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February 21, 2005



sorry hugo. wasn't trying to see through you or even into your heart. my limited understanding of scripture is probably as hornswoggled as any others.

Hugo Schwyzer

Joe, I am sorry if my reply was so cranky -- you touched a nerve. Cardinal rule #1 I learned early on: you don't presume about the status of another believer's relationship with Christ (or, as my hard-core friends put it, the state of his or her salvation.) It's just an absolute no-go zone. Still, I was a bit snippy, and I am sorry.


Well I don't know about anyone else, but I'm just getting a little weepy.


XRLQ. You must be an attorney -- you hammer a point home until it is refuted or the opponent acquiesces. :) And, truth be told, reading what you and La Luba (and others) wrote made me a little squirmy. I kept thinking, "yea but" and "well, ok, but . . . " until I realized there's no good way to exegete the passages so that they ring well in my ears.

Perhaps “Is Paul sexist?” isn’t the right question. Camissa gets at this a bit. It's a question asked of a paradigm (faith) that can't answer the question because to answer would be to agree to the terms of the question. I got squirmy because everything we see/hear/are taught proclaims that submission is a very, very bad thing, for anyone. We don't submit, we act. Our will is paramount, our feelings sacrosanct. And yet, the central act of the Christian faith is one of submission: Christ submitting to God's will, with His life. Therefore, to submit necessarily takes on a different meaning; it is to emulate our God. It is not a bad thing, it is a good thing, THE good thing. Indeed, one could argue that it is "the" spiritual discipline that we spend our lives attempting to learn. But, outside of faith, this is nonsensical, weird, offensive. And, for those who have been forced to submit, it sounds evil.

And yet, it is a tradition that does seem to nurture leaders in movements that help the oppressed and I don't think this is coincidence. Yes, Christians have a decidedly imperfect history but if the Christian faith were so obviously racist and sexist how did it grow leaders of the various suffrage movements? It did, in part, because the central message is not one of oppression.

Barbara Preuninger


I agree that Christianity probably has qualities that would lead to suffrage and civil rights movements. You mention the notion of submitting to God (an idea found in Islam and Judaism, btw). I'll add that Christianity also teaches people to see the value in everyone - e.g. "whatever you do unto these (poor, prisoners, etc.) you do unto me".

But I think it was really the period of enlightenment that eventually led into feminism and suffrage movements, not Christianity per se. Consider that it took almost 2000 years which included lots of Crusades, Inquisitions, etc... The enlightenment happened within Christianity primarily because that was the common religion at the time.

You may also want to consider that suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote a "Women's Bible". (I haven't read it myself, so I can't talk about it in detail) But as far as I know, she basically re-wrote it with a feminist slant. This would have been around 100 years before anyone ever heard of the term "political correctness!" ;o)


Sorry, Barbara, no dice. It is true that one of the strands leading into both suffrage and abolition was the humane utilitarian enlightenment one. But in the first country to give women the vote (New Zealand ;-)) in 1893, suffrage was incredibly Christian. Kate Shepherd, who is on our ten dollar note, was President of the Women's Christian Temperance Union. Her idea was to get the vote for women, then use them to prohibit alcohol, so that men wouldn't drink their pay packets away at the pub. She endorsed Massey, and then Hall, conservative-minded politicians. She demanded her "rights" on the basis that women were created in the image of God. As for abolition, it was moved in the UK by Wilberforce, Evangelical Anglican, Pittite Tory and MP for Yorkshire, Author of "Practical View of the Christian Religion", and President of the Society for the Reformation of Morals, . He demanded abolition, quoting Scripture: "Set the oppressed free, and break every yoke". His opponent, Lord Melbourne, speaking for the slave-holders, said: "Things have got to a pretty pass when religion is given free play in public life". He was pro-choice on the slavery issue, and didn't want these religious nutcases imposing their morality on him, so to speak.

As for the "Christianity is oppressive" mantra, you might want to consider the following:

The first explicit sermon on the evil of slave-trading was preached by the Bishop of Gloucester in about 1100. Before that, European slavery disappeared with the advent of Charlemagne, who prohibited it prompted by the Pope. The idea that Women had reason, and were to be judged by God equal with men, was revolutionary in the 1st and 2nd century. This in fact was defended by the likes of Father Jerome and St. Bernard, both of whom took flack for their pro-women views! Christian marriage, with its framework of mutual duties and reciprocity, was diametrically opposed to pagan ideas that women were just chattel, and within the framework of Christian marriage, women could have a security and respect which were denied them in other contexts, they could own property when widowed or single, and manage a household. Jerome wrote a curriculum for women, advocating their education. With the advent of the Reformation, the Protestants, in particular the much-despised Puritans, advocated that women ought to be taught to read, and encouraged to learn. In fact, Oliver Cromwell wanted Oxford and Cambridge to admit women (Yes, really), and was even in favour of them receiving theology degrees. I am rambling too long, but there is another side to this you are not showing. Christianity is about security and freedom for the oppressed. It is a (I hate to say this) progressive narrative of redemption, communion and liberation. Christ makes all things new by His sacrifice, and in Him all things are made new.

I agree with both Stephen and saint; Submission can be a good thing. Christianity in a nutshell: "I can't do it by myself". Weak? Yes. Real? Hell yes. What is it in your own life or in History, XRLQ, that makes you so confident in man? What qualifies us to judge God?

Barbara Preuninger


Your argument sounds really great in the sense that it convinces me that Christians (and by association, Christianity) has brought good to the world and helped to bring about a greater respect for women. But I already thought that, actually. I'm also convinced that Islam brought greater respect for women in the regions where it is typically practiced. To me your argument sounds very similar to the kind that say "Islam allowed women to own property in a time where that was unheard of" (among other similar arguments). And I'd say, "Great, I would never argue that Islam is a 'bad' religion." In the same way, I do not think of Christianity as a "bad" religion, or that most Christians are bad people, or that Christianity doesn't bring light to the world. But that's not going to make me overlook its (pretty serious) flaws. (I think Islam brings light to the world also, and it also has serious flaws.)

And submission may be great and all, but the passage I quoted has nothing to do with submission. It has to do with "men being the image and glory of God and women being the image and glory of man." How do you talk around that one?


Stephen, all of those movements that you speak of did arise in Christian societies, and often used Christian references. However, they also only arose during or after the Enlightenment -- now, the Catholic Church opposed the enslavement of native peoples as early as native peoples were in fact being enslaved in South America, in the 16th century. But the actual popular movements in support of emancipation and social liberation in fact arose only after the enlightenment, and perhaps more importantly, only after Christianity had been split into pieces by the Reformation, Europe went through two centuries of hellaceous denominationally driven warfare, and, in general, Christianity became a much weaker force in society than it had been. Did this liberate people to find the original religion of Jesus? Or did the internecine warfare, followed by the enlightenment, contribute greatly to a less monolithic and far more tolerant view of human difference? Or both? But to say that Christianity is itself the foundation of these movements strikes me as false. Else, why didn't they arise much earlier in the existence of Christianity?


I'm still with Barbara on this one (hope she doesn't mind!). Nobody's saying that there aren't good things that come out of Christianity--I tend to think a good deal of what I know Jesus was supposed to have preached makes a lot of sense (but then again, it's not particularly profound, when it does really--love people, etc., etc.). That doesn't mean that the structure of the bible, and of the religion itself doesn't have a sexist slant.

As far as judging premodern societies goes--well, that's one of the problems with believing in a religion that bases itself on the 'word of god'. That stuff in the bible? It has to be true in an eternal sort of way, doesn't it? It's as if one is saying, "Well, sure, what god said back then would be considered sexist now, but it wasn't sexist then, because the concept sexism didn't exist" or some such--I think one ought to hold oneself to TODAY'S standards of judgement, and as such, god's words are held in judgment too. That's what HE gets for being eternally 'right', y'know?


jp, One of the reasons you don't think what Jesus said is particularly profound is that it has become part of our cultural context. It was profound at the time. It was radical in some ways. Just as some of the teachings of Paul were radical. But you have brought out a very important point: it is incongruous to say, well, you have to look at things in the context of the time, but then base your belief system on things that were said in that very different world. Perhaps it is unfair to frame the question as "was Paul sexist" given that the notion of gender neutrality is a modern one -- but it is not unfair to question Paul's statements made in the context of his time and ask how and whether they represent eternal truths that we are supposed to follow. And the fact that they now strike many of us as anachronistic does call into question more than the things we would like to discard. To discern what is eternal from what is temporal and driven by social necessity is a difficult and fraught task, and many believe that to even engage in it is to question the foundation of the religion.


I meant to post a link to an essay by ex-Feminist and Eastern Orthodox Theologian Frederica Matthewes-Green, on inclusive language and difficult Bible passages.

It's called "Go Ahead, Offend Me". I also meant to say that parts of Christianity offend me too. I resent having to be a Bride, even if it is of Christ. I detest the Song of Solomon, and I hate the lyrics of the worship songs we sing which go on and on about resting in the arms of Jesus, and being his willing spouse, and He being the lover of my soul, etc. Yuck. The message of Scripture is offensive, true. But He said it would be. And God is an equal-opportunity offender.


I'm about to go to lectures, and then I have a Retreat, so I can't go into it now, Barbara. I am not ducking the question, I'll be back, if not here, I'll contact you on your blog.


What qualifies us to judge God?

Free will, a soul, intelligence.

Stephen, you're talking around the central point. Nobody is arguing that submission to God is the problem. The problem is that Paul advocates asymmetrical submission: women and men are both to submit to God, but the wife is supposed to be subservient to her husband. There is no 'mutual' or 'symmetrical' obligation there. I don't get why everybody is trying to hard to deny what Paul plainly says. (And John, I guess I will have to agree to disagree with you--we are, by definition, imperfect. Being inspired by God doesn't make one infallible. How can it? We're still humans and flawed.)

An interesting question--as I recall, Paul thought chastity was a poor second choice to a life of chaste devotion to God. Wouldn't, then, women and men leading such a life be equals? It's only when they get married that woman loses autonomy, yes?

Hugo Schwyzer

Mythago, if you don't think the bible talks about mutual submission, please explain Ephesians 5:21. What does it mean?

Sarah Dylan Breuer

Hugo, it's even better than what you pointed out -- there is NO VERB in the Greek of verse 22. A fairly literal translation of the sentence, starting in verse 21, would look something like this:

"Be subject to one another out of reverence to Christ: wives to your husbands as to the Lord ..."

... and then the second half of the equation comes in verse 25's "husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her."

I think Ephesians was written by a student in a Pauline school rather than by Paul himself, but I think it's fair to say that the writer shares Paul's theology in Philippians 2 regarding just how Christ loves the church.




Good question, Hugo, and one I don't think can be answered by ignoring verses 23-24. Paul does admonish husbands to love their wives, and care for them. But you're pointing to "submit to one another" and ignoring the other, clearly non-reciprocal language.


I think one could argue that the ways Jesus' teachings have influenced our society could have and would have come about if it had been somebody else preaching such things, Barbara, but I'll leave that to the side for now.

Mythago is right on, I think, for continuing to come back to this one particular point--that there is an asymmetry (I call it sexism) in at least some parts of the bible...that some parts aren't asymmetrical doesn't make up for that, in my view.


Well, jp, yes, of course, any influential person could have had a similar impact. But a religion based on the notion of loving one another was a radical point at the time Jesus made it. We are now so accustomed to it that it doesn't seem all that shocking. That was all I intended to say.


Barbara and mythango

Unlike John, I am avoiding responding 'cause you're better read on these topics. But I'll give it a whirl this weekend. Until then, I'm off to to try figure out how to get my tough Idaho born and raised wife to submit. It's tricky really 'cause she could probably kick my butt.


Hugo Schwyzer

Keep us posted, Steve.


Barbara, Mythago

I was responding to the way I saw the threads leading which appeared to be "Christianity is a religion which is sexist in nature." In my opinion, that's a hard proposition to defend given what has grown out of the Christian faith.

"But to say that Christianity is itself the foundation of these movements strikes me as false. Else, why didn't they arise much earlier in the existence of Christianity?"

For the same reason that when individuals choose to follow Christ they are not immediately perfect. We are to work out our salvation with "fear and trembling." Understanding how the Christian faith works in culture is similar.

"Or did the internecine warfare, followed by the enlightenment, contribute greatly to a less monolithic and far more tolerant view of human difference? Or both?"

World War I, II, etc. etc. -- I'm not sure I'd point to the Englightenment as the beginning of a more tolerant view of others. We just use bigger words for our bigotry and self-absorption.

We seem to be talking past each other at this point. Let me try a different way. If your epistomolgy grows from the Christian faith you will see words like "submission" very differently from one whose epistomology does not. The concepts, beliefs and even ways of knowing are formed from a different source. It's why we often spend so much time looking at each other saying "huh?"


Stephen, your answer is a non-answer. Anything good that arises over the course of time can be attributed to "developments" in the faith, just as anything bad can be attributed to "falling away" from God.

Slavery (to take an example) was not foreign to Christians. In many times and places, as was suggested above, it has been opposed by Christians -- but at many other times and places it has not been opposed, including most notoriously in the American South, and perhaps less notoriously, in Brazil. Paul was equivocal. His views are expressed, for instance, in his letter to the slave master of Oenesimus, an appreciation of the individuality of the slave without rejecting the rights of the slave owner. In the modern world we might say that you cannot have it both ways. Paul certainly hoped that mercy would be shown but he did not demand freedom for the slave.

We are more tolerant than we were 100 years ago. We are clearly not perfect in this or any other attribute and the tools of evil have magnified in efficiency and effectiveness through the innovation of modern science. But it is not clear to me that the hate embodied in modern wars is different or worse from that of earlier wars, even if it is more destructive. Indeed, I think of our close ties to Germany and Japan doubt that would have been possible 300 years ago.

If you read all of my comments you will see that I am not rejecting Christianity, or that I believe it is worse than other religions, or anything of that sort. But I will not be an apologist uber alles, especially given the lengths to which many go to cram a literal interpretation of Paul down our collective throats. Their interpretation of Paul, in my world and in my life is sexist. And Paul is no longer around to referee the dispute. I am standing up for myself.



Again, I do think we're just talking past each other now. To be clear, however, there has been no effort to "cram" Paul down anyone's throat. Back to XRLQ's question -- Is Paul sexist? By current definitions, quite possibly. Next question: Does this mean that sexism is intrinsic to the Christian faith? No, I don't think so. I do believe we can see Paul's statements as growing from his particular time and place w/out denying that the Bible is authoritative in faith and practice. I have that luxury because I do not believe that the Bible was transcribed via human beings. We are required to interpret and figure out how to live out a faith that is often quite enigmatic -- "Give to Ceaser what is Ceaser's."

I do think if you could measure the good created by the Christian faith in the world it would exceed the measure of bad by 10% to 20%. :) Obviously, this discussion of whether or not Chritianity has been a source of more good than evil is almost impossible to end -- even if we could somehow measure efficacy. But, then, I don't believe it because of what it produces, I believe it because it is true.

On your other point. The notion that we are somehow more "tolerant" due to the Enlightenment is just plain hogwash. Call me a cynic or a realist -- I'd say it's an accurate read of the human situation. I can't read the papers or even the comments section of this blog and believe we have come too far.




As I've become accustomed to, you make your points clearly and concisely. You also manage to not really piss anybody off, which belies a grace in your comments.

At any rate, I think that what Jesus had to say might be interpreted as 'new ideas' for the area he was in (but maybe not--St. Augustine picked up on Platonic ideas for a reason--they had influenced the world before Jesus); but even given that, there were already different sorts of religious/philosophical beliefs about loving each other before Jesus--varieties of Buddhism, various forms of what we now call Paganism--not all religious ideas were like the ones Jesus spoke out against. Just because Christianity in its various forms has become somewhat inculcated in 'western' culture doesn't mean it was the only game in town, before or after, which was my point.


I'd like to reiterate that I think that comments like Sephen's show that Christians (and other religious groups who follow an 'authoritative' text) like to have their cake and eat it too. They have escape clauses for various problems in the bible--often they explain away how evil god can seem (smiting the fig tree because it doesn't bear fruit, tricking various believers to prove they are loyal, sending plagues and such, drowning the entire freakin' world, etc.) by noting that that is old testament stuff. Another escape clause: Well, it's all subject to interpretation. Maybe. But that doesn't mean that every interpretation is as good as another. And if you don't believe that the bible was transcribed via humans, Stephen, then don't you have to believe that what Paul says comes directly from god? And given that such stuff is sexist (you seem to not argue this point), doesn't that make the Christian god sexist? Of course, I may be confused about what you said because you also noted that you thought what paul said must be interpreted regarding his time and place.

God is timeless and placeless, right? So where does he (note, HE) get off being sexist, ever? I just don't understand how people can believe in something absolute and then retreat into non-absolute language to defend it.

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