Any time there is a discussion about men and women and the Bible, there’s a lot of baggage. Paul is often considered kind of a sexist jerk, and there’s often a sense of resignation, tension or even hostility when we start talking about men and women and the Bible. Part of the push back from defenders of 50 Shades of Gray is that Christians are in no position to point fingers; after all, hasn’t the church oppressed women for 2,000 years?
I am going to argue that that the Bible offers a compelling vision of how life in Christ shows us how to flourish as men and women for the glory of God.
The Early Church was flooded with far more women than men. It was so lopsided that Christianity was mocked for being a religion for women and children. Tatian (AD 110-172) recalls that the Greeks who write against Christianity “. . . say that we talk nonsense among women and boys, among maidens and old women . . .” We don’t hear much about how, for the first 100 to 200 years, women were deeply involved with the growth of the church. Something was happening in this community that was incredibly compelling to women.
I think we often miss this because of a common problem: we don’t see the forest for all the trees. In other words, we get so hung up on the tree blocking our view– submit, headship, obey, don’t speak in church, cover your head – that we miss the beauty of the landscape. My goal it so help us look at the forest.
We have to start by understanding what the Mediterranean world was like when Jesus lived and when the Bible was written. Most of the discussion will be about married people, because the culture was built around the family. However, the principles are broader, so if you are single, hang with me. There’s a gold mine here.
Rome believed the family unit was a microcosm of the state, and the state was meant to mirror the life of the gods. As the family went, so went the country. For this reason, Rome insisted in the stability of the family structure. When occasional groups would spring up and promote a different style, Rome would crush them as seditionists or traitors.
Aristotle is famous for his Household Codes, a list of obligations that wives, children and slaves had to the husband/father. Many other codes have survived, but they all follow the same basic pattern – women, children and slaves submit, obey, etc. Aristotle had claimed that “The one gender is far superior to the other in just about every sphere,” and that the women have the ability to deliberate about things, but without authority.
An upper class Greek or Roman husband was the pater familias, the head of the family (like Augustus was the head of Rome). His word was law. His wife, kids, and slaves were all simply possessions. He could kill his children or divorce his wife on a whim. Sarah Ruden (Paul Among the People) notes that men believed that they were entitled to extract sex from their wives by violence. It’s a common “meme” in Greco-Roman literature. If a wife would not have sex, she could be beaten.
Many men – especially the aristocrats - had three significant women in their lives: their wife, their mistress, and their concubine. Demosthenes (384-322 BCE, Athenian statesman and orator) said: “We have hetairai for our pleasure, concubines for our daily needs, and wives to give us legitimate children and look after the housekeeping.” Marriage was typically (though not always) functional and political.
The hetairai were mostly ex-slaves from other cities, known for dance music, and their intellect. They were educated, and they took part in the discussions men had. Athenaeus explained the allure of the hetaira: “Is not a ‘companion’ (hetaira) more kindly than a wedded wife? Yes, far more, and with very good reason. For the wife, protected by law, stays at home in proud contempt, whereas the harlot knows that a man must be bought by her fascinations or she must go out and find another.”
It was a shame for women to speak in public venues (unless they were hetairai or the rare aristocrat). Aristotle wrote in Politics, “Silence is a woman’s glory.” The ecclesia, or the assembly, was a man’s domain. Wives didn’t even join their husbands at meals when topics of significance were discussed. The few times we have record of women giving speeches, they brought shame on their family even if the speech was praised. Oration was for men, and female orators were mocked for being male. When a woman named Maesia Sentia defended herself publicly against an accusation, Valerius Maximus described her as "androgynous," apparently implying she had entered the male sphere by speaking in public.
Several Roman writers instruct women to just go home and be quiet. One ancient inscription that read, “Theano [the wife of Pythagoras], in putting her cloak about her exposed her arm. Somebody exclaimed, ‘A lovely arm.’ ‘But not for the public,’ said she. Not only the arm of the virtuous woman, but her speech as well, ought to be not for the public, and she ought to be modest and guarded about saying anything in the hearing of outsiders, since it is an exposure of herself; for in her talk can be seen her feelings, character, and disposition."
While some aristocratic women were well educated, they were the exception. Learning and debate were also considered masculine traits. Juvenal argued that it was "exasperating" for a woman to discuss Virgil and Homer at the dinner table. Such a wife might as well cross-dress, worship and bathe with men. He finally concluded:“Wives shouldn't try to be public speakers; they shouldn't use rhetorical devices; they shouldn't read all the classics-there ought to be some things women don't understand. . . If she has to correct somebody, let her correct her girl friends and leave her husband alone.”
Livy thought women should ask questions to their husbands at home, but cautioned: “As soon as they begin to be your equals, they will have become your superiors.”
There were Stoic and Epicurean philosophers who stressed the dignity of women and encouraged their education. This was not the approach everywhere. The Greeks were far more open to this, but the Romans generally made a connection between increasing freedom of women and a breakdown of morals and family. Russ Dudrey noted, “Good Roman wives demonstrate their character by pudicitia (which is often translated "chastity" but includes modesty and domesticity) by respecting and honoring their husbands, by working faithfully to manage the domestic affairs of the household.” Piety, chastity and modesty were in such widespread use that the words were often given abbreviations on the tombstones of women.
Above all, women needed to stay in the private sphere. There they were given great leeway in the ‘private’ sphere of their own homes – business, education and raising of the children, social connections, etc. They were very skilled and capable, and among their circle of female friends there were often thriving businesses. There was decent money to be made through manufacturing and trade, and plenty of women (including some prominent members in the early church) did this.
There was also a lot of gossip and slander, which is no surprise considering the quality of the men around them. There is plenty of surviving literature that notes rebellion, jealousy, extravagant waste – in other words, bringing shame and not honor to their father or husband. And let’s be honest – in this venue, it would certainly seem tough to find good reasons to be honorable.
Perhaps that’s why, in the first century, there was a “new Roman woman” on the rise. She was brazen, flirtatious, loud and immodest. She piled her hair full of gold and riches as a way to show off her wealth and status. They may have been trying to break the glass ceilings of the time, but because of their approach, people generally saw them as annoying at best and shameful at worst.
Add to this some religious dynamics. At this time, Eastern religions were making a push, specifically the cult of Isis. Women were gravitating toward this style of temple worship. There were some pretty wild temple priestesses who were publically loud and immodest. The general public did not like them, and Roman authorities were greatly concerned about Isis worship because they thought female worshipers of Isis had too much power over their husbands (back to the family as the microcosm of the state, etc). In addition, it seems like some false teachings were coming into the church through the women simply because they were not educated enough in their faith to be discerning. (We will see that come up in 1 Timothy.)
While Judaism had always offered a better life for women than the surrounding cultures, there was work to be done. Though women had a lot of domestic authority (reads Proverbs 31), men had dominant power in the marriage. Women had more rights than most other cultures, but husbands could divorce their wife basically on a whim.
Judaism did not oppose education for women, but only if it did not distract women from their duties at home. There have been several women who had significant influence on rabbinical teaching, but they were the outliers.
Women were not considered to be inferior by nature, but they were believed to be untrustworthy, and they could not testify in court because their word carried so little weight.
Godly Jewish women were to cover their heads because hair was seen as sexually enticing. One rabbi wrote, “What is the transgression of law of Moses and the Jews? If she goes out with her hair unbound, or spins in the street, or talks to everyone.” Women who violated this law could be divorced without compensation.
Their role in the synagogue was usually minor, which came from a complicated mix of being exempt from the obligations of the men (being a mom is demanding) and then not having the education the men did. They sometimes worshipped separately from the men so men would not be distracted and so that no one would confuse them with some fertility cult.
It is in this setting that writers like Paul and Peter have to show this brand new church community what life together as the “new humanity” should look like. The church claimed a new family and a new head (God), which made Rome really nervous because they though chaos was coming. This was most certainly not the household of Caesar. So what does the church decide to do? We will start with a passage from 1 Peter.
“Beloved, remember you don’t belong in this world. You are resident aliens living in exile, so resist those desires of the flesh that battle against the soul. Live honorably among the outsiders so that, even when some may be inclined to call you criminals, when they see your good works, they might give glory to God when He appears.
For the Lord’s sake, accept the decrees and laws of all the various human institutions, whether they come from the highest human ruler or agents he sends to punish those who do wrong and to reward those who do well. You see, it is God’s will that by doing what is right and good you should hush the gabbing ignorance of the foolish. Live as those who are free and not as those who use their freedom as a pretext for evil, but live as God’s servants. Respect everyone. Love the community of believers. Reverence God. Honor your ruler."
Peter is noting that they were in exile, but they had to live honorably in such away that they would silence those who did not understand what was going on, and those who wanted to call them criminals would actually give glory to God.
“If you are a slave, submit yourself to the master who has authority over you, whether he is kind and gentle or harsh as he deals with you. For grace is clearly at work when a person accepts undeserved pain and suffering and does so because he is mindful of God.”
“In the same way, wives, you should patiently accept the authority of your husbands. This is so that even if they don’t obey God’s word, as they observe your pure respectful behavior, they may be persuaded without a word by the way you live. Don’t focus on decorating your exterior by doing your hair or putting on fancy jewelry or wearing fashionable clothes; let your adornment be what’s inside—the real you, the lasting beauty of a gracious and quiet spirit, in which God delights.
This is how, long ago, holy women who put their hope in God made themselves beautiful: by respecting the authority of their husbands. Consider how Sarah, our mother, obeyed her husband, Abraham, and called him “lord,” and you will be her daughters as long as you boldly do what is right without fear and without anxiety.
In the same way, husbands, as you live with your wives, understand the situations women face and show them honor as the weaker vessel. Each of you should respect your wife and value her as an equal heir in the gracious gift of life. Do this so that nothing will get in the way of your prayers.
Finally, all of you, be like-minded and show sympathy, love, compassion, and humility to and for each other— not paying back evil with evil or insult with insult, but repaying the bad with a blessing. It was this you were called to do, so that you might inherit a blessing.” (1 Peter 2:11 - 3:1-9)
Let’s try 1 Corinthians:
There’s a slogan often quoted on matters like this: “All things are permitted.” Yes, but not all things are beneficial. “All things are permitted,” they say. Yes, but not all things build up and strengthen others in the body. We should stop looking out for our own interests and instead focus on the people living and breathing around us….
(After talking about meat offered to idols) Whatever you do—whether you eat or drink or not—do it all to the glory of God! Do not offend Jews or Greeks or any part of the church of God for that matter. Consider my example: I strive to please all people in all my actions and words—but don’t think I am in this for myself—their rescued souls are the only profit. (1 Corinthians 10:23-25; 31-33)
Note the context: You have freedom, but stop looking out for your own interest. Focus on people around you. How can you serve them? How can you bring honor and not shame? Don’t offend people; strive to please them. Rescued souls are the goal! Note what follows:
“Any woman—I mean, of course, a married woman—not wearing a veil over her head while praying or prophesying disgraces her head, her husband. It wouldn’t be much different than if she walked into worship with her head shaved. For if a woman isn’t going to be veiled properly, she ought to go ahead and cut off her hair; but if it brings shame to the woman and her husband to have all her hair cut off or her head shaved clean, then by all means let her wear a veil.” (1 Corinthians 11:5-6)
Let’s throw in a related section of Scripture from Paul:
“I also want the women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, adorning themselves, not with elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God. A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.” (1 Timothy 2:9-11)
For the last one, let’s check out the infamous Ephesians 5 passage.
The Holy Spirit makes it possible to submit humbly to one another out of respect for Christ. Wives, it should be no different with your husbands. Submit to them as you do to the Lord, for God has given husbands a sacred duty to lead as Christ leads the church and serves as the head. (The church is His body; He is her Savior.) So wives should submit to their husbands, respectfully, in all things, just as the church yields to Christ.
Husbands, you must love your wives so deeply, purely, and sacrificially that we can understand it only when we compare it to the love the Anointed One has for His bride, the church. We know He gave Himself up completely to make her His own, washing her clean of all her impurity with water and the powerful presence of His word. He has given Himself so that He can present the church as His radiant bride, unstained, unwrinkled, and unblemished—completely free from all impurity—holy and innocent before Him.
So husbands should care for their wives as if their lives depended on it, the same way they care for their own bodies. As you love her, you ultimately are loving part of yourself (remember, you are one flesh). No one really hates his own body; he takes care to feed and love it, just as the Anointed takes care of His church, because we are living members of His body.
“And this is the reason a man leaves his father and his mother and is united with his wife; the two come together as one flesh.” There is a great mystery reflected in this Scripture, and I say that it has to do with the marriage of the Anointed One and the church. Nevertheless, each husband is to love and protect his own wife as if she were his very heart, and each wife is to respect her own husband. (Ephesians 5:21-33)
We see “wear a veil” and “don’t bring shame to your husband” and “Don’t speak or assume authority in church” as if Paul was instituting some type of early Taliban. But women flocked to the church, right? So something else is happening.
Let’s see the forest in the home and church, not the trees…
The call for wives to submit to their husband’s authority or to build character instead of outward beauty was not a shock. Every woman understood that covering her head, dressing simply, wearing a veil, and not overriding men in public was what modesty, respect and honor looked like in their culture. Peter and Paul went beyond the outward appearance and challenged their hearts: bring honor to your family and church not out of fear and anxiety, but for the Lord’s sake. Had Paul stopped there, he would have merely had a keen sense of the obvious family and church patterns, and nothing really would have changed except their attitudes. However, he takes an unprecedented step: he also talks about the honor owed them.
- Women deserved their husband’s love and commitment. They were worthy of being served and honored in their home and in the church.
- Women were to pray and prophecy in the church, the ecclesia, which was traditionally a man’s domain.
- Men and women were to worship together. And all women, even those who had not earned it, were to wear the honoring symbol of a veil.
- Unlike the claim of the Roman philosophers, women weren’t a bother if they wanted to learn. Men had a responsibility to pass on what they knew.
- If you read the New Testament and early church history, you see women functioning as apostles, prophets, evangelists, teachers, benefactors, and martyrs.
So even as women were called to live in a way that silenced their critics and protected the reputation and honor of their family and church, they flourished as women in a way that unleashed a cultural earthquake. If the shock for the women was how much Christ had to offer them in terms of dignity, value and worth, the shock for men was to find out how badly they had distorted God’s design for men and women.
- Men were commanded to serve and encourage their wives, and to help women flourish in the church and home.
- As the ‘stronger vessel,’ they weren’t to intimidate, bully or abuse their wife just because they were more powerful.
- They were to respect and value women as co-heirs in Christ in a culture that believed women were by nature inferior.
- Men were not to divorce for just any reason. We read in Matthew 19:1-10 that this was so upsetting that Jesus’ disciples claimed it would be better not to marry.
- Men were to love sacrificially, pass on their education, and bring honor to their wife with the implication that if they messed up that relationship, they harmed their relationship with God.
- They were to let them be engaged in church.
- In a culture that said women were inherently trustworthy or mentally incapable, men were to entrust them with the gospel message.
Then all of you, show sympathy, love, compassion, and humility. This is simply not what characterized the surrounding culture. Neitzsche claimed the Romans had what he called a Master Morality (pride, strength, nobility) while the Jews and then the Christians had what he called a Slave Morality (kindness, humility and sympathy). It angered him; he felt like Christianity emasculated mankind because it made everyone equal slaves. He couldn’t understand how it eventually defeated Rome by changing it from the inside out.
The first Christians were living in a world that was not their home. They were to take the very structures used to oppress or dominate and redeeming them by living with a mutual honor and respect for each other - and do it with the help of the Holy Spirit for the glory of God.
Where do we go with this today? As disciples, ambassadors and servants, we must enter into what our culture allows (or encourages) men and women to be and do and redeem it to the glory of God.
Men, you must turn your back on your culture’s standard of how men are allowed to act and raise the bar for how men should act. When culture says women are things for your pleasure, and its just in our nature to cheat on them, and if they make us unhappy we should move on or make them change….you honor all women around you, you commit to them when you marry, and you lay down your life for them.
You guard your eyes, you don’t support porn or tell jokes that demean women. You give up your right to autonomy and pride and you lay down your life. You don’t have to be Mr. Sensitive, but you must bring safety to the women around you, and you must provide a climate in which they can flourish. Show the women around you how Christ loves the world.
Women, you must turn your back on your culture’s standard of how women are allowed to act and raise the bar for how women should act. When culture says that it’s cool to make fun of, insult and criticize men, even your own husband, you respect them, you honor them with your words and your actions. In that sense, you, too, lay down your life for your husband. You don’t have to be the Proverbs 31 Superwoman. Just watch what happens when you provide a climate where the men around you can flourish. Show the men around you how Christ loves the world.
If we did this kind of life together, what would happen if someone who thinks the Bible or the church oppresses women and lionizes men visited our homes or visited our church or hung out with our circle of friends and saw men and women who “show sympathy, love, compassion, and humility to and for each other,” where husbands and wives cared for each other, where men and women protected the hearts and the honor of those around them?
“Live honorably among the outsiders so that, even when some may be inclined to call you criminals, when they see your good works, they might give glory to God when He appears… All of you, be like-minded and show sympathy, love, compassion, and humility to and for each other— not paying back evil with evil or insult with insult, but repaying the bad with a blessing. It was this you were called to do, so that you might inherit a blessing.”
AN INCOMPLETE LIST OF SOURCE BOOKS
Kenneth Bailey, Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes
E.Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O'Brien, Misreading Scripture With Western Eyes
N.T. Wright, Paul For Everyone: The Pastoral Letters (1 and 2 Timothy and Titus)
N.T. Wright, Colossians and Philemon
Sarah Ruden, Paul Among the People
Christian Origins and Greco-Roman Culture, edited by Stanley E. Porter
Two Views on Women in Ministry, edited by James R. Beck and Stanley N. Gundrey
John Walton, The Essential Bible Companion
Frank Viola, The Untold Story of the New Testament Church
AN INCOMPLETE LIST OF SOURCE WEBSITES
Kindalee Pfremmer DeLong, "Women and Culture in the New Testament World: Social Values Related to Paul's Teaching in 1 Corinthians"
Christianity Today online, "The Neglected History of Women in the Early Church"
"Putting Paul in his place: Examining the apostle through the eyes of a classicist." - an interview with Sarah Ruden
Russ Dudrey, "Submit Yourselves To One Another: A Socio-Historical Look at the Household Code of Ephesians 5:15-6:9." http://www.pas.rochester.edu/~tim/study/household%20code%20eph.pdf