I’m working on this paper in advance of my participation on the panel at the 2018 Parliament of the World’s Religions in Toronto next month. The workshop being presented by OMNIA Institute for Contextual Leadership is called “#MeToo, #Time’s Up and Women Rising against Patriarchy in Religion.” I’ll be (yikes!) representing Christianity on the panel.
Dismantling the Religious Roots of Patriarchy in Christianity
“We, the members of this grand jury, need you to hear this.”
So begins the report of the grand jury in Pennsylvania detailing the sexual abuse committed against children by over three hundred Roman Catholic priests. It would be impossible for me to write about violence brought about by patriarchy without beginning with this news just published in August. The details of the abuse in the 1356 page report are horrific in themselves, but they are compounded by the fact that the institutional Church has consistently responded with indifference to victims in favor of protecting individual priests and the Church itself. This is patriarchy at work.
Patriarchy is all about power. Therefore it is not limited to issues specifically related to women. In the absence of shared power among all groups of people, one group is able to exert control over the others. Under the umbrella of patriarchy, we can find the intersection of racism, poverty, homophobia, and sexual assault against men, women, and children. The Catholic Church is not alone in exhibiting the effects of its patriarchal roots; there is evidence throughout Christianity of misogynistic thinking and behavior. Some of this is so engrained that church members often do not even recognize it. It is so pervasive that even those without a religious background are unaware that many of our cultural norms are based on patriarchal assumptions.
The Biblical Roots of Patriarchy
To get at the roots of patriarchy within Christianity, we have to go all the way back to “in the beginning . . .” In a blog post entitled “Eve Was Framed,” I point to the story in Genesis 3: 8-15 where Adam and Eve are caught eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. In this version of creation (the other very different one is in Genesis 1), a talking serpent tempts the woman, who eats the forbidden fruit, then turns around and offers it to the man, who also partakes. God eventually confronts the man (ha-‘adam: ‘earth creature’) who immediately points the finger at the woman ( ezer kenegdo: a ‘power’ or ‘strength’).
Not only is Eve traditionally relegated to the status of a helper, she is also blamed by Adam for succumbing to the wiles of the serpent and then tempting him. In other words, Eve is responsible for the fall of humanity into sin. The book of Sirach (2nd century BCE) states it plainly:
From a woman sin had its beginning, and because of her we all die.
Some of the early Christian church fathers then picked up the theme.
- Tertullian (2nd century) claimed that all women carried the blame for Eve’s sin:
You are the Devil’s gateway; you are the unsealer of that tree; you are the first foresaker of the divine law; you are the one who persuaded him whom the Devil was not brave enough to approach; you so lightly crushed the image of God, the man Adam.
- Ambrosiaster (4th century):
Women must cover their heads because they are not the image of God. They must do this as a sign of their subjection to authority and because sin came into the world through them . . . Because of original sin they must show themselves submissive.
- Jerome (4th century) also blamed women for The Fall. Adam was first formed, then Eve; and Adam was not beguiled, but the woman being beguiled hath fallen into transgression: but she shall be saved through the child-bearing, if they continue in faith and love and sanctification with sobriety.
This negativity – and even fear – created by the Christian church so long ago about women being innately evil is one of the foundations of the religious and cultural misogyny expressed throughout history. Consider, for example, the witch hunts in medieval Europe in which tens of thousands of people, about three-quarters of whom were women, were subjected to trial, torture, and execution. In The Holocaust in Historical Context, Steven Katz quotes from the Malleus Maleficarum (The Hammer of Witches), published by Catholic inquisition authorities in 1485-86:
All wickedness is but little to the wickedness of a woman. … What else is woman but a foe to friendship, an unescapable punishment, a necessary evil, a natural temptation, a desirable calamity, domestic danger, a delectable detriment, an evil nature, painted with fair colours. … Women are by nature instruments of Satan — they are by nature carnal, a structural defect rooted in the original creation. 
Katz then compares this misogyny with anti-Semitism:
The medieval conception of women shares much with the corresponding medieval conception of Jews. In both cases, a perennial attribution of secret, bountiful, malicious ‘power,’ is made. Women are anathematized and cast as witches because of the enduring grotesque fears they generate in respect of their putative abilities to control men and thereby coerce, for their own ends, male-dominated Christian society. Linked to theological traditions of Eve and Lilith, women are perceived as embodiments of inexhaustible negativity. 
Now, lest you think this is dusty old history and of no significance any longer, think again. The underlying theology is still present in our churches. For example, several years ago, on the Sunday after Christmas, I attended a Service of Lessons and Carols. The traditional Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, begun way back in 1880, tells the story of the birth of Jesus. And how does the story begin? With Genesis 3: 1-15: the fall of humanity. In the theology put forth in this service, the reason Jesus was born clearly was to undo the effects of original sin. And reading this passage reinforces the notion – held by many of early Christian theologians – that Eve was the cause of it all.
Granted, it may be that the main attraction of Lessons and Carols is the music – favorite carols and the opportunity for choirs and church musicians to strut their stuff. But the theological underpinnings are rotten. I did find an alternative service,which “is based on the traditional set of readings with some changes. It retains lessons 3-9, but shifts the message of lessons 1 and 2 away from original sin toward original blessing. But I wonder how many churches will seek out and use this alternative. How many will read this passage with no commentary or corrective?
“Wives, Be Subject to Your Husbands”
While I was serving in my first congregation, one of the women came forward and accused her husband of domestic violence. When she came to my office a few days later, I could see the bruises on her face where he had punched her. After telling me what had happened, she also confided that her sister, who had flown in from out of town to give her support, had warned her not to speak to me. I wasn’t surprised. Since the sister and I had never met and she knew nothing about me, she had every right to be wary of what advice a Christian pastor might give her sister.
The awful truth is that too many times, a woman is counseled by her pastor to go back to her abuser, to forgive him, and to submit to him – ostensibly because it says so in the Bible. Passages used to support this are:
Ephesians 5: 22-24
Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Savior. Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands.
Colossians 3.18 Wives, be subject to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.
1 Peter 2.21-3.5
For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps . . .
When he was abused, he did not return abuse . . .
Wives, in the same way, accept the authority of your husbands . . .
Of course, not all men are abusers However, patriarchy is baked into the Judeo-Christian tradition. Many Christian couples still adhere to a hierarchical understanding of marriage, in which the husband is the head. Many women also still struggle to overcome restrictions placed on them by biblical writers.
1 Corinthians 14.34
Women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.
1 Timothy 2.11-15
Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through childbearing, provided they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.
If we do not understand the historical, cultural, theological context of the biblical authors and early Church leaders, we will be doomed to perpetuate a way of thinking and being that is unacceptable today.
Texts of Terror
In 1984, Professor Phyllis Triblewrote a groundbreaking book, Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives. In it she tells the stories of four biblical women: Hagar, the slave, exploited, abused, and rejected; Tamar, the princess raped by her brother and discarded; an unnamed concubine, gang-raped, murdered, and dismembered; and the daughter of Jephthah, who was sacrificed because a foolhardy vow made by of her father and then blamed by him for his violence against her.
Trible cautions that we cannot consign these stories to a “distant, primitive, and inferior past.” She tells of some of the people who inspired her to tell these particular stories: a black women who described herself as a daughter of Hagar outside the covenant; an abused woman on a New York street with a sign “My name is Tamar”; a news report of the dismembered body of a woman found in a trash can; worship services in memory of nameless women.
In 2016, Susan M. Shaw, Professor of Women, Gender, & Sexuality Studies and Director of the School of Language, Culture, & Society at Oregon State University, recalled Trible’s work in an article entitled Sandra Bland and Texts of Terror. Bland, a 28-year-old African-American woman was found dead in her jail cell in Waller County, Texas. She had been stopped for a minor traffic violation and arrested when she allegedly became combative. Shaw wrote:
We can also read Sandra Bland’s story as a text of terror, illuminated by these biblical stories, leaving people of faith with difficult questions. Like the women in these stories, Sandra Bland was the victim of terror, of the power of patriarchal systems to confine and enact violence, of the intersection of racism and misogyny. Her dehumanization by police is evident in the video that shows police restraining her on the ground, even as she complains of injury. Like many of these women who disappear from their own stories and who do not speak for themselves, Sandra Bland, who had been an outspoken activist for racial justice, was silenced, first in a jail cell and then by death. The question for us now is how do we hear Sandra Bland’s text of terror? How do we interpret her story and the stories of those biblical women against the systems of power that abuse, terrorize, and kill?
There are other opportunities to address misinformation in the Bible, for instance, the unfounded identification of Mary Magdalene as a prostitute. Another corrective would be to call the story of King David and Bathsheba what it really is: a story of rape. In another blog post entitled “Redeeming Bathsheba,”I cite examples of commentators who declare that Bathsheba is equally at fault as the king, bringing on the attack by her seductive wiles, or (and this by even progressive writers) that she willingly participated in adultery. Thankfully, many women scholars are coming writing more truthful versions, but these versions have not yet become mainstream.
If we’re serious about dismantling patriarchy, we have to get at its biblical, cultural, and theological roots. The framing of Eve and all her biblical sisters is at the root of our cultural misogyny, too. Genesis 3 lies in our collective subconscious. It doesn’t matter if you don’t believe the story; it doesn’t matter if you’re not religious at all. Misogyny is baked into our national psyche.
#MeToo Goes to Church
And now the #MeToo movement has hit the Church. Hundreds of women have come forward to tell stories of how male pastors have used positions of power to spiritually manipulate and sexually coerce them. It’s not unsurprising that most of these incidents have occurred within denominations with “authoritarian, patriarchal leadership and by cultures that routinely silence the voices of women.”For example, William W. Gothard, Jr., minister and founder of the conservative Institute in Basic Life Principles, was forced to step down amid multiple allegations of sexually harassing women who worked at his ministry and failing to report child abuse cases. As one woman reported, “Bill had sworn me to silence with both guilt and fear. I was the one who was at fault because I was tempting him (italics mine). If I told anyone, the future of the entire ministry could be compromised. Why would I want to hinder God’s work? He told me that this was our little secret, just between us.”
As we continue to reel at the extent of Catholic priest sexual abuse of children, we should look beyond the rationale that these incidents are the result of a few “bad apples” to recognize the effects of patriarchal leadership and culture. The Church must confess that its very system is the breeding ground for abuse. According to the conclusions of Jane Anderson in “Socialization Processes and Clergy Offenders,” “the socialization processes that operate to maintain the perfect celibate clerical masculinity and patriarchy have ongoing implications for endeavors to protect children from violence . . . concrete measures must be taken to ensure that power is more evenly distributed across church membership. This requires a rescinding of PDV (“Pastores Dabo Vobis,” which provides a theological basis to clergy formation) which works to maintain a hegemonic masculinity and patriarchy that prevents reform of the clergy community.”
Dismantling the religious roots of patriarchy in the Church will take a concerted effort to face our past and present sins. It will also take a recognition that patriarchy intersects with racism, classism, ageism, xenophobia, and other issues of unshared power. To begin, these are steps that we can take in order to begin to heal humanity:
- Use inclusive language for humanity and expansive languagefor the Divine in Church publications and worship materials
- Encourage the reading of sacred texts with a “hermeneutic of suspicion” which questions traditional interpretations
- Recognize the misogyny of many of the early Church leaders and their ongoing legacy
- Recognize the “texts of terror” in our sacred texts and the violence that continues to be justified because of them
- Recognize the spiritual, emotional, and physical violence perpetrated by an entrenched patriarchal system, both within the Church and society in general
- Commit to the revision of theologies, teachings, liturgies, and practices to reflect the goodness of all people especially those who have been most impacted by patriarchy
- Develop systems of real, shared power, with representation by all groups
Self-awareness is the first step in the process of transformation. The history of misogyny and the sins of patriarchy are there for us to see. It is only with repentance and a change of direction that Christianity can truly by “good news.” We can only hope that the Church will heed the call.
Katz, Steven The Holocaust in Historical Context, Vol. I, pp. 438-39.
Steven Katz, The Holocaust in Historical Context, Vol. I, p. 435.
Trible, Phyllis, Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives.Fortress Press, Minneapolis, MN, 1984.
“Journal of Child Sexual Abuse,” 2016, Vol. 25, No. 8, 846–865.