The Origins of Sexism in the Church

Bob Edwards

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early church fathers public domain

early church fathers public domain

Is the doctrine of male authority in the church “God-ordained,” or does it have a more human origin?

To answer this question, I’d like to explore relevant evidence found in the writings of key philosophers, theologians, and modern-day complementarian leaders. Then I’ll follow up with an examination of key verses about men and women found in the Bible—both Old and New Testament.

PLATO (Greek philosopher, 4th century B.C.)

Justice exists when the best born and best educated men exercise authority over the “lower classes” (children, women and servants):

“Let me further note that the manifold and complex pleasures and desires and pains are generally found in children and women and servants….  Whereas the simple and moderate desires which follow reason, and are under the guidance of the mind and true opinion, are to be found only in a few, and those the best born and best educated.”

“Very true.  These two, as you may perceive, have a place in our State; and the meaner desires of the [many] are held down by the virtuous desires and wisdom of the few.”

“Seeing then, I said, that there are three distinct classes, any meddling of one with another, or the change of one into another, is the greatest harm to the State, and may be most justly termed evil-doing?  This then is injustice.”

“You are quite right, he replied, in maintaining the general inferiority of the female sex….”[1]

ST. AUGUSTINE (theologian and Bible commentator, 4th century A.D.)

Believed that Plato’s philosophy and God’s Word taught the same principles.  He also believed that this included the necessity of men ruling over women, children, and slaves:

“Simplicianus congratulated me that I had not fallen upon the writings of other philosophers, which were full of fallacies and deceit, ‘after the beggarly elements of this world,’ whereas in the Platonists, at every turn, the pathway led to belief in God and his Word.” (Augustine’s Confessions, Book VIII, Chapter II)[2]

“It is the natural order among people that women serve their husbands and children their parents, because the justice of this lies in (the principle that) the lesser serves the greater…. This is the natural justice that the weaker brain serve the stronger. This therefore is the evident justice in the relationships between slaves and their masters, that they who excel in reason, excel in power.” (Questions on the Heptateuch, Book I, § 153)[3]

ST. JEROME (Bible translator, 4th century A.D.)

Believed that women were literally saved from sin through the procreation of children:

And that the lot of a woman might not seem a hard one, [because of God] reducing her to the condition of a slave to her husband, the Apostle recalls the ancient law and goes back to the first example: that Adam was first made, then the woman out of his rib; and that the Devil could not seduce Adam, but did seduce Eve; and that after displeasing God she was immediately subjected to the man, and began to turn to her husband; and he points out that she who was once tied with the bonds of marriage and was reduced to the condition of Eve, might blot out the old transgression by the procreation of children (Against Jovinianus, Book 1, §27).[4]

JOHN CALVIN (theologian and Bible commentator, 16th century A.D.)

Believed that all of the Christian faith was accurately explained in the writings of St. Augustine.  He accepted St. Augustine’s belief in a male-dominated gender hierarchy without question:

“Augustine is so wholly with me, that if I wished to write a confession of my faith, I could do so with all fullness and satisfaction to myself out of his writings.”[5]

“Let the woman be satisfied with her state of subjection, and not take it amiss that she is made inferior to the more distinguished sex.”[6]

OWEN STRACHAN (Executive Director of the Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, 21st century A.D.)

Believes that men must exercise authority over women, and that the fall of humanity was caused by Eve not maintaining her proper place, in submission to Adam:

“Yet God made the man first, and he gives Adam a leadership role by asking him to exercise authority over the animals by naming them.”

“Everything falls apart in the fall. Adam fails to lead and protect Eve.  Eve is deceived by the serpent and assumes the role of leader (Gen 3:1-13).  In short, the fall itself involves an inversion of God’s plans for men and women.”[7]

Strachan identifies himself as a follower of John Calvin’s teachings.[8]

BRUCE WARE (Professor of Christian Theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 21st century A.D.)

Believes that women demonstrate they are in fact “Christian” by submitting to male authority and embracing the roles of wife and mother:

“It means that a woman will demonstrate that she is in fact a Christian, that she has submitted to God’s ways by affirming and embracing her God-designed identity as—for the most part, generally this is true—as wife and mother, rather than chafing against it, rather than bucking against it, rather than wanting to be a man, wanting to be in a man’s position, wanting to teach and exercise authority over men.”[9]

Bruce Ware is also known as a Calvinist.[10]

THE HOLY BIBLE

In which men and women are equally created in God’s image, mutually dependent upon one another for their existence, and free from class distinctions through the redemptive work of Christ:

“Humankind was created as God’s reflection: in the divine image God created them; female and male, God made them” (Genesis 1:27, TIB).

“You need to learn, however, that in Christ woman is not different from man, and man is not different from woman. Woman may come from man, but man is born of woman. And both come from God” (1 Corinthians 11:11-12, TIB).

“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28 NKJV).

Does the doctrine of male authority have its origin in the will of God, or in human prejudice?  Here is the evidence; I believe it speaks for itself.


NOTES:

[1]http://www2.hn.psu.edu/faculty/jmanis/plato/republic.pdf

[2] http://www.ling.upenn.edu/courses/hum100/augustinconf.pdf

[6]Oliphant, J. (2011). AQA Religious Ethics for AS and A2. New York, NY: Routledge.

[8] http://owenstrachan.com/category/calvinism/

[9] Taylor, S. (2013). Dethroning Male Headship, p. 109. Auburndale, FL: One Way Press.

[10]Olson, R. (2011). Against Calvinism: Rescuing God’s Reputation from Radical Reformed Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

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34 Comments

  • Bob, this is such a clear and succinct summing up of the situation as it stands, in which theologians follow each other, rather than following Biblical teachings. Bruce Ware’s statement that women demonstrate that they are Christian by the way they submit to their husbands is absolutely mind blowing. One wonders if this professor of Christian Theology needs to take an Alpha course to remind himself of the essence of his faith in Christ.

    • Thank you Bev. It does indeed seem that theologians follow each other’s example, rather than paying attention to what the Bible has to say for itself. What really struck me is that the source of these ideas–Plato’s philosophy–is not even biblical. In his confessions, St. Augustine acknowledges numerous times that he uses Plato’s philosophy to help him “make sense” of the Bible. Without this framework, he once said that the Bible seemed like nonsense to him. It’s no wonder a male-dominated hierarchy plays such a pivotal role in his understanding of the Bible, from Genesis onward.

      I can’t help remembering the Apostle Paul’s warning to the early church that we should be careful not to say we follow Paul or Apollos (see 1 Cor. 3). We are all supposed to simply be followers of Christ. This is one reason I don’t adhere to any particular “system” of theology. In my mind, any human being that thinks he (and it usually is a man) has God and his dealings with humanity completely figured out, is apt to make an idol of human reason. Reason was the idol of the ancient Greek philosophers it seems, and I fear that many theoologians have followed that example unknowingly.

  • P.S. I have a great deal of respect for what Calvin, Luther and others were attempting to do with regard to church reform in 16th century Europe. It was very badly needed. I’ve read Calvin’s Institutes and many of his commentaries. I find myself agreeing with some of his ideas and disagreeing with others. As a system of belief, I would say that I neither wholeheartedly accept nor completely reject his theological paradigm. In particular, like you Tim, I disagree with a hierarchical view of authority in the church based on gender. Though not one of Calvin’s “five points,” it was an integral part of his understanding of “the church.” I believe, in this case, that his understanding was shaped by his own culture and the writings of St. Augustine.

    Some of his other premises can also be found in the writings of Augustine, Plotinus and Plato. Whether or not they accurately reflect the intended messages of the biblical authors has been a subject of debate for centuries. As far as this post is concerned, I’m content to leave that debate to others. My focus is solely on his understanding of how women and men should relate to one another in the body of Christ, and what sources admittedly influenced his views :).

  • Hi! I think maybe you are trying to accomplish too much for a blog post. Perhaps if these quotes were contextualized, your line of thinking would be more convincing. As it stands, it just seems like you are cherry picking quotes.

    • You make a valid point Alisa, and I do devote a rather lengthy chapter of an upcoming book to this topic.

      Having said that, If you look at the quotes and references carefully, I think you may see the direct link between the authors. For instance, Augustine claims that he was influenced by Plato. Both use the same language to describe the “justice” of a male-dominated social hierarchy. This does not appear coincidental. I hoped to illustrate this by sharing both of their quotations about social order, and another in which Augustine acknowledges Plato as his source.

      Similarly, I’ve quoted Calvin’s views on women, and also included a quote in which he acknowledges Augustine as his source.

      Owen Strachan acknowledges Calvin’s Reformed theology as a significant inspiration. His comments about women, not surprisingly, match those of Calvin and Augustine.

      Ware’s comments about Christian women submitting to the roles of wife and mother parallel the views of St. Jerome. In fact, Ware’s comments read very much like St. Jerome’s commentary work on 1 Timothy, chapter 2, even though many in the church reject the notion that salvation for women is achieved through “child-bearing” or submitting to certain social roles (e.g. wife and mother).

      It is an ambitious post, but I wanted to share some of my research to stimulate some thinking and perhaps inspire people to conduct their own investigation of the topic. Some of the references are live links that you may enjoy exploring. Thank you for your feedback Alisa.

      • As a side note on these connections, Dr. Strachan is the son-in-law of Dr. Ware. He is also a former student and a current faculty colleague of Dr. Ware at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary/Boyce College.

        • Wow, thanks for pointing that out. That adds new meaning to the intergenerational transmission of prejudice premise I’m working from.

  • Hi Bonnie. Are you responding to the original post or to a comment? The philosphers and theologians I quote support a viewpoint that I’m disagreeing with. They do not support my point–quite the opposite in fact.

    Also, the reason these particular philosophers, theologians, commentators, translators and present-day leaders were chosen is that they all espouse the same viewpoint, and make reference to one another to support it (e.g. Strachan follows Calvin, who followed Augustine, who said he was influenced by Plato).

    Hope that clarifies. Also, I agree that Pope John Paul II shared some very liberating views on this subject. Good observation! Unfortunately, his comments did not affect official doctrine, and women are still barred from serving as priests.

  • Thanks Kate, I think it’s a pivotal distinction, and one that’s often overlooked.

  • You seem to be quoting a few philosophers/church teachers who agree with your idea and thus support your point. I can think of many more teachers in the Catholic Church who have taught that women are equal to men. Equal does not mean the same, however. Men and women serve in the church in different roles. I’d suggest Pope John Paul II has some excellent teachings on this (read his Theology of the Body for the ways in which God presents theology through the human body). However, quoting a few random church leaders like this is like quoting, say, Abraham’s relationship with Hagar and saying that the Bible approves of mistresses. You need to take a bigger look at more teachers – and I’d suggest at more official church teachings (e.g., a Catechism).

  • Thank you for that review Bob.
    It’s clear to see the progression through time of a much softer language being used to justify the same oppressive beliefs. What I think is dangerous today is that we have learned how to make the same poisonous beliefs much more palatable. In many churches we talk about how women are definitely equal in value, yet we don’t allow it in Authority. Men need respect, women need love. A wife only has to submit, whereas a husband must love his wife so much that he’s willing to die for her. That’s pretty safe. What wife would ever ask her husband to follow that claim up with action that demonstrates this? I suspect a lot of wives expecting to be a widow would find themselves still married to a very alive husband!

    No matter how palatable, it’s still poison.

    • I agree Valerie, the outcome is the same (men have authority over women in the home and the church) even though we’ve learned to provide a rationale for this arrangement that sounds less blatantly misogynistic.

      The thing is, if women are not intellectually inferior, if they are not more easily deceived, if society isn’t held together by intelligent men keeping irrational women “in their place,” why is the hierarchy necessary?

      Frankly, It isn’t; and it never was.

    • You are right on Valerie. It’s the subtleties that are so dangerous because more often than not, they go on undetected.

  • Interesting thread from one to the other down to the present, Bob. Nicely done. I bet there are non-Calvinist Christians who hold to the same teachings about men being superior to women too, just as there are egalitarian Calvinists (like me!).

      • Hi Tim, I think it’s very feasible to take some of Calvin’s thoughts about God and humanity, and leave others behind (e.g. his views on women). My hope, as I think you’ve gathered, is to encourage us to think critically about our theological traditions. They tend to be based upon an “understanding” of the Bible that can be shaped by certain philosophical and/or cultural lenses. This, I think, was Calvin’s error. He equated Augustine’s commentaries on the role of women with biblical truth. He didn’t seem to catch the Platonic lens, which included a hierarchical view of gender.

        • But how many other positions of Calvin and Augustine are based more upon Plato or Aristotle than upon Scripture?

          • I attempted to post this reply here earlier, but it somehow got disconnected from the conversation when I hit the “post” button. Trying again :).

            P.S. I have a great deal of respect for what Calvin, Luther and others were attempting to do with regard to church reform in 16th century Europe. It was very badly needed. I’ve read Calvin’s Institutes and many of his commentaries. I find myself agreeing with some of his ideas and disagreeing with others. As a system of belief, I would say that I neither wholeheartedly accept nor completely reject his theological paradigm. In particular, like you Tim, I disagree with a hierarchical view of authority in the church based on gender. Though not one of Calvin’s “five points,” it was an integral part of his understanding of “the church.” I believe, in this case, that his understanding was shaped by his own culture and the writings of St. Augustine.

            Some of his other premises can also be found in the writings of Augustine, Plotinus and Plato. Whether or not they accurately reflect the intended messages of the biblical authors has been a subject of debate for centuries. As far as this post is concerned, I’m content to leave that debate to others. My focus is solely on his understanding of how women and men should relate to one another in the body of Christ, and what sources admittedly influenced his views :).

  • Christ did not send a pink Holy Spirit for girls and a blue one for boys. We all received the same Spirit and therefore the same authority and commissioning from God. We all partner equally with Jesus as a fully functioning member if His body; male or female. The ‘church’ institution, has been dominated by men for centuries. With the same, jealously guarding the status quo through controlling the debate through questionable preaching and teaching, usually by a liberal showering of conveniently contrived biblical and theological jiggery pokery. Fortunately, I left the comfines of the building and its often times small minded politics, escaping the mind control and restrictive practices. Never looked back and never been closer to Jesus. Good article, keep up the good work and don’t be put off by the paid middle men. Most of them speak for themselves, not God! P.S. I’m a bloke 🙂

    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts! I think you’re onto something. Thanks also for the encouragement mate 🙂

    • Loved this phrase “contrived biblical and theological jiggery pokery” 🙂

  • Let me get this straight: A bunch of guys write the Bible and then a bunch of guys use that to determine that women are lesser than. Am I getting that right? What could possible be wrong with that scenario? Sorry, pal, but every single person you quoted also believed the world is flat and the sun revolved around it.

    • Actually, it’s quite possible that women wrote Ruth, Esther, and Hebrews. But they wrote by inspiration of God. Yet God never instantly yanked people into line but led them on a journey. And whenever he did intervene in history, he chose the lowly, the young, and the despised to be honored. Since Jesus came, there are no more excuses for hierarchy. Also, the Bible does not teach a flat earth or that the sun revolves around it; that’s a common misconception.

    • Actually, I think it’s more like a group of guys sat around in ancient Greece talking about how superior they thought they were to women and other “lower classes.” This was about 400 B.C., by the way. 800 years later a Bishop by the name of Augustine became enamoured with their philosophy, and used it as an interpretive lens for the Bible. He then wrote extensively about the Bible in a series of commentaries. All of these have a distinctly androcentric flavour. Later, one of the “fathers” of the Protestant reformation, John Calvin, became enamoured with Augustine’s commentaries, and to a large extent reproduced them in his own name. His “new” commentaries were essentially a revival of Augustine’s theological views, including his views on women. Today, many church leaders continue to derive their theology from the works of Calvin; this theology continues to support a male-dominated social hierarchy.

      This is actually similar to the issue of the sun revolving around the earth–a false doctrine that the church maintained for centuries. Church leaders inferred this from Bible passages that they misread through the lenses of Aristotle’s views on astronomy. Just like the church today doesn’t seem to be aware of the lenses through which they make sense of gender in the Bible; the church in centuries past did not recognize that they misinterpreted biblical astronomy through the lenses of Aristotle’s incorrect philosophy.

      • Love that illustration of how falsehood prospers and endures for quite a season until truth pilgrims finally are victorious, but often at a very great cost. Tyndale, etc.

  • What often stands out to me is Augustine’s definition of “justice,” and how he borrows this directly from the writings of Plato. To these men “justice” meant maintaining a hierarchical social order, with men at the top. “Injustice” was defined as someone not “keeping their place” in that order.

    How many comlementarians have we heard stress the importance of “God’s created order?” How many of them accuse women of “sin” when they function as teachers or leaders in the church, or when they share authority in the home?

    In contrast with this class-based paradigm, Jesus defined justice in terms of love. We are called not to maintain a social structure based on class, but to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, and to love our neighbour as ourselves.

    • Wow Bob! Thank you for pointing out the difference in the definitions of justice! Wonderful!

  • Wow this post made my blood boil. If all these men were so gifted with authority deserving “reason”, then why can’t they see the inconsistencies, privelege and pride they are soaked in. I say it all the time in my head, what is objective about thinking your sex is conveniently deserving of all voice, power and authority?

  • When people post anonymously online, no one can tell a woman’s brain from a man’s. A gentle writer is often a man, and an aggressive writer is often a woman. So any non-physical differences are due to individual personality, not gender. Also, the phrase “weaker vessel” in that context is tied to financial matters, as Peter speaks of women being equal heirs. In that culture a woman had little opportunity to support herself and was thus at a great disadvantage. but Peter assured his readers that this was not the case in the church.

  • Women are not weaker in the brain; nowhere in the Bible does it infer it. We are different from men because our strengths are different. “Wisdom” is personified as female in Scripture. Compassion is stronger in females. Men are more driven in protective gifts. As an aerobics instructor, I led both women and men. I was interested that in my studies on the bodies of both, that men have about twice the muscle mass of women by natural body weight. I tried to keep up with my husband in lifting weights, but was soon happy to be lifting half the weight. The Scripture, “Giving honor unto the wife as the weaker vessel . . .” is talking physical muscle, not brain power. A man is to “esteem (especially of the highest degree)” his wife. I Pe 3:7. Men who demean their wives by control are contrary to the teachings of Scripture.

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