On women's moral agency: Are women human?

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God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him, male and female he created them (Genesis 1:27).

The genesis for this post comes from many directions, some cultural, some from the church, and some personal (and thanks to Tim and Terri for helping with some examples).

Many times I have been in elders meetings where the topic of a failed or failing marriage has come up and, almost invariably, the man is the villain and the wife is the suffering saint. The frequency of this scenario makes you want to ask whether women are just more holy than men? Could any of the failures be the wife's fault? Even a little bit? Granted, as the head of the home, the man is responsible for the state of his marriage and the discipline and instruction of his children, but fault is something different. Although the man is responsible to deal with the sin in his home, he's not the only sinner.

In bringing up this topic, I am not trying to redress an imbalance by launching a backlash. That would be wrong and silly. Rather, I’d like to challenge the pastors and elders and teachers amongst us really to examine what we believe about the moral agency of women. If problems in the home are always the man’s fault, we don't really believe women are human. Part of being human is moral agency—making real choices that are right, wrong, or somewhere in between—and then being held responsible for those choices. God cursed Eve...

To the woman He said, “I will greatly multiply Your pain in childbirth, In pain you will bring forth children; Yet your desire will be for your husband, And he will rule over you.” (Genesis 3:16)

It's not hip or cool to point out the sin of Eve or her daughters, today. And yet what is the point of feminism if it robs woman of her moral agency? Writing about this will require touching on topics often deemed untouchable, but please bear with me. Truth rarely yields to the squeamish.

Consider the sin of Bathsheba. We don’t hear much about it, do we? Commentaries don't mention it. To speak of Bathsheba's moral agency is to break a taboo. One commentary I checked seemed to go out of its way to emphasize Bathsheba's purity, perhaps out of a desire to highlight David’s evil?

Yet all Scripture is profitable and Scripture tells us Bathsheba was bathing, exposed to David's view.

Was Bathsheba's bathing simply an innocent act? Did she know she would be visible to the king? Maybe it had escaped Bathsheba's notice? Maybe it had never occurred to the future queen of Israel that King David could watch her? Maybe Bathsheba didn't know that, this year, King David had not gone out to war at “the time when kings go out to battle?" Maybe this was the first time King David had gone out for a walk on the roof of his house? Maybe he normally repaired to the rooftop in the late afternoon, rather than the evening?

Perhaps all of it was merely innocent and tragic coincidences? After all, 2 Samuel tells us Bathsheba “had been purifying herself from her [monthly] uncleanness.”

But let’s ask a further question. As Scripture describes her character in future chapters of Scripture, do we get the impression that Bathsheba was a holy women, mild and humble? Or do we see her as aggressive, a “schemer?” The way she leveraged her influence and power to ensure that her son (Solomon) would succeed David as king seems to indicate she was a schemer. 

Then too, living in the developing world, it's clear to me people know a lot about the business of others, especially those deemed important in their society. This helps me answer some of the questions posed above and I conclude:

  • You bet Bathsheba knew her house was near David’s house. 
  • You bet she knew she could be seen bathing from his roof. 
  • You bet she knew that David had not gone out to war as per normal. 
  • If he was in the habit of taking walks on his roof, you can bet she knew about it. She might have known the precise time of day when David took his walks, even if David did not. 

The case is not air tight, but more than the balance of probability tells me Bathsheba shares the guilt for this adulterous act. 

Of course, this does not detract from David’s guilt one bit. He sinned, and even if Bathsheba shared in the guilt, David's own guilt remains unchanged. What he did was awful, especially since Bathsheba was the wife of one of his mighty men. 

When I have mentioned the possibility of Bathsheba’s guilt, some of the reactions I’ve gotten have been shock and horror. How could I even imagine this? She could not refuse the King, could she? She was just an innocent victim. Don’t I understand the place of women in that society?

Well, I do. But I also understand something of the sins of women. They’re sometimes different from those of men, but they’re real, even if on occasion, subtler. 

I also note that Queen Vashti defied the request of her husband, King Ahasuerus. She probably did so knowing the consequences (see Esther chapter one). I also note that Abigail defied her husband and served David and his men. She was commended for her actions. She could have just stood by and gone along with the sin of Nabal. 

Further, I recall that Ananias received a severe penalty for lying to the Holy Spirit.1 Ananias's wife, Sapphira, knew what he had done and was treated as a responsible moral agent when she received the same punishment as her husband. Think about it for a moment: Sapphira died.

More examples could be given, but let's make some application to ourselves.

First, let’s listen more carefully to the stories of failing marriages and children of the church who are undisciplined, not allowing our default option to be that only men are at fault. Let’s be open to the possibility that maybe, just perhaps, the wives and mothers could have done one or two things a tiny bit differently. Let’s give wives and mothers the dignity of committing real sins.

Second, on a very different level, let’s not be afraid to hold women accountable for murdering their unborn children. Perhaps you think I’m clueless in mentioning this? Don’t I know that fathers and boyfriends and husbands force their daughters and girlfriends and wives to have abortions? Yes, I know this is the reality some of the time. And no, if Roe v. Wade is overturned, I don’t have a plan how to rewrite the law so that mothers will be held to account. Yet it's clear that in most cases when a baby is murdered by abortion, the mother of the child bears her own guilt for this terrible sin. Every woman who has aborted her child already knows this, even if she suppresses her knowledge.

God created man in His Own image, both male and female. This is His good design. Men and women are both created equally in His likeness. And while the Fall has tarnished this image, it’s still there.

Men and women are free moral agents whom God will hold to account. That the husband is the head of his own wife does not diminish her moral agency. She will not stand before her husband on the Day of Judgment. She will stand before God.

Both men and women will stand before the King of Kings and Lord of Lords on that day. May each one of us, male and female, flee to Christ, taking refuge in His righteousness and His death in our place. 

  • 1. See Acts 5.
David Wegener

David is an ordained Teaching Elder (Pastor) in the Central Indiana Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church in America. Formerly serving in theological education in Africa with Mission to the World, he and his wife currently live in their hometown of Bloomington, IN.