Is the Bible good for women? Growing up in the conservative South, I never considered that question. I didn’t understand anything of women’s rights except the caricatures I saw on the news during attempts to pass the Equal Rights Amendment. But I was one of three daughters, no sons, born to a Christian dad who valued his girls well. Though I experienced my fair share of struggles growing up, female oppression in a patriarchal society did not seem to be one of them. As I got older and watched the news with a more critical eye, a different view of women came into my line of sight. There were countries where women couldn’t vote? There were cultures that would put victims of rape to death in honor killings?
Then I moved to Seattle, where women’s rights and feminist issues are often center stage in local news and conversation. I couldn’t hide from these issues anymore. Female mutilation, legal oppression, and culturally accepted rape were much bigger issues affecting many more women worldwide than I had ever under- stood. And domestic abuse, the blaming of sexual abuse survivors, and discrimination in the workforce occurred closer to home. My experience of being valued as a female by the men in my life was not the norm worldwide, but I also came to realize it wasn’t the norm in the conservative South either. I was bombarded by women’s issues. As a believer in Jesus since childhood and one who loved and valued the Bible, I was barraged with criticism of the Scripture around women’s issues as well. Does the Bible address oppression of women in helpful ways? Or does it only perpetuate such oppression among its followers? In a world that is quite often very bad for women, does the Bible help or does it make it worse?
HARMFUL WORLDWIDE PRACTICES
National Public Radio recently highlighted a disturbing practice in western Nepal in which young women are banished to outdoor sheds when they are on their periods.1 The families interviewed believe that the girls could cause illnesses among the family’s elderly if they touch them while menstruating. The humiliation and stigma those girls endure is worth public outcry.
Hinduism is the primary religion (81 percent) in Nepal.2 Al- though Judaism and Christianity have made small inroads into the country, this practice of barring young menstruating women from their homes does not seem to have a direct relationship to Old Testament Law. Yet I can’t help but think of similar instructions in the Law (see Leviticus 15:19–33) when I hear of the Nepali practice. I know from Scripture that despite the similarities, the Nepali practice is a perversion of God’s intent in the Law. The Nepali tradition attributes to girls on their periods something Old Testament Law never does, it does so without the Law’s corresponding instruction to men, and it perpetuates a practice that Jesus said two thousand years ago was brought to completion through Him. (We will work this out in greater detail in chapters 6 and 7.)
But the comparison puts a question to us, one that many women ask themselves: Is the Bible good for women? How can a book that includes instructions on where a woman can sleep or sit when menstruating be trusted by women today when similar modern practices like that of the Nepalese are clearly harmful for women?
We have not always been suspicious about the Bible’s take on women’s issues. For long periods in history, people viewed the Bible and Christianity as powers that lifted the downtrodden and demoralized to new places of respect. During the twentieth century, the first wave of feminism gave voice to women whom society had long marginalized. In 1920, women finally won the right to vote in the United States, due in large part to the efforts of Christians. The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union led this movement, seeking to apply biblical principles of social justice to larger society.3 Based in part on their understanding of Jesus and the Bible, men and women of faith fought together for women to have the right to vote. This first wave of feminism resulted in women’s right to vote and inherit land, along with subsequent benefits to both women and children as women gained a voice in legislation.
But as the century wore on, there came a fork in the road in which orthodox Christianity seemed to go in one direction concerning the rights of women, and second-wave feminism (which focused on birth control, abortion rights, and equal pay) in another. In the last few years, many pro-women authors (for lack of a better name), even Christian ones, have painted a picture of women in the Bible that is troubling, even referring to certain pas- sages concerning women in the Bible as “texts of terror.”4 According to many books and popular blogs, the view in our current culture is that an orthodox understanding of the Bible is threatening and even downright harmful to women. The similarities be- tween Old Testament Law having to do with women on their periods and the Nepali practice that results in shaming menstruating girls seem to only reinforce such a distrust of Scripture.
Other books have dissected the history of evangelical Christianity and the secular women’s movement.5 Rather than looking at how we arrived at the twenty-first-century general mistrust of the Bible regarding women, I would like instead to simply challenge it by encouraging us to discover and use a Jesus-centered under- standing of Scripture when reading the Bible. In turn, this gives us a Jesus-centered understanding of how the Bible speaks about women and to women in its pages. I believe this process will give us all a life-giving perspective of our gendered selves in God’s kingdom. It will help us see the profound difference in the shame that fathers project onto menstruating Nepali daughters and the dignity God places on His.
Editor’s Note: To find the answer to these questions and more pick up a copy Is the Bible Good for Women by Wendy Alsup where she dedicates a chapter to answer a single difficult question in-depth.
Wendy Alsup is the author of Practical Theology for Women, The Gospel-Centered Woman, and By His Wounds You Are Healed. She began her public ministry as deacon of women’s theology and teaching at her church in Seattle, but she now lives on an old family farm in South Carolina, where she teaches math at a local community college and is a mother to her two boys. She also writes at gospelcenteredwoman.com. She is a member of a local church in the Lowcountry Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church in America.
Excerpted from Is the Bible Good for Women by Wendy Alsup Copyright © 2016 by Wendy Alsup. Excerpted by permission of Multnomah, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.