Is God/the Bible sexist?

Sexism is generally defined as one gender having dominance over another and is usually applied to men dominating women. Because the Bible includes many references to women that appear demeaning from our contemporary context, some conclude that God and/or the Bible are sexist. Is this true?

We must understand that the various books of the Bible were written during various time periods to specific people. The entirety of the Bible is "God-breathed" and is useful for us (2 Timothy 3:16–17). But to interpret it rightly, we must take cultural context into account. Many of the books of the Bible were written in patriarchal societies. Often the Bible is referring to things as they were, not to the ideal situation. When Adam and Eve sinned, part of the consequence was a breakdown in relationship between people (Genesis 3). Many times, God's instructions to His people were intended to protect them and provide for them in the midst of a fallen and sinful world. Before we accuse God or His Word of sexism, we need to fully understand the context.

The creation narrative in Genesis gives us a good foundation for understanding how God views men and women. Both male and female were made in God's image (Genesis 1:26–27; 2:18–25). The man and the woman together were blessed by God and entrusted with His mandate (Genesis 1:28). God told them, "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth" (Genesis 1:28). They were to partner together in this God-given stewardship.

Exodus also provides a good foundation to see how God views women. For example, in the Ten Commandments, God tells people to honor both their father and their mother. In the Sabbath command, God specifies that no one—including daughters and female servants—is to labor. In the Book of the Covenant, God puts the lives of men and women on par with one another when the same sentence was to be carried out for harming either a man or woman (Exodus 21:26, 28, 29, 31, 32). We see God protect women within the economic structures of the culture (Exodus 21:1–11; 22:16–17, 22–24). God in no way condones oppression of women. Rather, He refers to them as of equal worth as men. And He makes special provision for the vulnerable of society, which often would have included women.

Note that many references in the Bible that appear sexist are simply stating actions that took place without reference to whether they were right or wrong. For example, in Judges 11 Jephthah appears to have sacrificed his own daughter to keep a vow he made to the Lord. Scripture does not state that God approved this action; it only records it as a fact of history. Also, many references to women that appear sexist based on contemporary standards were appropriate or even better than the norm of the original cultural setting. For example, when Exodus 22:16–17 talks about a man marrying a woman with whom he's had premarital sex or paying the bride price for her, that is protection for the woman. A non-virgin woman would not have been marriageable; this law protects her from becoming destitute.

In the Old Testament, women are seen in many influential roles. In addition to Eve, the mother of all people, Scripture speaks highly of Sarah the wife of Abraham (Hebrews 11:11), Deborah who served as a judge (Judges 4—5), Shiphrah and Puah the midwives who refused to kill the Israelite baby boys (Exodus 1:15–22), Jochebed the mother of Moses (Exodus 2:1–10), Ruth the Moabite who was loyal to her mother-in-law, Hannah the mother of the prophet Samuel (1 Samuel 1—2), and Esther who saved the Jewish people, as well as the accounts of other faithful women who followed God.

In the New Testament, women served in prominent roles as well. Mary the mother of Jesus is presented as an ideal servant of God. Four women are mentioned by name in the family lineage of Jesus (Matthew 1:3, 5, 6). Mary's relative Elizabeth obediently raised John the Baptist. Elizabeth spoke a blessing on Mary, and Mary sang a song of praise to the Lord (Luke 1:39–56). Anna the prophetess is upheld as a faithful follower of God. She recognized the baby Jesus as the Messiah and spoke of Him "to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem" (Luke 2:36–38).

Many women also served Jesus during His ministry and even financed it (Luke 8:1–3). Several women were included in the 120 first followers of Jesus in the upper room when the church began (Acts 1—2). Women were also vital in the early church. Lydia hosted Paul in her home (Acts 16:11–15). Priscilla along with her husband Aquila taught Apollos the complete gospel (Acts 18:26). Paul mentions many women in his personal greetings and among his fellow workers (e.g., Romans 16:3, 6, 13, 15; Philippians 4:2–3; Colossians 4:15). He credits Timothy's grandmother and mother with faithfully teaching Timothy the Scripture (2 Timothy 1:5; 3:15). Acts 21:8–9 talks about four women who prophesied. Women were certainly valued in the early church.

Of course, we see Jesus treat women with dignity and respect. Since He is God incarnate, His actions certainly show us God's attitude toward women. For example, Jesus publicly spoke with a Samaritan woman at a well, something that even she noted as uncommon (John 4:9). Jesus also allowed women to serve among His followers (including Mary and Martha and Mary Magdalene). After His resurrection, He appeared to women first; in that society women would not have been considered reliable witnesses, and yet they are whom Jesus chose to share the news with His disciples.

We see Jesus' attitude toward women carry forward in the New Testament epistles. Paul spoke of both husband and wife having marital rights that were to be upheld (1 Corinthians 7:1–5). Paul spoke of women submitting to their husbands and husbands loving their wives (Colossians 3:18–19; Ephesians 5:15–33). He also spoke of treating "older women as mothers, younger women as sisters, in all purity" (1 Timothy 5:2) and caring for widows (1 Timothy 5:3–16). James 1:27 also speaks of caring for widows. Peter counseled husbands to live with their wives "in an understanding way" and linked their treatment of their wives to their prayers (1 Peter 3:7).

Far from being sexist, the Bible upholds the value of both women and men. The way of salvation is the same for both (Galatians 3:25–29; 1 Peter 3:7) as are its benefits (1 Peter 1:3–12).

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