The Subjugation of Women by the Church

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Throughout history, women have been seen as the lesser part of man in Christianity. These oppressive patterns have not originated from specific doctrines, but from a male-centric and class-based interpretation of the Bible. Women have contributed to the church as well, but their achievements have often been swept under the table. To understand the origins of this misogyny we must first look back to Christianity’s roots: Judaism.

the other believing that Adam alone was God’s image. However, a distinction is made in Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians. In chapter 11, Paul says, ‘But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the husband is the head of his wife and God is the head of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:3, NRS). With this, Paul establishes a hierarchy with God at the top and women at the bottom. In a different part of the letter, we can the side that Paul aligns himself with when he says, ‘For a man ought not to have his head veiled, since he is the image and reflection of God; but the woman is the reflection of man” (1 Cor. 11:7).

However, he does not discriminate against the women in any part of this letter, and in fact seems to turn back on his previous statement, saying that, “Although the woman was created from the man originally, now ‘man is born from woman, and all things are from God” (1 Cor. 11:9). Paul does not cease to confuse in other passages, as in Galatians 3:28 he talks about baptism, ‘There is no longer Jew and Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus”. These statements can be taken either route, for equality, or for men, but one was a more dominant view than the other.

Early Christian views on women were partially shaped by Greek philosophy, specifically Aristotle, who taught that women lacked the ability to reason, were therefore subject to men, as they could not make proper decisions for themselves. In the early Roman empire, Christianity was a practice that was punishable by death. From this, we receive the story of Perpetua. She, and her fellow Christians were publicly executed in a gladiatorial ring, but she and the others held hands and prayed before they died, welcoming death with open arms.

She explains that it is an hour of glory, and that the suffering was a trial that they had to endure for Jesus, so that they would be accepted by him. The text that this comes from was written directly by Perpetua by herself, and was preserved, unlike many other female texts, as she was an icon for Christianity, which became very important to Rome not too long after. This should be noted, as it was a very significant stride for Christianity.

Over time, a selection of Paul’s previously mentioned views had strengthened, as we can see in the early Roman text On Apparel, by Tertullian (c. 200), “And do you not know that you are (each) an Eve? The sentence of God on this sex of yours lives in this age: the guilt must of necessity live too. You are the devil’s gateway: you are the unsealer of that [forbidden] tree: you are the first deserter of the divine law: you are she who persuaded him whom the devil was not valiant enough to attack. You destroyed so easily God’s image, man {Adam}”. At the time, Christians were very concerned with the topics of marriage, virginity and sexuality. They believed that marriage was the unification of two peoples, and that they were to do works of god together, and that the relationship was perfectly pure.

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As far as sex was concerned, we can see that women were believed to be akin to the devil, and were heavily discouraged from ‘bearing skin’ and presenting themselves in a sexual fashion; men on the other hand, we viewed as originally perfect, and then tainted by women. Regarding virginity, sex was not permissible until marriage, modeled after the virgin Mary. Men however, were more exempt from this rule, as their value seemed to be preserved before and after. What is interesting is that the martyr Perpetua doesn’t seem to mirror this very much, as she was a single mother. However, she did not lack in modesty, and when she is faced with a beast at her execution, she chooses to cover herself up when she is slashed, rather than avoiding injury. Here we can see the profound psychological impact that had been instilled in Christian women.

The laws of Constantine and Justinian assumed that adultery was a wife’s crime. In Constantine, revision to the lex Julia of Augustus, 326 A.D., the law holds that “The husband, above all others, should be considered the avenger of the marriage bed, for he is permitted to accuse his wife on suspicion, and he is not forbidden to retain her, if he only suspects her; nor will he be liable if he files a written accusation when he accuses her as her husband, a privilege which was established by former emperors”. This tells us that men held most of the rights of marriage, and that they could persecute their spouse as provided by the law, but the degree to which they could persecute was not easily enforced. This can be related to the passage “Women Caught in Adultery”, which was a complete addition to John 7:52-8:11, which did not exist in any pre-5th century manuscript. As the Roman Empire’s sole religion was Christianity, it is possible that this law was tied to, and eventually lead to the insertion of this bible passage, which tells us of a woman who was caught committing adultery by a crowd, who takes her to Jesus, who then condemns her. Some historians believe it was passed on by word of mouth, but the fact that it simply did not exist before these laws indicates that these events did not happen.

As per the story of Adam and Eve, a common belief is that since Eve was pulled from Adam, she was not made in the image of God. The church needed to figure out how the soul of something that was not made in the image of God could be redeemed, such as a woman. St. Augustine distinguished that there were two sides of man, one of a genderless soul which was made in the image of god, and the body; which as a woman was prone to sin, as it had not been made in the image of God. This forms into a dominant Christian tradition, with women having a genderless soul, but a submissive body. This is worsened further by Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century.

He adopted Aristotle’s view of female inferiority, holding that women were defective not only biologically, but physically as well. who held that while women were a sort of defect, men were the correct and perfect form. The one use of a woman was that of reproductive needs, specifically their womb. He also held that all of the ingredients of life were contained in a man’s seed, and the woman was simply needed to nurture it. As they were incomplete, they were inherently inferior in mind, will and body.

Therefore, he held that women could not exercise any position of power. He applied this belief to Christianity, arguing that “Christ had to be male to represent full humanity and therefore only males could represent Christ in the priesthood”. This view persists in Roman Catholicism to this day, such as in the Roman Catholic Women Priest Movement, where the Vatican likened the ordination of women to the defiling of children by male priests, as they would defile the sacrament. As of now, there are no women leaders in the Roman Catholic religion. Many of the written works of Christian women have been brushed under the table throughout history, and ones written by men have often labeled women as “snakes”, devoid of heart and reason.

From this, the Church can learn many things. Blind faith is certainly powerful, but often leads to incorrect and sometimes dangerous conclusions. An obvious answer would be to start integrating women into positions of leadership within the church, but that’s more of an endgame that we’re shooting for. After taking this class, I have realized that reading the bible is simply not enough to get a true understanding of Christianity. A suggestion for the churches is that they take a better look at history, making a point to understand what laws were in place at the time passages were written, as well as looking at the different versions of the bible, and use these facts to help them reason the legitimacy and true intent of bible passages. For a feminist liberation theology, the church is a redemptive community consisting of equals.

To make the strides it needs to, male domination but also clericalism must be dismantled, or at least the current system that the church operates under. The church and the people must become more closely intertwined and not cast out those who disagree. To walk with Jesus is to take the daring path and embrace those that society would cast out, as one who heals and frees the poor, particularly poor and despised women. Jesus reached out to the sick woman, the Samaritan woman, and the prostitute, as ones who understood his message, perhaps better than his disciples.

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