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?
The time period of the Old Testament included a cultural system that was patriarchal. Rather than viewing men and women as created in God's image as the Bible states (Genesis 1:27), women were typically seen as less important than men in society. This is part of fallen human nature in which people lived in ways contrary to God's design. To discover and develop the view God has given for the roles of men and women in society, we must look to Scripture.
Though in Old Testament accounts many references to women appear sexist from our modern perspective, two things must be considered before making such an accusation. First, 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.
Second, 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, 1 Timothy 2:9 says Christian women should not adorn themselves with braided hair. Why not? In that time, braided hair was associated with the practices of immoral women in the area. Further, braided hair as understood in that cultural context was a costly, extravagant luxury. However, even in a time when women's rights were different than today, there are several biblical accounts of women being treated with dignity and respect above the level of cultural norms. 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), and even appeared first to women after His resurrection rather than to men.
Far from being sexist, Scripture presents both men and women in high regard. In the beginning, woman was made in God's image, complementing man as a helper with him. She would serve as woman, wife, mother, and various other roles.
In the Old Testament, women are seen in many influential roles. In addition to Eve, the mother of all people, Scripture speaks highly of Abraham's wife Sarah, Isaac's wife Rebekah, Deborah who served as a judge in the book of Judges, the mother of Moses, Miriam the sister of Moses, Ruth the faithful Moabite, Hannah the mother of Samuel, and Queen Esther who saved the Jewish people.
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. Mary's relative Elizabeth obediently raised John the Baptist. Many women also served Jesus during His ministry, with Mary Magdalene in particular noted. Several women existed among the 120 first followers of Jesus in the upper room when the church began (Acts 1—2) and led in a variety of roles within the early church. While it is unlikely that women served as apostles and did not serve as elders, some women served as prophets or at least gave prophecies. Acts 21:8-9 shares, "On the next day we departed and came to Caesarea, and we entered the house of Philip the evangelist, who was one of the seven, and stayed with him. He had four unmarried daughters, who prophesied."
Further, the New Testament speaks highly in favor of strong families and discourages divorce, something that culturally hurt women greatly at the time of writing. James 1:27 is exemplary of Scripture's instructions to care for widows, those women without husbands to provide for the needs of their family.
Though some portions of the Bible may appear sexist, the overall teaching of Scripture presents a beautiful view of women that provides much insight for today.
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