Q&A: Is a Feminist Reading of the Bible Possible?

This question was asked in an online group I am a member of, by a person who describes herself as a “healthy sceptic” about religion. This is a somewhat expanded and edited version of my answer to her question in that forum.

Q: Bronwen, after reading the Bible (King James version) please explain how it is possible to be both an ardent Feminist and Christian? Just curious, because I’ve been a feminist for 35 years.

 A: Thanks for a great question! It’s one that speaks strongly to the importance of understanding how to interpret what we read.

Reading the words on the page is one thing. Reading ancient literature well is another matter entirely. The Bible is a unique book – in reality, it is not a single book at all, but a collection of books written over the course of probably a couple of thousand years, to people of cultures and languages vastly different to our own, but which tells one unfolding story of God’s interactions with human beings. If we can miscommunicate easily with people of our own culture and language, then how much more carefully we need to learn how to read these ancient stories from such different settings to our own.

King James Version or Modern Translations?

Before we get started on unpacking how we interpret the Bible, I want to address a couple of important asides. You mentioned that you read the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible, which is fine. This translation, first published in 1611, is rightly regarded as an English literary masterpiece and has done wonderful service to English-speaking peoples for centuries. There are many reasons why a more modern translation is just as good, and even better, ranging from easier readability for contemporary readers to greater accuracy. You can find a useful article about it here. You can access many versions of the Bible free online at www.biblegateway.com. I recommend the New International Version, New Revised Standard Version or Common English Bible.

Feminist or Egalitarian?

I should probably also unpack the word “feminist” a little. It’s a term you embrace and identify with, and yet is a stumbling block for some others. (So this part is especially for those others.) Many Christians have been taught to treat this as a dirty word, often based on consideration only of certain extremes which are focussed on because of their rejection of Christian sexual ethics and respect for the dignity of human life. What we forget is that “feminist” is an incredibly broad term – under its umbrella, each person may find some views they embrace or sympathise with and others they utterly reject.  The bottom line is that feminism is the belief that women have an equal worth to men and that we should work towards a society that better reflects this worth.

Many of the early feminists not only identified as Christians, but were inspired to work towards this more equal society because of their Christian faith. Feminism has brought many benefits which we are, almost without exception, happy to accept – the right of women to all levels of education, to vote, to own property and so on. Personally, while I am happy to accept the label of “feminist” for those aspects that I do agree with, I prefer to call myself an “egalitarian,” focussing more strongly on the partnership of men and women to better this world together, and more specifically, a “biblical egalitarian,” finding these views grounded in Scripture.

Basics for Interpretation

With a complex book like the Bible, which has many authors, is written in two main languages (Hebrew and Greek) with smatterings of a third (Aramaic) and often requires us to understand historical and cultural circumstances far removed from our contemporary experience,  how we read it is important – really important. There are some basic rules of interpreting the Bible (known as hermeneutics) that should be followed. These include:

  • Never base a doctrine off one or two verses. Instead, relevant passages from across the whole of Scripture should be considered.
  • Unclear passages should be interpreted in the light of clear passages.
  • Context is important – how does the verse you are reading sit in the chapter it’s in? How does that chapter relate to the rest of the book or to a subsection within the book? Where does that book sit in the historical trajectory of the Bible? What is the genre of the book? What are the historical and cultural circumstances?

How does this relate to interpreting what the Bible has to say about women? Beliefs that restrict women’s leadership in the church are primarily based on 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 and 1 Timothy 2:11-12 – just four verses. The first, which tells women to remain silent in church and ask their husbands at home, contradicts statements within the same letter that acknowledge that women will pray and prophesy publicly within church meetings. Evidence is increasingly pointing toward these two verses – which disrupt the logical flow of Paul’s argument in this chapter – being a later addition to the text.

The second passage tells a woman to learn quietly and not to teach or usurp authority. It is full of grammatical and linguistic difficulties which make it notoriously difficult to interpret. What is not clear in most English translations is that the original Greek expresses it as a time-limited command to one woman (most likely one of the false teachers whose work this letter from Paul aims to counteract), not a universal command for all women for all time. The word often translated as to “have/usurp/assume authority” is an exceptionally rare word that is very difficult to translate accurately. It appears to relate to the wielding of an improper type of authority which may have been used to force another person to do something against their best interests, not to healthy leadership. This kind of authority would not have been permitted for a man or a woman.

These four verses are not clear and simple at all. They make a dubious basis for the creation of any prohibition on women’s leadership or teaching. So there’s a wider context that we need to consider. This post will (hopefully!) give you a brief introduction to some of that context.

A Basis for an Egalitarian Reading the Old Testament

The Old Testament can be a challenging read at times. Do remember that we are reading a text that reaches right back to the Bronze and Iron Ages, with a society so vastly different to our own that if anything, it should surprise us that we can relate to as much of it as we do. But reading it with a framework that looks like this helps to make it clearer:

Genesis 1-2: God creates the world, with man and woman as equal partners, equally commissioned as God’s agents in this world and equally made in God’s image (Genesis 1:26-28). This is unique within the ancient world, where women were normally believed to be of inferior essence to males.

In Genesis 2, the creation of Eve as Adam’s “helper” sounds to us like she is given a subordinate role. But throughout the Old Testament, a “helper” is always one who uses their strength to rescue or aid another to do what they cannot achieve alone, often in a military context. Most commonly, this term is used to describe the help that God gives to humans – not a subordinate relationship at all! The KJV calls Eve a “help meet for him” – a more modern version like the New International Version (NIV) calls her a “suitable helper” for Adam (“meet” meant “suitable” in the English of the KJV’s era). The Hebrew word kenegdo means “face-to-face with” or “equal to,” completely putting to rest any suggestion that it could mean that the man is to be the leader while the woman takes the role of assistant.

Genesis 3: The man and woman together participate in the first sin. This is not as apparent in English as is it is in other languages, because we don’t have a plural form of “you,” but whenever the serpent speaks, he addresses “you – plural,” indicating that Adam and Eve were both present. Eve hands the fruit to Adam “who was with her” – she has no need to go looking for him.

As a result of sin, the perfect harmony of creation is gone and human beings are going to mess up our relationships with each other, God and the Earth from here onward.

A close reading of the text shows that although the ground and the serpent were cursed, the man and the woman were not. Rather, God informs them of the consequences of their sin, which mirror the commission of Genesis 1. As a result of humanity’s broken relationship with the Earth, obtaining life’s necessities will become challenging, requiring much hard work. In addition to participating in this hard work, women would also bear children. Some have seen the statement in Genesis 3:16 to the woman that “Your desire will be for your husband and he will rule over you” as affirming that God dictates men’s leadership over their wives. But notice that this is presented as a consequence of sin. Women are never shown to be in any way subordinate in Creation – this approach only arises as an expression of the brokenness of relationships between men and women. It is God’s prediction rather than His will.

Genesis 4 to the end of the Old Testament: Human beings find ways to mess things up. Oh boy, do we mess things up! Patriarchy becomes part of the established order, not because God (who created equality) thought it was the ideal way human society should run, but as part of the fabric of how we would screw up God’s good creation. The story of God at work in the Old Testament is a story of His work over-against the cultural narrative. The culture says, “Men matter most. And out of those men, firstborn sons are the most important. And only this one ethnic group (Hebrews/people of Israel) really matters.”

Throughout the story, God continually messes with how people think it’s supposed to work – He chooses second, second-last and last-born sons like Jacob, Joseph and David. He chooses women like Huldah and Deborah. He chooses foreigners like Ruth and Rahab. Wherever you see something happening in the Old Testament that is the opposite of the cultural norm, you can usually find God in that story, basically saying, “Surprise! This whole thing doesn’t roll how you expect it!” (Or perhaps, “Your ways are not My ways. Try not to make that mistake. Look for Me where you least expect to find Me – it’s pretty likely that’s where I am.”)

Making it a little more difficult for us is that not every story clearly unpacks its moral framework. Some stories leave us to question, “Where is God in this? What is He up to? How is He overturning the way we think life is supposed to be? Or how am I supposed to bring what I already know of God’s character and His moral standards to how I interpret this text?” (The book of Judges is a great example of this – it tends to just tell the story and, with only occasional clues, leave it up to us to work out whether each person’s actions are in line with God’s ways or not.)

Despite the patriarchal cultural setting of the Old Testament, there are hints scattered throughout that show that God has something so much better for women than patriarchy. The women of the Old Testament are not subservient slaves of their husbands, but are frequently strong, smart, sassy women who rightfully write their way into the story in culturally subversive ways.

An Egalitarian Reading of the New Testament

The Old Testament sets up the proposition that as human beings, we can’t achieve righteousness on our own. We continually screw up how God intended the world to work. If we can’t make things right by ourselves, how can the world – our relationships with God, others and the Earth that were broken back in Genesis 3 – be fixed? We need a Saviour. Enter Jesus.

Jesus: Bear in mind that Jesus is not just another character in the story, or even the best prophet and teacher from a long line of prophets and teachers. He is, as Christians understand it, God Himself stepping down into history, to provide the rescue we could not achieve on our own merit. This is not merely another chapter of the story, but the pivotal moment – the complete game changer – and indeed, the turning point in the entire history of God’s redemption of human beings. So how Jesus treated women should be one of the key indicators of a biblical view on women.

Not only did Jesus treat women with a respect that was culturally surprising, but in a culture where women were not acceptable witnesses, He chose women to be the first to proclaim the message of the foundational truth of Christian belief: Christ is risen! The community of Jesus’ New Covenant would be characterised in gender-equal ways. In the past, the symbol of belonging to God’s covenant community was (male) circumcision. In this new community, it would be baptism and participation in the Lord’s Supper (communion/Eucharist) – both equally practised by men and women – and by receiving the Holy Spirit, which came equally on men and women.

The Beginnings of the Church: The church springs into life in Acts 2, on the day of Pentecost (which takes place after Jesus’ resurrection and return to Heaven). The defining moment of Pentecost was the coming of the Holy Spirit, to dwell with those who follow Jesus. The apostle Peter preached a sermon explaining the Christian message. He drew on a teaching from Joel, one of the Old Testament prophets, to provide a vision of what God’s new covenant community would look like: “In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy (that is, they will proclaim an authoritative message from God)…Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit and they will prophesy.” Women’s full participation would be a defining characteristic of this new community of Jesus-followers.

From here on, we see the story of the people of this new movement trying to fathom out, “What does it mean to live as part of God’s New Covenant?” They haven’t instantly got it all together from the get-go – they’re figuring it out bit by bit, and not always getting it quite right at the first attempt. Much of the story that the New Testament preserves for us revolves around these early Jewish Christ-followers working out, “Oh…it’s not just for us Jews, and it’s not about asking Gentile (non-Jewish) believers to conform to a Jewish way of life.” But we also get glimpses of them exploring what this new community would mean for men and women. So we see Paul – who has so often been (mistakenly) held up as the Bible’s Misogynist-in-Chief – drawing women into his leadership team, working with women who were co-workers in the gospel, house church leaders, a deacon and patron, and an apostle. Women are found in the highest levels of Pauline leadership.

And it’s not just about service to the church – this equality extends to the home. We see mutuality established as the way marriage should work. When the New Testament speaks of submission in marriage, it is always intended to be a mutual yielding to one another in love, not the husband lording it over his wife. Paul subverts the established “household codes” without trying to force changes that would have been considered disreputable from a cultural perspective. He opens the door to equality so that Christian couples might walk through it as they grow in maturity and understanding.

You may have seen husbands referred to the “heads” of their wives in some of Paul’s writings. English works against us here. We naturally translate that in our minds to mean “men are the bosses.” In the Greek of Paul’s time, this was not a possible understanding of “head.” Depending on the context, “head” should be interpreted as “source” or “origin” (a reference to the story of Genesis 1-2) or as part of a head-body metaphor for unity. There is no subjection of women implied by Paul by this terminology, which has unfortunately frequently been misunderstood.

And Paul declares the equality of men and women, both in practical living and in matters of salvation, when he says, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). When we encounter things that seem to run counter to this, instead of throwing out either one view or the other (pro-women/anti-women), we need to dig more deeply into culture, history and language to uncover Paul’s intent. The deeper we search, the more we discover Paul’s revolutionary advocacy for and partnership with women.

Conclusion

Is there more to know? Oh, certainly! This is just the beginning of how we find an egalitarian reading of the Bible. As we explore egalitarian teachings more thoroughly, we find a rich, thoughtful and intellectually honest tradition that brings a consistency and compassion to the discussion while retaining a strong view of the centrality and authority of the Bible in matters of faith and practice.

I hope this is just a beginning for you – I pray that it will lead you to a love of the Bible’s teachings about men and women, for the God in whose image we are made and most importantly, for Jesus, who changed the game for men and women in such profound ways.

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