by Rebecca McLaughlin
I’ve always been a sore thumb sort of girl. Put me anywhere, and I’ll find some way to stick out. Maybe that’s why I got hooked on apologetics so young.
I attended a highly academic, single-sex high school in London. It was named after the apostle Paul. We sang hymns every morning in assembly. But despite its Christian name and traditions, my school was more secular than a Seattle coffee shop.
These girls were smart, and smart people (they assumed) didn’t buy religion. They came from various cultural backgrounds, and embracing multiple cultures (they assumed) meant rejecting the absolute truth of any religion. And (needless to say) they were women, and women (they assumed) had only ever been held back by religion.
I knew Christianity could stand up to the sharpest intellectual scrutiny, and that the all-religions-are-one mantra couldn’t. But when it came to the question of gender, I was stuck. “Wives submit to your husbands,” Paul wrote in Ephesians 5:22. And I squirmed.
The belief that women were just as capable as men – and that smart, passionate, motivated women could truly change the world – was deeply ingrained in us. I believed it then. And I believe it now. What’s more, I think the apostle Paul believed it too. Why else would he include nine women in the list of ministry partners he thanked at the end of his letter to the Romans? It wasn’t that Paul didn’t see the value of women, or thought they weren’t capable of their own decision-making. But picking up on the Old Testament metaphor of God as a husband and Israel as his covenant wife, Paul recognized that God had created male and female, and created sex and marriage, so that at their best, they might give us a tiny taste of what it means for Christ to love his church.
As I explored God’s word in general, and Ephesians 5 in particular, more deeply, I realized that Christian wives are not called to submit to their husbands because of gendered psychology, but because of Christ-centered theology. Christian husbands are not called primarily to lead their wives (that word is not applied to them), but to love their wives as Christ loves the church and gave himself up for her (Ephesians 5:25). The husband’s call is a call to daily, costly sacrifice. He’s called four times to love his wife (Ephesians 5:25, 28, 33; Colossians 3:19), once to empathize with her, and once to honor her (1 Peter 3:7). This is the antidote to misogyny!
I came to these theological conclusions in my 20s. In my 30s, I started to explore the historical question of whether Christianity is good for women. The answer? A resounding, “Yes.” This cuts against what most of my non-Christian friends believe. In their minds, Christianity is repressive and demeaning to women, and any differentiation of roles is anathema. But they don’t realize that many of the things we take for granted when it comes to the value of women were given to us by Christianity.
The Greco-Roman world was as much as two-thirds male (due to maternal deaths in childbirth and infanticide of unwanted baby girls). But historical records suggest that the early Christian movement was as much as two-thirds female. There were doubtless many reasons for this, but one was that Christianity placed a value on women that the belief systems of the first and second century did not. Women were made in the image of God, jointly called to his service, and deserving of the love and sacrifice of their husbands. Christian women were allowed to marry later than was typical in Greco-Roman culture, and Christian men were called to be monogamous and faithful, and to prioritize their wives needs above their own. This was radical. And Christianity was ridiculed as a religion of women.
Fast forward to the early 20th century, and the first wave of the feminist movement was driven by Christian women, who were calling for equal rights on the basis of their equal value before God. The idea that women should be seen as equal to men is not a modern innovation, flying in the face of Christian misogyny. It was planted as a seed in the book of Genesis, where both male and female are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27), and came to fruition in the ministry of Jesus, who treated women with a love and respect that scandalized his contemporaries – routinely holding women up as moral examples to men (e.g. Luke 7:36–50; Luke 21:1–4).
Second wave feminism introduced some elements Christians cannot affirm: in particular, abortion rights. Just as Christianity was radical in its elevation of women, so it was radical in its valuing of infants from the first. Christianity’s solution to the widespread problem of unwanted pregnancy was not infanticide (the common first-century fix), but faithful marriage, in which men were expected to care and provide for their wives and children.
Where does this leave me, as a highly educated, ambitious, leadership-oriented woman – who happens also to be married with three children? Thank God, it leaves me with the joyful, live-giving task that the first-century Christian women took on: the task of testifying to the gospel of God’s grace (Acts 20:24). For me today, that takes the form of writing and speaking from a Christian perspective. But this public ministry is no more precious to the Lord than the day-to-day ministry of millions of women across the world, who are sharing the gospel with neighbors, friends and family members. This is how we women will truly change the world.
Rebecca McLaughlin holds a Ph.D. from Cambridge University and a theology degree from Oak Hill College in London. Her first book, Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World's Largest Religion was published by Crossway and The Gospel Coalition in 2019. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram @RebeccMcLaugh or subscribe to her updates at www.rebeccamclaughlin.org.