Evaluating the Bible’s Treatment of Women: Why Egalitarians Are Wrong and Everyone Else is Reprehensible

[This blog is provided courtesy of a friend of mine, pen name Francis Adams, who majors in Judaic Studies and will be discussing some of the bizarre and unsuccessful attempts to deny, disguise, or rationalize blatant chauvinism and sexism in the Bible.]

I would like to start with a few blunt statements, so the reader can know where this article is coming from and where it is going.

Statement #1: Sexism is, per the Merriam-Webster, “prejudice or discrimination based on sex.”

This simple definition is phenomenal because it is gender neutral; sexism can be levied against any individual, male, female, or otherwise, by holding them to sex-based social standards or discriminating against them based on their gender. Though sexism is usually associated with a “man-suppressing-woman” sort of mentality, I would like to make it clear that sexism hurts both genders equally.

Consider, for a moment, the common childhood taunt exchanged (typically) by male athletes: “You hit/run/throw like a girl.” Though a simple example, this phrase shows how sexism is hurtful to both genders; the phrase is not only offensive to girls in its assumption that they are naturally pitiful at this sort of physical activity, but it offends the socially constructed “maleness” of the boy by attributing him a sort of “femaleness,” which is understood by the group to be lesser. That is, not only is the girl probably not good at the sport because of her gender, the boy is supposed to be good at it because of his. The same sort of phenomenon occurs in the ongoing, though lessening, social problems with stay-at-home dads. While it is perfectly normal for a woman to be a stay-at-home mom, those who chose to be stay-at-home dads still find themselves underestimated or otherwise discriminated against. Conversely, women who fill the “bread-winner” role have been described as unnatural and even blamed for all of society’s problems, ever (I’m not joking, just watch Fox News).

Statement #2: The Bible is sexist.

Full of blatantly anti-woman statements and a plethora of power-based male stereotypes, the Bible is, like the majority of other ancient texts, extraordinarily sexist by our modern standards. This is a fact that many would like to ignore, and that many others seek to explain through various methods; however, it remains a fact nonetheless. (And, as a parenthetical side note, that the Bible is sexist by our standards is not at all surprising; the Bible is not an “eternal beacon of truth” but just an ancient text, and, just like many other ancient texts, it says some pretty offensive things. Just keep that in mind.)

Consider one of the more difficult to reconcile sexist Bible verses, 1 Corinthians 14:34-35:

“Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.”

Ouch. No matter how you slice this one, it is clearly sexist and anti-woman, ruling based on gender that the entire female class should remain silent in the group’s holy place as it is a disgrace for the female class to speak. A common defense of this argument, found for example in a Bible.org article that we will deal more with later, is that the statement “cannot be an absolute prohibition of women speaking in church, since earlier in this same epistle Paul writes about women praying (aloud) and prophesying in the church (11:5, 16).” While this defense may make the statement seem slightly less anti-woman, the defense does not matter at all in regards to the statement’s sexism. The gender-based prohibition cannot be ignored, no matter how much one tries to lessen the severity of it.

This is just one of many anti-woman statements in the Bible, which are too numerous to list in a reasonable amount of time. In the following paragraphs we will deal with some of the most infamous anti-woman statements.

(Also, note that as the specific focus of this article is the biblical treatment of women as a class, we will focus on those sexist elements of it that are specifically anti-woman. Just remember that for every woman that is socially expected to submit, there is a man that is socially expected to rule over her because of his gender. Power-based or positive stereotypes are stereotypes nonetheless. )

Statement #3: I hate sexism.

Hate it, passionately, completely, and entirely. As an ardent humanist, the issue of gender-based expectations is one of the most painful for me. From ridiculous things like wedding traditions (don’t even get me started) to innocent things like shopping for baby clothes (seriously, think about it: why are we so eager to genderize babies?), gender distinctions and stereotypes are pervasive, mind-bogglingly stupid, and largely exaggerated. There are some biological differences between men and women, sure, but there are also biological differences between races, and we generally agree in our modern society that those differences don’t matter (although racism is by no means dead). Ultimately, it bothers me that gender plays such a huge role in how we perceive each other, and I hate the sexism that often develops from the lines of slight difference.

That’s just a little something to keep in mind, as the rest of this article will explore biblical sexism.

I mentioned a little while back the Bible.org article that will serve as the backbone for the rest of this article. The article is a very well-written, extraordinarily biased apologetic by Dr. Kenneth Boa of Reflections Ministries. This article helpfully divides into four categories the approaches most often taken in understanding the Bible’s treatment of women as a class. These categories are:

1. Inferiority: This strain of thought holds that the Bible actually portrays women as inferior to men; in order to avoid this unpleasant fact, one must therefor ignore those portions of the Bible. Liberal theologians “for whom the Bible is not divinely inspired or authoritative,” espouse the idea that such offensive, anti-woman passages should not be at all considered.

2. Developing egalitarianism: This view holds that the Bible, though divinely inspired, is largely the product of an unenlightened, patriarchal society. Thus, though the Bible is contaminated by the world it was written in, it ultimately points towards the equality of men and women in the New Testament. According to the article, its end goal is to eliminate “all vocational and authoritarian distinctions between men and women.”

3. Consistent egalitarianism: The idea that the Bible has always promoted the equality of women and men, and that any passage seemingly contrary to this is a misinterpretation.

4. Complementarianism: (I’ll quote directly from the article here, as this view is the one that the article most completely favors) “This view understands the Bible to teach that women are equal to men in human dignity and worth, though intended by God to submit to male authority in the home and in the church. On this view the roles of women are complementary and different, not inferior.”

Let us evaluate the most reprehensible of these first, and progress onward to less reprehensible approaches.

So… “complementarianism.”

As aforementioned, the whole of the article after the introduction provides a stellar apologetic for the biblical treatment of women per the really, really offensive doctrine of complementarianism. The article deals with some of the more unsavory anti-woman passages of the Bible in an attempt to reconfigure them into something an enlightened individual could stomach.

For example, the article provides a more palatable explanation than has been traditionally held for 1 Timothy 2:14. The verse, which reads, “And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner,” has often been used in tradition to argue the anti-woman principle that women are more easily deceived than men. “But no!” shouteth the complementarian. In this passage, Paul (who is actually not Paul, but rather an impersonator lying about being Paul) is not characterizing “all women as more easily deceived” but rather is warning “that deception is likely when the man’s responsibility is abdicated or circumvented. That is, Eve was deceived, not because she was a woman and therefore more gullible, less intelligent, or less spiritually discerning, but because she chose to make such a radical decision without bringing the matter to her husband.” Of course! This passage cannot be anti-woman because it is saying that deception was caused by Eve’s failure to act under Adam’s authority. That makes it oodles better! -_-

Let’s look at another complementarian defense, this time of Ephesians 5:22-6:5, which lists three sorts of authoritative relationships: that of husbands and wives, parents and children, and masters and slaves. The article says of this passage, which has sometimes been argued to equate, by this parallelism, women to children and slaves (a very anti-woman sentiment indeed, but common in the ancient world), that, per word study, this parallelism is unwarranted. It reads, “In particular, it is striking that Paul tells children to “obey” their parents, and servants to “obey” their masters (6:1, 5), but does not tell wives to “obey” their husbands… It seems reasonable to conclude that Paul expected husbands and wives to function more like equals than parents and children, though wives were to defer to their husbands’ decision when consensus could not be reached.”

Again, such brilliance. They are really are equal, except she only defers to him in decision-making. It makes perfect sense (though I must say I’m glad no one has ever triedUnequal1 to justify social order with the “masters and slaves” paradigm, right? How silly would it be if you could use the Bible to justify institutionalized slavery?). Complementarians do a phenomenal job of making the Bible sound less anti-woman. They simply show us that women are “equal to men in human dignity and worth,” but just have a different role. As God has ordered it, women are somehow separate from men, but equal to them.

However…

In so far as it sticks to the intent and meaning of the biblical scriptures and the text’s treatment of women, complenemtarianism is in fact the most biblically accurate of the four approaches mentioned above. It sticks to the texts with a fervor that makes it unashamedly politically incorrect, and thus, while a bitter failure as a modern defense of biblical gender equality, it is the most biblically supported of the four.

So where, then, do theological liberalism and Christian egalitarianism come from? Good question. I wish I had an answer.

Let’s next examine developing and consistent egalitarianism, which will be lumped into one, as I think consistent egalitarianism is generally a stupid defense and covered in an examination of developing egalitarianism. The article mentions that what it calls “developing egalitarianism” others have called “Christian feminism;” the term swap mostly serves to remove ties to feminism’s more stigmatized elements. Whatever you call it, this method of egalitarianism mostly works by moving away from the literal Bible and into the world of fluffy philosophy Bible.

Let me explain. For example, Rebecca Merrill Groothuis, author of several books and articles on biblical gender equality, has this to say in her article “The Bible and Gender Equality” about womankind’s supposed shared role as the subservient complement to mankind’s authority. She begins by quoting the egalitarian’s favorite passage, Galatians 3:26-28, which reads, “So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” She also identifies the traditionalist position, which holds that these verses do not prove the equality of men and women, but rather show that men and women are saved the same way. The complementarian order still stands for the traditionalist despite what Galatians 3:26-28 seems to suggest.

But for egalitarian Groothuis, the complementarian order can be logically undermined. She writes:

“Because woman’s subordination is deemed intrinsic to God’s original creation design, and is necessary, permanent, and grounded in woman’s unalterable ontology, it cannot be merely a “role” that has no bearing on “being.” On the contrary, if female subordination is, in fact, divinely mandated and justified for all women for all time, then it logically entails women’s fundamental inferiority in being and not merely in function. Yet we know from Scripture that man and woman are created equal in being. Thus woman’s subordination is contradicted by woman’s equality. It is not logically possible for woman to be essentially equal to man, yet universally subordinate to man on the basis of an essential attribute (i.e., femaleness). And it won’t do to insist that even if it’s not logical it must be true because the Bible says so. Not even God can make a logical contradiction true; and if it can’t be true, then it can’t be biblical.”

Whew. Well, there you have it. Men and women must be equal, because the “role” of subservience is not grounded in a woman’s being, and is contradicted by her professed equality in Galatians and in creation. Or, you know, something like that. I was never much good at wading through philosophic jargon.

The point of the matter is that egalitarians, such as Groothuis, are less reprehensible to an enlightened modern society because they seek to remove all anti-woman and sexist elements from the Bible per lofty speculation, attributing the more despicable sexist verses to contamination of God’s word by imperfect writers in an imperfect world. In general, I myself respect the “moral” conclusion of the egalitarian far more than the conclusion of the complementarian.

However…

Christianity’s primary supporting element for its organization and existence is the Bible. I feel like sometimes, in an age where entire libraries are full of biblical exegesis, we forget that for Orthodox Christianity, the primary thing supporting its existence is the series of books that make up the Tanakh and, more importantly, the Christian New Testament. Thus, I think it is fair to be skeptical of any religious exercise that strays too far from the immediate sphere of the biblical, which egalitarianism certainly does. Though egalitarianism is more palatable to modern people, it makes its case by moving further and further away from the Bible to the point when you have to ask exactly where egalitarians are drawing their conclusions from. As is the case with much of liberal theology, I fear that the conclusions of many egalitarians are thought up on couches and armchairs, only tangentially related to the Bible and with no other basis in the real world. Thus, when trying to determine how the Bible treats women as a class, the egalitarians are mostly useless and ultimately wrong to try to attribute such deep philosophic turns to such an irrelevant ancient text.

The last category, that liberal group which recognizes the Bible’s view of women as inferior and choses to reject those passages, is in much the same situation. Do modern, enlightened people agree more with their conclusions? Yes. Are their methods reputable? Not even remotely. This group, being slightly more extreme than the egalitarians, chooses to ignore entire chunks of the Bible completely or to even assert that it is not divinely inspired, and even barbaric. And that confuses me completely. I’d like to end with a question to all liberal theologians who accept developing egalitarianism, or who reject the divine inspiration of the Bible entirely. Why, then, having no basis for your beliefs, do would you call yourself Christian? Why not remove entirely the roots of that ancient text and work with such issues as gender equality in the real world? To do otherwise makes no sense.

I lied when I said I was ending, for there is one more category that the Bible.org article misses entirely:

you-deserve-rape-e1367026267412[Further information about this incident can be found here]

See Deuteronomy 22:23-24 or 22:28-29. Sadly enough, a lot of fundamentalist claims, such as that made by my former classmate Brother Dean, have more biblical weight than those claims made by liberal theologians. Brother Dean and his ilk are extremely offensive to our modern sensibilities, and are extraordinarily anti-woman (for example, per 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, Brother Dean’s and his mentor Brother Jed’s female companions must be given permission by them to speak in public). This sort of anti-woman, sexist behavior is beyond despicable.

However…

Oftentimes, this offensive sexist speech is the most biblically supported, and oftentimes the views expressed by fundamentalists most closely match the Bible’s view and treatment of women.

Remember when I said that we shouldn’t be surprised at the sexism of the Bible, because it is just another ancient text that reads exactly like every other ancient text? I meant it. There is literally nothing especially special about the books of the Bible except that, together, they compose one of humanity’s most popular books. But in an enlightened society, should a text which shows no signs of eternal concern or elevated thinking really play such a big role in how we conceive of real world ideas like gender roles?

This article is not for the complementarians out there or for the fundies. Generally, I believe there is little hope that those with such ingrained sexism or anti-woman beliefs will ever come around on such issues. This article is for the liberal theologians, for those who obviously see there is a problem in their religion, because, in becoming liberal theologians, they are distancing themselves further and further from the source of sexism that is the Bible.

I was once a very staunch Christian, but I always had an issue with the Bible’s take on women. Even as a child, when my mother explained to me that, in a biblical marriage, the wife submits to the husband, I was horrified. My childish response then was that I would never get married. Though I stand by that response, I have even moved beyond it and after years of studying the Bible, have concluded repeatedly that there is nothing in it that really inspires or deserves my contemplation. This issue, the issue of the biblical treatment of women, is important to me because it is one of the main reasons I am no longer a Christian. For this and other reasons, the Bible is not suitable as an authoritative text in our modern world. I would merely ask that liberal theology reconsider from where, exactly, it is drawing its conclusions: if not from the Bible, why deal in theology at all? Why cling to Christianity when it is so obviously outdated?

-Francis Adams

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5 Responses to Evaluating the Bible’s Treatment of Women: Why Egalitarians Are Wrong and Everyone Else is Reprehensible

  1. Swimmy says:

    A quick and modestly unsubstantial note: another defense of the Bible is that many of the verses that are so horrendously sexist are interpolations. For example, the first quote in this post from Corinthians 14 is likely an interpolation; you can see Richard Carrier on this point. This defense is not typically available to fundamentalists but it is there for more liberal Christians. Likewise pointing out that the letters to Timothy and some other questionable passages are forgeries saves the Bible a little bit.

    But in the end, there are too many verses that are sexist without evidence of interpolation for this to work as a general defense of the Bible. It can only be a defense against a few very reprehensible verses, not the whole thing.

    • Yeah, I thought of that as well. But it’s not an escape hatch available to many fundamentalists. “The Bible is not sexist! It is just full of scribal interpolations and forgeries!” Of course, theologically liberal Christians may bite that bullet, but again, I really can’t fathom how much ground they can concede and still think the book is somehow relevant to anything.

      I say leave the interpolated and forged verses in there if they really want to take that trapdoor escape hatch 😉

  2. MrHolbyta says:

    Your treatment of developing egalitarianism is really a straw man. Many developing egalitarians hold to biblical inspiration, although not inerrancy. Indeed, I used to be one. (I probably cut the position some extra slack because of this.) The idea is not that the bible was corruptedby patriarchy. Instead, after the Fall, the world fell into patriarchy, a sinful system. The disgusting passages in the Pentateuch represent an attempt to contextualize god’s truth, egalitarianism, into a misogynistic society where someone teaching egalitarianism would, at best, be ignored. The prophets were consistently pulling god’s people toward god’s truth (not just in gender dynamics, but in general) and holding them toward a higher standard than surrounding groups.

    The Leviticus passage which exhorts rapists to marry their victims was thus an attempt to decrease the incidence of rape by holding the men accountable for the future they took away from the now undesirable women. In fact, one seminary prof told the story of a class which was discussing this passage when an international student said something like, “I wish we had this law in my community. It would make the men less cavalier about rape.” Likewise, the laws regarding women captured in conquest are meant to give the acquired women standing in society rather than lettingbthem be cast aside after their entertainment value was used up as it was suggested surrounding cultures did things. This is undercut by stories such as those found in the Greek Epic Cycle. E.g. Briseis, an awarded prize after Achilles conquered her city, was incorporated into Achilles household. Indeed, in Book XX of The Iliad, she expresses fear for her future should Achilles die.

    These reprehensible passages are said to be the beginning of a trajectory which includes Ruth, Naomi, Esther, Gomer, the Samaritan woman, and the women who are the first witnesses of the resurrection to its culmination in Gal 3:26-28 and Eph 5:21-33. Eph 5? Yes. The argument looks to an unusual construction in Paul’s Greek. vv 22-24 are a clause subordinate to the verb submit in v 21. Rather than having vv 25-27 be a parallel subordinate clause, Paul introduces a new main verb. In other words, it goes like this: “Submit to one another out of reverance for Christ; wives to your husbands as to the lord…Husbands love your wives as Christ loves the church…” Some people suggest that Paul wanted to continue the idea of mutual submissiom he sets up in vv21-24. Of course, this is problematic in light of the other dichotomies he explores in chapter 6 which are clearly dominant/submissive relationships, not to mention his other anti-woman passages such as 1 Cor 14:34-35.

    When recontextualizing these passages for our culture, the argument is that egalitarianism is where the trajectory ends. This idea of trajectories isn’t restricted to gender dynamics. It is argued for in many areas. Another example is that ‘Moses’ limits retributive justice with lex talionis. Jesus pushes that idea further with “turn the other cheek”. Essentially, any area of moral development along humanistic principles appears in scripture represents a progressive trajectory toward god’s ultimate ideal, which conveniently is modern humanistic morality.

    I left behind this position when I accepted my atheism, but think it deserves to be addressed on its actual terms, rather than the straw man you described.

    • Francis Adams says:

      Hi MrHolbyta, thank you so much for taking the time to read this article and to offer such constructive criticism. I am extremely glad that someone who has previously identified as a developing egalitarian would provide such insight.

      In my experience, it was extremely hard to find reliable developing egalitarian defenses of these issues, and I am glad that you have provided them. I apologize if my characterization of the position appeared to be a straw man, which was not my intent; rather, I was seeking to create a general overview of the various positions and their degrees. Hopefully, my oversight does not harm the overall conclusion of the article in your eyes!

      You bring up a multitude of good points. I love that you brought the issue into the context of the broader ancient world with the Greek pagan example. I do understand the Leviticus argument that you made, yet obviously I think that it could have been resolved by an all-knowing and all-moral god in a very different and very much more effective way. For example, instead of god commanding men to marry rape victims in order to spare them from them from being ostracized, god could have just commanded, “Don’t ostracize victims of rape!” So, even if the passage is trying to mitigate the problem, it is doing so in a very flawed, human, and anti-woman way.

      Additionally, I appreciate your assessment of the trajectory of developing egalitarianism. Specifically, I thought your explanation of Paul’s “submission verses” matched modern Christian interpretations that I have read. I do agree with you that the other dichotomies pose a huge problem to the idea of mutual submission, and I would love to hear any attempts to rationalize both mutual submission and the other authoritarian dichotomies, if you know of any.

      I realize that egalitarianism deals with more than just gender roles, but the purpose of the article was to focus on them specifically. Additionally, the broader point of this article was to show that developing egalitarianism does lead from barbarism to humanism, but that it must have to move further and further away from the Bible to do so, and from Abrahamic religion more broadly.

      If you would like to further discuss your process and reasons for leaving behind the developing egalitarian position, I would greatly appreciate it. Furthermore, if you have any recommendations for editing some of the sections of this article about the subject and tightening them up, your feedback is more than welcome.

  3. MrHolbyta says:

    I think your overall argument is absolutely sound. The bible certainly presents an attempt at social order and even compassion for those on the margins of society, but it seems more likely that they grow out of the ever changing and progressing cultural milieu of Israel and early Christianity than an omnipotent, omniscient, unchanging god contextualizing his message. Surely, such a god (especially a gender neutral god) would, if nothing else, employ more female metaphors for itself in its scripture to strengthen the notion that women were made in its image. Instead, by far the most frequent metaphors are male which feels more like man is made in god’s image and woman in man’s image, a lesser image. I think Ricky Gervais said it well (I paraphrase): “It’s like the bible was written by a bunch of angry, sadistic, misogynistic, xenophobic, sexually repressed men instead of an all-loving, all-moral god.”

    I think the trajectory arguments are the only refuge of those who want to take the bible seriously but are caught by their recognition of humanistic morality. I think those who hold to inerrancy will become more and more marginal due to the increasingly enumerated contradictions in the bible and the conflict between biblical accounts and empirically derived knowledge. Trajectories can only function in this middle ground. The problem is that it is a short road from inspired and contextualized by the paradigm of the author to written by some guy, god unneeded.

    Within the trajectory argument, the mutual submission verses can represent a waypoint on the trajectory and certainly allow for an egalitarian ethic with the modern hermeneutic of “understand the author’s intention within his context; take that principle and recontextualize it for our modern context.” I think the idea that Paul was a closet egalitarian is a bridge too far, though. Even in the undisputed epistles there is just too much misogyny, let alone the parallelism with children and slaves. At the end of the day, the Abrahamic religions are grounded in and enable, if not propagate, a patriarchal paradigm.

    Your comparison of the bible’s use to defend both patriarchy and slavery is very well taken. I also very much agree with your comparison between complimentarianism and separate but equal. This was always my problem with that paradigm. I never understood how women could have equal value if their opinions didn’t have equal value. I agree with you that inferiority and complimentarianism require the least hermeneutic work to support biblically. I think you can tighten up your article by focussing on complimentarianism and developing/trajectory egalitarianism because those are the two dominant positions held by people who take the bible seriously. I suppose there are those operating out of an inferiority model, though, so that is worth addressing separately. Consistent egalitarianism is just impossible to hold while taking the bible seriously.

    As for my journey, I no longer fit any category, because I no longer am Christian. I ran frommy implicit atheism all the way to seminary, but the bible and Christianity only became more problematic the more I studied it. I finally was able to accept my unbelief after reading A.C. Grayling’s The God Argument and his argument for humanism. It fits what I’ve long held to be true much better and I’m happier for it.

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