Often, you find what you want to find. I once made up a whole spoofing “doctrinal statement” on why women should lead, showing that women-on-top hierarchy can be “proved” from the Bible with hardly any more effort than man-on-top hierarchy. (Admittedly, the effort that went into man-on-top interpretations have been done for centuries. It thus takes less effort now from the one asserting it, than to think up interpretations for the opposite.)
But here is (a part of) how I actually read the Bible when not joking around. Here is (a part of) what I see when looking for the real message:
God made Adam and Eve in his image. Both were made to rule the earth. (Genesis 1:26-28) Neither was made to rule the other one. Nor was one made to stay at home while the other rule over the earth.
(I also believe the traditional view of the church that God is neither male or female. Thus male and female can both (equally) be in God’s image.)
God made Eve as a helper suitable for him/ helper who is just right for him/ helper fit for him/ help meet for him/ helper as his complement/ authority corresponding to him/ companion for him who corresponds to him/ helper — as his counterpart (how different translations translate Genesis 2:18) for Adam. In my Afrikaans Bible, it says the Afrikaans equivalent of “a helper, an equal”. The Hebrew word translated “helper” mostly refers to God when this word for help(er) is used. As in “My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth.” (Ps. 121:2). This meaning of helper is not an assistant you order around, but a strength and a rescuer. The Hebrew word beside helper, the one translated “meet for him/ suitable/ his complement” show that, unlike God, she is not his superior. This word is for someone beside you, or opposite you, on your own level, even nose-to-nose and eye-to-eye on your height.
The first mention of men lording it over women is in Genesis 3. This is not an order from God. The wording is not: “woman, listen to the man” or “man, make decisions on behalf of the woman.” It is: “because of sin, a lot of bad things will happen. Satan and the ground are cursed. Man and woman will experience negative consequences. One of these consequences is that you, the woman, will desire him, the man, and he will rule over you.” (Gen. 3:15-17)
After God stated his original intention for man and women both ruling and being eye-to-eye and nose-to-nose equal, a load of things happened in the Old Testament that shows the people did not actually live out God’s design for equality very well. One of the best examples is probably the whole book of Judges.
The story of Judges consists of many cycles of 1) Israel lives close to God and things go well –> 2) They wander away –> 3) Things go wrong –> 4) Israel repents –> 1) Israel lives close to God and things go well –> 2) They wander away… With time, they wander further away, they repent less often, until God is completely silent by the end of the book.
Early in the book, with people living close to God, you find stories of a woman getting land to manage (ch 1), the judge Deborah (ch 4) and a female military hero (ch 4) who is the only Bible woman to be called ” blessed above all women”. Late in the book, with people living so far from God that God is not speaking anymore, a woman is the victim of a gruesome rape-murder, and the Benjaminite tribe (not perverted individuals but the whole tribe as a group) kidnaps women. These are examples of the horrors that happen when God’s design for male and female equality is not followed.
The curse was the first place where gendered roles were implied in the Bible. (Not the same effect on men and women.) Part of the curse was that women would experience sorrow over their children, but that also implied that in a cursed world, gender roles will keep men far enough from their children that they do not, to the same extent, share in the sorrow. That could be why, at the end of the Old Testament, the prophet Malachi promise that God will “turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers“. That passage may promise to end the curse of a male “role” that distance men from children.
Then comes Jesus. Jesus came not to be served but to serve. (Mark 10:45) To those who quarrelled about status and position, he commanded that they should become like children. (Mat. 18:1-3) He said to help the least – which is really not a way to get status or uphold hierarchies. (Mat 25:34-45) He warned that the kings of this world exercise authority, but His disciples should be different. (Luk. 22:25-27) He spoke against patriarchy by saying that only God is our Father, our teacher, our master. (Mat. 23:8-11). He claimed those who want to be the greatest should be the servants of all. Jesus said one of the two biggest commandments is to love others as yourself. (Luk. 10:27)
If you love others as yourself, would you tell people with equal knowledge to you that they should one-sidedly obey and you should get the deciding vote? I can’t imagine that you would.
Nothing in the words of Jesus hinted at gender hierarchy. His example was all about serving – Jesus even washed the feet of His followers. (John 13) (The nature of submission to Jesus is seen in this instance. Unsubmissive Peter: “No ways, Lord! You are not going to wash my feet!” Submissive Peter: “If so, Lord, not just my feet but all of me.” Christian submission submits to and respects service.)
Jesus came to proclaim “good news to the poor, freedom for the prisoners, recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free.” (Luk 4:19) Jesus, as well as other writers in both the Old and New Testament (For example Jas 1:27), speak of the importance of defending the weak, of helping the least. Hierarchal teaching has the fruits of poverty, illiteracy, physical and sexual abuse all being higher among women. But egalitarian theology like Dr Katharine Bushnell’s is linked to the opposite, with Bushnell’s work to free women from sexual slavery as one example of its fruit.
When Jesus rose, women were “apostles to the apostles”, the first to spread the message about Jesus defeating death. (Mat. 28:7) When the Holy Spirit was poured out, it was on “sons and daughters”, “manservants and maidservants”. (Acts 2:17 -18)
Then came Paul, writing things like (paraphrased):
“Wow, Jesus is great! Jesus did wonderful things! Jesus this, Jesus that… (The first 4 and a half chapters of Ephesians) Now, in honor of Jesus, we all should submit to one another. Wives should submit (the way Christians do to Jesus when/ because they are convinced of how great Jesus and His plans are)… And a husband should love his wife as his own body, taking an example from the Jesus who came not to be served but to serve… Slaves should obey masters, masters should treat slaves likewise… God does not show favouritism.
And Peter wrote things like (paraphrased):
“Jesus was rejected, but God exalted Him. But you are a royal priesthood who praise the (rejected-by-the world) Jesus. Set an example, submit yourself to authorities. Live as free men, show proper respect to everyone. Slaves, submit – learn from Jesus and how He submitted. Jesus tolerated injustice. Wives, submit to husbands. Husbands, treat wives in the same way. All of you, live in harmony, be sympathetic, live as brothers, be compassionate and humble.”
Live as brothers, not hierarchically. All should submit to one another. Be humble – not lording it over a slave or a wife. Husbands should treat wives “in the same way” as wives should treat husbands. Slaves should obey masters, but masters should do “likewise” for slaves. Somewhere in between, first century wives and slaves heard that they should still do what society expected of them – but everyone should do it for everyone! And in the “live as free men” command (1 Peter 2:16) there is a hint that submission should have limits. The reminder to slaves that Jesus tolerated injustice was also a reminder that God, indeed, finds the bad treatment of slaves unjust, while the laws of the time would have seen them as objects and not as people that should be treated right.
Of course, this submission should have limits – “submit to one another” cannot mean that all should obey every command from everyone (especially since Christians are told not to Lord it over others). And Jesus himself submitted to what people needed, but if He obeyed orders, everyone around Jesus would have commanded that Jesus “zap” luxuries for them, with His power to command nature.
Because of the creation story, and because of Jesus, I can see that Bible students are one-sided when they emphasize “wives should submit to husbands” from Paul and Peter’s writings, and present it out of context with the surrounding passages or the rest of scripture.
When we convert, we should work to make God’s kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven. Is there a male-female hierarchy in heaven? From the beginning to the end of the Bible, I see no inkling of that. A male-over-female hierarchy was part of the curse, and the curse will be broken (Rev. 22:3).
Some critics of egalitarianism claim that we egalitarians read the whole Bible in the light of only Gal. 3:28. But here I started with the first chapter of Genesis and ended with the last chapter of Revelation. If there is a complementarian who can do the same with hierarchy, I have not seen it yet.
I have heard, from anti-religious sources, that religions are allegedly all about controlling female sexuality. Perhaps the people who say that find such evidence in other religions. They could even find it in Christianity as it is sometimes practised, not as the Bible’s commands to Christians warrant. But as far as I know, the New Testament – the sources from which Christians get their values – never gives any command for female sexuality that it does not give to male sexuality. It has the same sexual standards for men and women, a radically equal concept which (if men wrote the Bible with no influence from a Higher Power) males of the first century Near East would never have been able to think up. Those equal sexual standards in the New Testament is even more evidence of Biblical egalitarianism.