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Are We Misreading the Bible When It Comes to Gender Roles?

Categories Theology

9780310529392In politics, so-called “third-rail issues” are policy subjects so combustible, so electric that touching them leads to sure-fire political ruin.

Today, the issue of gender roles within marriage and within the church is as equally combustible and electric. Yet in her new book Gender Roles and the People of God, Alice Mathews grabs it with both hands in order to help us rethink what we were taught about men and women.

What can we learn from Scripture and from history that will help us reach the clearest understanding of gender difference in God’s purposes for us? The journey may drive us to rethink what we’ve been taught. It may help us see what we might otherwise have missed. (16)

She begins the conversation with a warning on the dangers of misleading readings of the Bible, which then leads to a sort of case study for gender roles.

Remember: The Bible Is Always Interpreted

It is crucial to remember that when it comes to gender roles and the Bible—and actually anything and the Bible—we engage it through a particular interpretive lens, making choices about its meaning through the ways we view it. Mathews reminds us such engagement faces three obstacles:

  • Most of us don’t speak the original languages of the Bible
  • We tend to impose our own cultural standards on the times of the Bible
  • We bring our twenty-first-century religious, moral, and cultural expectations to the Bible. (19)

“Any hermeneutic that ignores these obstacles can mislead sincere Christians who assume that what is true for us now was also true for the writers two thousand years ago” (15).

Including what the Bible says regarding gender roles within marriage and the church.

A Case Study: Biblical Support of Slavery

To illustrate, she offers a case study. Once upon a time sincere Christians, like renowned Princeton theologian Charles Hodge, interpreted the Bible as advocating slavery. He said, “if the present course of abolitionists is right, then the course of Christ and the apostles were wrong.”

Mathews wonders, “How could Bible-believing preachers and theologians defend slavery on the basis of the Bible?” (20) Which leads her to equally wonder how Bible-believing preachers and theologians defend patriarchy on the basis of the Bible.

Consider four major biblical arguments used to support slavery. It was considered:

  1. Divinely sanctioned by the Old Testament patriarchs, beginning with Noah in Genesis 9:24–27
  2. Incorporated into Israel’s national constitution, where it is believed God authorized two types of slavery
  3. Approved by both Jesus and the apostles
  4. A merciful institution, noting that prisoners taken in war were spared being put to death. (20–23)

“Clearly, supporters of slavery in the mid-nineteenth century found almost every verse in the Bible that could validate their slave-owning practices” (24).

And yet, such a biblical appeal didn’t make it right. “It’s not enough to look for words that say what we want them to say. We must be sure of the textual, historical, and cultural context of those words” (25).

For both slavery and patriarchy.

Gender-Based Hierarchy and the Bible

Like the nineteenth-century proponents of slavery, “Proponents of gender-based hierarchy base their case on the presupposition that it is the will of God for men and women in both marriage and in the church” (25), and back it up with Scripture.

Their affirmations, as outlined in the Danvers Statement, include:

  • Masculine, feminine role distinctions are part of God-ordained creation
  • God established Adam’s headship in marriage before the Fall
  • The Fall distorted the relationship between men and women, in both home and church
  • Christ’s redemption aims to remove the Fall's distortions, in both home and church (26)

The case study Mathews offers on slavery is important, because “What happened in approaches to the issue of slavery has also happened to approaches to the issue of men and women in the church and home” (30).

In order to make sense of gender-based hierarchy, she offers an in-depth, detailed engagement with each of the major texts used to support it, building a case for “egalitarian complementarity” along the way:

God’s model begins in Genesis 1: a man and a woman together were blessed by their Creator with a mandate to fill the earth and subdue it. They stood before God with anatomical differences, brain (thinking) differences, and differences in creative potential—and somehow they were to work together as one, together. This is the biblical picture of complementarity. (235)

Mathews says God invites men and women to work as different equals for his glory and the world's good.


“It’s not easy to step back and put on a different pair of hermeneutical glasses in order to see what we might have missed in the past” (30). Yet Mathews believes the time is ripe for it.

Join her as she investigates the difficult passages often used throughout church history to preclude women from certain areas of service, pointing to better, more faithful biblical understandings of gender roles.

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