Inequality in the Christian Church

Many people think that the Christian Church is sexist. It does not treat men and women equally.

The teaching of St Paul is often quoted to support the way some churches today treat women. From the extracts below, it would seem that he believed that the role of women was different to that of men, and secondary to it.

St Paul said:

Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the Law says. If they want to enquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.

1 Corinthians 14:34-35

Now I want you to realise that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God. Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonours his head. And every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonours her head – it is just as though her head were shaved. If a woman does not cover her head, she should have her hair cut off; and if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut or shaved off, she should cover her head. A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of man.

1 Corinthians 11:3-7

  • [For women] the very consciousness of their own nature must evoke feelings of shame.–Saint Clement of Alexandria, Christian theologian (c150-215) Pedagogues II, 33, 2
  • In pain shall you bring forth children, woman, and you shall turn to your husband and he shall rule over you. And do you not know that you are Eve? God’s sentence hangs still over all your sex and His punishment weighs down upon you. You are the devil’s gateway; you are she who first violated the forbidden tree and broke the law of God. It was you who coaxed your way around him whom the devil had not the force to attack. With what ease you shattered that image of God: Man! Because of the death you merited, even the Son of God had to die… Woman, you are the gate to hell. Tertullian, “the father of Latin Christianity” (c160-225)
  • Woman is a temple built over a sewer.Tertullian, “the father of Latin Christianity” (c160-225)
  • Woman was merely man’s helpmate, a function which pertains to her alone. She is not the image of God but as far as man is concerned, he is by himself the image of God. –Saint Augustine, Bishop of Hippo Regius (354-430)
  • Woman does not possess the image of God in herself but only when taken together with the male who is her head, so that the whole substance is one image. But when she is assigned the role as helpmate, a function that pertains to her alone, then she is not the image of God. But as far as the man is concerned, he is by himself alone the image of God just as fully and completely as when he and the woman are joined together into one. –Saint Augustine, Bishop of Hippo Regius (354-430)
  • Woman is a misbegotten man and has a faulty and defective nature in comparison to his. Therefore she is unsure in herself. What she cannot get, she seeks to obtain through lying and diabolical deceptions. And so, to put it briefly, one must be on one’s guard with every woman, as if she were a poisonous snake and the horned devil. … Thus in evil and perverse doings woman is cleverer, that is, slyer, than man. Her feelings drive woman toward every evil, just as reason impels man toward all good. –Saint Albertus Magnus, Dominican theologian, 13th century
  • As regards the individual nature, woman is defective and misbegotten, for the active force in the male seed tends to the production of a perfect likeness in the masculine sex; while the production of woman comes from a defect in the active force or from some material indisposition, or even from some external influence. –Thomas Aquinas, Doctor of the Church, 13th century
  • St. Clement of Alexandria (2nd Century, Greek Father of the Church) : “Every woman should be filled with shame by the thought that she is a woman…the consciousness of their own nature must evoke feelings of shame”
  • Tertullian (2nd Century, African Father of the Church) : Women are “the devil’s gateway.”
  • St. Jerome (4th and 5th Centuries, well known scholar) : “Woman is the root of all evil.
  • St. John Chrysostom (4th and 5th Centuries, Bishop of Constantinople) : “It does not profit a man to marry. For what is a woman but an enemy of friendship, an inescapable punishment, a necessary evil, a natural temptation, a domestic danger, delectable mischief, a fault in nature, painted with beautiful colors?…The whole of her body is nothing less than phlegm, blood, bile, rheum and the fluid of digested food … If you consider what is stored up behind those lovely eyes, the angle of the nose, the mouth and the cheeks you will agree that the well-proportioned body is only a whitened sepulchre.”
  • St. Augustine (5th Century, Doctor of the Church and Bishop of Hippo) : “I don’t see what sort of help woman was created to provide man with, if one excludes procreation. If woman is not given to man for help in bearing children, for what help could she be? To till the earth together? If help were needed for that, man would have been a better help for man. The same goes for comfort in solitude. How much more pleasure is it for life and conversation when two friends live together than when a man and a woman cohabitate?”
  • Boethius (6th Century Christian Philosopher) : “Woman is a temple built upon a sewer.”
  • St. Thomas Aquinas (13th Century) : “Good order would have been wanting in the human family if some were not governed by others wiser than themselves. So by such a kind of subjection woman is naturally subject to man, because in men the discretion of reason predominates.”
  • St. Albertus Magnus (13th Century, Doctor of the Church) : “Woman is less qualified [than man] for moral behavior. For the woman contains more liquid than man, and it is a property of liquid to take things up easily and to hold unto them poorly. Liquids are easily moved, hence women are inconstant and curious. When a woman has relations with a man, she would like, as much as possible, to be lying with another man at the same time. Woman knows nothing about fidelity. Believe me, if you give her your trust, you will be disappointed. Trust an experience teacher. For this reason prudent men share their plans and actions least of all with their wives. Woman is a misbegotten man and has a faulty and defective nature in comparison to his. Therefore she is unsure in herself. What she cannot get, she seeks to obtain through lying and diabolical deceptions. And so, to put it briefly, one must be on one’s guard with every woman, as if she were a poisonous snake and the horned devil. If I could say what I know about women, the world would be astonished … Woman is strictly speaking not cleverer but slyer (more cunning) than man. Cleverness sounds like something good, slyness sounds like something evil. Thus in evil and perverse doings woman is cleverer, that is, slyer, than man. Her feelings drive woman toward every evil, just as reason impels man toward all good.”
  • Inquisitors (also wrote Malleus Maleficarum) : “They [women] are only ‘imperfect animals’ and ‘crooked’ whereas man belongs to a privileged sex from whose midst Christ emerged.”
  • The word and works of God is quite clear, that women were made either to be wives or prostitutes. –Martin Luther, Reformer (1483-1546)
  • No gown worse becomes a woman than the desire to be wise. –Martin Luther, Reformer (1483-1546)
  • Men have broad and large chests, and small narrow hips, and more understanding than women, who have but small and narrow breasts, and broad hips, to the end they should remain at home, sit still, keep house, and bear and bring up children. –Martin Luther, Reformer (1483-1546)
  • Thus the woman, who had perversely exceeded her proper bounds, is forced back to her own position. She had, indeed, previously been subject to her husband, but that was a liberal and gentle subjection; now, however, she is cast into servitude.John Calvin, Reformer (1509-1564)
  • Do not any longer contend for mastery, for power, money, or praise. Be content to be a private, insignificant person, known and loved by God and me. . . . of what importance is your character to mankind, if you was buried just now Or if you had never lived, what loss would it be to the cause of God. –John Wesley, founder of Methodist movement (1703-1791), letter to his wife, July 15, 1774
  • Sexism runs deep in the Church of England

American Patriarchs (Puritan, Mormon, Baptist, Evangelical)

  • Even as the church must fear Christ Jesus, so must the wives also fear their husbands. And this inward fear must be shewed by an outward meekness and lowliness in her speeches and carriage to her husband. . . . For if there be not fear and reverence in the inferior, there can be no sound nor constant honor yielded to the superior. –John Dod, A Plaine and Familiar Expositionofthe Ten Commandements, Puritan guidebook first published in 1603
  • The second duty of the wife is constant obedience and subjection. –John Dod, A Plaine and Familiar Expositionofthe Ten Commandements, Puritan guidebook first published in 1603
  • The root of masculine is stronger, and of feminine weaker. The sun is a governing planet to certain planets, while the moon borrows her light from the sun, and is less or weaker. –Joseph Smith, founder of LDS movement (1805-1844)
  • Women are made to be led, and counseled, and directed. . . . And if I am not a good man, I have no just right in this Church to a wife or wives, or the power to propagate my species. What then should be done with me? Make a eunuch of me, and stop my propagation. –Heber C. Kimball, venerated early LDS apostle (1801-1868)
  • A wife is to submit graciously to the servant leadership of her husband, even as the church willingly submits to the headship of Christ. –Official statement of Southern Baptist Convention, Summer 1998, (15.7 million members)
  • The feminist agenda is not about equal rights for women. It is about a socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians. — Pat Robertson, Southern Baptist leader (1930–)
  • The Holiness of God is not evidenced in women when they are brash, brassy, boisterous, brazen, head-strong, strong-willed, loud-mouthed, overly-talkative, having to have the last word, challenging, controlling, manipulative, critical, conceited, arrogant, aggressive, assertive, strident, interruptive, undisciplined, insubordinate, disruptive, dominating, domineering, or clamoring for power. Rather, women accept God’s holy order and character by being humbly and unobtrusively respectful and receptive in functional subordination to God, church leadership, and husbands. –James Fowler, Women in the Church, 1999.
  • Women will be saved by going back to that role that God has chosen for them. Ladies, if the hair on the back of your neck stands up it is because you are fighting your role in the scripture. Mark Driscoll, founder of Mars Hill nondenominational mega-church franchise.  (1970–)
  • Why has the main current of Christianity produced a steady diet of misogyny for over 2,000 years? The answer may lay partly in human biology and culture. But it also lies in the Iron Age texts of the Bible itself. The Judeo-Christian tradition of building up men by tearing down women goes all the way back to the most ancient parts of the biblical collection, to the opening pages of Genesis, and continues unabated through the New Testament. (I’ve written elsewhere about 15 of those Bible verses because they partly explain the conservative assault on women.) As Mr. Driscoll likes to remind his followers, “Every single book in your Bible is written by a man.”

Sexism in the Major World Religions

Sexism in the BIBLE: chapter and verse!

Sexism in Catholicism

Sexism in Mormonism

Sexism in Jehovah Witness

Ambivalent Sexism and Religion: Connected Through Values

Abstract

Sexist attitudes do not exist in a limbo; they are embedded in larger belief systems associated with specific hierarchies of values. In particular, manifestations of benevolent sexism (Glick and Fiske 1996, 1997, 2001) can be perceived as a social boon, not a social ill, both because they are experienced as positive, and because they reward behaviors that maintain social stability. One of the strongest social institutions that create and justify specific hierarchies of values is religion. In this paper, we examine how the values inherent in religious beliefs (perhaps inadvertently) propagate an unequal status quo between men and women through endorsement of ideologies linked to benevolent sexism. In a survey with a convenience sample of train passengers in Southern and Eastern Poland (N = 180), we investigated the relationship between Catholic religiosity and sexist attitudes. In line with previous findings (Gaunt 2012; Glick et al. 2002a; Taşdemir and Sakallı-Uğurlu 2010), results suggest that religiosity can be linked to endorsement of benevolent sexism. This relationship was mediated in our study by the values of conservatism and openness to change (Schwartz 1992): religious individuals appear to value the societal status quo, tradition, and conformity, which leads them to perceive women through the lens of traditional social roles. Adhering to the teachings of a religion that promotes family values in general seems to have as its byproduct an espousal of prejudicial attitudes toward specific members of the family.

The roles of women in Christianity

The roles of women in Christianity can vary considerably today as they have varied historically since the third century New Testament church. This is especially true in marriage and in formal ministry positions within certain Christian denominations, churches, and parachurch organizations.
Many leadership roles in the organized church have been restricted to males. In the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches, only men may serve as priests or deacons; only males serve in senior leadership positions such as pope, patriarch, and bishop. Women may serve as abbesses. Most mainstream Protestant denominations are beginning to relax their longstanding constraints on ordaining women to be ministers, though some large groups, most notably the Southern Baptist Convention, are tightening their constraints in reaction. Most all Charismatic and Pentecostal churches were pioneers in this matter and have embraced the ordination of women since their founding. Christian traditions that officially recognize saints as persons of exceptional holiness of life do list women in that group. Most prominent is Mary, mother of Jesus who is highly revered throughout Christianity, particularly in Roman Catholicism where she is considered the “Mother of God”. Both the apostles Paul and Peter held women in high regard and worthy of prominent positions in the church, though they were careful not to encourage anyone to disregard for the New Testament household codes, also known as New Testament Domestic Codes or Haustafelen. They were efforts by the apostles Paul and Peter to encourage the brand-new first Century Christians how to obey the Patria Potestas (lit., “Rule of the Fathers”) of Greco-Roman law. The New Testament written record of their efforts in this regard are found in Colossians 3:18-4:1, Ephesians 5:22-6:9, 1 Peter 2:13-3:7, Titus 2:1-10 and 1 Timothy 2:1ff., 3:1, 3:8, 5:17, and 6:1. Christianity emerged from Judaism and in the Greco-Roman culture, patriarchal societies that placed men in positions of authority in marriage, society and government. The New Testament only records males being named among the 12 original apostles of Jesus Christ. Women were the first to discover the Resurrection of Christ. Since clerical (clergy) ordination and the notion of priesthood post-dates the New Testament, its 27 books contain no specifications for such ordination or distinction. Subsequently, the early church within Catholicism developed a monastic tradition which included the institution of the convent through which women, developed religious orders of sisters and nuns, an important ministry of women which has continued to the present day in the establishment of schools, hospitals, nursing homes and monastic settlements. In one of her several books, Linda Woodhead notes the earliest Christian theological basis for forming a position on the roles of women is in the Book of Genesis where readers are drawn to the conclusion that women are beneath men and “that the image of God shines more brightly” in men than women”.[6] The following New Testament passages and more recent theological notions have contributed to the interpretation of roles of women in Christianity through the centuries:

  • “Women will be saved through bearing children, if she continues in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.”[1 Timothy 2:15]
  • “The rule remains with the husband, and the wife is compelled to obey him by God’s command. He rules the home and the state, wages wars, and defends his possessions…. The woman, on the other hands, is like a nail driven into the wall. She sits at home…. She does not go beyond her most personal duties.” (Luther, Lectures)
  • “Properly speaking, the business of woman, her task and function, is to actualize the fellowship in which man can only precede her, stimulating, leading, inspiring.” (Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics)
  • “I believe that ultimately the effective authority of Scripture to govern our lives is at stake in this controversy. The issue is not whether we say we believe the Bible is the Word of God or that we believe it is without error, but the issue is whether we actually obey it when its teachings are unpopular and conflict with the dominant viewpoints in our culture. If we do not obey it, then the effective authority of God to govern His people and His church through His Word has been eroded, concludes Grudem.” — Wayne Grudem (emphases original), Evangelical Feminism and Biblical Truth
  • Christian leaders through history have been patriarchal, taking names which underscore male leadership in the church. These include “father”, “‘abbot’ (abba = father)”, and “‘pope’ (papa = father)”. Linda Woodhead notes that “Such language … excludes women from the exercise of such roles”. She also notes a sentiment in 1 Corinthians which “exemplif[ies] a pattern of Christianity of all varieties”, where Paul “explains that women should be veiled in church to signal their subordination to men because ‘the head of every man is Christ and the head of a woman is her husband’, and that ‘women should keep silence in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as even the law says.’”
  • Conservative Christian theologian Gilbert Bilezikian points out that throughout the Old Testament era and beyond, just as God had prophesied, men continued to rule over women in a patriarchal system which he sees as being a “compromise” or “accommodation” between sinful reality and the divine ideal. The coming of Jesus is understood as moving forward from Old Testament patriarchy, re-instituting full equality of gender roles, as succinctly articulated in Galatians 3:28. 
  • New Testament passages, such as “22Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord. 23For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. 24As the church is subject to Christ, so let wives also be subject in everything to their husbands”[Eph. 5:22-24]
  • Gilbert Bilezikian writes that “the poison of hierarchy generated by the fall (of mankind) had permeated relationships to such an extent that those very disciples Jesus was training in the ways of servanthood insisted on substituting hierarchy for servanthood. They kept competing among themselves for the highest status and for positions of preeminence. Bilezikian continues: “To settle the issue once for all times, Jesus sharply delineated the basic difference between social organization in the secular world and in the Christian community”. He concludes that “Consequently, there is no mandate and no allowance in the New Testament for one adult believer to hold authority over another adult believer. Instead, the overall rule calls for mutual submission among all believers out of reverence for Christ”.[Eph. 5:21]
  • Complementarians teach that male priority and headship (positional leadership) were instituted prior to the Fall[Gen. 1-2] and that the decree in Genesis 3:16 merely distorted this leadership by introducing “ungodly domination.” Complementarians teach that the male leadership seen throughout the Old Testament (i.e., the patriarchs, priesthood and monarchy) was an expression of the creation ideal, as was Jesus’ selection of 12 male apostles and New Testament restrictions on church leadership to men only.[1 Tim. 2:11-14]
  • Wayne Grudem takes exception to these egalitarian arguments, insisting that Christ’s maleness was theologically necessary; he also alleges that egalitarians are increasingly advocating that God should be thought of as “Mother” as well as “Father”, a move which he sees as theologically liberal.[8] The Christian doctrine of the Trinity has become a major focus of the contemporary gender debate, specifically in relation to 1 Cor. 11:3. In 1977, George W. Knight III argued in a book about gender roles that the subordination of women to men is theologically analogous to the subordination of the Son to the Father in the Trinity.  A vigorous debate has ensued, with some egalitarians moving towards the idea that there is “mutual dependence” within the Trinity, including “subordination of the Father to the Son”, which must be reflected in gender role relations. Wayne Grudem has countered this by asserting that mutual submission in the Trinity cannot be supported by scripture and church history.
  • Bible verses from Paul’s letters which support the idea that women are to have a different or submissive role to men:
    • “A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.”[1Tim. 2:11-15]
    • “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy,”[Eph. 5:21-27]
    • 3But I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God. 4Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head. 5But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is the same as having her head shaved. 6For if a woman does not cover her head, she might as well have her hair cut off; but if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, then she should cover her head. 7 A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. 8For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; 9 neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. 10It is for this reason that a woman ought to have authority over her own head, because of the angels. 11Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. 12For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God. 13Judge for yourselves: Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? 14Does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him, 15but that if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For long hair is given to her as a covering. 16If anyone wants to be contentious about this, we have no other practice—nor do the churches of God.”[1Cor. 11:3-16 NIV]

    New Testament scholar Frank Stagg considers verse 10 above as being “quite enigmatic, where a woman’s being veiled is “because of the angels”. In his book, he suggests clues to the intention. He concludes his comments on this passage by saying that “The problems here are many. What is Paul’s authority or source for the hierarchy: God, Christ, man, woman? … What importance is there to a head covering in worship? Are veils binding upon women today? What about the subordination of woman (or wife) to man (or husband)? What about the angels? What about the teaching of nature? Is custom in v.16 binding upon Christian conscience today?” p.177

    • “As in all the churches of the saints, the women should keep silence in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak but should be subordinate, as even the law 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.”[1Cor. 14:33-35]
  • Complementarians have traditionally held that Christian ministers ought to be men, because of the need to represent Jesus Christ, who was the “Son” of God, and incarnate as a male human being. A related position is that while both male and female were made in the image of God, the woman shares in the divine image through the man because she was created out of him, and is his “glory.”[1 Cor 11:7-8][20]

    To us a priest is primarily a representative, a double representative, who represents us to God and God to us… We have no objection to a woman doing the first: the whole difficulty is with the second. But why? … Suppose the reformer stops saying that a good woman may be like God and begins saying that God is like a good woman. Suppose he says that we might just as well pray to ‘Our Mother which art in Heaven’ as to ‘Our Father’. Suppose he says that the Incarnation might just as well have taken a female as a male form, and the Second Person of the Trinity be as well called the Daughter as the Son. Suppose, finally, that the mystical marriage were reversed, that the Church were the Bridegroom and Christ the Bride. All this, as it seems to me, is involved in the claim that a woman can represent God as a priest does.

    — C. S. Lewis, Priestesses in the Church? 1948
    Wayne Grudem takes exception to these egalitarian arguments, insisting that Christ’s maleness was theologically necessary; he also alleges that egalitarians are increasingly advocating that God should be thought of as “Mother” as well as “Father”, a move which he sees as theologically liberal. The Christian doctrine of the Trinity has become a major focus of the contemporary gender debate, specifically in relation to 1 Cor. 11:3. In 1977, George W. Knight III argued in a book about gender roles that the subordination of women to men is theologically analogous to the subordination of the Son to the Father in the Trinity. Australian theologian Kevin Giles has more recently responded that complementarians have “reinvented” the doctrine of the Trinity to support their views of men and women, suggesting that some complementarians have adopted a heretical view of the Trinity similar to Arianism. A vigorous debate has ensued, with some egalitarians moving towards the idea that there is “mutual dependence” within the Trinity, including “subordination of the Father to the Son”, which must be reflected in gender role relations. Wayne Grudem has countered this by asserting that mutual submission in the Trinity cannot be supported by scripture and church history.