Is Christianity bad news for women?

Monday 10 July

Amy Orr-Ewing is director of the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics and has written two books exploring key apologetics questions:  “Why trust the Bible” and “But is it real?”  Here, VOX brings you a summary of her extremely detailed and extensive seminar as part of #Sligo17

Lots of people see the Christian faith negatively, primarily on moral grounds.  And yet when we think about it, the Biblical worldview has had such a positive impact on western culture:

  • The laws we have (do not murder, do not steal)
  • The rights of human beings (e.g. suffragette movement)
  • The example of William Wilberforce whose driving motivation in the abolition of slavery was the theme of justice in the Bible
  • The Civil Rights movement (you cannot read the “I have a dream speech” without seeing the influence of the Bible)
  • The more recent Jubilee campaign, which led the cancelling of billions in third world debt.

In Genesis 1, we read a vision of radical equality between men and women and a vision of radical dignity of each human being as made in the image of God.

Christian faith is not a “survival of the fittest” worldview where the elimination of the weak by the strong is to be expected or accepted.  Why not be sexist?  Why not dominate or subjugate other human beings?  My answer as a Christian is that the Bible says that every human being bears the divine image and therefore it matters how we treat human beings.  It also matters because the Bible says we will be held to account as to how I have lived.  Our actions have a relevance in eternity.

What is the cultural context for the question: “Is Christianity bad news for women?” 

Women in the west face three main challenges:

1) Objectification

Objectification is treating an individual as an object.  In the last 20 years, women in the west have increasingly been viewed as objects.  This has consequences.  When women are “objects” they are subtly regarded as less competent then men.  An entire gender exists to satisfies others’ desires. By being made into an “object” they are viewed as less human.

The message of creation is that God created male and female. Both have value and dignity.  All humanity bears the divine image - men and women together!  Objectification denies the value of humanity.

2)  Self-objectification

Modern society has led to women viewing themselves through the lens of an objective observer rather than having an essential and internal view of themselves. What that has led to is the habitual monitoring of appearance, body shaming, disordered eating, anxiety, etc.  This is self-objectification.  The culture encourages young women to view themselves through the eyes of others and the impact is devastating.

Focusing on a women’s appearance will promote reduced perceptions of her competence.  This is what is at stake in our culture.  Does the church have anything to say?

3) Sexual Violence

An epidemic is affecting western society. 52% of women in UK have reported experiencing unwanted sexual behaviour at work such as groping, unwanted sexual advances and extreme sexual “jokes”.  This statistic increases to 63% of young women in the workplace.  One third of female university students have experienced sexual assault or unwanted sexual advances.

A philosophy or worldview that challenges these cultural trends of objectification, self-objectification and sexual violence would be powerful, counter-cultural good news!

But can we hold the church up as any kind of example?  Aren’t there awful realities within the church?  Didn’t people who owned slaves go to church?  Haven’t priests abused children? Haven’t corrupt individuals preyed on the most vulnerable even within the church?  The answer is “Yes they have.”

As a consequence, many people have come to the conclusion that Christianity is bad news because that was their own experience!  This is a serious subject for us today.

How has Christianity been bad news for women?

In particular in the restrictive idea that there are particular roles and spheres of life open to women and particular roles and spheres that are closed.

In the Bible, women played a wide range of roles and operated in different spheres.  My PhD was on Dorothy Sayers - one of the first women to be allowed to graduate from Oxford. She was asked, “Why would women want to know about Aristotle?”  She replied, “What women want as a class is irrelevant.  What matters is that I want to know about Aristotle and I would submit that there is nothing in my shape or bodily functions that would prevent that!”

On a recent TV debate, someone said that the Creation narrative leads to women being “scapegoated”.  Yet this flies in the face in the essential equality of male and female set out in Genesis.

Christianity has been bad news for some women who have had negative experiences.  But within the wider cultural context, this question is more crucial than ever. Does the Christian worldview have anything to say to a culture that objectifies women?  To settle this question, we need to go back to the source material.  We can have different experiences but the question we need to ask is, “Are those experiences warranted by the example of Christ and by the texts He upheld?”

What does the Bible have to say about this?  Throughout the Bible there are numerous images and stories about women.

Old Testament

One of the first descriptions of Eve is as Adam’s helper.  The Hebrew word is “ezer.”  The visual image is of a women at home with an apron on - this is a stereotypical sexist image.  Yet, every other time this Hebrew word “ezer” is used in the Old Testament it is describing God.  God is humanity’s helper.  It is a picture of interdependence and love, not dominance and subjugation. 

Eve was also the recipient of the first redemptive promise of the Bible (the messiah would come).

Proverbs 31 outlines the female role model.  She assesses, buys and sells property (businesswoman / entrepreneur), she employs multiple people (employer), she plants vineyards (strategic thinking), she studies (scholarship) and teaches others, she cares and provides for the poor (social justice), she commands the respect of influential people, she is creative (the arts), she is able to laugh at the future (forward thinking), she has authority in her home, she speaks wisely and has capacity to encourage.  This is not describing someone crushed under the weight of domination.

God put this image in the Bible to inspire us to think about the role of women as a whole.  You are not discarded.  You are valued and purposeful.  You can be involved in multiple roles and spheres of life.

Women in the Old Testament were called to be prophetesses: Miriam, Deborah, Huldah, Isaiah’s wife.   Joel predicts that in the last days both men and women would be prophets.  In the story of Josiah, they went to a relatively unknown prophetess rather than to a man.  There is little if any prejudice against a women’s offering of prophesy.

Women played a role in leading worship.  Women and men were equal in prayer.  In particular, women prayed directly to God.  They did not need the priestly mediation of a husband or father. 

The text does contain horrific stories of rape and violence but these are a factual account.  The Bible does not condone what happened.

The laws were an ancient text given to a patriarchal society.  Christians read that text through the lens of Christ.  Even the old laws empathise with the sufferings of women.  In the incidental way that women’s lives are described, there is tenderness and value.

We see many central male heroic characters but heroes are not exclusively male.  In the ancient context, it is radical that women are written about in heroic terms (women like Deborah, Rahab, Ruth, Esther).

Perhaps even more striking is that feminine imagery is used to describe who God is and what He is like.  God draws an analogy between Himself and a warrior and between Himself and a women giving birth.  (Isaiah 42)

New Testament

In the New Testament, there are a number significant events involving women.

In the encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan women, one little verse sheds light onto the cultural context.  In John 4:27 the disciples returned and were astonished to find Jesus talking with a woman.  The word used is strong.  It was earth-shattering to them that Jesus was talking to a women.  This was the context of Jesus’ ministry.  In a culture in which the idea of a women having the status of a disciple was unheard of, Jesus had several women disciples.  These women were helping to support Jesus out of their own means.  They had a role of financial support for the entire enterprise. 

This was in a cultural context that was summed up by one Jewish writer,“Bad temper and shame hold sway where the wife supports a husband” and yet Luke tells us that Jesus allows women to support him financially.

When Mary was sitting at the feet of Jesus, she was engaged in theological study, much to her sister’s annoyance.  Jesus says, “This will not be taken from Mary.”  In the first century, disciples would sit at the feet of a rabbi.  This privilege of studying Torah under the tutelage of a rabbi was strictly for men only.  By sitting at the feet of Jesus, Mary was assuming the role of a rabbinical student.  Martha was raising a theological question, “Is it appropriate that Mary is taking on a man’s role and neglecting the women’s roles?”

The implication here is that restrictions on women’s roles will not be allowed to continue under the new covenant.  Mary is affirmed as worthy of a rabbi’s instruction.

After Lazarus’ death Martha herself is taught one of the most important theological truths, “I am the resurrection and the life…” She is the recipient of that tremendous theology. It is very powerful.  It seems that in contrast to the cultural norms, Jesus made a habit of revealing great theological truths to women.

The first person who knew the identity of the Messiah was a woman (John 4).

Jesus also teaches and speaks about women in a fresh way.  His parables are drawn from the life experience of both men and women.  They are gathered together intentionally reflecting the different life experiences of those listening.  From mending a garment (female) to making wine (male). 

In Luke 15, He uses the parable of the shepherd searching for the lost sheep but also a parable of a woman searching for a lost coin to describe how the Father seeks the lost.

Women played a critical and crucial role as the primary witnesses of the events surrounding the coming and ministry of the Messiah.

  • The virgin birth was primarily witnessed by Mary (incarnation).
  • The cross - a group of women were present at the crucifixion and watched Jesus die (atonement). The only male disciple who did not desert Jesus was John
  • The resurrection - the first witnesses to the resurrection. (resurrection)

The word of women was considered to have less value than the word of a man and yet the most significant moments were witnessed first hand and primarily by women.  This is often used as strong evidence for the veracity of the Gospel accounts.  It was unthinkable to put women as eyewitnesses in that culture.  The Gospel writers would not have done so unless they had no alternative.

We have heard about the bad things the church has said and done.  Our decision must be made as to whether the bad behaviour of the church are justified by Christ’s example or teaching.

Writing in the 1950s, Dorothy L Sayers said:

“Perhaps it is no wonder that women were first at the cradle and last at the cross. They had never known a man like this Man - there never has been such another. A prophet and teacher who never nagged at them, never flattered or coaxed or patronised; who never made arch jokes about them, never treated them either as "The women, God help us!" or "The ladies, God bless them!"; who rebuked without querulousness and praised without condescension; who took their questions and arguments seriously; who never mapped out their sphere for them, never urged them to be feminine or jeered at them for being female; who had no axe to grind and no uneasy male dignity to defend; who took them as he found them and was completely unselfconscious. There is no act, no sermon, no parable in the whole Gospel that borrows its pungency from female perversity; nobody could possibly guess from the words and deeds of Jesus that there was anything ‘funny’ about woman's nature.”

In our context, it is the humanity of women that is at stake.  That is what sociologists tell us.  Jesus Christ speaks to this question by upholding the value of human life as male and female created in the image of God.

What about the church?  When we come to look at the place of women in the early church is there a dissonance between Jesus’ example and the early church practice?  The New Testament ascribes numerous different roles to women.  We encounter women who teach theology (Priscilla, with her husband, taught Apollos).  It is unusual to see the women’s name listed first. This indicates that she was doing the teaching rather that simply assisting her husband.

We also have women presented as deacons - Romans 16.  Phoebe was being described with the male form of the title, which was given to other senior leader.  She was also described as being “prostatis” - a word that occurs in other Greek literature of the time and can be translated “leader, ruler, protector.” This is a word about leadership and Paul is strongly affirming her ministry.

Women are also prophets - Acts 21.  Philip had four unmarried daughters who prophesied.

There is also evidence that a woman may have been known as an apostle although this is disputed by many.  At the end of Paul’s letter to the Romans, he says, “Greet Andronicus and Junian” who are “outstanding among the apostle” In the Greek, the name “Junian” could be either male or female.  When the early church writers wrote about “Junia” this was taken to be a feminine name. 

While some contest it, it seems possible and even likely that Junia was a female apostle regarded by Paul as “outstanding”.

The difficult passages

1 Corinthians 11

This is a passage about headship and it is taken by some that men are given a biblical mandate to dominate their wives.  Yet, whatever “head” means in this context it cannot mean domination and hierarchy.  If this is talking about leadership, it is talking about Biblical leadership and what does Jesus say about that?  Gentile political leaders use their authority to dominate those under their care but not so with you!  Even if it means leadership, it means servanthood. 

1 Corinthians 14

This talks about women being silent in a church.  It is must be read in context.  This is not saying that women are to be silent at all times.  Paul was writing dealing with disturbances and chatting over others.  In other words - please be quiet and don’t disturb other people.

1 Timothy 2 

Paul says, “I do not permit a woman to teach or have authority over a man.”  This is more controversial because it is taken to say that women should not teach or have authority in any church.  There is a tension (contradiction) because Paul describes Priscilla, Phoebe and others as exercising authority and teaching (etc.)  Some say this verse overrules all the rest.

However, 1 Timothy is written into the context of Ephesus, a pagan city.  It was totally dominated by the temple of the goddess Artemis. That goddess was primarily served by a cult of female priestesses who used their sexuality to dominate men. They refused to have children because they saw childbearing as tainting them.  In this Gentile context, the church in Ephesus has converts from among the women who had been dominating men.  Paul is correcting the bad theology / imbalance/ extreme of the culture.  He says women will be saved through childbearing - in other words, childbirth will not “taint” you or bring you down.  Ultimately, we are saved through the child born of a woman - Jesus Christ.

Jesus was radically counter cultural in his treatment of women.  Patriarchy is not a logical outworking of Jesus’ teaching.  Truth matters. Ideas have consequences.  If male and female are equal bearers of the divine image then one gender cannot subjugate or dominate the other.  From a humanistic point of view, if we are “just slime” and here by chance, then there is no reason to be overly concerned about the domination or subjugation of other human beings because it is “survival of the fittest” or natural selection at work.

The divine pattern for humanity is upheld in Jesus.  Jesus teaches and demonstrates an expansive vision of human flourishing. Where the church may have failed women, Christ gave humanity the perfect pattern of how to affirm the true humanity of women. 

Elaine Storkey says, “After all, the church recruits from the human race.  Thus we are not surprised by the failure of individuals or institutions.  But we will not be disappointed by Jesus.”

Christianity is not bad news for women if you look at Christ.