Across our phone surveys and focus groups for the project Christians Might Be Crazy, we often heard that Christianity is “unprogressive” and even “repressive.” Instead of supporting the ideals of the future it defends prejudices of the past. Nearly a third (29%) of our survey participants agreed that Christians don’t believe all people are created equal. There are at least six areas in which Christianity has brought equality. Today we look at gender equality which.
#6 GENDER EQUALITY
People outside the church might be willing to consider the historical fact that biblical Christianity originated the ideal of equality that inspires Western values and continues to take hold throughout the world. They might even acknowledge that Jesus’ followers have boldly led the way toward racial, legal, social, economic, and educational equality. But many nevertheless flatly reject the idea that Christians believe in gender equality because of inequities they perceive among us. Here is a sample of statements we heard in our focus groups:
Austin woman: “I think that the overbearing patriarchy of the Bible has inadvertently put women in the position that they’re not respected as much and that they don’t have as much equality.”
Austin woman: “Men are always supposed to be above women. Women can’t be above a man…. It’s basically almost this thing that worships men.”
Boston guy: “Women can’t be priests. Women can’t be in control of their body, even if it puts their lives at risk.”
Boston woman: “I would take it one step further and say not only is it exclusive, it also excludes women, making it a male-dominated religion. And the way that women are talked to and degraded under the guise of Christianity is unacceptable.”
Our group facilitator summed up a prevailing attitude among women:
“Women are so easily able to use the Bible as a reason not to be involved in the Christian faith because the stories involve women as chattel, women as owned…. That was their biggest push away. They don’t believe they’re being good mothers if they are ‘enslaved’ to something written 2,000 years ago.”
I grieve when I hear these things. Besides the issues that women have with the Bible or what they see acted out at church, I know there are other unspoken issues. The real trouble in gender equality today is men—especially young men. Guys are waiting longer than ever to marry for the first time. Until they make that commitment, they are dating, relating, and fornicating. They are drinking, carousing, and pornifying. They objectify, sexually assault, and impregnate women with no intent of marrying or fathering. They get high and laugh away their days, not knowing that their life is the joke. They might have a degree and a condo but they do not have a clue. They are anatomically men but functionally boys. They are boys who can shave. Perhaps ours is not an age of gender equality because men have so much catching up to do.
None of that reflects the ideal lived out by Jesus, who was a revolutionary in His relationships with women. He was unafraid to break manmade cultural taboos, although was careful never to transgress God’s law. Jesus talked with the woman at the well and the widow of Nain (Luke 7:12–13). He cast demons out of women and healed them (Matt. 9:20–22; Luke 8:40–56, 13:10–17). He lifted up women as examples as He preached (Matt. 25:1–10; Luke 4:26, 18:1–5, 21:1–4), and He taught women along with men, a highly controversial act in that day (Luke 10:38–42, 23:27–31; John 20:10–18).
Jesus did not inch when a sinful woman anointed Him and scandalized the religious guys who witnessed her devotion (Luke 7:36–50). Jesus was close friends with Mary and Martha, women He loved like sisters who had Him over to eat in their home (Luke 10:38–39). Women were among the most generous financial supporters of Jesus’ ministry (Luke 8:1–3). And women were granted the great honor of being the first to discover Jesus had risen (Matt. 28:1–10).
Rodney Stark sums up the dynamics of Jesus’ ministry among women and the appeal of the new faith He founded:
In Roman as in Jewish society, women were regarded as inherently inferior to men. Husbands could divorce their wives but wives could not divorce their husbands. In rabbinic circles, only males were allowed to study the Torah. Jesus challenged these arrangements. Although he called only men to be apostles, Jesus readily accepted women into his circle of friends and disciples…Christianity’s appeal for women was a major reason that it grew so rapidly in competition with other religions of the Roman Empire. Then, as now, most Christians were women. The new religion offered women not only greater status and influence within the church but also more protection as wives and mothers.1
I have been to the Middle East, and to this day, their cultures treat women considerably different than those nations influenced by Christianity. Jesus elevated the status of women in a way that much of the world never has.
Christians since that time have indeed been pioneers for gender equality. They fought against cultures where women were relegated as second-class citizens and regarded as the property of their husband. India offers painful examples such as the practice of suttee, burning a wife alive with her dead husband since she had no point in living if not to serve him. Female infanticide was rampant. Little girls were made “child widows,” put to work as temple prostitutes for male pleasure. These evils were outlawed with the coming of Christian missionaries such as William Carey and Amy Carmichael. Elsewhere, Christians in China led efforts to ban the custom of binding women’s feet, and Christian activism in America helped secure voting and property rights for women.
Scripture teaches a fundamental equality of women and men. One of the best-known verses Christians cite to prove this point comes from the apostle Paul, who wrote, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28).
I know we cannot argue anyone into agreement on this issue. More than anything, non-Christians want to see living proof of our commitment to equality. But I do think it is fair at some point in our conversations with non-Christians for us to say, “In the Bible all people are created equal because they are made by God who loves them. So why do you think people are equal?”
The burden of proof falls on our critics, because other belief systems do not come with a built-in respect for human worth. Whatever value non-Christians place on equality derives from the lingering ideals of Christendom. Like most people who move homes, when folks move on from Christendom to their new cultural worldview, they bring a few of their favorite things with them from the past.
Without a thorough grounding in the biblical truth that all people are created equal, people come up empty on reasons to advocate equality. With no moral justification for equal rights or background in the ideals inherent in the Bible, they offer up all kinds of inconsistent ideas of where equality does or does not apply.