A few months ago, a guest speaker at my church spoke on the Christian obligation to fight and end human trafficking. And his conclusion was right.
Christians should be the loudest voices against human trafficking. I happily lend mine to the fight to eradicate the global slave trade. And yet, in his sermon on fighting human trafficking, the well-intentioned male speaker used the following flawed biblical example to illustrate his point.
The man explained that just as Uriah lost Bathsheba to the whims of a powerful king, so female victims of trafficking lose their freedom to men. Perhaps you also see the problem and inconsistency of this comparison.
The male speaker, in seeking to correct a global injustice against women, reinforced an age-old patriarchal concept—that crimes against women are really crimes against the men in their lives—husbands, brothers, fathers, male guardians, etc.
Let’s go back to the story in question. King David’s excesses of authority were numerous and noted in Scripture. There is no reason to think that Bathsheba consented to sex with David in the way we understand consent today. And I believe we can, at the very least, make the following claim:
It is extremely possible and likely that David’s position of power over Bathsheba made it dangerous or impossible for her to say “no.”
Bathsheba was a pawn in the sexual exploits of a king, but we don’t think of her as a victim. Why? Despite the very, very likely possibility, we rarely think about what happened to Bathsheba as costing her anything.
Of course, Uriah lost his life to David’s desire to own and control, and that is nothing less than a tragic loss. But Bathsheba also lost something—and we’re not as quick to recognize her loss as valid. She lost authority over her body and life to a king. He did not woo her. He acquired her.
It is this reality that makes the speaker’s comparison inappropriate. Bathsheba’s experience was erased from the story by the male speaker, and that erasure is significant. When a woman is trafficked, she is certainly lost to her family. And yet, a crime is committed against her—against her body, her freedom, her soul. It is she who must carry that crime, within her very skin.
So, when we tell the stories of Bible women who were used and exploited by men, we should emphasize the implications of those crimes for women, not just their husbands or families. We need to pay attention to how we speak about female biblical characters. Are we affirming their personhood? Or are we communicating that they are extensions or property of men?
I honestly respect this speaker and his message, but he still reinforced patriarchy, even if it was unintentional. We must ask: Is it enough to have good intentions or should our expectations be higher?
I’m of the opinion that if we as the church can do better, we ought to do better. So with that in mind, I’ve noted a few ways pastors/church speakers can anticipate and combat subtle endorsements of patriarchy in their preaching.
1. Look At the Numbers
Do you mostly preach on men? How often do you draw attention to Bible women who have gone unheard in the narrative of the church?
There are more male characters in the Bible than there are women. But this is all the more reason to be intentional about preaching on women. To Jesus, the “secondary characters” of life were the main characters. So if your sermons mostly center on David, Paul, and Abraham, then it’s time to take a closer look at Priscilla, Huldah, and Sarah.
2. Analyze Your Representation of Bible Women
When you preach on David, do you focus on his warrior prowess, kingly power, or band-of-brothers-relationship with Jonathan? And by contrast, do you spend more time preaching on Mary’s virginal innocence than on her courage in carrying the Messiah under the social stigma of being unmarried and pregnant?
If you’re choosing to see courage, strength, and fortitude in male biblical characters, but overlooking those same traits when you preach on Bible women, then you need to check your internal bias. Celebrate women’s strength, particularly in a deeply patriarchal culture.
3. Draw Attention to Women’s Pain
Women were often casualties of the biblical narrative. Historically, women have been disproportionately affected by violence, famine, war, changes in government, etc.
And yet, we often read about Bible women with a certain sense of detachment. We don’t feel Dinah’s agony when she is raped. We don’t imagine the isolation a teenage, pregnant Mary might have felt. Or Tamar’s anger at being abandoned by her husband’s family. We, myself included, don’t seem to have a lot of empathy for these women, intentional or not.
Pay attention to those nuances. And choose to put Bible women’s pain, grief, and loss at the center of your narrative when you preach. Don’t make it an afterthought.
4. Note Where Power and Privilege Impact the Narrative
The Bible was written in a patriarchal context. It chronicles toxic expressions of masculinity and the physical, social, political, and spiritual domination of women. Once we’re aware of this cultural reality, it can aid and refine our hermeneutic.
So instead of assuming that Bathsheba was promiscuous without evidence, we can ask ourselves what consent means in the context of sex between a king and a subject. Instead of glossing over the hundreds of women who were used at will by Solomon, we can ask ourselves whether some of these women might have resisted. Did they suffer violence at his hands? And beyond hypotheticals, we can read the story of Tamar and ask what her assault tells us about rape culture in biblical times.
So be aware of power differences when you preach on rape and sexual assault in the Bible (all pastors should be preaching on these issues). Ensure that you don’t overlook the role of male power/privilege in a patriarchal context.
And finally, go to the source. Run your sermons by women who can offer helpful, constructive criticism. Take their perspectives seriously and allow your preaching to be changed, dramatically if necessary.