Sometimes the world feels like it’s on fire. There are big issues in the wind and as Christians, we need to work out what we think and where we stand. We might think that we are separate from these in many ways as we are part of a different body of Christ. But we are still in the world and the world is broken, so we still need to make sense of things that happen to, and around, us. We ought not turn away from issues that affect our society, especially when we seek to be different from, and influence, it. And especially when we need to self-reflect to see if those issues have in fact affected us too.
Sexism and the treatment of women is one of those issues. From time to time, this is a battleground for Christians and so it is worth doing the hard work to think through the issue from various angles, so we can exercise our Christian wisdom and discernment.
Before we go any further therefore, as controversial as this may seem, we need to ask whether sexism is inherently sinful. Does that sound like a silly question? Within the church we relate differently to the world, and some of us hold a complementarian position. Even without a complementarian position however, there may be some things that we do that the rest of the world sees as sexist, that we see as morally benign and biblically sound. For example, women are charged with teaching the younger women. Men can do this of course and do, regularly. But this is something that we women are charged with (Titus 2:3-4). Likewise, there are issues which men specifically charged with (Titus 2:2, 1 Timothy 3:2-7, 1 Peter 3:7) which are distinct from exhortations which are not gender specific (Galatians 6:2).
Are these gender specific directives sexist? The world would say yes, since it perceives any differential treatment as morally injurious. Wikipedia says that sexism is “prejudice or discrimination based on a person’s sex or gender. Sexism can affect anyone, but it primarily affects women and girls. It has been linked to stereotypes and gender roles, and may include the belief that one sex or gender is intrinsically superior to another.” Biblically, we often discriminate based on gender in that we recognise a distinction between men and women. There is no value or moral judgement attached to that distinction. But, biblically speaking we do not (or rather, ought not) recognise this difference in a way that confers inferiority.
Let’s break this down further. The world finds any distinction to be wrong because of where we believe our value lies. In the world, we see our value in our status, position of respect, career, salary, looks, intelligence, Facebook followers – basically anything that marks us as different and unique. Our worth is inherent to our identity as a person and so is intrinsic to every facet of our make up, including our gender. Therefore, if our value is in our gender, then any differential treatment can feel like an assault on our worth.
But as Christians, we do not ascribe any moral value to our difference. It is merely a fact of our creation. Further, our value lies in God, so my gender has nothing to do with my worth. However, it is in the outworking of some of those biblical directives that can get us into hot water. Whether we believe equal-and-different or equal-and-same, our distinctness can be tainted by treatment as inferior. The inferiority of one gender to another is not what we see in God’s creation. Distinctness is shown in Genesis 2:18 (and we complementarians would also argue order), but not inferiority. Inferiority is also not what we see in Jesus’ re-affirmation of women (John 4:4-42, Matthew 9:20-22, Luke 7:36-50 and 10:38-42).
Therefore, anything that seeks to subvert God’s plan or deliberately reduces the image-bearing of another is sinful. Anything that pushes our distinctness or functional order (for complementarians) into ontological inferiority would similarly be sinful.
What would this look like? This might include, paying women less for the same work. A woman’s pay is nothing to do with her function which (in this scenario) is to perform the same function as her male counterparts. So, paying her less is treating her as ontologically inferior. It can include rude, demeaning comments or making assumptions or jokes about her intelligence, how she looks or acts as related to her gender. If you don’t know what kinds of things that might be, I’d recommend asking the trusted women of your acquaintance to (gently) let you know the kinds of things that are annoying, hurtful or offensive.
I appreciate I am writing this from a western cultural perspective. These are cultural expressions of sinful behaviour that, in our cultural environment, we have the ability to change. I acknowledge there are other cultural environments in which the cultural expressions are different and there is much less flexibility. I am not qualified to speak into those contexts. Although I would note that first century Palestine was just such a context and Jesus brought enormous flexibility to women to follow him. The evening out of social categories has been a point of concern for many authorities over the centuries, from the first century (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:20-22) up to the 19th century, when the Duchess of Buckingham wrote to the Countess of Huntingdon that the Methodists doctrines “are most repulsive and strongly tinctured with impertinence and disrespect towards their superiors, in perpetually endeavouring to level all ranks and do away with all distinctions. It is monstrous to be told that you have a heart as sinful as the common wretches that crawl on the earth.”
What we can focus on is the biblical convictions God’s word leaves us with: Living out biblical distinctiveness is not sinful, even though the world might see it as sexist. Pushing distinctiveness past the purpose of God’s creation to make women inferior, is sexism and is sinful.
Why is this important? It is important because the events of the last few weeks have shown us that sexism is still so integral to our culture, or we have become so numb to it, that school girls are being assaulted by school boys and an alleged violent assault in Parliament has highlighted a culture of disrespect and sexism in our nation’s capital. This sparked angry protests across Australia with the catch-cry “Enough is enough.” We cannot disassociate ourselves from this. We cannot assume we have not been tainted by the things that are being protested. We are in the world and are a product of it. As much as we lean towards our heavenly home, we must grapple with the fact that we could be sexist. As confronting and as difficult as that may be.
It is important because how can we repent of sins if we don’t know we are committing them? It is helpful to be clear and self-reflective about these things. It is a wise and godly thing to look at ourselves and critically assess whether we have pushed beyond the boundaries of biblical distinctness into worldly sexism.
It is important because sexism is everywhere and it is hereditary. Children are a product of what they are modelled. We are teaching our sons what is acceptable behaviour – and what they can get away with. We are teaching our daughters how they should expect to be treated. If we don’t know we are doing it, we are passing on the exact same messages that have been passed to us, with no trip wire to change the narrative.
It is important because as Christians we are called to be different from the world. If we are a part of the sexism problem, we are no different to the world at all. In fact, we are worse because we are also hypocrites.
It is important because, unchecked, sexism leads to dark places. Back in 2015, then Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull was calling for urgent cultural change in our attitudes to women “disrespecting women does not always result in violence against women. But all violence against women begins with disrespecting women.”
Please don’t misread me (or Turnbull). We are not saying that all men are bad. But there is a traceable effect from disrespect of women, and our societal acceptance of it, to the societal numbness towards assault and abuse towards women.
This is important because this matters to God. The Bible shows us clearly that God’s heart pumps for the poor and oppressed and the lonely. We see God’s heart in Jesus as he cares for the lost whether they be children, men, women, the sick, the blind or the lame.
We may not want to look. We may not want to recognise a sin in ourselves. We may not believe that this is us. But when women across the globe are saying that enough is enough, we must address the fact that this probably includes us. And, if we accept that, we must humbly, under God, look to ourselves, repent, ask God for his help to change our hearts, help each other to understand how to change our mode of speaking or behaving, be accountable to each other, and celebrate the gospel by being truly different to the world.