Sexism is discrimination against people, typically women, based solely on gender. Sexism can influence hiring practices, educational opportunities, social standing, and one’s mental well-being. In ancient times, sexism was the accepted social norm in most civilizations. Women were considered second-class citizens and in some cultures were treated like slaves by their husbands. Since the Bible records historical facts and does not always challenge the prevailing social norms, some wonder if the Bible supports sexist attitudes. What is the Bible’s position on sexism?
We need to first differentiate between sexism and respect for natural gender differences. The recognition that God created men and women in a complementary fashion is not sexism; neither is the acknowledgement of physical, emotional, and psychological differences between the sexes. Further, accepting 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 biological gender.”
Laying the foundation for any discussion on sexism and the Bible should be Genesis 1:27: “God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” From the very beginning, we are told that God created both men and women in His own image. By virtue of their creation, men and women have equal value, equal worth, and equal dignity. In Genesis 3, Adam and Eve fell into sin, and that has messed everything up.
Many people struggle with certain passages in the Bible that seem to validate the negative treatment of women. Lot’s proposal for his daughters in Genesis 19:8, and the Levite’s treatment of his concubine in Judges 19:25 are two horrific examples of sexism in ancient cultures. Neither Lot nor the Levite are condemned in Scripture for their actions. Why the silence on the issue of sexism? One thing to remember is that the biblical record of history is just that—a historical record. The Bible is brutally honest, reporting events as they happened, often in gritty detail. God gives us the whole truth about biblical characters, including their sin and their failures, and we are to learn from their examples. Also, in the case of Lot, the angelic messengers who were with him prevented his following through on his plans (Genesis 19:10–11). It was not God’s will for Lot to treat his daughters in such a way.
When we judge the lifestyles and behavior of people in 2000 BC by modern standards, it’s easy to develop a sense of moral outrage. But the people in those cultures would not share our outrage. The mistreatment of women was considered perfectly normal in those societies. Considering the violence and barbarity of ancient civilization, the Law God gave Moses in the Old Testament represented a major step forward toward decency. God’s Law provided more protection and consideration for women than did the laws of the pagan nations around Israel.
With the Mosaic Law, God formed a new people and began to teach them about Himself. The commandments had the effect of separating them from the pagan nations around them and promoting a better way to live (see Jeremiah 32:38–39). Far from being sexist, God’s Law elevated the status of women to new heights. God worked within the existing social structure to ensure that women were protected, given fair treatment, and provided for. Specific laws protected widows and single women without male providers (Exodus 22:22; Deuteronomy 27:19; Joshua 17:3–4).
In Genesis 3, God promised women a high honor: even though a woman had been the first to fall into sin, God would use a woman to bring the Savior into the world (Genesis 3:15). When the time came for that Savior to appear, God contacted the woman of His choice (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.
During His ministry, Jesus combatted the sexism of His day and elevated the status of women. 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 in that society (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) and women who were the first to bring the news of the resurrection to the world (Matthew 28:1–9).
In the 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; cf. Colossians 3:11). Peter echoes the same truth when he reminds husbands that their wives are “heirs with you of the gracious gift of life” (1 Peter 3:7). John 3:16 says, “Whoever believes”—an all-inclusive statement. No one is left out on the basis of gender. The cross of Christ is the great equalizer.
Of course, 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 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 spiritual 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.
There is no place for sexism within the family of God because God does not value one gender over another. We recognize that God, who designed the sexes, also designed their strengths and weaknesses. He has given us instructions for how those gender roles can best be celebrated. We are wise to consult those instructions with every decision, including the way we respond when sexism occurs.