“Hey James, I really like your work. I’m a new Christian, but after debating an Atheist friend of mine, I can’t say I fully believe in God or the Bible any longer. A big issue I have is the apparent sexism and misogyny in the Bible. Can you please help me understand?”
This is a good question and one that I am quite sure many Christians struggle with. However, there are a number of things I would say in response.
Firstly, welcome to the family, Grayson! But let us try and keep you in the door before you decide to embrace what others are offering. You will find that when it comes to the Bible, the problems it presents, and the tough ethical questions like these we have a number of ways to engage and understand them. Most of what I will say here will be reflective of my own interpretation of scripture and I have no doubt that other Christians will disagree with me on the matter.
Nonetheless, how potent is this charge, namely the sexism in the Bible, against the truth of Christianity? Technically speaking it’s not potent by any means. There’s just nothing in the argument from the atheist that seeks to undermine Christianity based on Jesus’ deity and resurrection of which we have persuasive evidence for. Thus, if we grant your atheist friend his/her argument, namely that the Bible has passages that are sexist then so what? What follows from that? Certainly not that Jesus was not resurrected from the dead, or that he was not God incarnate. But it is precisely Jesus’ resurrection that matters in terms of the truth of Christianity and not the morally questionable passages of which the Bible has a good number of. Therefore, evidentially speaking, from a theological rationalist perspective, I don’t care one bit because it says nothing about the evidence for what I believe. Alternatively, if one were to manufacture a systematic theology of the Bible then understanding these sexist verses (perhaps like 1 Tim. 2:12) would certainly need to take place since we’d really want to know how they fit into the wider context.
But, don’t miss what has just happened here. The question of ethically challenging verses in the Bible (whether that’s sexism, genocide, or whatever else one can pull out of the text) switches from a contention concerning the truth of Christianity to that of inspiration. So, as I’ve stated, this atheist’s challenge is not one of the truth of Christianity rather it is one concerning the inspiration of the Bible. So, I’d contend that it’s certainly unwarranted to not “believe in God or the Bible any longer” on the basis of this particular charge. I’d also contend that you’d make a mistake to reject Christianity since independent of this charge Jesus was still resurrected from the dead; after all, even if we never had the Bible Jesus would still be resurrected.
However, when it comes to inspiration there are several Christian interpretations. But that aside, at most your friend’s argument only shows that the Bible is morally inconsistent. However, as a non-inerrantist myself (one who does not believe God dictated the Bible word by word to his human authors without allowing them to make a single mistake) I fully concede this point and I certainly don’t lose sleep over it. Simply put, the Bible has both horrible and nice teachings in it, and I’d hardly expect anything different from a book that was produced in an ancient world where such ethically horrible things, or so us 21st century people consider to be horrible, took place. And if this is the case, as I contend it very well is, then it is hardly remarkable that we find sexism and misogyny in the Bible. Women, especially in 1st century Palestine if we consider what historian Josephus Flavius tells us, weren’t even permitted to testify in a court of law. Now, this is the world that our biblical authors were born into and in which they were raised. So is it really so surprising that Paul (given that it really was Paul who penned 1 Tim) said that he does not “not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet” (1 Tim 2:12)? To me not really. Paul, even though appointed by God as an inspired author, was just as much a human as you and I, and I don’t see why that wouldn’t filter into his writings. Thus, note that this is not at all to deny the inspiration of the biblical texts, instead, it’s simply to reject classical inerrancy. I contend that inspiration and inerrancy are not the same things, nor are they linked in the way that classical inerrantists argue that they are.
However, don’t neglect to note some of the most remarkable improvements in terms of the rights of women as portrayed in the New Testament as well as in the Old. In the Old Testament creation narrative concerning Adam and Eve, for example, it is Eve who appears to be the dominant figure. I would recommend you have a quick glance at a brief summary showing the intrinsic worth and value of the female in Genesis. Also consider another piece from Sue Bohlin titled “Christianity: The Best Thing That Ever Happened to Women” (1); you can also see my summary of her piece here. However, what we do find in our New Testament is a rather radical counter-cultural approach to woman; for example, Alvin Schmidt, a former Professor of sociology, explains that “Paul told the Christians in Ephesus, ‘Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.’ And he added, ‘He who loves his wife loves himself” (2). In fact, Paul incorporated women into his ministry, “we should not be surprised to find even in Paul’s letters examples of women teachers, evangelist, prophetesses, deacons, and apostles.” This is quite remarkable given a 1st century context where the testimony of women was pretty much worthless. However, we find that women were deeply involved and valued in their service to earliest Christianity; as Bohlin realizes, “The value of women that permeates the New Testament isn’t found in the Greco-Roman culture or the cultures of other societies.”
This is not even yet to mention the radical nature of Jesus and his engagement with women. We find a Jesus who, while embedded in a Jewish culture that was patriarchal, had compassion to women that society had shunned (Mat. 9:18; Luke 7:50; Mark 12:41- 44; John 4:5- 42). Jesus showed an unusual sensitivity to women and their needs for a man living in 1st century Palestine and this, as a result, set a precedent for those involved within the spread of Christendom. Jesus even spoke to foreign women (John 4:7- 5:30), taught women (Luke 10:38-42), treated them as equal to men as children of wisdom (Luke 7:35-8:50), had them in his inner circle (Luke 8:1-3), appeared to them in his resurrected body, expressed concern for widows (Luke 2:36, 4:26, 7:11, 18:1, 20:47 and 21:1), and so on. Jesus seemed to run counter to centuries of tradition that informed men of how women were to be treated.
So really, your atheist friend is selling you about one-third of the whole story. Yes, the Bible has inconsistent moral teachings that do cause 21st century readers concern. And we should expect this given that the Bible is a product of man, culture, time period, and God. It’s thus hardly surprising that it would have these ethically problematic verses in its texts; the question of sexism is but one of them. Moreover, your friend is on shaky grounds if we wants to advance his argument that ethical passages in the Bible somehow nullify the truth of Christianity. It certainly does not. But perhaps on another day I would challenge your friend to explain why he considers there to be things that are ethically good as opposed to evil. How would he/her ground such a thing on his worldview? After all, his/her contention is ethically based on the assumption that sexism is a moral evil.
We can continue our dialogue online, Grayson, but I hope this helps you to see the context a bit better.
1. Bohlin, S. 2005. Christianity: The Best Thing That Ever Happened to Women. Available.
2. Schmidt, A. 2004. How Christianity Changed the World. p. 97-98.