There is no question whatsoever that the books of the Bible were written against the background of strongly patriarchal societies, from the ancient Near East to the Greco-Roman world. In these societies, men’s and women’s rights were certainly not equal, and the subservience of women to men was virtually taken for granted. The question is: how much does the Bible continue to reinforce this mindset, and to what extent does it plant seeds for dramatic change?
On the one hand, there are Torah laws, which reinforce the status quo, such as a husband can nullify his wife’s vow to God (Num 30:13) and a husband can bring a charge to the priests if he suspects his wife has committed adultery (Num 5:11-15). There is no provision, however, for a wife to do the same.
In the New Testament as well, wives are urged to be submissive to their husbands (1 Peter 3:1-6), and it is taken for granted (or explicitly stated) that congregational leaders will be male.
However, there is much more that the Bible has to say about the importance of women and the status of women.
In the Old Testament, Deborah became the leader of the nation, known for her courage in the face of danger and putting other men to shame (Judges 4-6). She was Margaret Thatcher and Golda Meir several thousand years before their time.
There were also women who served as prophetesses, including Miriam, the sister of Moses, and Huldah, a contemporary of Jeremiah. The Old Testament even spoke of the day when both sons and daughters, male servants and female servants, would prophesy (Joel 2:28-32). The Holy Spirit would be poured out on everyone.
Even more significantly, the book of Proverbs ends with a lengthy passage (22 verses, in fact), praising a godly woman – not for her looks, but for her industriousness, her wisdom, her confidence, her entrepreneurship, her independence, and her spirituality. Read it when you have a chance (Proverbs 31:9-21), then ask yourself: how can a passage like this find its way into a so-called misogynistic book?
Going back to the New Testament, Miriam (Mary), the mother of Jesus, was highly honored, while a number of women played important roles in the life and ministry of Jesus. Not only so, but after He rose from the dead, it was women who first learned of His resurrection and women who were sent by Jesus to tell the other men. They, in turn, didn’t believe the women.
As for wives being called to submit to their husbands, the husbands had a responsibility too: “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:25).
Yes, husbands, you are called to love your wives the way Jesus loved the church, laying down your life for them. That’s a pretty high calling! There is some major reciprocity here, to say the least.
When we look at the life and ministry of the Apostle Paul – who penned the just-quoted words from Ephesians – there is a long list of women who were prominently involved in his own ministry work (see Romans 16), including Priscilla, who is normally mentioned before her husband, Aquila. Acts also tells us that both of them – again, with her name being mentioned first – instructed Apollos (Acts 18:24-26).
It was also Paul who penned the radical words that, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). The implications of this single sentence have been felt through the centuries.
To be sure, he was not saying that there were no such categories as Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female. Rather, he was saying that, in Jesus, there was no caste system or class system and that all were equal in Him. The implications of this were (and are) massive.
That’s why it is no wonder that, as the early Christian faith spread through the ancient world, women found it especially attractive.
In his 1996 book, “The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries,” respected anthropologist Rodney Stark explained: “Amidst contemporary denunciations of Christianity as patriarchal and sexist, it is easily forgotten that the church was so especially attractive to women that in 370 the emperor Valentinian issued a written order to Pope Damascus I requiring that Christian missionaries cease calling at the homes of pagan women.”
Stark also explained that, “Christian women did indeed enjoy considerably greater status and power than did pagan women.”
One primary reason was that “Christians did not condone female infanticide,” and in the ancient world, female babies were discarded at much higher rates than male babies. The spread of Christianity changed that, making infanticide illegal.
Stark also noted that, “the more favorable Christian view of women is also demonstrated in their condemnation of divorce, incest, marital infidelity, and polygamy. . . . Like pagans, early Christians prized female chastity, but unlike pagans they rejected the double standard that gave pagan men so much sexual license.”
So, the double standard that required sexual purity for women but not for men was also obliterated by the cross.
Stark also added that, “Should they be widowed, Christian women also enjoyed very substantial advantages,” noting that, “Close examination of Roman persecutions also suggests that women held positions of power and status within the Christian churches.”
This is not surprising in the least.
In sum, while the Bible is written against a heavily patriarchal background, with some of those patriarchal concepts reinforced in the biblical text, it is the very principles laid out in these books that have proved so emancipating for women through the centuries. (For information on traditional Judaism and women, see here and here.)
These principles combat unfair male domination, on the one hand, and radical feminism, on the other hand. They are principles of life and liberation, as hundreds of millions of Christian women can attest to today.
Dr. Michael Brown (www.askdrbrown.org) is the host of the nationally syndicated Line of Fire radio program. He holds a Ph.D. in Near Eastern Languages and Literatures from New York University and has served as a professor at a number of seminaries and is the author of 40 books. Connect with him on Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube.
The views expressed in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.