A woman must quietly receive instruction with entire submissiveness. But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet. For it was Adam who was first created, and then Eve. And it was not Adam who was deceived, but the woman being deceived, fell into transgression. But women will be preserved through the bearing of children if they continue in faith and love and sanctity with self-restraint.
-The Apostle Paul, 1 Timothy 2:11-15 (NASB)
As someone who is obsessed with these sorts of things, I’ve written a few times about what the bible says about women. I usually conclude that the bible is somewhat unclear, and perhaps even contradictory, towards this subject and is forced to rely heavily on outside interpretation.
For example, Proverbs 31 speaks of woman who buys real estate and makes fabric to sell for profit. But some have argued that the woman described here does this all from her home and solely for her family’s interest. The book of Judges talks greatly of Deborah, a female judge, while at the same time much of the Old Testament law seems to view women as little more than property.
The New Testament definitely has occasions where it takes what can be considered as a more progressive view of women. The apostle Paul makes several references to women pastors and leaders in the early church—though much of the names in these passages have been altered to the masculine form in many current translations—and wrote in Gal. 3:28 that there is neither “male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus”. These passages can certainly be used to advocate gender equality. However, Paul also says that women should be silent in church (1 Cor. 14:34-36, 1 Tim. 2:11-15), and also submit to the rulership of man (1 Cor. 11:3, Eph. 5:22-24, and Col. 3:18).
The response I receive from Christians is usually a cry for context. It was said that certain passages of scripture—specifically those from the Apostle Paul—can only truly be understood when viewed through the lens of the time and culture that they were written in. For example, Paul’s admonition that women remain silent in church (1 Tim. 2:11-15) was due to the fact that women at the time were uneducated and illiterate and tended to disrupt the teaching by asking their husbands questions. The argument being that Paul didn’t intend this passage as doctrine for all women but was speaking to a specific group. The fact that this explanation is questionable—only 8 to 10% of the world was literate at that time, which means that the husbands would probably be just as confused and barely more informed then their wives during church—is, in the practical sense, irrelevant.
The fact of the matter is that, whether the bible condones it or not, women have been greatly abused and oppressed by the hands of religion and this is something that needs to be addressed.
The philosopher Bertrand Russell has said that, “[t]he Christian ethics inevitably, through the emphasis laid upon sexual virtue, did a great deal to degrade the position of women”. He explains that since men are the writers of moral code, women were made out to be the temptress. Instead of taking responsibility for man’s own lust and depravity they focused the blame on their object of desire. Russell goes on to say, “[s]ince woman was the temptress, it was desirable to curtail her opportunities for leading men into temptation; consequently respectable women were more and more hedged about with restrictions, while the women who were not respectable, being regarded as sinful, were treated with the utmost contumely”.
This is the reason behind the burkas and head-scarves in the middle-east.
This is the attitude behind the rape victims who “had it coming” because of the way they dressed.
This is the logic behind the amazingly crude and forward propositions for casual sex that my female friend is berated with from Christian men simply because she is not a Christian and, therefore, must be “up for it”, while their Christian girlfriends are held to a higher standard and expected to remain “pure”.
Of course, to blame the oppression and mistreatment of women entirely on the church is unfair. It has only been within the last hundred years that the sciences have conceded that women do not, in fact, have smaller brains then men. Women have truly been beaten down and marginalized by most cultures and belief systems for the vast majority of human history. But at the same time, this is largely where one can find great fault with Christianity as a whole.
It is not the fact that Christianity is so different that causes an issue, but the fact that it is so much the same.
It was only until several years after the rise of feminism that people started to look into the historical context of what Paul has said. Why was no one (except maybe a small minority) boldly discussing such things in the 1950’s, or even better, in the 1450’s? Why was it that the second and third generation of Christianity (who had a considerably better idea of the bible’s historical context) did not write treatises explaining why Paul wrote the way he did? Imagine how much better the world would now be if people of faith had taken an egalitarian view of gender from the beginning. Instead, it seems that the church simply followed the cultural norms of the secular world and was actually reluctant to change until there was a great deal of outside pressure. This seems to be true of not just women, but also issues of civil rights, slavery, environmentalism, the plight of the impoverished in developing countries, and many other issues.
Christianity has long claimed to be a people “in the world, but not of the world”. They are a people set apart. A peculiar people with peculiar beliefs who have set themselves against the spirit of the world. This is certainly true in regards to language, dress and other cultural idioms, but what of the larger picture?
What of the important issues of social justice and equality?
Does the Church at large live up to its own claims?