Modern Challenges to the Ancient Faith: Doesn’t Christianity Denigrate Women?

Doesn’t Christianity Denigrate Women?

At a pivotal moment in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Professor Dumbledore makes a poignant request: “Severus . . . Please.” Up to this point, we do not know whether Severus Snape is a double agent for Dumbledore or for the murderous antagonist Voldemort. Now Snape’s loyalty is tested. Dumbledore, surrounded by enemies, pleads for help; and Snape kills him. The scene is devastating. We never liked Snape, but we hoped beyond hope that he was Dumbledore’s man. Now Snape’s betrayal of his mentor is complete.
It is not until the last Harry Potter book that we realize how wrong we were. When Harry extracts memories from Snape’s dying mind and pours them into the magical Pensieve—where one can dive into another’s past—we discover that Snape’s love for Harry’s mother, Lily, was the guiding principle of his life. We see Snape’s anguish as Lily is murdered by Voldemort, and how Snape thenceforth commits himself to Dumbledore. Dumbledore tells Snape that he is dying from the slow working of an irreversible curse, and we hear Snape reluctantly pledge to kill him when the moment comes. Suddenly, we see Dumbledore’s plea and Snape’s actions in a new light. When we know the beginning and the end of the story, the meaning of “Severus . . . Please” is reversed.
To understand the Christian account of male and female, we must gaze into the “Pensieve” of the whole Bible. If we dive into the panorama of salvation history, the biblical view of men and women assumes new meaning.

Rather than creating sex, in either sense of the word, he could have made humans capable of asexual reproduction—like copperhead snakes, when the feeling takes them! But God created male and female humans as a living metaphor.
Parenthood is designed to illustrate God’s relationship with his children. Jesus teaches us to call God “our Father” (Matt. 6:9). But the Old Testament also repeatedly figures God in maternal terms, while never referring to God in specific feminine terms or feminine pronouns: Deuteronomy 32:18; Isaiah 49:15; 66:13.
When a mom gets up to feed her infant in the night, she catches a faint echo in her heart of the long-suffering love God has for her, and glimpses in her baby her utter dependence on God. If we examine the Bible, we will see that male and female form the raw material for another living, breathing metaphor…
God creates humanity “in his image” and “in his likeness.” This language evokes three relationships that shed light on our status before God: a child resembling a parent, a deputy representing a king, and a temple statue representing a god. This “image” language applies to male and female together, and God charges his humans to fill the earth and to rule over it (Gen. 1:26–29).
Fulfilling these roles depends on man and woman relating to each other sexually. So we could say that God gives his people a three-orbed role: to rule, to relate, and to create. God, who is love (1 John 4:8), could not truly be imaged by a solitary human. God’s image emerges not just from our rationality but also from our relationships.
The assertion that a solitary human was “not good” is jarring (Gen. 2:180. The man cannot image God alone; he needs a helper. This is our first Severus Snape moment. “Helper” sounds like a subordinate role. But in the Hebrew Scriptures, the word helper is overwhelmingly applied to God himself, so it cannot imply inferior status (Exo. 18:4; Deut. 33:26, 29; Psa. 20:2; 33:20; 54:4; 118:7; Hosea 13:9).
Woman is bone of man’s bone and flesh of his flesh: they are different but fundamentally linked (Gen. 2:21–23). The next verse hammers the point home: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Gen. 2:24). Sex joins man and woman in intimate relationship as they become fruitful and multiply. The God who exists in utter intimacy, with love across difference at the core of his being, creates image bearers who are of the same essence but different, and calls them into one-flesh unity.

Where is the man? The answer comes at the end of Genesis 3:6: he’s right there with her. This disobedience breaks both humanity’s relationship with God and the fellowship between humans. Innocence and intimacy are replaced by shame and blame. Life yields to death.
Ruling over creation is made hard by the curse on the man. Multiplying is made hard by the curse on the woman. The woman is not only cursed with pain in childbirth but also told that from now on, “your desire shall be contrary to your husband, / but he shall rule over you” (Gen. 3:16).
Gone is the unashamed, united love story between men and women. Now there is conflict and power struggle. This is a result of rebellion, not God’s original design. Throughout the Old Testament, we see sin resulting in appalling treatment of women by men—and vice versa. We see murder and rape and exploitation. But this is a diagnosis, not a prescription. The Bible does not endorse what it reports. But it does present a realistic picture of how human beings treat each other and, in particular, how we wield power.

The relationship between man and woman finds fresh meaning when God’s covenant with his people is pictured as a marriage (Isa. 54:5). In the marriage metaphor the roles are never reversed: God is always the husband and never the wife. God’s people are unfaithful to him by worshiping idols. God is unrelentingly faithful. His love is jealous—the appropriate reaction of a loving husband to a cheating wife. But it is also forgiving. Though God has every right to reject his people, he wants them back, and the renewal of the covenant is pictured as a reconciling of husband and wife. How can the holy, faithful, love-filled God live with his loveless, faithless, sin-filled people?

Luke 5:34; John 3:29 - Jesus—the ultimate image of the invisible God—steps into history as a groom. Like a power line, grounded in Jesus, this metaphor returns in the New Testament letters written after his death and resurrection. But before we get to that, we must marvel at Jesus’s relationships with women in the Gospels.

The picture is stunningly countercultural. While Zachariah is punished with months of dumbness for his unbelief, Mary is only commended. The prominent role of women in Luke continues as Mary and her cousin Elizabeth prophesy over Jesus in the womb, and as a prophet (Simeon) and a prophetess (Anna) prophesy over the infant Jesus.
The adult Jesus consistently weaves women into his preaching. In his first sermon, he enrages his audience with two Old Testament examples of God’s love reaching beyond the Jews: one is a woman (Luke 4:25-27). In Luke 15, we have the female-oriented parable of the lost coin. In Luke 18, the parable of the persistent widow, Jesus stops to address female mourners (Luke 23:27–31). In a male-dominated culture, his attention to women throughout his preaching is remarkable.
Jesus heals Simon’s mother-in-law (Luke 4:38–9). In chapter 7, Jesus heals a centurion’s servant and then raises a widow’s son; then a bleeding woman (chapter 8), and then a synagogue ruler’s daughter. Jesus’s last healing in Luke is of a woman with a disabling spirit. She praises God.
When the male synagogue ruler objects, Jesus calls him a hypocrite and reminds him of the woman’s status as a “daughter of Abraham” (Luke 13:16–17).
In Luke 7, he is dining at Simon the Pharisee’s house, when a “sinful woman” (likely a prostitute) disrupts the party. In cultural terms, Simon has every advantage. He is a man; she is a woman. He is religiously admired; she is despised. He’s hosting a dinner party; she is a weeping, prostrate embarrassment. But according to Jesus, she surpasses Simon on every count (Luke 7:36–50).
Luke emphasizes the women who followed Jesus too: Luke 8:1-3. They were there at the beginning of Jesus’s ministry and at the end (Luke 23:49, 56). But can these women legitimately be called disciples? In Luke 21, when he commends the poor widow for her gift of two small copper coins (21:1-4).
Mary & Martha - Mary is assuming a traditionally male role, sitting at Jesus’s feet with the other disciples (Luke 10:42).
His female disciples visit the tomb to anoint his body. When two male disciples meet Jesus on the road to Emmaus, they recount the women’s tale but do not seem to have absorbed it. Jesus rebukes them, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken!” (Luke 24:25).
In a moving account in John, Jesus shocks his disciples by crossing ethnic, religious, gender, and moral boundaries to talk with a sexually compromised Samaritan woman, who becomes an evangelist to her people (John 4:1–30).
We have the woman caught in adultery in John 8:7; Jesus’ interaction with Martha and Mary after the death of their brother (John 11). In Matthew 9, Jesus commends the faith of a woman suffering from unrelenting menstrual bleeding who touched him to be healed. In Matthew 19 he protects women from unwarranted divorce, which would in many cases leave them destitute.
Jesus’s valuing of women is unmistakable. In a culture in which women were devalued and often exploited, it underscores their equal status before God and his desire for personal relationship with them. But is Jesus’s life and ministry an oasis of equality in a desert of biblical misogyny?

When the marriage metaphor first re-fuses with human marriage in Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus, it strikes us like Snape muttering magic under his breath during Harry’s first Quidditch match. We think it’s a curse, when in fact it’s a protective charm. “Submit yourselves to one another,” writes Paul, “out of reverence for Christ.”
Ephesians 5:22-24 - Three problems with these verses. The first was that wives should submit. I knew women were just as competent as men. Wives should submit to their husbands as to the Lord. It is one thing to submit to Jesus Christ. It is quite another to offer that kind of submission to a fallible, sinful man. The husband was the “head” of the wife. This seemed to imply a hierarchy at odds with men and women’s equal status as image bearers of God.
Here were these horrifying verses promoting the subjugation of women. Jesus had elevated women to an equal status with men. Paul, it seemed, had pushed them down.
The command for wives to submit occurs three times in the New Testament (see also Col. 3:18; 1 Pet. 3:1), while husbands are called four times to love (Eph. 5:25, 28, 33; Col. 3:19) and once to honor their wives (1 Pet. 3:7). So, ladies, ask yourself: “How would I feel if this were the command to wives: Wives, love your husbands to the point of death, putting his needs above yours, and sacrificing yourself for him?”
If the message of Jesus is true, no one comes to the table with rights. The only way to enter is flat on your face. Male or female, if we grasp at our right to self-determination, we must reject Jesus, because he calls us to submit to him completely.
God created sex and marriage as a telescope to give us a glimpse of his star-sized desire for intimacy with us. Our roles in this great marriage are not interchangeable: Jesus gives himself for us, Christians (male or female) follow his lead.
Recognizing that marriage (at its best) points to a much greater reality relieves the pressure on all concerned. First, it depressurizes single people. We live in a world where sexual and romantic fulfillment are paraded as ultimate goods. Miss out on sex, we are told, and you miss out on life. But within a Christian framework, missing marriage and gaining Christ is like missing out on playing with dolls as a child, but growing up to have a real baby.
It also takes the pressure off married people. Of course, we have the challenge of playing our roles in the drama. But we need not worry about whether we married the right person, or why our marriages are not flinging us to a constant state of Nirvana. In one sense, human marriage is designed to disappoint. It leaves us longing for more, and that longing points us to the ultimate reality of which the best marriage is a scale model. Jesus: the true husband who satisfies my needs, the one man who truly deserves my submission.

These claims about male and female psychology are generalizations. Ephesians 5 grounds our roles in marriage not on gendered psychology but on Christ-centered theology.
It is a daily challenge for each of us to remember our role in the drama of redemption and to notice opportunities to submit to the husband (or church leaders) as to the Lord, not because anyone is naturally more or less submissive or because someone is more or less naturally loving, but because Jesus went to the cross for each of us. And He is our Lord and Master.
Centuries of “traditional” gender roles have often meant wives contorting around the needs of their husbands, while husbands assert their dominance. At least one of Paul’s key ministry partners was a woman who did just that, as did the idealized wife described in the Old Testament book of Proverbs. Paul does not specify that wives should earn less than their husbands, or that families should privilege the husband’s career over the wife’s.
Paul is clear elsewhere that men cannot abdicate their responsibility to ensure that their families are provided for. But this does not mean the husband must be the primary breadwinner. In biblical terms, the value of work is measured not in dollars but in service. Indeed, Jesus himself, the archetypal leader, did not earn money, and he was financially dependent on some of his female followers (Luke 8:2–3).
Pay attention to the character of Christ. If we hear the call to husbands as a mandate to oppress and dominate, we are forgetting that Jesus came not to be served but to serve, not to lead an army but to give his life as a ransom.
When husbands are called to love their wives “as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” the word translated “gave up” is the same one the Gospels use when Jesus is handed over to be crucified.

The marriage metaphor finds its fulfillment in the Bible’s final book: Revelation 19:7. Jesus as husband is the sacrificial Lamb, reinforcing the link between husbanding and loving sacrifice. An angel declares, “Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb” (Rev. 19:9). Later in Revelation, Jerusalem is pictured as Christ’s bride: Revelation 21:1-2.
The marriage metaphor finds its last outlet in the final chapter of the Bible, bonded with another metaphor: Revelation 22:17. Jesus offered living water first to a woman: a woman who, because of her race, religion, sex, and sexual history, would have been beneath the contempt of a respectable rabbi. He asked her for a drink. Then he claimed that whoever drank the water he could give would never be thirsty again, but that that water would become in them a spring of water, welling up to eternal life (John 4:13–14).
Feminism in the early 1920s, which gained American women the right to vote and inherit land, was due in large part to Christian activism. Abolitionist movement, as Christian leaders like Sojourner Truth advocated for women’s rights. Women have played a key role in the development of the church.
True Christianity flips the script on the marginalization of women that characterizes many traditional cultures and gives them equal status before God, with a whole new role to play of witnessing to the gospel of Jesus and loving others in his name.
Even the “#MeTooMovement” has no substance to it outside of the view of gender equality prominent in Christianity!
Each of us is part of a larger story, a story in which the most vulnerable are the most important, a story in which no human being is unwanted, a story in which all of us are sexual sinners and only Jesus has the right to judge, a story in which sacrifice for others is the only path to joy, and a story that ends—for those willing to accept the offer—with a marriage of such beauty and intimacy that it makes the best human marriage seem like a heart emoji compared with a Shakespeare sonnet. Like Dumbledore’s “Severus . . . please,” the Bible’s words on women are the words of a man who lays down his life. The ultimate man laid down his life for the billions of women who have trusted him with theirs. Does Christianity denigrate women? On the contrary. It lifts us into fellowship with God himself.
Next month: Isn’t Christianity Homophobic?


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