A couple of thousand years ago, when the Bible was written, the world was different place for women. There was a lot that women couldn’t do; while some cultures permitted slightly more freedoms than others in certain areas or certain exceptions – by and large, women were kept in specific boundaries. Those boundaries were decided by the men that set them.
It was an honor/shame society, one in which by a woman’s action or inaction, she could tear down a man’s reputation who was supposed to keep her behavior in check (merely speaking to a stranger in public was an offense that required divorce; the thinking being that if a woman was ‘familiar’ enough to a man to speak with him, she’d probably done a whole lot more than that.) To prevent the loss of honor, mostly women were expected to remain in their homes, far away from prying eyes and listening ears. The Romans imagined that their women would be at their looms, creating togas. The Greeks had a specific room where women would congregate stay as far away from any male guests as possible – any guy caught entering the women’s section of the house would gravely dishonor his host. The Jews – weren’t much different – gender segregation was the norm of the Ancient Near Eastern cultures.
It was a rarity for a widow to be able to support herself or have a business – that task usually fell to her children or to the early church. Work for women was basically just one dishonorable career – that of prostitution. So the very fact that Lydia was recorded as a seller of purple dye was unusual. Women weren’t supposed to buy and sell goods (that’s a man’s work.)
Ultimately, the women of the ancient near east had very little agency. The same cannot be said today. Women have more agency now than ever before. It’s no longer necessary (as in, life or death) for women to get married in order to survive; so relationships can be built on love rather than as beneficial arrangements to strength familial ties among two powerful groups of people which was usually the case way back when. Women have an array of choices when it comes to work – and a great many of them are honorable ones. Women don’t have to have their father’s permission to create a bank account or a husband’s co-signature to take out a loan; so they can be financially savvy and independent. Women have agency – the capacity to act independently and make their own free choices, whereas women in the Bible had structured lives that determined the course of their lives and limited the choices they could make.
This poses an epic problem for those who want to be faithful to the gospel’s teaching about the role of women in a world where the role of women has expanded beyond the limits the Bible prescribes. It’s the same old problem – the letter of the law vs the spirit of the text. Most people err with the former thinking at least they obeyed God’s word, they’ll be safe even if they were wrong. At worst, the people who get the spirit of the text wrong get a stern talking-to as God never really punished them for being obedient to the letter of the text. But it never really seemed to go well for those who disobeyed the letter of the text – as a friend of mine from the Head Covering Movement once mentioned; the priests who mixed their own incense to God ultimately payed a steep price (this was a warning to obey the letter of the law literally or else I might be smited). Fear seems to be the motivator for not wanting to divert from the letter of the law. But that’s not a relationship built on love – which drives out fear.
Women having agency is relatively new; and it took a long time to get here. It wasn’t so long ago that an abused wife had no option but to stay with her husband because only he could provide her with food and clothing and shelter – which was totally worth the steep price tag of an occasional beating when he lost his temper. This was a problem women in all classes had to suffer – the wife of a wealthy judge, for example, made life miserable for her husband when he decided to move in his mistress, but his agency permitted him another option – build his mistress an even nicer house next door just to spite his wife back in the days when women really couldn’t divorce their husbands because they lacked not only agency, but they lived in a world where women had structured lives where steep consequences would await those who dared defy tradition.
Yet Christianity looks to this ancient world as the ideal pattern; where men had agency and women did not. Young men are taught that they are the agents who operate on behalf of their future families. Young women are taught that they have little agency and must obey authority figures in their life; it doesn’t matter whether or not the authority figures are good or bad because this obedience demanded of them is not conditional and there are no exceptions. Either you’re obedient or you aren’t. If you’re disobedient, you’re in rebellion and you’re not saved. It’s a test of faith that way. Obviously, this poses a problem for any young woman who might have another opinion or want to say “no” to whatever she’s been asked to do. Christians can only hope they’ve taught their young men correctly to not take advantage of this imbalance, but human nature being what it is – odds are some of them have misused their power and made young women miserable because of it.
Sometimes it takes a strong young woman to say no when all her life she’s been told that she can’t – like Esther going before the king unsummoned knowing that she risks death for her intrusion – especially when young women are threatened with eternal damnation for daring to question and defy authority figures who abuse their power. Like Zipporah’s quick-thinking that spared her husband’s life from the Angel of Death – sometimes women have to do things that the men in their life might not be thrilled about at the time or agree with as being necessary. Like Abigail who knew Nabal’s foolishness wouldn’t end well, she had to go around his wishes – women who are biblical sometimes disobey what the Bible would have them do at face value because the spirit frees them to follow God in their own way.