In recent weeks in the youth Sunday school class, we’ve been talking about troublesome passages of the Bible. There’s no shortage of them. Slaves are directed not to disrespect their masters. Humans are told to multiply and take dominion over the planet. Leviticus directs us to kill homosexual men. In dealing with such difficult passages, we ask: Who wrote these things? In what context? And what should we do with them?
Some of the most troublesome passages are about women. The writer of (Paul’s?) First Letter to Timothy says, “I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over men; she is to keep silent,” because Eve was the transgressor in the Garden of Eden. Leviticus tells us that a woman who gives birth to a boy will be unclean for seven days, but if she gives birth to a girl, she is unclean for two weeks. Ephesians and Colossians direct wives to be subject to their husbands. We ask the same questions about these passages: who wrote them, and in what context?
Many people don’t ask those questions, though, and instead accept cultural oppression of women, tied to the scriptures. In the early 1870s, Myra Bradwell applied for a license to practice law in the State of Illinois. She had all the qualifications to be admitted to the bar, but the State denied her application, because she was a woman. She appealed all the way to the Supreme Court, where she lost an 8-1 decision in 1872, because, the Court said, the 14th Amendment offered no protection. Justice Joseph Bradley wrote a concurring opinion explaining why he supported the result: “The natural and proper timidity and delicacy which belongs to the female sex evidently unfits it for many of the occupations of civil life.” Justice Bradley added, “the paramount destiny and mission of women are to fulfill the noble and benign offices of wife and mother. This is the law of the Creator.”
Nearly a century later in 1971, The Supreme Court reached a different conclusion about the 14th Amendment, holding that arbitrarily favoring men over women violated the Constitution. The Supreme Court changes, if slowly.
Christianity adapts, too, but sometimes even more slowly. Still today there are churches that don’t ordain women, that don’t put women in positions of authority over men, that teach wives to submit to their husbands, that strongly discourage divorce, even from abusive husbands.
But Christianity does not have to be the religion that keeps women silent, that views them as submissive and unclean. We can avoid that by asking the questions: who wrote the oppressive passages, for whom, and for what purpose? And perhaps more importantly, are there other passages that suggest a different approach? In Paul’s letters, he addressed women as church leaders. Jesus taught compassion, humility, and challenge to authority, hardly an approach that lends itself to iron-fisted male supremacy. And in our denomination, and in some others, we have traditions of celebration and empowerment of women. With these questions, and with these approaches, we can maintain a Christianity that both honors ancient scriptures and is relevant to modern social justice.
Creator God, thank you for the ideas passed to us over the centuries, and thank you also for the ability to learn about the nuance of scripture.