Sexism is the discrimination against people, typically women, based solely on gender. Sexism can be evident in hiring practices, educational opportunities, and even subconscious attitudes. In Old Testament times, sexism was the accepted social norm in most civilizations. Women were considered second-class citizens and in some cultures were treated like slaves to be owned by their husbands. Since in some passages the Bible does not challenge those norms, we may wonder if the Bible supports sexism. What should be a Christian’s response?
To best understand what the Bible teaches about the God-ordained roles of men and women, we need to first differentiate between sexism and the respect for natural gender differences. In the 21st century, the backlash against sexism has gone to the other extreme. Rather than settle for gender equality in the business and social arenas, activists push for the obliteration of any reference to gender differences. Recently, it has become politically incorrect to even acknowledge biological gender differences, to the extent that we can supposedly choose whatever gender (or none) we feel at the moment. However, simple recognition of the physical, emotional, and psychological differences between the sexes is not sexism. Agreeing with God’s designated gender roles in marriage and the church is not sexism. So, for the purposes of this article, we will define sexism as “the unfair and unwarranted treatment of a person based solely on that person’s biologically assigned gender.”
Many people struggle with certain passages in the Bible that seem to validate the negative treatment of women. The criticism points to the Bible’s silence about the issue, primarily in the Old Testament. The same argument is often made about slavery and the Bible’s failure to declare the evils of it. What many fail to take into consideration is that the Bible is brutally honest, reporting history in often gritty detail. One validation of the Bible’s authenticity is its failure to airbrush the people or nations that God chose for His work. The authors recorded factually the failings, as well as the accomplishments, of God’s people. Early human civilization was a brutal time of survival of the fittest, and it was into that climate that God’s Word was introduced.
When looking at sexism through 21st-century Western eyes, we see much to criticize in the Bible. When we judge the lifestyles and behavior of people in 5000 BC by our modern standards, we can develop a sense of moral outrage. But we must remember that the people in those cultures would not share our outrage. They lived in a different time when life and personal expectations were completely different from our expectations. Many ancient societies would have been equally horrified at the “freedoms” we consider “advanced,” such as abortion on demand, “friends with benefits,” or pornography. When we look at an ancient civilization, then overlay it with the Old Testament laws, the Bible not only fits but God’s law provided more protection and consideration for women than did the laws of the pagan nations around them.
When God unfolded His plan to send His Son into the world, He chose a woman (Luke 1:26–38). He did not use Mary in spite of her gender; He chose her because of her gender. Only the unique female physical attributes that God had created could further His plan to save humanity. When Jesus grew up, He elevated the status of women to new heights. In a day when sexism ruled the culture, many of Jesus’ followers and financial supporters were women (Luke 8:3; Matthew 27:55). He paid equal attention to the women who sought Him out for healing and forgiveness, often to the shock of the religious men (Luke 8:43–48; 13:10–14; John 8:3–11; Matthew 26:6–13). It was a woman who was accorded the honor of first seeing the resurrected Christ (John 20:11–18).
In the New Testament epistles, Paul clarifies the equal value that God places on both men and women: “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). He repeats this truth in Colossians 3:11. Peter echoes the same when he writes to husbands about the treatment of their wives, reminding men that their wives are “heirs with you of the gracious gift of life” (1 Peter 3:7).
However, equality does not mean sameness. God’s creativity is showcased in the different, but complementary, way He made the sexes. Along with those unique and complementary designs come unique and complementary roles. God designated husbands to carry the weight of responsibility for the family. Ephesians 5:21–33 explains God’s ideal for a godly home, in which each member feels safe and validated. Likewise, within the church God designated men as the senior leadership (Titus 1:6–9; 1 Timothy 3:1–13). That does not mean God is sexist. It means that the God who created us knows how we function best. When men and women seek to honor Him within the roles created for them, home life works, churches work, and society works.
A Christian should respond to sexism the way we respond to any other injustice. But we must first carefully filter the supposed offense through the screen of God’s Word. Are we listening to the world’s twisted definition of sexism, or is this a real case of injustice? Is it sexism, or is it a recognition of God-given differences? For example, a man and woman hired to do the same job should receive the same pay rate. But they should also receive the same considerations. A woman earning the same rate as a man should not expect six weeks of paid maternity leave while her male coworker is given none. On the other hand, a fire department should have the right to institute rules that anyone applying for a position on the fire truck must be of a certain size. If a five-foot, 120-lb. girl wants to apply, is it sexism to deny her application, or is it wisdom and concern for the people who may have to depend on her for their lives? The decision is made easier when we imagine being trapped with small children in a burning ten-story building. Would we rather see a six-foot, 200-lb fireman on his way up the ladder or the petite girl?
Salvation by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8–9) is the great equalizer. There is no place for sexism within the family of God because God does not value one gender over another. But the God who designed the sexes also designed their strengths and weaknesses. He has written the instruction manual for how those gender roles can best be celebrated. We are wise to consult that manual with every decision, including the way we respond and take action when real sexism occurs.