Samaritan Woman

Q/A: Is the Bible’s View of Gender Outdated?

Question: I’m wrestling with the balance of believing the Bible to be true but also feeling like some parts of it either don’t make sense or don’t seem to apply to modern life.

For example, how do I live as a Christian woman in the 21st Century? Am I supposed to be complementary to men in leadership? There to help, but not to lead in the church as it seems to say in 1 Timothy 2, Titus 2, and 1 Corinthians 11? As much as I feel shame for even saying this, those passages kind of make me mad and just don’t seem to line up with the character of God that I feel like I know and understand. It feels like something old and biblical that shouldn’t be applicable today. But picking and choosing parts of the Bible to believe in feels wrong too. 

I appreciate your honesty about struggling to trust the Bible in our context. Let’s start there, and then we’ll get into the gender issues specifically. 

First off, I understand the tension you’re feeling. Please do not feel shame over it. If the Bible seems easy to anyone, they’re getting it wrong. Often it’s those passages which offend us most which have the most to teach us–not merely by correcting us (“Oh you thought women were equal to men? Wrong! Now you’ve been put in your place!”). No, not like that at all. In a much deeper way. It’s the passages which don’t say what you think they should say, which, if you give them time and trust, end up showing you things about reality, about yourself, and about God which you never could have seen otherwise. At least, that has been my experience. 

Almost everything Jesus said, for instance, was designed to offend someone. The Bible is not just giving us information which we’re supposed to submissively download. The Scriptures speak to our HEARTS. And our hearts don’t just download things. We have to wrestle. God understands this. He actually named his people “those who wrestle with God.” The Bible is there to teach your heart how to love and trust, not just to teach your head what to think and believe. That is secondary. People who think that doctrinal knowledge is the primary goal end up getting the doctrines wrong anyway (even when they seem right). 

Consider Peter in Mark 8: “You are the Christ!” And then, Jesus: “Get behind me Satan!” What was more important? That Peter submissively downloaded the fact that Jesus was the Messiah, even though he had no idea what that meant…OR…that he patiently, stubbornly learned to trust Jesus, even to the point of accepting that the Messiah would not be AT ALL what he had hoped? The tension you’re feeling right now might be telling you something so deep that it could take months or years to work out. That’s okay. Be patient with it. Trust God with it. Stay. Wrestle. Remember when Jesus said, “You have to eat my flesh and drink my blood,” and a whole bunch of his followers deserted him? Why would Jesus say something like that? Because he had to be clear–offensively clear–that he was not going to be the sort of Messiah his followers wanted him to be. Rather, he was going to be something much better (more than they wanted, not less), but the only way to have them come to grips with that was to challenge/thwart/offend their current understanding. He had to break them out of their tiny worlds. But that’s no fun. Most people hate it. So, in the story, many of them deserted him. But some of them stayed. And trusted. Probably they were just as offended as everyone else. But they stuck around and over time they saw who Jesus really was–not a cannibalistic cult leader, but the Bread of Life himself, the Savior of the world. So again, embrace the struggle. God is in the tension. 

Now to the case you mentioned, about women. It’s good to consider what kinds of tension these texts bring up. Here’s a few different types I see:

  1. Tension within the text itself.
  2. Tension b/t the text and our current cultural norms (21st Century America).
  3. Tension b/t these passages and our own personal experience.

1. There is significant tension regarding gender roles within the Bible itself. For example, Paul, who wrote all the passages you mentioned in your email, also commands husbands to love their wives “as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” He also commands husbands and wives to “submit to one another.” These two ideas were very countercultural in his time. In the first, the man is called to make himself lower than his wife (do not underestimate how radical this statement is). In the second, the two are called to submit mutually (i.e. equally) to one another. And, like you said, there are other passages in which wives are called to submit to their husbands, whatever that means, and others in which women are told not to have authority over men in the church, whatever that means. I say “whatever that means” not to make light of these passages, but because I assume we generally don’t know what these specific passages mean (any more than we know what it means for husbands to love their wives as Christ loved the church). The more you read the Bible, the harder it becomes to say precisely what any one passage “means” on its own. Not because it’s vague, but because it’s so multidimensional. Every passage informs every other passage. It’s just such a deep well. We’re usually only scratching the surface. Not that you can’t understand it. But you have to live with it, and try it out for a while, to see what it really means. The modern reader is used to reading in order to gather straightforward facts and concepts. When we do that, we often find that different passages seem to contradict one another (like the ones I mentioned above). But that’s not right. It’s more like all the different passages are brushstrokes in one gigantic painting. At one point all you see are black brushstrokes. At another point, all you see are white brushstrokes. Perhaps you prefer the white strokes and are offended by the black. Perhaps someone else you know prefers the black and is offended by the white. Either way, what you find as you continue to read (and live) is that neither of you were really seeing very much of the truth. The only way to see what the individual brushstrokes mean is to zoom out. No single brushstroke can tell the whole truth. The truth is found in the painting as a whole. But, of course, you also see the painting differently depending on how you frame it and where you hang it and who’s looking at it. Which brings me to the next couple of points… 

2. There is obvious tension between the Bible and our current cultural norms. Gosh, there are too many ways to talk about this. Let me just stick with one simple idea for the time being. The Bible is not a straightforward, modern document. Even when it’s talking about things that you would think are “black and white” like ethics, you find that the Bible is more often “black and white” (as in, strangely playing both sides). “Thou shalt not kill,” apparently doesn’t even mean thou shalt not kill, because the same God who gave that commandment also seems to command his people to kill people. So…nothing is quite as it seems, especially to the modern reader who is just there saying, “Give me the answer, please.” That’s…not how the Bible works. Again, it wants you to wrestle. It wants you to feel the tension of the white brushstroke, “thou shalt not kill” (Ex. 20:13) and the black brushstroke, “whoever sheds the blood of man, by man his blood shall be shed” (Gen. 9:6). Both brushstrokes have their own individual meaning within the painting, sure, but they only find their true meaning when they’re seen together in the painting. Actually, no, they find their true meaning when seen next to the brushstrokes which depict a man on a cross–God Himself–his own innocent blood being shed by, and for the sake of, a murderous world. That’s when the true meaning of those passages starts to come to light. You see? The passages are painting a world, which is not the world we’re used to picturing ourselves in. We picture ourselves living in 2020 America, where all the rules of the game are being given to us by the loudest and most attractive voices of our age. And inasmuch as that’s the world we’re living in, then yes, the Bible makes no sense. Think about it: why would you, especially if you’re a woman who’s finally being given a break in this merciless, male-dominated world, ever willingly “submit” to anyone, especially to a man, even if he is your husband? Come to think of it, if you’re a man–a husband, say–and you’re actually starting to lose your power for the first time in the history of your society, why would you give it up willingly? Why not rather fight to retain your dominance? I don’t think the world of 2020 America has a good answer to either of these questions. 

But…when you read the Bible, it reminds you and invites you into another kind of world. Jesus himself is saying to you, “The kingdom of God is at hand.” That is, “Welcome to a world in which the endless power struggles finally find their end. Welcome to a world in which something else is more powerful than power. In which ‘submission’–even to death on a cross–is the means by which your messed up world can finally be transcended and saved. I know it sounds crazy. But a new world has arrived. Live in it with me. And soon, very soon, you will see it eclipse the old world which you thought was so real and permanent.”  

I’m not saying that there is an obvious right way to submit. As I have already said, I don’t think it’s easy to know how to live out any particular passage in the Bible. In fact, if I’m honest, I don’t think we’re called to base our whole way of life off of particular passages in the Bible, any more than I think we’re called to live out “thou shalt not kill” as though it were its own self-explanatory ethic for life. Rather, I think we’re called to live in the painting. Live in that world: the world in which ‘submission’ is not what your culture thinks it is (weakness). Perhaps it’s not even what the church you went to growing up thinks it is! But there’s no doubt what the Bible thinks it is: submission is an act of trust in God, of becoming like him, of picking up your cross and following him. It is an act of love that changes the world. We know this is true, because Jesus proved it. And yes, submission is scary. After all, it is a kind of death. No wonder we hate the very thought of it! But if we live in the world of the kingdom, we also know how such a death ends: in transformation and new life. Of course, that doesn’t make submission any less scary. But it does make it worth our consideration. 

3. There is a tension between these texts and our personal experiences. We can’t do justice to a topic like this without recognizing personal experience. You or I may have all kinds of valid reasons to distrust the words in these passages, not because we distrust God, but because of our own experiences of those very words being twisted by other people. Every word and thought–including every word and thought in Scripture–can be perverted to some evil purpose. The serpent was already doing it in Genesis 3! This does not make God’s words less true, of course, but when his words are used to such ends, the wound goes deeper. Sometimes the wound goes so deep that it does affect our trust in God. I see this happen all the time. I think it’s why the Bible is SO unwavering about people in authority being held more accountable. Our own distorted expressions of Christianity really can destroy other people’s faith in God. But for all those who have been left out in the cold by a distorted version of Christianity (in one way or another), God has not left you. He’s even madder than you are about it (read what he has to say about false prophets in the Bible!). And he is also able to heal any wound, even that wound. Sometimes our wounds take us to a place where we feel like we can’t trust anyone, not even God. But living without trust–in God and other people–is like breathing without air. He doesn’t need much–even just a mustard seed will do–and the oxygen begins to return to the lungs, then to the bloodstream.

Finally, I want to be clear again that I am not prescribing to you a particular kind of submission either to your future husband or to men in general (I don’t even know what the latter would mean!). I personally attend a church–and have pretty much always been in churches–in which women are ordained, preach and teach, and have almost every kind of leadership role. I am very comfortable in that world. Also, my wife is a very strong woman, and I think God made her, beautifully, that way. My main point is simply this: the assumption that “submission” is a negative and harmful thing, either for women or for anyone else, is flawed. Such a view has lost sight of–or else never could see–the kingdom of God. How that submission is to be lived out in the world…that is a deep mystery. But it’s a mystery that is worth exploring. Finally, finally, it is also worth saying: While I don’t have any particular direction for how women (or men) should submit, I do think the Bible is clear that men and women are different. And if we are different, our roles will probably look different. If we are different, the ways in which each of us are called to interact may look different, at least inasmuch as gender matters. In many cases in our culture, obviously gender doesn’t matter very much. But sometimes it does. For the most part, men and women are obviously very similar. But those few, subtle, mysterious ways that we are different seem to matter a great deal. Again, it’s not always obvious how they matter. But to me, it’s another one of those great mysteries that is worth pondering for a lifetime. (And I think our culture is particularly bad at this.) For instance, the way my wife needs to be loved is very different from me, not simply because she is a different person, but because she is a woman and I am a man. Her womanliness (ha) in my life is something that inspires me and opens my soul to things I could have never seen otherwise. She completes me, in large part, because she is so different from me. I think that’s part of the mystery the Bible seems to want to address. But I don’t think it does so in a straightforward way–not in a way you could see just from reading one or two passages. Again, you have to learn to look at the whole painting as best you can. And then to try to live in it.

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