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  • Writer's pictureSharon Beck-Doran

Brighter Together: The Intersection of Scripture and Gender Roles

After workouts every morning my girlfriends and I have coffee. It’s the main reason that most of us show up at 5:15am in the freezing cold to sweat our butts off. Most have kids and we talk about all the child-related things. Diva cups and pelvic floor therapy comes up more frequently than you’d expect, but that’s off topic for this illustration.

I’ve never had children of my own, but I have dogs. I can’t tell you how many stories I hear about people’s kids that I go, “OMG, the same thing happens with my dog!”

One of my friends told how her husband was at home watching their three kids. They all decided to go for a walk. Their little girl said she needed to potty, but they were nowhere near a bathroom. So he told her to just squat beside the trail. Except she needed to poop. He texted his wife, “I don’t know what to do. She pooped on the trail. Should I just leave it there?”

My dog sleeping on my lap
Jack is cutest when he's asleep on my lap.

Gosh, that’s why I carry poop bags everywhere I go. Jack does that every time we go for a walk.

As much as I love drawing comparisons between my fur babies and other people’s children, I do actually know it’s not the same. I would never presume that being a dog mom is the same as being a human’s mom.

For that reason, I’m careful not to give out parenting advice. When I do, it’s usually qualified with, “I’m not sure if this will be helpful…” and followed by, “I heard on NPR…” Even though I do actually have experience as a step-mom, I don’t give advice on that either. I haven’t really figured it out, so how could I?!

You know what I do give heaps of? Empathy. Things like, “Gosh, that sounds like it must be really hard.” Or “I can only imagine how stressful that must be.”

One of the voices from Scripture that some folks like to elevate around the topic of gender roles is the Apostle Paul. I think it’s important to note that Paul was never married. In fact, he made it clear that he felt like being single was the best way to be.

When the Apostle Paul talks about marriage relationships in 1 Corinthians chapter 7, he starts with, “Now for the matters you wrote about: ‘It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.’” [1 Corinthians 7.1] Interesting how the church hasn’t made that verse a foundational doctrine.

The chapter goes on to talk about immorality that, Paul writes, is already occurring. He admonishes his readers that they should have sex with their “own” husband or wife. Umm… am I the only one curious about what was going on? Were they like having orgies after pot luck or something?

I’ll confess I have been having a very difficult time wrestling with the patriarchy in scripture. When I think about stories of women, I’m confronted with their lack of status and agency. Learning about sexual consent has been a big thing for me. I’m starting to understand what it means to have physical autonomy, to get to decide and know how to communicate if and when I want to be touched. When I read about Esther who was part of a harem or Sarah whose husband, Abraham, out of fear said she was his sister so she ended up married to another man, I have a new sense of grief. They never knew what it was like to have a choice.

By contrast, this letter from Paul is pretty egalitarian.

The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife. Do not deprive each other except perhaps by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. I say this as a concession, not as a command. I wish that all of you were as I am. But each of you has your own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that. (1 Corinthians 7.3-6)

I strongly object to the phrase “does not have authority over his/her own body.” Then I remember Paul was a first century dude who had never been married and I cut him some slack. He couldn’t have imagined a 21st century woman growing up in purity culture, trying to let go of ideas about sex as an obligation.

This passage feels like a real departure from the patriarchy. The message is clear. Mutual pleasure is important. It’s not about his needs over hers, it’s about taking care of each other. I love this and I could have used more conversations about this passage.

Instead purity culture taught us that men have sexual needs and our job as wives is to take care of them. That makes me very sad. We have a whole generation of folks who have been raised to believe that men need sex and women aren’t very interested in sex. That’s not true. Women just don’t like one-sided pleasureless sex. Servicing someone else’s needs all the time isn’t very exciting.

Whether you believe the Bible is inerrant and meant to be taken literally or like me, prefer a softer statement like, “I believe the Bible is true,” most of us pick and choose which parts we want to focus on. By the way, this was true for the New Testament writers. Isaiah is quoted most often. Other writings we include in our canon like Judges or Ecclesiastes are never mentioned.

As a side note, I read an article online that claimed to identify quotes in the book of Revelation that alluded to Solomon’s Song of Songs. The author used this to bolster the idea that Song of Songs is really an allegory about Jesus Christ. This isn’t new. Jews have long debated the concept, except they replaced church with Jews and Jesus with God.

I find it particularly ironic that there’s a desire to make this steamy sexy poetry in Song of Songs an allegory and an insistence to take Revelation literally. If you were to remove Revelation from the Bible and read it as a first century letter, it would easily be identify as apocalyptic allegory. I’m curious why popular evangelical culture would choose to shy away from erotic fantasy in scripture. Yet such vivid imagination about the end of the world is used for a book that was intended to speak directly to the circumstances of its original audience. This illustrates how far purity culture has strayed from its source material.

The question remains, why would someone pick Ephesians 5.21-33 over 1 Corinthians 7?

The Apostle Paul’s direction from Ephesians 5.21-33 that I mentioned last week is for wives to submit to their husbands as the church submits to Christ. You’ll remember that I quoted a popular commentary that interprets submit as a military term meaning lower rank. That would have been true for Paul’s audience. Men held all of the power.

However, Paul places an even greater emphasis on a man’s responsibility to love and care for his wife, just as Christ loves the church and gave himself up for her. Many have read this passage and emphasized a man’s role to serve and protect his wife as primary. Others have emphasized that this passage points to God-ordained gender roles with men as leader of the family.

With either viewpoint, the power differential is clear. At the time this passage was written women were without means or status. It makes me think that from a first century perspective Paul was lifting up the status of women. He portrays an unequal pairing, but what if his depiction is closer to equal than the status quo of his culture? If that were true, could we say that Paul was something of a feminist?

Reading the Bible can be challenging for a variety of reasons. The most obvious is that it’s sometimes hard to understand. It was written thousands of years ago in languages that no one speaks anymore. I struggle to understand people from Arkansas and they are barely two states away. How can I know what someone from the other side of the world 80 generations ago might have meant to say?

Does that mean I throw it all away? Of course not! When I read scripture, even on my most cynical days, I have a sense of the divine. Just because it’s hard doesn’t mean it’s not worth the effort and it’s certainly not impossible.

I tend to view scripture as the testimony of believers, inspired by God. The Bible seems very human to me. At the same time I believe it’s a great way to know God.

Others emphasize that the words on the page are the very words of God Almighty. I think this is a little challenging to defend since translating a dead language is more art than science. I think it comes from a desire to have something authoritative on which to base one’s faith. I can respect that even as I wonder if it does more harm than good.

Thinking in terms of black and white, right and wrong, reading the plain text seems simple. I see the appeal. But sometimes being a Christ follower means wrestling with hard things.

Regardless of how you view scripture, we can’t ignore that the text was written in a specific time and place to a specific audience. We have to acknowledge we might not exactly resemble that audience.

I also think we need to be honest about what we want the Bible to say. I come to these two passages written by Paul wanting to understand scripture but also looking for an egalitarian meaning. Our own bias and the bias of our religious leaders will often speak through scripture louder than the voice of God. That statement probably makes some of us uncomfortable. It should. I know we want our pastors to speak with power and authority, but we also need to be careful.

At times, the words of Holy Scripture have been used for evil instead of good. When a leader attempts to co-op the authority of God Almighty for anything really, that’s sin. Be it personal gain, political power or an attempt to manipulate and control—if that causes harm to someone less powerful, I can’t think of any other way to describe it than evil. I believe that has been true for Ephesians 5.

What if Paul’s intent in writing Ephesians 5.21-33 isn’t to put women in their place, but to raise their status? He does, after all, start the passage saying, “Submit to one another…”

In recent years this passage has been used in opposition to feminism and the sexual revolution. While the rest of society opened doors for women, many churches reemphasized a woman’s place in submission to her husband. In some congregations women were denied leadership roles. In other places it left them disempowered, vulnerable to sexual exploitation. Surely this is the opposite of what Paul intended.

In many places this was meant to be good advice for a happy home. In other places it became a tool of fear and manipulation.

My running partner talks about the church she grew up in. Women were taught that obedience meant they stayed in the shelter of their husband’s protection. If you went outside of his authority there would be consequences—not just divorce or rebellious children, but things like cancer. Because the husband is representative of Christ, disobedience was seen as an offense toward God.

Even outside that extreme example, this passage has been used to keep many women silent for far too long.

Bad interpretations of Ephesians 5 haven’t done men any favors either. It pushes men into a contrived form of masculinity, judging and shaming them if they don’t fit. What if your family is having problems? As head of the household, men bear that responsibility. If his wife is a talented leader, he is shamed for not “wearing the pants” in the relationship. A man’s value isn’t found in his identity as a child of God or his unique personhood, but on his ability to earn a big paycheck.

Right now our planet has roughly 7.8 billion people living on it and most of them will pair up at some point in their lives. There’s no one right specific way to be in relationship with each another. There are just two people learning how to make a life together.

What if instead of trying to make ourselves into some made up stereotype, we live into who God actually made us to be? No one of us is perfect, but if we learn together, support and encourage each other we can certainly be better together than we would be on our own.

Next week I’ll talk about the history of how we got here and how it has affected our sex lives.

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