Recently on the Plain Truth Podcast we tackled the question: Is the Bible sexist? As the tag line to the title suggests, “An answer(sort of) for Susanna.” We didn’t really come to a concise conclusion. Personally, I might be tempted to joke it’s because asking three academics to come to a concise conclusion about anything is wishful thinking, but in reality it’s because good academics know that inherent within all questions is a premise, an idea, and to entertain any question with an answer is to affirm the premise inherent within the question. This is something we struggled with. I’m not sure any of us felt that affirming the modern understanding of sexism as a cultural motif in scripture was accurate or beneficial. We tried our best to get at the heart of the question and what resulted was, in my opinion, an insightful conversation about how we engage Biblical literature and the importance of living with paradoxical tensions inherent within scripture.
However, because this podcast, unlike others we’ve recorded, was a response to a real-time question actively playing out in a person’s faith life, it seems there could be more to say. For instance, in addition to Dr. Vivian Johnson’s points about engaging scripture with intellectual rigor, I would humbly add that we should read with the understanding that the Bible constructs a grand narrative about God’s identity and relationship with creation. To paraphrase St. Augustine, the purpose of scripture is to instruct God’s children in how to love him and one another. Asking a question such as whether the Bible is sexist is problematic as the text’s purpose is not oriented towards answering that type of question. It’s like trying to use a set of Ikea instructions to change your car’s motor oil. It’s not applicable.
That’s not to say scripture can’t teach us something about how God sees women, how he might use a women to manifest his will, or whether he raises women into positions of authority. I believe all of these things and more are on full display throughout the Biblical narrative, but their purpose is not to prove the worth of women. These stories, like the women and men within them, serve the inspired design of God’s will.
The scriptures describe the revelation of an objective holy reality into which we are born and which we attempt to navigate in our current moment in time. As faithful followers we should not require scripture to become pliable to the passing mores of culture. For the record, this doesn’t mean I think sexism is to be tolerated, nor do I think that’s what scripture says either; rather scripture admonishes us over and over again to love one another as God loves us. Paul, in addition to speaking about the way women dress and behave in worship also says we are all one in Christ Jesus. The identifiers we use in the world that rightly or wrongly convey earthly value and status are obliterated in the presence of the saving Kingship of Christ. They are meaningless.
“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 3.28)
The question behind the question of whether or not the Bible is sexist is: How do we understand our value? In worldly terms, or heavenly ones? I often find my pride challenged by the idea that God tells me I am a being of incalculable worth to him while guaranteeing me absolutely nothing of any worldly value proportional to that love. I hear that struggle in the question of whether or not the Bible is sexist.
“God, you say you love me, but why don’t I see more of me in your word?”
In today’s western culture, identifier representation is everything. If you see yourself in culture, you matter. Given that reality, these types of questions make complete sense. The slow, painful work for those of us acknowledging the reality of Christ’s Lordship is that of resisting the patterns of this world and allowing God to renew our minds and teach us what is good, what is beautiful, and what is true.
Vivian points out in the podcast the highest place of honor in the church is as a Saint. This is real status. This is real authority. It is grace upon grace that each one of us can seek that high place right now regardless of any earthy identifier.
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