By Dr. David and Dr. Morven Baker
For anyone who has watched the move “Titanic,” or has any knowledge of acceptable societal norms during the abandoning of a ship, the title of this article needs little explanation. Women and children need to be protected, and their safety put before that of the men. This chivalraic ideal is evident in such Christian bestsellers as John Eldredge’s Wild at Heart: Discovering the Secret of a Man’s Soul (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2001) where authentic masculinity is to have a battle to fight and a beauty to rescue. Femininity, on the other hand, is “to be romanced, to play an irreplaceable role in a great adventure, and to unveil beauty” (John Eldredge and Stasi Eldredge, Captivating: Unveiling the Mystery of a Woman’s Soul (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2005). In other words, the woman needs protection since she is powerless, passive, and without personal agency.
Scripture does have a special place for the powerless and marginalized, ‘the widow and the orphan.’ These vulnerable ones were in positions of need through circumstances, having lost husband or father through whose land ownership provision would have come in their Old Testament, agricultural society. With no one else to look after them, it became the role of Israelite society to do so in the Old Testament (Deut 24:18-19), and the church in the New Testament (Acts 2:45). In this, the providers were acting on behalf of God the father and provider (Deut 10:18; Ps 68:5). Those with the specific needs of widows and orphans were the exception, however, and their powerlessness was not intrinsic to who they were as women and children. Women could own and be productive in their own right (e.g., Prov 31:10-31), even going as far as being the source of Scripture (Prov 31:1), having a part in their own ‘great adventure.’
When God renamed Abram to Abraham (‘father of many; Gen 17:5), promising him descendants beyond number, he also renamed Sarai (‘my prince’). Rather than being identified only in relation to another, she receives the new name ‘Sarah’, ‘princess’ (v. 15), but not indicating a passive, subservient girl who must wait for the prince to come. Rather, she is actively involved in her own story, mothering a son, nations, and ultimately kings (v. 16).
The church is too often conflicted in its actions toward women, often institutionalizing this feminine dependency, misusing Ephesians 5:22, where wives are told to “be subject to your husbands as to the Lord” (NRSV). Misuse comes from neglecting the preceding verse, which tells men and women to “be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Without this context, women too often change from being a princess to be protected to being a pawn to be exploited at will. This exploitation is done within society at large mainly through the abuse of power, but it is, tragically, also done in the church under the cloak of biblical mandate through scriptural misreading.
One way this is enforced is by viewing the institution of marriage as more important than a woman’s safety or even her humanity. “I hate divorce” (Mal 2:16) is used as a bludgeon, forcing a battered woman back to her abusive husband. This is another misused text, ignoring the next clause, which can be read, “that is, one covering his garment (i.e. ‘his wife’) with violence” (see David W. Baker, Joel, Obadiah, Malachi [Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2006], 256-265). The context is speaking to men, husbands in this case, who are being condemned for breach of covenant with their wives. Their abuse is de facto nullifying the marriage vows, with the man declaring through his actions that he is not longer married, he has divorced his wife since he no longer treats her as one, and this God hates.
An article published by CBS News on September 23, 2013 shared the results of the “No More” survey, funded by the Avon Foundation for Women. This survey disclosed that, despite the horrendous statistics that more than one in every three or four women are the victim of sexual assault before the age of 18 or are victims of domestic assault at the hands of someone they believed loved them (and remember that these are statistics showing “reported” cases, when the actuality is that most women never share their stories of victimization), more than half of Americans say that they have never discussed sexual assault or domestic violence with their friends. This study also reported that of the brave victims of abuse that had tried to share their stories, tragically 85% reported that after they told someone about what happened to them, no one offered to help them. This was within US society in general, not looking at the church in particular, but it would be surprising if the situation were any better in churches where revelations of abuse are met with these misused biblical texts. If a report of physical or sexual abuse to an authority figure within the church is met by further theological abuse, why would a woman share her story?
Some national billboards have posted a photograph of a young adolescent male wearing an orange hoodie, on which is written “awaiting instructions.” The words on the billboard itself are “Teach your son to respect women. He’s waiting. He’s watching. He’ll listen.” Every single day we model to our children, our teens and our peers. We do not have to be parents to do so. Several years ago I (Morven) was washing dishes alongside a newly introduced in-law, who happened to be Buddhist. After lots of laughter and good conversation, she turned to me, surprised, and said, “You know, for a Christian, you are a pretty sane person.” Everywhere we go, people watch us to see what “Christians” do.
So what do we do, as Christ followers, about the reality of sexual abuse and domestic violence in our community, in our churches? A popular saying of several years ago asked, “What would Jesus do?” Abusers who stand behind a scriptural façade, claiming male dominance and female subservience based on a misreading of it while at the same time exploiting and abusing women, are preaching their own version of Jesus, since the instruction to husbands in Ephesians 5: 25 is to “love your wives as Christ loved the church.” According to the outworking of their actions, they are presenting Jesus as an abuser and exploiter, since they are modeling him.
Well, we know what Jesus would actually do, because he did it. He both tenderly embraced the ones society had rejected, and angrily confronted those who had turned the Temple into a “den of thieves.” He treated women with respect, working alongside them rather than misusing and abusing them. Jesus also called our bodies the “temple of the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor 6:19). If he was that angry at a building of brick and stone being desecrated by the evil desires of greedy men, how much more angry is the Lord for those whose physical bodies, their “temples,” have been violated at the hands of predators, especially those who claim to be Christian men who love them?
Dr. David Baker W. Baker , PhD is Professor of Old Testament and Semitic Languages at Ashland Theological Seminary. Dr. Morven Baker holds a Doctor of Ministry (DMin) from Ashland Theological Seminary. She served as the original Family Life Counselor at Ashland Theological Seminary. She has been an adjunct instructor for the Seminary, and served as President of Ashland Women’s Counseling Center, and is an international expert on issues of sexual abuse and domestic violence.
Christians for Biblical Equality (cbeinternational.org)
Jeff Crippen and Anna Wood, A Cry for Justice: How the Evil of Domestic Abuse Hides in Your Church (Duluth, GA; Calvary Press, 2012)
Catherine Clark Kroeger and James R. Beck, ed., Women, Abuse, and the Bible; How Scripture can be Used to Hurt or Heal (Grand Rapids, MI; Baker, 1996)
Ronald W. Pierce and Rebecca Merrill Groothuis, ed., Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementary without Hierarchy (Downers, Grove, IL; InterVarsity, 2004)
Andrew J. Schumutzer, The Long Journey Home: Understanding and Ministering to the Sexually Abused (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2011)