fidesquaerens (marta_bee) wrote,

on St. Paul, feminism, and progressive Christianity

Originally published at Faith Seeking Understanding. You can comment here or there.

Yesterday I stumbled across a really interesting blog post, “Plutarch and Paul on Husbands and Wives,” by Marg Mowczko. (Credit where credit’s due: I discovered it through Rachel Held Evan’s Sunday Superlatives, a nice round-up of the progressive Christian blogosphere).

Marg’s post as its title suggests is about gender relations within marriage, as described by two classical writers: the Roman philosopher/historian Plutarch and the St. Paul who wrote roughly half the Christian New Testament. They worked and wrote within a century of each other, so while they probably weren’t familiar with each others’ work, they were responding to similar cultures. I’m not nearly a good enough classicist to evaluate what she says about Plotinus. As for Paul, I think if you’re inclined to interpret Paul negatively you could probably find some passages to work against what she quotes here. But her basic point is a really interesting one. Specifically: Plutarch wanted to preserve the existing culture, but Paul really was interested in setting up a “new creation” – one that offered women a lot more autonomy and equality than the current society could accommodate.

I find this interesting, because I know lots of feminists who happen to be Christian, and one way they say they manage this is by focusing on Jesus rather than Paul. There’s a lot in the Gospels to make a feminist smile, for all that the Twelve were the original boys’ club. (More on that in a minute.) The Epistles, however, are thought to be less friendly to women. I’ve been in situations where I’ve been told that as a woman it wasn’t my “place” to speak up in church, and I’ve had many of Paul’s verses quoted at me. 1 Tim 2:11 is a favorite (women can’t teach men), and 1 Cor 14:34 goes even further (wives must be silent in church). Personally, I believe these verses are often misinterpreted, but even so, from a modern perspective Paul seems to have a lot of verses that need explaining away.

That’s part of what interested me so much about Marg’s essay. She says that a lot of those teachings on marriage that strike me as lukewarm egalitarianism (at best) were really quite revolutionary. He describes all Christians – men and women – as siblings under the same father, rather than saying husbands were lords over their wives. She points out several influential women who were “associated with Paul, travelled, worked and had influential leadership roles in ministry.” And with just one exception (Priscilla) they aren’t introduced as someone’s wife, daughter, or mother. He explicitly said not everyone had to be married (1 Cor 7:34), making room for single women to live a public life doing the same work as men did – in fact, they’re praised for this. And Marg points to some pretty egalitarian aspects of Paul’s teaching, such as the common fruits of the spirit (Gal 5:22-24) that presumably both men and women can aim for.

There are definitely parts of Paul’s writing that still don’t sit well with me. One big issue is with the idea that women can just stay single if they want to focus on doing the work of the church. That implies that a woman must choose between her sexuality and the empowerment Paul offers her – a choice that guys simply don’t have to make. Personally, I’m more asexual than anything and I’ve never been particularly driven to be in a relationship, but I know lots of women (and men!) want to be in a romantic relationship. I don’t think it’s fair that women have to make this choice when men obviously don’t, and I also don’t think this idea that husbands are the heads of their wives is particularly enlightened. There are other things in the Gospels + Epistles that have done a lot of harm to women over the years, namely the teachings about divorce. (Every time I hear of an abused woman told to stay in an abusive marriage because of Biblical teachings on divorce, my skin crawls.) Still, I think Marg does a good job showing how Paul’s writings were much more women-friendly than most Christians assume.

This is all related to a discussion I’ve had a few times with Dan Fincke, at least in my mind. One of Marg’s main selling points for Paul isn’t that he’s great by modern standards, but that he’s much better than any of his contemporaries were. I’ve made similar points with Dan about different ethical issues and Biblical figures: for all the ways Paul’s (or Jesus’s, or Moses’s, or…) teachings fall short on sexism (or racism, or homophobia, or classism, or…) it really is much better than the world it’s coming out of and so is encouraging or uplifting or whatever. Is this good enough?

If you treat the Bible like some repository of static, timeless truths meant to be interpreted literally, this is some pretty cold comfort This is supposed to be the word of God – “better than competing Bronze Age expectations seems like a low bar to reach. And since Christians and most religious people think their holy book’s teachings still applies to us today, that’s a really dangerous position) to be in – because it means we can’t grow beyond Bronze Age cultural norms. But this isn’t how I view the Bible. I’m a progressive and in more than the political sense. I think that history is leading somewhere. Maybe not some pre-ordained future (I’m not a fatalist or anything) but I do believe that humans are more advanced in our philosophies and ethics than we were 500 years ago, much less 4,000 years ago.

And I see this reflected in the Bible: precepts that were a great leap forward in Moses’s day (“an eye for an eye”) when they were decreed are outdated and in need of being turned on their head by Jesus’s generation (“turn the other cheek”). This doesn’t mean those original teachings were wrong. They were the best those earlier generations could absorb at their current point of intellectual and cultural development. “An eye for an eye” is good – just incomplete. So, bringing this back to Paul and feminism, I think it’s okay to be frustrated that he didn’t go far enough. I’m living 2,000 years after him, so if I wasn’t frustrated that would be a sign humanity hadn’t been working on this question for far too long. But I can still be encouraged by the general direction he was aiming: more equality, more opportunities for women and other minorities, and less locking women off behind closed doors.

This all has me thinking about the way my spirituality and my religion play off each other. So I thought I’d just point to some of the stories and elements that give me inspiration as a Christian feminist:

1. The Original Sin. I know a lot of Christians throughout history have used this story to paint women badly. Those wily, tempting women that brought all the suffering into the world. But if you read Genesis 2 carefully, this isn’t the story we find. First of all, Eve ate the fruit out of ignorance (Adam had over-exaggerated the commandment not to eat the tree, making her susceptible to the serpent) whereas Adam ate the fruit because it seemed good to him. God makes it quite clear that both are guilty and both are punished. This also seems to be where their inequality comes into play (the man’s domination over the woman is part of the curse of sin), and Paul makes quite clear that “there is neither […] male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal 3:28

Also, if Malala needed a role-model from the Christian tradition, she may just have one in Eve. One of the main takeaway message is that suffering came into the world because Adam didn’t trust Eve with the truth. More education for women!

2. The Holy Spirit. There’s a mystical Jewish tradition relating Yahweh and the Shekhina. (Medieval Christians identified the Shekhina with the Holy Spirit.) Basically the idea is that you have a transcendent God, all awe and majesty and justice, and on the other hand you have the more immanent God who walks and works with us humans on earth. Human sin drove God’s justice-side away from us, so He is still there but kept at a distance. But the Shekhina is still with us, separated from Yahweh except on Sabbath, when the two aspects of God come back together.

And Shekhina is a feminine noun. The teaching is that God is not male, though we often talk of God that way. Rather, God has both the masculine and the feminine in Himself. The reason why it’s more appropriate to use the masculine pronoun is too complicated to go into, and there are lots of competing theories; but it’s not because God is male the same way other “He’s” are. (My personal favorite comes from –of course—Anselm, who says it’s inappropriate to call Yahweh Christ’s mother because this would disrespect Mary’s role. Since God is a Father, it’s appropriate to call God a He.) The point being: The Jewish/Christian God doesn’t need a female consort to set up a feminine divine. The feminine is already part of God. Jews and Christians have done a really shoddy job emphasizing this fact, but it’s part of our history and theology nonetheless.

3. Esther. The Old Testament gives us a few women who played unconventional roles in the histories –Rahab, Ruth, Deborah, even Abigail. Sarah’s a personal favorite, actually – I love the way she has her own faults and is respected as an equal of Abraham. But they’re often presented as doing mannish work, though, or stepping up when their fathers or husbands aren’t up to the task. Esther is a different story. (Rachel Held Evans actually did a nice series on her here, here, here, here, and here. What makes Rachel so impressive is that she was not in a position of power. She was a Jew living in Persia when the Jews were driven out of Israel, and when the king needed a new wife he held a beauty contest to select a wife. (Participation was almost certainly not optional.) So Esther was basically seized up and conscripted into the royal harem, where she eventually became queen. “Rape” comes to mind here – and after the previous queen Vashti had been (at best) been driven into exile for not stripping for hubby and his pals, I’m sure it was a toxic environment. But Esther still managed to save her whole people by convincing the king to trust her rather than his trusted adviser. And she did this by revealing herself as part of the ethnic minority about to be executed.

So basically we have this woman who faced exploitation and a terrifying situation, with a king who was known for objectifying and degrading his queen. Who then got said king to listen to her seriously and avoid a massacre – not by seducing him but by presenting a reasoned case and then using empathy by revealing herself as part of another denigrated group, the Jews. That’s my kind of woman!

4. Martha, Mary, and the Other Mary. If you know your New Testament, you may remember Lazarus’s two sisters who entertained Jesus and the disciples. Martha busied herself getting the meal ready, but Mary instead sat with the disciples so she could study with them. Eventually Martha gets frustrated and basically asks Jesus to send Mary in to help her (implicitly saying that Martha was doing the right thing?) – and Jesus says that Mary had chose the better thing, to listen. A lot of people read this as saying we should focus on God and not our busy work. But many women have tried to put Thanksgiving meals together while the men either watch football or do whatever. You know what a powerful message it is to be told: this isn’t all you’re good for.

The other Mary here isn’t Jesus’s mother (though it could be – I know lots of women who took inspiration from her being given a choice in the matter, and Elizabeth’s prophesying). I’m thinking of Mary Magdalene, the first person Jesus appeared to after the Resurrection. As John tells it (20:11-18) the other disciples are near at hand but Jesus appears to her and tells her to bring the news to the others. This all happens first thing in the morning, and Jesus doesn’t appear to the other disciples until that night. In a society where a woman’s testimony couldn’t stand up in court, this has always struck me as both a great honor and also empowering – as if Jesus was saying that in this most important event, a woman’s recollection was completely trustworthy.


I know that other people have found Christianity to be misogynistic. And to be fair, I get where they’re coming from. Actual Christians have fallen short of these teachings. The Bible isn’t as clear or emphatic as I’d like, and some of what it says only seem good when you think of them like the first step on a journey, not the final state of affairs. But there’s a lot to encourage feminism or at least equality between the sexes, if you’re looking for it. At least that’s been my experience.

I’d be interested in folks’ thoughts. What do you think of this progressive approach to gender issues and religion? (I don’t mean progressive like politically progressive; I mean the idea that religion is making progress to some goal rather than being perfect from the get-go.) Does it hold water for you? Why or why not?

Btw – That last story has me thinking about Lazarus, which in turn has me thinking about a gospel song I found entirely too funny in high school. Not a bad song either. Enjoy.

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