's made, and he declares that it is good. After the sixth day of creation, when God creates human beings, he declares his work to be very good. Then when you turn to Genesis 2, something interesting happens. In Genesis 2, the fall into sin and ruin has not yet happened. Before humanity's fall, God looks at the world that he's made, and there is one thing that he singles out as being not good. He says, “It is not good for the man to be alone.” Loneliness does not belong in God's good world. And therefore, God says, “I will make a helper fit for him.” Then he causes a deep sleep to fall upon the man. He takes a rib out of his side and uses that rib to fashion the first woman. The first man is formed out of the ground; the first woman is formed out of a rib from his side.

    Men and women alike over the centuries have abused these passages, so we need to be very clear about what they're actually saying. Let's look at various aspects of this.


    First of all, let's consider the word “helper.” I don't know about you, but I have yet to meet a woman who would like to be described as a helper who is fit for the man. What does this mean? You should know that in Hebrew, this is the word “Ezer.” That word is used 19 times in the Old Testament, and 16 out of those 19 times do you know who it describes? It describes God. God is our help. This is not a word that suggests a servile position. No, this is a word that communicates great strength rather than weakness. I don't think we would ever dream of calling God our servant because God is our help. And therefore, this term emphasizes the woman's essential contribution, not her inadequacy in any way.

    Fit For Him

    But what about this expression “fit for him?” “I will make a helper fit for him.” That should probably be better translated as “suitable.” “I will find a help suitable for him.” Again, this is not suggesting that the woman is in an inferior position, but rather the woman is suitable as a fellow human being compared to the rest of creation. She is equal and adequate to the man. The woman is complementary to but opposite of the man, and that is why she is a suitable companion.

    Took One Of His Ribs

    What about this whole image of God taking one of the ribs out of Adam and fashioning the first woman out of the rib? This has been the source of countless jokes down through the years. But what exactly does this mean? I would suggest that even commentators living hundreds of years ago in firmly patriarchal cultures caught the heart of this story. Let me give you one example. Peter Lombard was writing in the 1200s — in the middle of the Middle Ages — and he said that the woman is not formed out of the man's feet to be his slave, nor is she formed out of his head to be his Lord and Master, but rather she is formed out of his side to be his partner. It completely transforms the way in which we read this, does it not? In the 18th century, the English commentator Matthew Henry wrote,

    “The woman is ‘not made out of his head to top him, not out of his feet to be trampled upon him, but out of his side to be equal with him.’”

    What do we learn here? God made male and female equal according to Genesis 1, but he also made us different according to Genesis 2. Let's acknowledge that there's significant cultural pressure within the world in which we live now to eliminate all talk of difference for fear that that will lead to inequality. We're told in our universities and schools, for example, that gender is just a social construct or a myth or it's just an accidental byproduct of evolution. And therefore, we say that we must eradicate all talk of difference in order for the sexes to be considered truly equal. In order for them to be truly equal, they must be absolutely interchangeable. But Genesis suggests that gender difference, as hard, perhaps even as impossible as it may be to define, is a good thing that we should celebrate rather than eliminate. Some kind of creational difference makes male and female non-interchangeable, and yet there's absolutely no inequality between men and women in terms of our dignity, our ability, or our giftedness.

    That might sound alright in theory, but it doesn't always work out that way in practice. How do we account for the battle between the sexes that has spanned most of human history? The Bible's answer is that the domination and the oppression of women by men is not the result of God's good creation, but rather this is the result of the fall — humanity's fall into sin and ruin. For example, when you turn now to Genesis 3, God describes part of the curse that has fallen on human beings as a result of our own rebellion and failure. In Genesis 3:16 God says to the woman, “Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.” Some people make the mistake of assuming that this verse must mean that God is endorsing the subjection of women by men, but that's not at all what it's saying. This is not a prescription of what God desires for humanity; rather it's a description of what now is going to unfold as a result of human sin. We might hear that word “desire” — “your desire will be for your husband” — and imagine that that's a positive word, that the woman has a desire to love her husband but he's going to use his power to rule over her. But in fact, there's a lot more going on in this verse than we realize at first. The way in which we know that is because a nearly identical expression is used in the immediately following chapter, Genesis 4, where God warns Cain not to murder his brother Abel. God says to Cain, “Sin is crouching at your door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.” Do you see how that changes the connotation of the word? Sin is crouching at your door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it. When we apply that thinking, then to Genesis 3, what we realize is that the woman's desire is to dominate her husband, but the husband is going to dominate her. This is not a prescription of what God wants; it's a description of what happens as a result of humanity's fall into sin. Rather than cherishing and loving one another, our relationships as men and women will be marked by power grabs. We will be overcome with the consuming desire to dominate and control one another.

    The Unity Between The Sexes

    What then will restore the sexes? The prophets looked forward to a day when the full equality of men and women would be reaffirmed. God promised that he would establish a new covenant and that he would pour out the gift of his Spirit on all people — men and women alike. The Apostle Paul puts it like this in Galatians 4:4. He says, “When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman.” It wasn't just Jesus' birth to a woman that restored to women a measure of the dignity that had once been lost in the fall, but it was his attitude toward them.

    Rebecca McLaughlin, an author who wrote the book “Confronting Christianity,” suggests that in the first century, and in a culture that devalued and often exploited women, Jesus' actions were striking. Jesus affirmed the equal status of women before God and sought to engage them on a personal level. In John 4, as we've seen, Jesus crosses all these barriers of gender and ethnicity and religion and sexual history and morality in order to not only speak with this woman but to engage in a theological conversation with her. John 8 tells us that Jesus saves a woman caught in the act of adultery from her male accusers who threatened to stone her to death by forcing them to acknowledge that they were not morally superior to her. In Matthew 9, Jesus commends a woman for her faith, a woman who had been suffering for 12 years from unrelenting bleeding, and he commends her for her faith because she knew if she just touched the fringe of his robe, she'd be healed. In Matthew 19, Jesus protects women, all women, from unwanted divorce, because especially in the first century, divorce would leave women destitute, because they had no means of making a living and providing for themselves.

    It is true that the original 12 disciples of Jesus were all men, symbolizing the 12 tribes of Israel as Jesus reconstitutes the people of God, what it means to be the people of God. And yet, Luke 8 emphasizes that there were a group of women who also followed Jesus from the very beginning of his ministry right up to the end. When the rest of the male disciples scattered after Jesus' arrest, the women remained. That is why they were the ones who saw Jesus die on the cross, they were the ones who saw his body laid in the tomb, and they were the ones who saw him resurrected again from the grave.

    There's a famous episode in Luke 10 when Jesus visits the home of Lazarus, Martha, and Mary — three siblings. While Jesus is at their home, Martha gets mad at her sister, Mary, because Martha's really busy preparing the meal while Mary is sitting at Jesus' feet listening to his teaching. Martha tries to get Jesus to take her side. She says, “Jesus, will you tell Mary to get back in the kitchen with me and to help me out?” Jesus refuses to do so. That expression, sitting at Jesus' feet, was a near-technical term for describing a disciple. Mary is assuming the posture of a disciple, taking in Jesus' teaching, and Jesus refuses to tell her to stop. Instead, he commends her for what she's doing and says that she has chosen the better portion. Women follow Jesus from the beginning of his ministry to the very end, and many of these women were people of means. They supported Jesus' entire public ministry through their own finances. We wouldn't have the ministry of Jesus apart from them. Despite the fact that women were not considered credible witnesses in the first century, and therefore we're not allowed to testify in a court of law, all four gospels without exception tell us that women were the first to discover the empty tomb, the first to meet the resurrected Jesus, and the first to tell others about him. The British pastor John Stott once summed this all up by saying, “Jesus canceled the curse of the fall. He restored to women the nobility that had been partially lost as a result of sin and he reclaimed for his new kingdom community, the original creation blessing of full sexual equality for men and women.”

    The Apostle Paul understood the significance of what Jesus had accomplished. He summed it up himself in his letter to the Galatians (3:28) with one of the most striking statements of equality. He says, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Paul is not suggesting that when we become Christians we lose our physical or our cultural or our social or our gender differences. That wouldn't be possible or desirable. He is not saying that when we become Christians, we're no longer different from one another but rather that we are no longer divided. When God rescues us from the down drag of sin, he doesn't make us all the same, he doesn't make us interchangeable, but rather he makes us one. 

    Judith Gundry is a professor at Yale and an expert on women and gender in early Christianity. She writes,

    “Paul’s ideal of one humanity without gender discrimination (Gal. 3.28) is grounded in the reality of incorporation into Christ by faith, but this is not understood to entail a rejection of the body that bears the marks of gender difference. A believer’s new identity in Christ does not erase maleness or femaleness, which Paul’s Jewish heritage taught him to value. Rather, it is as either women or men — not as beings beyond sex and gender — that Christians live out their new lives.”

    In other words, Jesus makes it safe again for us to live out rather than to obliterate our gender differences. Christianity is often denounced as patriarchal and sexist. But when you realize all this, you see that it's no wonder that women gravitated to embrace Christianity far out of proportion to men in the Greco Roman world of the first and second century. They were deeply attracted to Jesus and to Christianity because they rightly understood that Christianity is an equalizing rather than a dehumanizing force.

    Let me give you one final example of that as we conclude. The English author and historian Tom Holland wrote a book in 2019 titled “Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World.” One specific way in which the Christian revolution remade the world was in the arena of sex. In ancient Roman society, there were social rules about sex that were just completely different from our own today. In Roman society, sex was intimately tied to power. The body of a freeborn Roman man was sacrosanct. It was off limits. You couldn't touch it. But he could have sex with whoever he wanted, whenever he wanted, however he wanted. Men, women, young, old, slave, free — didn't matter. He could do whatever he wanted without repercussions or damaging his own honor, but it wasn't the case if you flipped things around.

    Jesus changed all that, because in Matthew 19, Jesus reiterated the ancient teaching from Genesis that God made us male and female, and a man shall leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. Jesus emphasizes the fact that marital sex is a one-flesh union. Therefore it gave to the marital relationship, and marital sex in particular, a new and rare dignity. The New Testament put an end to all double standards between men and women when it came to sex. Men were commanded to be as faithful as their wives. Not only that, in 1 Corinthians 7 men were told that they had to prioritize their wives' sexual needs as much as their own. No one in the ancient world had said anything like this. This was truly revolutionary stuff. Christianity not only purified but it equalized the marriage bed. That meant that mutual respect, mutual self-giving, mutual love became the norm. Holland suggests that the #MeToo movement would never have had the force that it has had in recent years if it didn't have the history of Christianity standing behind it with its unique sexual ethic which has dominated and controlled and transformed the Western world in which we live.

    So is Christianity sexist? To our shame, we have to admit that many people who call themselves Christians have thought and acted in sexist ways, but that can only be because they ignored or abused the Scriptures rather than reading them in light of the gospel. One essential reason why Jesus lived and died and rose again was to establish full sexual equality between men and women, and that is one of the things that we celebrate here at this table. Jesus rescued the woman who was caught in adultery. Likewise, he rescues all of us because he dies in our place. The stones that should have come toward us for our sins fall on him instead. Jesus heals the woman from that flow of blood and likewise heals all of us, because on the cross, his blood freely flowed in order to bring wholeness to us. Jesus commended women for sitting at his feet and receiving his teaching, because he said, “If you abide in my word, you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.”

    Jesus relied on women as the eyewitnesses of not only his life and ministry but also his death and his resurrection. We wouldn't know the fullness of who Jesus is or what he's accomplished for us without their testimony. Jesus offered the Samaritan woman and all of us the living water that only He can bring — the water that will well up within us, leading to eternal life, life that lasts, the kind of life that we long for, the kind of life that we were made for.

    Why can he offer us that living water? Do you know that on the cross, one of the last things that Jesus ever said was, “I thirst.” Jesus experienced cosmic thirst on the cross so that he might satisfy our existential need for something more than what this world alone can offer. Jesus gave his life for billions of women and men who have trusted him with theirs. McLaughlin asks the question, “Does Christianity denigrate women?” No, Jesus lifts women up into fellowship with God along with men as fellow co-heirs of the grace of Christ. Jesus doesn't perpetuate the battle of the sexes. No, Jesus establishes and empowers harmony between the sexes. He makes it safe for us to live out that harmony now together.

    Let me pray for us.

    Father, we acknowledge that we live in a world that has been torn apart by conflict and tension between men and women. We thank you for the mission of Jesus, that he lived and died and rose again to reestablish the full equality and complementarity and unity of the sexes. Help us to see the ways in which Jesus transforms our views so that we might become the people, as men and women, that you have uniquely called us to be, especially within this community of Central. We pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.