This is the seventh post in a series. I highly encourage that you read those previous posts before reading this one. The preface is here. The guidelines are here. A discussion of relevant Hebrew Bible texts is here. A study of Romans 1:26-27 is here. A Study of 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 and 1 Timothy 1:9-10 can be found here. A discussion about marriage in the Bible is here.
These are just a few thoughts that occurred to me in the midst of our discussion. None of this should be taken as “gospel,” – pun intended – but rather just my personal reflections on gender and the Bible.
In the current climate of discussion around homosexual practice, it has been argued that homosexuality may be wrong because it is an attack on traditional gender roles. Further, it is often said that these gender roles are rooted in scripture. Therefore, it is often argued that it is important that Christians should do everything in our power to oppose the confusion, disruption, and casting off of “traditional” gender roles that homosexuality represents. In this regard, I believe “they” are right. Homosexual people (as well as bisexual and transgender folks) do indeed seem to disrupt “traditional” gender roles. But, if Jesus taught us anything, it is that tradition that is not rooted in the scriptures AND love, may not be worth keeping. So what does the scripture say about gender roles?
Genesis 1:27 – “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”
What this verse indicates is that God has created humans in God’s image, and that, somehow, males and females both embody the image of God. The way I read this, which may be controversial, is that without a woman AND a man, one cannot fully reflect the image of God. Women are just as important as men, and without one or the other, God’s image on Earth would be incomplete. Of course, Jesus takes this to a whole other level, and does include the whole image of God in himself, though he is a man. I wonder what that says for the women-specific parts of God’s image that are present in Jesus? It seems that Jesus may have had to break traditional gender roles in order to fully image God on Earth. Maybe.
Deborah – In the Book of Judges, we are told the story of Deborah, a prophetess and a judge of ancient Israel, led the nation and spoke the words of God to the people. While many in our current Christian culture would find this offensive, as they misuse the Bible, it appears God has no problem with women both in leadership or teaching about God.
Ruth - a foreigner among Israelite people. She seduced and aggressively pursued a relationship with a man who was her social superior. Not a very good “woman.” And yet, God approved, even in the midst of the scandal, and used Ruth to support the lineage both of King David AND Jesus.
Esther – Esther was a Hebrew girl who was forced to parade around in some sort of Persian beauty pageant in order to be given the “prize” of becoming a bride to the current king. Esther happened to win, although her life was one of misery because there were powerful forces who wanted to kill her entire race of people. Unfortunately, Esther could not ask the king to help because he had issued an edict that his wives could not speak unless called for. Esther broke this rule, disobeyed her husband’s direct order, and was used by God to save her people. I guess God has less of a problem with women submitting to men than Paul did in some of his churches.
Isaiah 66:13 – “As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.”
It seems as if God is adopting a traditionally female gender roll. Hmmmm.
Jesus – Jesus broke gender norms all of the time. For example, it was very taboo for a man to meet a women alone, let alone talk of marriage with her. That would have been fine for women, though. And yet Jesus does that very thing. Jesus lets women touch him and his feet, another gender norm broken. Jesus weeps over Jerusalem, saying how he would have protected her like a hen (female) protects its babies. Jesus refuses to fight (a traditionally masculine trait), and cooks for his friends. He allows himself to lose an argument to a female, tells parables where God is represented by females, and indicates in Luke 11 that it is not by fitting in to traditional gender rolls that people please God, but by a person’s response in spirit and deed to God’s kingdom.
Of course, Galatians 3:28 puts a bit of an easy cap on all of this when Paul says that in Christ, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” Turning not only gender, but societal roles upside down.
Now, lest people think that I am being biased, there are indeed many verses which tell women to do some variation of submit, obey, listen, and be silent, either in marriage or at church, or society at large. However, these were all written after Paul’s writing of Galatians. Given that Paul knew and commended female deacons (Phoebe), allowed women like Pricilla and Eunice to teach others about the faith, met in a house church led by the woman Lydia, never-mind belonging to a church which was started when Peter quoted Joel as saying that daughters would prophecy, and God’s spirit would fall on men and women. Acts also tells us that there was a man who had 4 daughters who all prophesied. Now, how do you square Paul’s teaching about women being silent with those facts? Fairly easy, as it turns out.
If Paul, having an encounter with the risen Lord, comes to the conclusion that in Christ, women and men are equal, and experiences this both by looking at Old Testament examples (as above), knowing the life and teaching of Jesus, and seeing this lived out by those women in the church around him, he of course would teach in his earliest letter (Galatians) and would likely preach in the earliest churches that he started, that women were equal in every way to men. However, what would those churches look like, if, once Paul left them to their own devices, they believed Paul? What if the women started teaching and doing traditionally “male” things without all of the benefit of learning that the males had? It would likely lead to poor teaching. Also, it would upset social norms and make Christians look like rabble rousers and turn people off to the faith. So Paul, being a pastor first (a tendency we seem to forget) would write back to those churches, telling them that “I (Paul, not God) do not permit a woman to teach, etc… Of course, this is all in the context of Christians “mutually submitting to one another,” which is also readily forgotten by many today.
All of this to say, that the traditional gender roles that we hold today are not biblical ones, at least not in the best sense of the word. Perhaps a better way to seek gender roles is to look at Jesus, who never treated anyone as a gender-ed person, but as an individual. Jesus himself, in being the complete image of God, bore in his body both the male-like AND female-like image of God. Also, Jesus embodied the wisdom of God (the female version of the LOGOS in Proverbs).
In many areas of our lives that we take for granted, traditional gender roles have been broken, to no great harm. This does not mean that men and women are the same and must conform to the standard of each other in some sort of forced equality. It does however mean that God is more than capable of bringing good into the world through many variations on gender themes, not being limited to one culture’s rules about who should be acting like what simply because they have this or that reproductive part.
Jump to part 8, A discussion about biblical interpretation, here.