Sapphira is a model of ‘complementarian biblical womanhood’

Sapphira is a model of ‘complementarian biblical womanhood’ April 15, 2021

Back when we were doing the “Chick-fil-A Biblical Family of the Day” thing here, I kept bumping into Ananias and Sapphira.

This story comes from the fifth chapter of Acts, right after we’re told about all the radical economic sharing practiced by the first Christians. It’s an unsettling story. The first 12 chapters of Acts — before it turns into the Paul Show — are mostly lovey-dovey utopian stories about this radically inclusive early community. We see them embracing strangers, feeding widows, overcoming ethnic boundaries — it’s all very Kumbaya. But then right in the middle of all of that we get this disturbing glimpse of lethal divine wrath.

This artwork is intended for use in children’s Bible school lessons on Ananias and Sapphira. Or maybe for children’s Bible school classes on the Levite and his concubine from Judges 19.

Pentecost had just created this new community and people were selling their possessions to share their wealth with one another: “Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. … There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.”

That’s the end of chapter 4, where this is all going well. But then we turn to chapter 5 and we get this:

But a man named Ananias, with the consent of his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property; with his wife’s knowledge, he kept back some of the proceeds, and brought only a part and laid it at the apostles’ feet.

“Ananias,” Peter asked, “why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back part of the proceeds of the land? While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, were not the proceeds at your disposal? How is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You did not lie to us but to God!”

Now when Ananias heard these words, he fell down and died. And great fear seized all who heard of it. The young men came and wrapped up his body, then carried him out and buried him.

After an interval of about three hours his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. Peter said to her, “Tell me whether you and your husband sold the land for such and such a price.”

And she said, “Yes, that was the price.”

Then Peter said to her, “How is it that you have agreed together to put the Spirit of the Lord to the test? Look, the feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out.”

Immediately she fell down at his feet and died. When the young men came in they found her dead, so they carried her out and buried her beside her husband. And great fear seized the whole church and all who heard of these things.

Yikes. That story is a lot.

I’ve scarcely begun contending with that story, usually only thinking of it as a vivid example of how maybe we’ve got things mixed up by pretending the Bible treats the Sex Stuff as vastly more important than the Money Stuff.

But despite my reluctance to contend with it, I kept coming back to Acts 5:1-11 while collecting all those examples of Chick-fil-A-style “biblical families” because Ananias and Sapphira are one of the few examples in the Bible of the kind of family that fit the model of “biblical families” promoted by culture-war white Christians. If you turn to the Bible looking for examples of “biblical marriage as one man and one woman in a monogamous lifelong commitment” you’re going to wind up with a very short list: Adam and Eve, Noah and Mrs. Noah, Job and Mrs. Job, Priscilla and Aquila, Ahab and Jezebel, Ananias and Sapphira. You may find a few more, but not many.

And of the half-dozen examples listed there, only one of these couples exemplifies the “complementarian” model of a submissive wife who uncritically accepts the spiritual leadership of her husband.

This is why I found myself, again, thinking of Ananias and Sapphira while reading NPR’s story on Beth Allison Barr and her new book, The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth. Barr — a Southern Baptist and a pastor’s wife — starts with this story:

I came home from church one day. The pastor had been teaching on women’s roles in the church, and during that sermon, one of the women and [one of the] men were called up to give a testimony at the end. And the testimony that they gave was that no matter if the woman agreed with her husband or not, she should always tell him, sure, and just do whatever he said, because that was what women were called to do. And I’d recently been teaching on women in the early church — and I had this moment where I realized that what we found in the Bible about what women were supposed to do did not match with what my church was saying women were supposed to do.

If you’re searching for a biblical example of what Barr describes there — “no matter if the woman agreed with her husband or not, she should always tell him, sure, and just do whatever he said, because that was what women were called to do” — you won’t find any clearer example than that of Sapphira.

And whatever else it is that we’re supposed to learn from Sapphira’s story, perhaps the clearest message is that she was punished — severely — for doing just that. The story goes out of its way to show us this. Peter gives her a chance to come clean — to do the right thing by not going along with her husband’s plan, by refusing to uncritically obey his spiritual guidance — but instead she opts to be a good “complementarian,” demonstrating her unwavering commitment to submissive “biblical womanhood,” and the same young men who buried her husband carry her to her grave as well.

None of that suggests that Acts 5:1-11 should be a clobber text against “complementarianism,” because clobber-texting is still a foolish, illiterate business that ignores how reading and texts and meaning works, turning holy texts into a game of “War” (which is probably the most boring and pointless card game ever invented). But, still, this story ought to give the adherents of the 20th-century invention of  “complementarian womanhood” some cause for concern.

I suppose, though, that once you’ve made peace with this story as a capitalist Christian, you probably won’t find it troubling as a “complementarian” either.

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