If the Bible teaches gender equality, why has gender inequality always been the norm?Question: "If the Bible teaches gender equality, why has gender inequality always been the norm?"
Answer: Gender equality is a status in which both genders receive equal treatment and are not discriminated against due to gender. Under gender equality, both genders share the same civil rights, have the same access to social goods and opportunities, and bear the same obligations. The idea is that every person is given the same legal rights and regarded by society as being equals. Neither gender is valued less.
Whether there exists gender equality within a society can be difficult to judge. In many ways, no two people—regardless of gender—can be fully said to have equal opportunity and access to everything. One’s socio-economic status and geographical locale aside, there is the simple matter of genetics and natural ability. Can a 5'2" man really have the same opportunity to become a professional basketball player as can a 6'9" man? That being said, there have been and are many societies in which people of a certain gender, race, class, age, religion, etc., are discriminated against. If being strictly equal is an impossibility since we are not robots living in a non-diverse world, and since what constitutes a reasonable level of equality is rather subjective, how are we to address the issue of gender equality?
First, what is a biblical concept of gender equality? The Bible teaches that God created Adam out of the dust of the ground. He put Adam in the Garden of Eden to work it and commanded him not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. God then said it was not good for Adam to be alone and that He would make a suitable helper. First, though, God had Adam name the animals. We surmise that, in watching the parade of animals, Adam saw that the animals each had another of their kind whereas he did not. There was not a suitable helper for Adam among the animals; there was none of his kind. God put Adam into a deep sleep and, out of Adam’s rib, formed Eve. God brought Eve to Adam, and “the man said, ‘This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called “woman,” for she was taken out of man.’ That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh. Adam and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame” (Genesis 2:23–25). The Bible also provides a summary statement of mankind’s creation: “So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27). God created both man and woman, and both are made in His image. This implies equality of worth.
The equal worth of men and women—and the equality of their spiritual need—is affirmed in Galatians 3:28–29: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.” Salvation is offered for all people, regardless of race or gender or social status, and that salvation is offered through Jesus Christ alone (John 14:6; Acts 4:12). In the matter of salvation, there is true gender equality.
Some argue that the Bible does not, in fact, teach gender equality. In particular, several Old Testament passages regarding the treatment of women are disconcerting to modern ears. For example, Deuteronomy 22:28–29 and Exodus 22:16–17 seem to command that a victim of rape marry her attacker. But the reality of those verses is a bit more complex. These laws stipulate that a man who had sex with a single woman, essentially negating her opportunity for marriage, must pay the appropriate bride price and marry her. He was not permitted to ever divorce her, despite whatever legal allowances for divorce were found in other laws (Deuteronomy 24:1–4). Note also that the woman was not forced to marry the man; her father could refuse to give her in marriage, but the man would still pay the bride price. These laws were meant to punish the man who violated a virgin and to protect the woman from further exploitation.
Many of the laws in the Old Testament regarding the treatment of women had to do with protection of women living in a society in which they did not have as many rights or opportunities as men. Because societies are made up of people who sin, many social laws have to do with mitigating evil. The laws on divorce are an excellent example. In Matthew 19 Jesus explains to the Pharisees that God did not command divorce, but rather it was permitted “because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning” (Matthew 19:8). Similarly, the Old Testament laws that seem to suggest a lesser status for women are better understood as legal provisions in a society in which women were already treated as lesser. It is not God who sees women and men as unequal in value, but humans who choose to mistreat one another.
Having established that men and women are of equal value in God’s eyes, we can say that they should be treated as of being equal value by one another. So why has this not been the case throughout history?
The simple answer is sin. When Adam and Eve sinned, there was a breakdown in humanity’s relationships: with God, with one another, and with creation. After their sin, Adam and Eve hid from God. When God asked them where they were and why they had hidden, Adam blamed Eve (and God, indirectly). Eve blamed the serpent. In Genesis 3:16, God told Eve, “Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.” Or, as the NLT translates it, “You will desire to control your husband, but he will rule over you.” Sin became part of human nature, and with sin came gender inequality and the battle of the sexes.
It is our sinfulness that causes us to be proud and selfish. It is sinfulness that causes us to fear, exclude, or mistreat those who are different from us. It is sinfulness that results in our unfair treatment of one another. In short, the root cause of gender inequality, in a meaningful sense of the term, is sin.
A point of clarification is in order. The Bible advocates for equal value and the worth of all humans. But it does not advocate for sameness. Men and women are given different, complementary roles in the family (Ephesians 5:21–33) and church (1 Timothy 2:12). Believers are given different spiritual gifts (1 Corinthians 12). But the fact that different people have different roles or different gifts is not a testament to inequality. Rather, it is a display of God’s wisdom and creative power. Psalm 139 pictures God knitting someone together in his mother’s womb and says that we are fearfully and wonderfully made. Ephesians 2:10 speaks of the good works God has prepared in advance for those who put their faith in Jesus. The genders are of equal value before God and should both be treated with dignity and respect.
Recommended Resources: What's the Difference? Manhood and Womanhood Defined According to the Bible by John Piper
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If the Bible teaches gender equality, why has gender inequality always been the norm?