Editor’s note: This is a 2021 CBE Writing Contest Top 15 Winner!
We walked out of the class together, a beloved church member and I, chatting amicably about the lesson. “Thank you for a good teaching on Tabitha,” he said. “I’ve read Acts 9 many times and never noticed her.”
While my friend’s praise made me smile, his observation stung. Unintentionally, his comment reinforced a long-time hurt: women in scriptural and religious settings are often overlooked and undervalued.
My teaching reflected that I see Tabitha (Acts 9:36–43) as significant for several reasons. Not only is she the only woman in the New Testament who is explicitly named as a disciple of Jesus, but also she, like Lazarus in John 11, was brought back to life. Both remained silent as action swirled around them. Furthermore, Tabitha’s ministry to Joppa’s widows made her dearly loved. Yes, Luke names Jesus’s twelve male disciples (6:13–16), and Scripture recounts their deeds, but Tabitha holds her own.
Tabitha’s story illustrates a way I am beginning to read, hear, and teach Scripture. If there is a story about a man, I look for one about a woman, and vice versa.
I call it gender balance.
Recognizing gender balance came slowly to me. I grew up loving the Bible. For Christmas when I was seven years old, I asked for a white leather Bible with a zipper and pictures. I still have it.
As I read it, I cheerfully took for granted that the Bible was God’s good word. I later learned the technical term, divine inspiration (2 Tim. 3:16–17). During decades of sitting in church, I heard thousands of sermons delivered by men—many, it seemed to me, for men and about men. I gradually felt as if my voice was not particularly wanted.
Yet as a faithful reader, I knew Scripture recorded plenty of voices of women!
In seminary, I learned that the Bible presents various themes that offer unified ways of reading it from cover to cover. These include God’s character, creation and re-creation, the covenants and the Ten Commandments, the concepts of life, land, sin, and redemption, and commands like Go and Come. Single verses beloved by Jews (Deut. 6:4) and Christians (John 3:16) likewise provide umbrella viewpoints.
However, further study shows that these themes and others fall short in some way, for the Bible is unique. It contains such a refreshing diversity of genres, writing styles, and subjects that it stands unparalleled in literature. Arguably, the Bible is so varied, wonderful, and full of life that it bursts any one-size-fits-all model!
Mindful of these cautions and aware of male predominance in biblical stories, I nonetheless began to see Scripture and hear sermons through a changing analysis. Though likewise limited, gender balance has become a freeing lens for me.
Crisscrossing both Testaments, gender balance looks at the Bible in a way clearly contained within the text itself. It tempers patriarchy. It offers solace to those wounded by misogyny. It invites study and comparison.
Consider these examples.
Gender Balance in Shared Themes
Ministry: Luke, the Gospel writer, pairs Jesus’s disciples, nicknamed the Twelve, with three named women. The context is a journey through cities and villages “proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God” (Luke 8:1–3). Perhaps smiling as he wrote, Luke adds this significant, practical insight: the women financed the excursion “out of their own resources”!
Journeys: God commanded Abram to “go from your country and your kindred” (Gen. 12:1, NRSV). He obeyed. But in comparison, Ruth, on her own, just went! She accompanied Naomi from Moab to Bethlehem out of loyalty (Ruth 1:16–18).
Children’s faith statements: David proclaimed Goliath’s upcoming death because the giant had defied the LORD of hosts (1 Sam. 17:45–47). In another story, the Israelite slave girl gave hope to Naaman, a victorious Aramean general beset by leprosy. In some of the Bible’s sweetest words, the child stated, “If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! For he would cure him of his leprosy” (2 Kings 5:3, NRSV).
Prophetic words: A dynamic couple, prominent in the transition from the Old Testament to the New Testament, prophesied. Elizabeth prophesied to Mary that the words spoken to her by the Lord would be fulfilled (Luke 1:45). Zechariah prophesied that their son, John, would be called a prophet of the Most High (Luke 1:76).
Gender Balance in Named and Unnamed Characters
Named Old Testament leaders: Moses (the books of Exodus through Deuteronomy) and Deborah (Judg. 4-5) shared similar leadership giftings. Both were prophets, military commanders, songsters, and the recognized judges of their times. Both dealt with powerful opposing forces: Pharaoh and the might of Egypt and Jabin with his 900 chariots, respectively. Each had supporting people to help fulfill the Lord’s commands. Aaron and Miriam, Moses’s brother and sister, aided Moses (Mic. 6:4); Deborah commissioned Barak.
Unnamed recipients of healing in the New Testament: Both the woman with the issue of blood (Mark 5:25–34) and the man born blind (John 9) faced hopeless medical conditions. Twelve years of suffering had weakened the woman. The man, a beggar, listened as people walked by, talking about him. After both had been healed, Jesus spoke tenderly with them. He called the woman, “Daughter,” commending her faith and affirming her healing. He confirmed his divinity as the Son of Man to the now-sighted man, saying, “You have seen him and the one speaking to you is he.”
Gender Balance in Biblical Genres
In Wisdom Literature, Proverbs 1:8 cautions the son not to forget his father’s instruction or his mother’s teaching.
Leviticus, a book of the Law, is aptly dubbed a priestly manual. Chapter 15 straightforwardly discusses bodily discharges from men (vv. 2–18) and women (vv. 19–30). The discharges represented uncleanness; a remedy was washing the objects the person touched, like a chair, bed, and clothes (vv. 4–7, 20–23); the person likewise was to bathe.
Jesus’s parables featured everyday examples. In three illustrating the kingdom of God (Luke 15), Jesus taught the Pharisees and scribes about a shepherd who found a lost sheep, a woman who found a lost coin, and a father dealing with lost sons. The protagonists—two men and a homemaker—represent God.
The qualifications for church leadership in 1 Timothy, an epistle, are similar for bishop (3:1–7), widows (5:3–16), and elder (5:1, 17–22).
Remarkable, Bold, Wonderful Martha
In my ongoing odyssey of looking at the Bible through the lens of gender balance, I studied Martha who, along with her siblings Lazarus and Mary, welcomed Jesus and his disciples (Luke 10:38–42). Their home offered the travelers a haven.
Martha’s confession of Jesus as Messiah (John 11:27) balances Peter’s confession recorded in the Synoptic Gospels (Matt. 16:16; Mark 8:29; Luke 9:20). This time gender balance focuses on Jesus.
During a time of mourning her brother’s death and questioning why Jesus had delayed his coming during the family’s need, Martha nonetheless proclaimed her faith. As with Peter, Jesus asked her about himself. Did she believe that those who believe in him, even though they die, will live? I picture their conversation as direct, intense. The Bible records no hesitation in her response.
I envision her face, lined with tears, and her voice, firm with confidence. Head high, chin lifted, and eyes locked on Jesus, no-nonsense Martha answered, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world” (John 11:27, NRSV). Her remarkable answer echoed Peter’s “You are the Messiah,” and beautifully and honorably expanded it. The statements act as complements; they go hand in hand.
Gender balance invites interaction. Consequently, I engage Martha in conversation and address her personally:
Martha, through my own tears acknowledging your courage, I thank you. For Jesus, your declaration perhaps neutralized the sting of his many rejections. Truly, your love, faith, and boldness resound wonderfully today and throughout eternity.