More than a thousand years ago, inhabitants of what is now the Beni Province of Bolivia developed a culture that was technologically advanced. They constructed causeways running straight as a rifle shot and canals for transportation and communication. Systems of dikes and mounds for building sites arose. Zigzagging fences for corralling fish sprang from their inventive minds. Towns were spacious and planned well.
Astonished researchers have confirmed this. Evidence continues to mount. But as late as 1987 students in some high schools and universities were still being taught that before Europeans arrived in the 16th century, the Americas were void of anything resembling civilization. The "truth" being taught was that native inhabitants were unsophisticated, lazy, childlike, and cruel, that life consisted of little more than unending and insane warfare.
Some scholars have had great difficulty accepting the accumulating evidence. How could the strong traditional European assessment be wrong? But use of tools like climatology and epidemiology have exploded the old European bias and shown that many Native American cultures were much more advanced than traditional assessments could ever admit.
This story serves as a parable for how some of us read the Bible. The inherited biases we haul into the Scriptures block access to the gospel's magnitude and transforming power.
For much of contemporary conservative Christianity there is a chasm between a vocal defense of the Bible and minimal acquaintance with its world-transforming message. Some of us gladly pay the Bible lip service, but then put the bit of our biases in its mouth. Its praises are sung, but the Bible's freedom is restricted.
Nowhere is this failure more glaring than in the sexist appraisal of women or men some of us impose on the gospel of Jesus Christ.
What is Sexism?
Sexism is prejudice or discrimination based upon gender. It may be expressed in social structures, attitudes, words, and actions. Generating and perpetuating stereotypes that deny the full human potential of another is its business. Elevating one's own gender by degrading the worth of the other fuels its engine. Identifying innate and unchanging deficits in the opposite gender supposedly justifies the derogatory assessments. At its heart, sexism displays the telltale marks of original sin.
Original sin is not the sole possession of any race, culture, or gender. The sin of sexism can mark both men and women. However, throughout history women have predominantly been its objects.
The Surprising New Testament
Gender bias was prevalent when the New Testament was written. But it repeatedly challenges prejudice against women precisely because the content of the gospel opposes it. New Testament writers affirm the uncompromised dignity, contributions, and ministry of women.
Luke's writings in Acts offer a high appraisal of women's roles in the early Church. Elizabeth and Mary were stellar models of faith and obedience. According to Luke, women were the first to make the Easter proclamation. Priscilla, a woman and one of Paul's major associates, played a pivotal role in instructing the eloquent Apollos in the "way of the Lord" (Acts 18:24-26).
Paul identifies a woman named Junia as one of the Apostles (Rom. 16:7, NSRV). Junia was a common first-century feminine name. Junias would have been the masculine form. But in no ancient Greek or Latin manuscripts of Romans 16:7 does the masculine form appear. Paul says Junia is "prominent among the Apostles." She was "in Christ" before Paul. (1)
Paul also commends Phoebe, a woman who carried his letter to Rome (Rom. 16: 1-3). She was a deacon in the church at Cenchreae—a harbor town near Corinth.
Women in the Corinthian church preached (prophesied) during worship services. We know this because Paul instructed them to cover their heads when voicing prayers and preaching. Otherwise, his instruction was pointless. The rules of Greek grammar show that men, not women, are the objects of Paul's rebuke in 1 Cor. 14:33b-36. Men were incorrectly claiming they alone should be permitted to speak in public worship. (2)
In Peter's sermon on the Day of Pentecost, he announces that by sending the Holy Spirit, God fulfilled His promise through Joel that He would one day "pour out" His Spirit upon all persons. "Sons and daughters will prophesy" (Acts 2:17-21).
Provisions for a New Humanity
In the book of Ephesians, Paul discusses the radical and almost staggering character and implications of what God accomplished in Jesus Christ. God created a new humanity. This has direct bearing on sexism, as Paul makes clear here and in other places.
In the new humanity the old divisions and exclusions that characterized fallen humanity are unwelcome (Ephesians 2:15-16). The old derogatory division between Jews and Gentiles was abolished (Ephesians 2:13-16). In Galatians Paul adds, "There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus" (Gal. 3:28, NRSV).
What makes this new way of life possible? Christ successfully battled against the cosmic forces that promoted the old divisions and hostility. They struggled to keep humans imprisoned to sinful passions, fears, and beliefs. But Christ triumphed over them (Gal. 6:10-18).
This is good news for the whole creation.
The Church of Jesus Christ is to be the place where the new humanity begins to take shape. A new relationship between Jew and Gentile, men and women, characterized by the new humanity, must be on display. Here the world should be able to observe what, by God's grace, all persons can become.
So Ephesians is a mandate for the Church. What Christ has accomplished must become flesh and blood in the lives of His disciples. Relationships must be made consistent with the new identity. "Be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness" (Eph. 4:23-24, NRSV). The goal is "mature humanity" (4:13) and Christ is its measure.
What will we learn from Jesus? Self-centeredness? Clinging to symbols of superiority? Exclusion based on gender, ethnicity, race, or wealth? Or will we learn from Him lowliness, meekness, and patience? Building up the downtrodden? Transforming the identity of those He loves?
In Ephesians (and Colossians), the new humanity takes concrete form in social relationships, specifically in the home. In contrast to the standard pattern for Roman households, Christ must be the Christian model-not hierarchical privilege based upon gender, but self-giving reciprocity that enriches all the members—even as He gave himself for the Church. In the mutually enriching relationship between husband and wife, and other members of the household, the "mystery" of God will be revealed (Ephesians 5:32).
Nowhere does the New Testament offer an option for dragging the old humanity's corpse into Jesus' new creation, His new order. The blazing neon sign on the door reads, "Leave all dead things outside!" Let's do it! Let's "put away your former way of life" and "clothe [ourselves] with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness" (Eph. 4:22-24, NRSV).
(1)The NIV uses the masculine form. But the Committee on Bible Translation that revised the NIV as TNIV (Today's New International Version) used the feminine form. The KJV and the NRSV use the feminine form.
(2) Greek is an inflected language. The gender of adjectives must agree with the gender of the words they modify. In 14:36 the Greek word (mo-nous), translated "only ones," is plural masculine, aimed at the object. This means Paul's rebuke ("Are you the only ones the word of God has reached?") is directed not toward women, but the men who thought it "shameful for a women to speak in church" (1 Cor. 14:35, NRSV).
Think About It:
- Some of us gladly pay lip service to the Bible, then put the bit of our biases in its mouth and guide it where we want it to go.
- We drag our old unredeemed ideas about gender into the pages of Scripture and permit them to reign supreme.
- In instance after instance the New Testament affirms the uncompromised dignity, contributions, and ministry of women.
- The new humanity was made possible by Christ battling successfully with the cosmic forces that wanted to maintain the old fallen humanity.
- All the provisions for a new humanity are in place| Christ is the measure.
- The Church is to be the place where the new humanity begins to be constructed.
Al Truesdale is emeritus professor of philosophy and Christian ethics, Nazarene Theological Seminary.
Holiness Today, Jan/Feb 2011