Divorce rules, polygyny, and the sexual standards of the ancient world all gave men substantial advantages over women. The term for this male-dominated hierarchical society is “Patriarchy.” The word means “the rule of the father.” The paterfamilias owned all the property and had legal power over his wives, children, slaves, and other household members.
Did God ordain this patriarchy? The polygyny of the OT and some of Paul’s statements in the NT (e.g., that women should not teach/speak in church and that they should not be elders) have led to the allegation that the Bible is a misogynistic text. But this charge ignores the cultural context.
The OT shows women as judges and leaders and contains the books of Ruth and Esther and the Song of Songs. The NT shows Jesus having support from a group made up of women and the following revolutionary listings from the book of Acts.
1. The outpouring of the Holy Spirit went to both men and women.
2. Priscila (whose name is always listed before her husband Aquila, which isn’t normal for those times and probably shows leadership) instructed Apollos about the teachings of Jesus that went beyond John the Baptizer.
3. The four prophesying daughters of Phillip the Evangelist are listed.
4. Tabitha (who Peter raised from the dead) was called a disciple and was known for “always doing good and helping the poor.”
5. Mary, the mother of John Mark, hosted some of the earliest church gatherings.
6. Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth, responds to Paul’s message, and she and her entire household are baptized. When Paul and Silas broke out of the prison, they went to Lydia’s house to meet with other believers.
7. Finally, in Thessalonica, the new believers are listed to include “not a few prominent women.”
Of course, the early church was still part of a strongly patriarchal society, but when Paul writes to the Galatians that there is “no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus,” he articulates the amazing changes to come.
We may wonder, “Why doesn’t the NT simply condemn patriarchy?” Think about the people listening to Jesus and Paul preach. To ask those folks what they thought of patriarchy would be similar to asking fish what they think of water. There simply wasn’t a conceivable alternative.
Yet, we all get to interpret the Bible in our own way; that is part of the incredible freedom God gives us. My study of the Bible and related ancient texts convinces me that the Bible was written in patriarchal times but points us toward a time when patriarchy is no more.
Sadly, that journey has taken a couple thousand years and is still only partially completed. I’m saddened when men use the writings of Paul, who I find remarkably egalitarian, as a hammer to force women into positions of subservience and tell them that they are less than equal partners. That behavior seems to go against our goal to become more and more Christ-like.