This question was put to me on Facebook by someone who is neither a Christian nor a feminist. After all, he said, the primary authority figures central to Christianity (those of the Trinity) are all male; males occupy virtually all church roles; the image of the Father is strongly invoked; God controls property (as creator and ruler of everything, but also through the church’s male leadership), and fathers hold authority over women and children. Christianity institutionalises male rule and privilege and teaches female subordination. He acknowledged that Christianity is not the only religion to have this kind of patriarchal worldview – he cited Islam as another example – and his comments came out of an Australian context.
I think this is a fair enough question so I was thrilled to have the opportunity to respond to it, and I thought I’d share an edited version of my answer here as well. Having come from a Facebook conversation, this is not referenced, comprehensive or final, but as I have at times discussed the intersection between Christianity and feminism on this blog I thought it might be worth putting up.
The first thing to acknowledge is that the church has participated in patriarchy, and at times taught, implemented and perpetuated it. It has at times been very damaging to women. Let me say that up front and acknowledge it. I have numerous personal examples of how I have experienced this. It’s both something that needs to change and something which I think is a distortion of God’s intention for humanity.
God’s ‘maleness’ and a few things to understand about doing theology
- Any theology and theological reflection is attempting to put human words to a being that is beyond us. Theology is always a ‘best attempt’ to describe God, rather than being ‘accurate’.
- While theology endeavours to find words and concepts to describe God, the Bible is a revelation in human terms. It is both ‘God-breathed’ and a human document. Because of this, even very conservative readings of Scripture hold that God accommodates his communication. Accommodation is the theological idea that God reveals himself in ways we can understand. This is not some new ‘liberal’ idea: this concept of our limitation when it comes to knowing and describing God when using human language goes back to the early church fathers and indeed to the Bible itself! Actually, Christians point to it as a sign of God’s goodness and love, that God is willing to communicate himself on our terms rather than overwhelming us with what we cannot know.
I raise these general points about theology because this means the idea of the maleness of God needs to be held loosely. I’m not saying that we all start going around referring to God as ‘mother’ (although the Bible does do this at times!) but rather that references to ‘Father’ may well be an attempt to give a culturally appropriate picture of God rather than to describe God’s gender, and language of ‘he’ has all sorts of linguistic overtones that are not necessarily best translated as ‘he’ today. These words ‘Father’ and ‘he’ may help us to understand God, but they may not be comprehensive reflections of God’s essence. Furthermore, remember that it is humanity, both male and female, rather than males who are the image of God (Gen 1:27).
Women in the church and church history
Regarding the patriarchy of the church in terms of marriage relationships and women’s leadership, this is a debate currently raging within Christianity, and for very good biblical reasons. However, those who do hold to a more conservative position actually do so because it is Christ himself who is the example of submission! Furthermore, everyone agrees that those who are given power are to be servants, not masters, just like Christ. (Yes, Christ is the example for both, and neither are to claim power!)
More specifically regarding Australia, I think it’s worth acknowledging the Christian roots of feminism. Elizabeth Cady Stanton particularly springs to mind, but a stack of the early feminists were Christians and specifically motivated by their Christianity. Much advocacy for women has actually come out of Christian theological reflection, not just in the last century but throughout history. Even in the Old Testament, women are afforded more social respect and freedom than in other Ancient Near Eastern pieces of literature; Jesus’ attitude to women was revolutionary; and the early church saw an involvement of women that was almost scandalous at the time.
There is a well attested general theme in the Bible known as ‘God’s preferential option for the poor and oppressed’ which sees God on the side not of the powerful but of those who are vulnerable. I could go on with a history lesson in terms of how this has manifested in the last 2000 years or so, but let’s just say it’s mixed – Christianity has been both a source of oppression for women and contributed to their liberation.
My feminism flows out of my Christian convictions rather than being at odds with it, though I will say, there are points of tension! However, an idea from the Christian tradition is that it is in the messiness where we find the Spirit of God at work, and I find feminists quite comfortable with the idea that it’s where we experience tension that we are often most fruitful.
Two examples of the Bible and patriarchy
Finally, though I stress accommodation in my comments above, let me say that accommodation is not the only factor in reading the Bible. While much of what we find in the Bible is contextual (i.e. appropriate for its context rather than specifically written for ours), that does not mean that it is is merely a reflection of the culture of the time. There are some horrible passages that I don’t know what to do with, including – trigger warning – this one, which my own camp, evangelicals, have generally either ignored or diminished. However, at times, the Bible also subverts the patriarchal cultural norm. Let me give just a couple of examples of this subversion, one from the New Testament and one from the Old.
Ephesians 5 is contentious for its language of ‘wives, submit to your husbands’. At first glance, it reads to us as stating the subordination of women and the supremacy of men. Even the earlier command to ‘submit to one another out of reverence for Christ’ or an attempt to read ‘head’ as ‘source’ doesn’t alleviate all the tension here. However, when you read ancient literature, it quickly becomes clear that this passage is a certain genre or type of literature, what is known as a ‘household code’. These were common in the ancient world and were largely used to tell men how to keep their households in place. Paul takes this household code and turns it on its head. He takes concepts like ‘master’ and ‘head’ and makes them about being a servant – radical stuff! What’s more, he actually addresses women – a point of dignity often not afforded them in a household code. Now, maybe we want Paul to go further than that, and I suspect, were he speaking into our culture, Paul wouldn’t be saying the same things or in the same way, but the point is, the Bible is not a set of rules for all time. It’s a contextual document, written to a group of people in a particular time and place, and we do it violence if we do not acknowledge this. (Many Christians have been guilty of treating it this way in the past and today, resulting in many abuses.)
A second example, from the Old Testament and one of the most shocking passages: the warlord who sacrifices his daughter to Yahweh in order to fulfill his vow that he would sacrifice the first thing that came out of his house if Yahweh gave him the victory (Judges 11). I’ve recently published an article on this passage, arguing the validity of feminist theology for understanding it. But the main point for this discussion is that this passage, while telling a horribly patriarchal story, actually serves as a condemnation of that warlord and his actions.
Where does that leave us with the original question then?
- Theologically, God has little to do with being male;
- Historically, the church has both contributed to and fought against the oppression of women;
- Biblically, the Bible was written in patriarchal cultures and there’s no escaping that; but, at points the Bible may well be subverting rather than upholding patriarchal paradigms.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.