God’s vision for the Kingdom is one in which all of humanity is related to each other in relationships of equality, dignity, respect and peace, under the sole headship of Jesus Christ (Eph 1:9-10). But in South Africa, as in many parts of the world, women do not enjoy this Kingdom. Women and girl children are all too frequently the victims of abuse, violence, exploitation, domination and subordination. I have been harshly confronted with this over the past 33 years, since I was a young teenager. We live in one of the most dangerous countries in the world for women.
But the church has typically been silent and even complicit in this oppression of women. This is often because people of faith interpret the Bible through the lens of their culture, and most cultures are patriarchal – thus we come to the Bible with preconceived notions of gender and ‘find’ support for our ideas in the Bible. And of course the Bible itself was written in patriarchal societies by people who endorsed patriarchal beliefs. But while the Bible is surely filled with patriarchal passages, there are also many passages that have been invalidly used in support of patriarchy – texts have been distorted to serve the interests of men in power. What is required, in fact, is that we allow the Scriptures to interpret our culture, so that our culture is redeemed and transformed into the image of the Kingdom of God.
In this sermon, I take two passages that have, for thousands of years, been used to support the subordination (and often abuse) of women by men, and read them closely and carefully to show that they really do not provide support for male superiority or female subordination, but rather for equal partnership between the genders.
Genesis chapters 1 to 3 lay the foundation for our understanding of God, creation, humanity and the divine-human relationship. But far from endorsing gender power differentials, these chapters (specifically 1:28, 2:22-23 and 3:16) endorse both domestic and commercial partnership and equality between women and men, and depict patriarchy (a husband’s rule over his wife) as sin.
Paul, of the New Testament, was almost certainly a chauvinist, and grapples with the implications of there being “neither male nor female … in Christ” (Gal 3:28). Ephesians 5, with it’s infamous verse about wives submitting to their husbands, must be located against 5:21, which calls for mutual submission within the household of God. Using three pairs of power-differentiated relationships (wife-husband, child-parent and slave-master) Paul first introduces the cultural norm of submission/subordination for the less powerful person, though with a bit of a spiritual spin; and then a counter-cultural requirement for submission by those in power. Read as a whole, this passage calls for mutual submission or consideration in all human relationships, particularly when there are cultural power differences.
Through all of this, I am calling for people of faith to set aside their cultural assumptions as they read the Bible; to be transformed by the renewing of their minds, in choosing to unlearn racist, sexist and colonialist ways of thinking and relating; and to not stand by silently when women are humiliated or oppressed.