Part of the A Gender Study: The Real Lives of Women and Men in the Bible series

Editor’s Summary: A Solid Foundation for Understanding Gender in Scripture

In our series “A Gender Study: The Real Lives of Women and Men in the Bible,” the authors examine the biblical teachings on male violence and rape, the daily lives of women and men in ancient Israel and Rome, brave women in Scripture, and ways that women qua humans in the Bible contributed to the legacy of evil that necessitated the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

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Overall, these essays seem to imply that the biblical authors weren’t primarily concerned with comprehensive “gender roles.” They were, however, realists about gendered patterns of disobedience. For men, these include violence, especially sexual violence, and for women, they include anxiety-driven attempts to fulfill God’s promises in their own time and way. Some Old Testament texts seem to reinforce the all-hands-on-deck attitude toward work and provision exemplified in Israelite culture, which was not as patriarchal as is often believed. Some New Testament texts seem to reinforce the economic agency of wealthy women in ancient Rome, as well as to endorse a revolutionary reciprocity in marriage.

That said, ancient Israelite women and men did perform what may look to us like typical gender roles in a certain respect. According to Dr. Cynthia Shafer-Elliott, Israelite women managed the procreation aspect of the household, while the men oversaw the protection aspect. She is quick to note, however, that both men and women were involved in both protection and procreation for the household. And importantly, motherhood was considered a position of honor. But Dr. Shafer-Elliott does suggest that men primarily oversaw the former, while women primarily oversaw the latter, overlapping with our modern concept of gender roles.

Here is where I would ask whether the biblical authors address this fact of Israelite culture. Some might argue that the physicality of men and women in itself leads to these respective emphases in role. The “demands of the female’s reproductive role,” in Dr. Shafer-Elliott’s terms, kept Israelite women occupied with pregnancy (and recovery), lactation, and menstruation. Modern society, medicine, and technology (and lower birth rates) may mitigate some of the demands of protection and reproduction. And the value Paul assigns to vocational singleness for Christians at least complicates any advocacy of reproduction-related gender roles.

But physical facts about men and women raise the question: Does Scripture ever speak prescriptively concerning those roles that seem to derive more immediately from the nature of the body (for or against)? And if not, how do we proceed? Perhaps Christian mothers and fathers simply have the freedom to share all the familial duties however seems wise. Perhaps there’s more to be said.

The essays in this series do not engage directly with the “household codes” in 2 Corinthians, Ephesians, Colossians, 1 Timothy, 1 Peter, and Titus. These famously contentious passages deal with submission, headship, and related issues that dominate debates about “biblical manhood and womanhood” today. Some readers will view this as an unacceptable lacuna; others will welcome the step back to focus on more fundamental and pervasive biblical themes that may help contextualize these passages. In any case, part of bible literacy is learning to let the text shape and re-shape our questions as well as our answers. This series may give some readers an occasion to practice this discipline.

As I’ve pondered these issues while helping organize this series, I’ve found it helpful to see how one might consistently de-couple the male spiritual headship of pastors and husbands from a strict, broadly complementarian view of men and women. Looking to both the Old and New Testaments, I tentatively follow Aimee Byrd in calling myself neither a complementarian nor an egalitarian. I can’t say I’ve yet encountered fully satisfying treatments of all the household codes passages, regardless of how much biblical and historical context is brought to bear. That’s not because I’m seeking an interpretation that fits a specific agenda. I just still have questions. I invite fellow laypeople to join my inquisitive hesitation if they find themselves at a similar point.

I may yet find satisfying answers—and I’ll definitely learn a lot along the way.

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