What the Bible Says About...

Sexual Equality

The ability to make excuses is uniquely human. If my son has a scrap with a playmate, he can plead like a lawyer to convince me that he is entirely on the side of justice. Animals can get into scraps too. Some dogs I am acquainted with will bark ferociously if I come within half a block of their homes. They would probably bite me if they could get past the fences. But they would not try to justify their behavior.

When I spend a whole day getting almost nothing done, I start telling myself, and sometimes other people, all the reasons why I didn’t get anything done. If you watch your pet fish all day, you will probably notice that it does not get much done either, but at least it does not make excuses.

Human history is full of such justifications, not only by individuals, but by whole societies. For example, Hitler murdered the Jews, and yet claimed that God was on his side. Considering the human tendency to make excuses, it is not surprising that God’s Word has been twisted into justifying man’s lack of care for his fellow human being.

The issue of women’s rights is sometimes clouded by allusions to Biblical passages teaching that “husbands should rule over wives,” and that “wives should be submissive and obedient.” Backed by such passages, some people claim that God originally created the male to take the upper hand and have the final say in important decisions.

Does God Really Say That?

We can understand the answer to this question better if we begin at the very beginning. The book of Genesis contains a parable about creation. It says that when God first created people He made them male and female, so that both together were God’s image and likeness. At that time He provided that the two should be “one flesh.” There is no hint that God intended in the beginning for either male or female to have superiority.

Masculine dominance came later. As time passed people turned away from the Lord, and deliberately disobeyed Him. As a result, they brought suffering upon themselves. Then God said that because they had disobeyed the man would have to labor hard for his food: “Cursed is the ground for your sake... Both thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you,...in the sweat of your face you shall eat bread.” For the woman’s part, her sorrow would “multiply greatly,” and she would have pain in childbirth. And God said to her, “Your husband shall rule over you.” (Genesis 3:16-19) The context makes it quite clear that male domination was part of the woman’s punishment. It is to be considered a curse when a husband rules, just as much as pain in childbirth and thistles and thorns in the ground were curses. This story shows that male dominance is the result of man’s evil, not a part of God’s ideal order.

“But Scripture Says...”

Certain statements in the Bible have been applied as if they were the commands of God when in fact they are against His will. For example, Deuteronomy mentions the possibility of a man giving his wife a certificate of divorce and sending her away. (Deuteronomy 24:1) When Jesus was on earth, some men claimed the right to throw their wives out of the house if the wives did not please them. This was especially cruel because a rejected woman would have had little chance of supporting herself in that culture. (Also, wives could not divorce their husbands&emdash;the husbands were in complete control.)

Once some of Jesus’ enemies thought they could make Him take sides in this sensitive issue, and force Him to make statements either against the wives whose rights were denied, or against the Scripturally “justified” male dominance of the day. They tried to trap Him with the question, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for just any reason?”

Jesus affirmed both the holiness of marriage and the rights of wives when he replied, “What God has joined together, let no one separate.”

Then His detractors tried to justify their position with Scripture: “Why then did Moses command to give her a certificate of divorce?”

But Jesus indicated that they had misapplied Scripture by taking God’s unwilling toleration of men’s selfishness as if it were God’s command. “Because of the hardness of your hearts Moses allowed you to put away your wives,” He said, “but from the beginning it was not so.” (Matthew 19:9) God had already warned men not to treat their wives this way: “Let none deal treacherously with the wife of his youth. For the Lord God of Israel says that He hates divorce.” (Malachi 2:16) But, as is too often the case, the selfish desires and self-justification of these husbands led them to ignore this warning and to twist the Scriptures into favoring mistreatment of women.

Who Should Be Submissive?

In both the creation story and the teachings of Jesus we see that human evil and “hardness of heart” has led to men mistreating their wives. Masculine dominance is not God’s ideal, but a sad reality.

Now consider Paul’s teaching: “Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord.” (Ephesians 5:22) A husband with a tendency to look down on women might use this passage as an excuse for continuing to put himself first. But such a person would be completely missing the point of the passage. Paul meant that everyone should be submissive, not just wives. The verse just before says, “Submit yourselves one to another in the fear of God,” (Ephesians 5:21) e.g., wives submit to husbands, and husbands submit to wives. The Christian way to greatness is through humility and submission, not through pride, rebellion and domination.

Peter, speaking on the same subject, said, Submit yourselves to every human ordinance for the Lord’s sake.” (1 Peter 2:13) This does not mean that every human ordinance is good. It simply means that we gain more through humility than through rebellion. He goes on to say, “Servants, be submissive to your masters with all fear; not only to the good and gentle, but also to the harsh...for what credit is it if when you are beaten for your faults, you take it patiently? But when you do good and suffer for it, if you take it patiently, this is commendable before God.” (1 Peter 2:18-20)

Peter then asks us to follow the example of Christ, who, “when He was reviled, did not revile in return; when He suffered, threatened not.” (1 Peter 2:23) “Likewise,” Peter says, “you wives be submissive to your own husbands.” (1 Peter 3:1) The implication is clear: in submitting to their husbands, wives are like Christ when He submitted to His enemies. This does not make it right for the husband to dominate any more than it was right to crucify the Lord.

Never anywhere does the Bible say, “Husbands, rule over your wives!” The message to everyone is to be humble. “All of you be submissive to one another, and be clothed with humility: for God resists the proud, and gives grace to the humble.” (1 Peter 5:5) “Whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant.” (Matthew 20:27)

Equal Standing

The Bible shows that neither the man nor the woman has a special advantage in being a Christian. Christ does not choose men in preference to women, or relate to men more directly. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: For you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 4:28) It is true that women are dependent upon men, yet it is equally true that men are dependent upon women. “Neither is the man without the woman, neither the woman without the man, in the Lord.” (1 Corinthians 11:11) They are “heirs together to the grace of life.” (1 Peter 3:7) “God created man in His own image...male and female.” (Genesis 1:27) Both of them together are the likeness of God.

Christ And The Church

In the Bible, the Lord is called Husband and the Church is called Bride. God loves His people so much that He says He is married to them. It is easy to misunderstand this relationship, which Paul calls a “great mystery.” (Ephesians 5:32) We can destroy its beauty if we use it to justify domination. If we picture God as a despot who seeks only His own glory and uses fear and punishment to make everyone obey, then we may have a similar conception of how a husband may treat his wife. However, the true relationship between God and people is not one of master and slave. We are servants of the Lord, but the Lord also chooses to be the servant of the church. “The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve.” (Matthew 20:28) “I am among you,” the Lord says, “as one who serves.” (Luke 22:27)

The Lord does not want a church full of mindless slaves. He wants us to love Him freely. So He says, “No longer do I call you servants...but I have called you friends.” (John 15:15) And the Lord tells of a time that will come when “You will call Me ‘My Husband,’ and no longer call Me ‘My Master.’” (Hosea 2:16)

When people turned away from God, we not only lost the true relationship between God and people, but we also distorted the marital relationship by letting the husband rule over the woman. We can hope that the true marriage between God and His people will be restored and that then the true marriage between husband and wife will also be restored to its original holiness and beauty, so that neither husband nor wife is dominating, but both are one flesh.