Treating Women as People Does Not Depend on Their Relationship to Men

Our expectations for how men should treat women are often stated in the negative — don’t abuse; don’t oppress; don’t sexually assault. These are obvious, bare minimum standards for male behavior that shouldn’t have to be stated, but here we are.

Sometimes, Christian men will reference their sense of responsibility for women in their lives — mothers, sisters, daughters — to support taking a strong stance against abuse. For example, LifeWay president Thom Rainer wrote:

“These are our mothers, our sisters, our daughters, our granddaughters, and our wives. We thank God for them. And I stand with all who say ‘no’ to any type of abuse of women at any time and under any circumstance.”

Saying no to any type of abuse is good. This statement, though, employs a false reason for doing so. It’s based not on the inherent worth of women as human beings but on their worth in relation to men. The logic goes:

You wouldn’t want anyone to mistreat the important women in your life, so don’t mistreat women yourself. Remember, a given woman might be someone’s sister. Come on men; let’s protect our women!

Feeding a Sense of Ownership

These pleas for better treatment and an end to abuse are a step in the right direction. But many of these anti-abuse statements still center men and their experiences and render women objects — even if unintentionally.


Christian leaders will often appeal to men’s sense of responsibility for the women in their lives in order to inspire empathy toward women in general. But the implication of statements like these is that women are extensions of their fathers, brothers, and husbands and that’s how we know it’s wrong to mistreat them. Women become men’s possessions instead of independent people who deserve respect simply because they too are created in the image of God.

We feed a sense of ownership when we imply that women’s right to not be mistreated is dependent on their relationship to men. Statements that condemn abuse by asking men to consider the women in their lives often have patriarchal subtext:

I’m responsible for the women in my family and they’re to submit to my efforts to carry out that responsibility. By extension, I’m responsible for all women. They should gladly accept my protection and allow me to care for them in whatever way I deem appropriate — as I would my own daughter or wife.

A sense of ownership of women, even one that arises out of a belief in men’s benevolent duty, means treating women as less than the fully equal people God made them to be.

When teaching men to treat women well, some pastors and churches rely on Paul’s pastoral instructions to view women as sisters (again, rather than treating them well because they are people created by God, just like men):

Do not rebuke an older man harshly, but exhort him as if he were your father. Treat younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, and younger women as sisters, with absolute purity. (1 Tim. 5:1-2.)

But to argue that 1 Timothy 5 — written to address a specific situation in a specific congregation — proves that all men are responsible for all women, we have to rip it out of context and misapply it. In looking at the words leading up to the passage, we can easily see that it’s not about how men and women should relate to one another generally.

Teaching and Treading Carefully

1 Timothy 4 provides the context for Paul’s instruction to Timothy in chapter 5. Paul was writing to Timothy, a young pastor and friend, about being a pastor, teaching rightly, and relating to people well. Ephesus, Timothy’s city, was full of people who not only didn’t believe in Jesus but had been raised in a culture that worshiped Artemis instead. Paul’s letter was written in the context of overcoming false goddess worship and showing people who Jesus is. As Paul told Timothy:

Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers. (1 Tim. 4:16.)

The very next words are about how to present that doctrine to the people.

Do not rebuke an older man harshly, but exhort him as if he were your father. Treat younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, and younger women as sisters, with absolute purity. (1 Tim. 5:1-2.)

The point Paul is making — for modern purposes — is that a pastor doesn’t beat a congregation into submission, but rather treats them kindly. Paul urges Timothy to treat the people around him well, whether women and men older than him or younger like him. These verses are not about men’s patriarchal responsibility for women; they’re about proper pastoral conduct.

Objectifying Women, Humanizing Men

As you read articles and listen to sermons on this subject, you’ll also notice that no one uses verse one to objectify men like they use verse two to objectify women. No one says, “We shouldn’t mistreat men. Think about how you’d feel if it was your own father or brother or son or husband.” Treating men well — or at least not mistreating them — is expected because they’re human beings, not because of their relationships with women.

The Bible actually teaches that this is how it’s supposed to be for both men and women. Whether male or female, our worth or worthiness is always based in God. Paul made this clear in a letter to another church:

So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise. (Gal. 3:26-29, emphasis added.)

In the beginning, men and women had equal status before God:

God created humanity in God’s own image,
in the divine image God created them,
male and female God created them. (Gen. 1:27.)

Women and men are both created in the image of God. And in Jesus’ new creation, men and women are one in Christ. Our creation in the image of God and our new oneness in Christ means that we’re all worthy of being treated well — without regard to our sex or our relationship to anyone else.

This is what churches and preachers should be teaching. We treat women well because they’re created in the image of God. Likewise, the reason we don’t mistreat them is, again, because they’re created in the image of God. We stand up with and for women not because they’re someone’s daughter, wife, sister or mother, but because women are people. We stand against abuse and suffering because God asks us to. Period.


[This first appeared as a guest post at CBE International in 2018.]

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7 Responses to Treating Women as People Does Not Depend on Their Relationship to Men

  1. Jeannie Prinsen says:

    “No one says, ‘We shouldn’t mistreat men. Think about how you’d feel if it was your own father or brother or son or husband.'” That’s such a good point, Tim. I really appreciate this post.

    • Tim says:

      Thanks, Jeannie. One of the things we teach about decision making in my field is to flip the roles. For example, if a decision involves a man we should evaluate it as if it involved a woman and see if the analysis holds up.

  2. This argument has ALWAYS bothered me. Your article is timely and needful. It reminds me of a quote by Louisa May Alcott in Little Women, spoken by Jo March. “I find it poor logic to say that because women are good, women should vote. Men do not vote because they are good; they vote because they are male, and women should vote, not because we are angels and men are animals, but because we are human beings and citizens of this country.”

  3. rrprewett says:

    I’ve always taken this Scripture passage as a reminder that we are to treat each other, in the Church, as beloved family members. The Church is not an organization, club, business, or political entity — it’s the Body of Christ. We are all related to each other in a profound way, and should love one another accordingly.

    As you point out, that passage is being misapplied when people use it to say, “Remember that a woman is somebody else’s daughter!” Plus, as a woman, I prefer to be respected for my humanity, and as an image-bearer of God, rather than as a relative of men. What if I were an abandoned orphan who had never married and never bore sons? Would I be open season for mistreatment?

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