Apostle’s Warning: Restoring Paul’s Original Message in his First Letter to Timothy

The apostle Paul’s first letter to Timothy is an urgent warning against a form of false teaching that was finding its way into the church community of Ephesus–the capital of Lydia in Asia Minor.

Specifically, Paul warns against false teachers who devoted themselves to myths and endless genealogies (1 Timothy 1:3-4). They claimed to be teachers of the law, but did not know what they were talking about (1 Timothy 1:7). They taught a doctrine of asceticism that vilified the body and its appetites; followers had to abstain from marriage and the eating of certain foods (1 Timothy 4:3). Paul refers to this teaching as demonic (1 Timothy 4:1), and he encourages Timothy to guard the gospel against opposing ideas that are falsely called “gnosis,” meaning knowledge (1 Timothy 6:20).

Paul also prohibits “a woman” from teaching or engaging in something he called “authentein” against “a man” (1 Timothy 2:12). Along with this prohibition, he makes reference to the salvation of women in childbirth (1 Timothy 2:15), and briefly reviews the story of humanity’s creation and fall into sin (1 Timothy 2:13-14).

Since Erasmus compiled his Greek/Latin Bible in the 16th century, “authentein” has been understood to mean “exercise authority.” Erasmus used the Latin expression “auctoritatum.” He used Jerome’s Latin Vulgate of the 4th century to aid his translation. Jerome translated “authentein” into the Latin “dominari.” This can mean “to dominate” or “to exercise dominion.” Erasmus’ Bible became the basis for the first English translations of 1 Timothy 2:12 as a prohibition against female authority (Wilshire, L.E. 2010. Insight into Two Biblical Passages: Anatomy of a Prohibition 1 Timothy 2:12, the TLG Computer, and the Christian Church. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, Inc.).

An important question must be asked: “Do these translations of Jerome and Erasmus reflect Paul’s intended meaning when he wrote to Timothy prohibiting authentein?” Frankly, I don’t believe they do.

To help us understand what this word meant to the apostle Paul, I think it is helpful to examine the Bible he quoted from in his epistles; namely, the Greek Septuagint (http://www.bible-researcher.com/quote01.html).

In the Septuagint, a noun form of “authentein” is used in following passage:

“Do you remember the ancient inhabitants of your holy land? You scorned them for their unholy ways, for their sorcery and profane rituals, their callous killing of children, their cannibal feasts on human flesh and blood. They practiced secret rituals in which parents slaughtered their own defenseless children” (Wisdom of Solomon, 12:3-6, TIB).

The parents in this passage, who slaughter their children in profane rituals to false gods, are referred to as “authentas.”

Similar uses of this word can be found throughout the Greek literature of the New Testament era. Writing in the same time period as the apostle Paul, Diodorus Siculus used the word on three separate occasions to mean: “perpetrators of sacrilege,” “author of crimes,” or “supporters of violent actions.” Also writing in the 1st century A.D., Flavius Josephus used the term twice to mean: “perpetrator of a crime” and “perpetrators of a slaughter.” In the same period, Philo Judaeus used the term once to mean “being one’s own murderer” (Wilshire, p. 28).

Why would Paul use this word in his letter to Timothy? In other instances of the New Testament where Paul talks about “exercising authority,” he uses the term “exousia.” Were violent crimes or rituals being performed in or around Ephesus in the worship of false gods or goddesses, just as they were in the passage from the Wisdom of Solomon? Historically, the answer to this question is a straightforward “yes;” child sacrifices were indeed performed in this area of the world by a matriarchal culture that worshiped a goddess named Cybele.

A historian from the 1st century B.C., Pompeius Trogus, had this to say about the culture and its customary violence towards males:

“[The women]…dismissed all thought of intermarriage with their neighbours, calling it slavery rather than marriage. They embarked instead upon an enterprise unparalleled in the whole of history, that of building up a state without men and then actually defending it themselves, out of contempt for the male sex…. Then, with peace assured by their military success, they entered into sexual relationships with surrounding peoples so that their line would not die out. Males born of such unions they put to death, but girls they brought up in a way that adapted them to their own way of life…. After conquering most of Europe, they also seized a number of city-states in Asia. Here they founded Ephesus” (as cited in Yardly, J. 1994. Epitome of the Philippic History of Pompeius Trogus. Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press, p. 29).

Another historian from this time period, Diodorus Siculus, offers a similar commentary:

“Beside the river of Thermadon, therefore, a nation ruled by females held sway, in which women pursued the arts of war just like men…. To the men she [the nation’s Queen] relegated the spinning of wool and other household tasks of women. She promulgated laws whereby she led forth the women to martial strife, while on the men she fastened humiliation and servitude. She would maim the arms and legs of male children, making them useless for service in war” (as cited in Murphy, E. 1989. The Antiquities of Asia: A Translation with Notes of Book II of the Library of History of Diodorus Siculus, New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, p. 58).

This culture’s “contempt for the male sex” is highlighted in their spiritual mythology. Historian, John Ferguson, explains:

“The most familiar name of the Asiatic mother in the Roman world was Cybele, and to her the [following] myths are attached. At Pessinus the story was told how the Great Mother was sleeping in the form of a rock. Zeus tried to rape her, but spilled his seed on the ground. Still, she, who is the ground, bore a child against her will, a bisexual monster named Agdistis. Dionysus set himself to tame this creature, drugging him with wine, and tying his male sex-organs to a tree so that on awakening he castrated himself. From the blood sprang an almond (or in some versions pomegranate) tree. The daughter of the river-god Sangarius plucked fruit from this and placed it in her lap, from where it impregnated her. Her father tried to kill her, and to expose the baby on birth, but each time Cybele intervened, and the child grew into the handsome boy Attis. Cybele fell in love with the lad; we often see him standing by her throne on coins and medallions of the second or third century AD, or on a fine bronze plate now in Berlin, or riding with her in her lion-drawn chariot, again on coins or on the superb dish (patera) from Parabiago in Milan, where they are surrounded by sun, moon, earth and sea, time and the seasons. Their love was doomed. The goddess caught Attis in infidelity and drove him mad, so that he castrated himself under a pine-tree and bled to death. But this is not the end; in the Roman ceremonies the festival of mourning (tristia) was followed by a festival of joy (hilaria). The old year is dead, but the new year lives and Attis rises again” (Ferguson, J. 1970. The Religions of the Roman Empire. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, pp. 25-26).

In this mythology, the female Cybele is depicted as life-giving and pure. Male gods Zeus and Attis are authors of sexual sin. Attis is caught in an act of sexual infidelity. He atones for this by castrating himself. He dies as a result of this act, liberating him from the limitations of “the flesh;” he then rises again, now purified of his male sexuality.

New priests of the goddess Cybele would re-enact this mythology every year in an annual rite of self-emasculation:

“On the Day of Blood (24 March), the cult priests, in mourning for Attis, flagellated and castrated themselves, and ran through the streets proudly holding their bloody genitals, which they eventually threw into a house. The honored household was then duty bound to supply the emasculated priests with women’s clothing and ornaments, which they would wear for the rest of their lives. Many spectators, caught up in the intense emotionality of the occasion, the frenetic music of cymbals and drums, and the sight of flowing blood, followed the priests’ example and castrated themselves. This day of sorrow and irrevocable sacrifice was followed by the Day of Joy, the Hilaria, which celebrated Attis’ resurrection” (Favazza, A.R. 2011. Bodies Under Siege: Self-mutilation, Nonsuicidal Self-injury, and Body Modification in Culture and Psychiatry. Baltimore, MD: The John Hopkins University Press, p. 159).

Renouncing their masculinity enabled these men to be embraced by the goddess as her spokesmen. After the ritual, they would reportedly fall into a trance-like state and begin to prophesy. Romans who witnessed this referred to the priests as “interpreters of the divine word” (Favazza, p. 160). In addition to undergoing ritual castration, and shunning marriage, these men fasted from certain foods. Female worshipers looked to Cybele as the goddess who would save them if they had difficulty in childbirth (Farnell, L.R. 1977. The Cults of the Greek States: Volume II. New Rochelle, NY: Caratzas Brothers, Publishers, p. 444).

This religious sect in Asia Minor possessed a number of the characteristics of the false teachers Paul was writing to warn Timothy about. They were forbidden to marry and commanded to abstain from certain foods. Their renunciation of the body through ritual castration allegedly enabled them to receive special knowledge (gnosis) from their goddess. Their practices were rooted in mythology, and elsewhere in the New Testament Paul refers to idol worship as demonic (1 Corinthians 10:20-21).  Women who worshiped this goddess did so in the hope that they would be saved if they experienced difficulty in childbirth (c.f. 1 Timothy 2:15).  The matriarchal sexism of this mythology stands in stark contrast to the creation account found in Genesis, cited by Paul, in which Adam is also a source of life, and Eve plays a role in humanity’s fall (c.f. 1 Timothy 2:13-14).

I’ve been asked if there is any evidence that the priests of Cybele were continuing to practice ritual emasculation during the New Testament era. A thorough review of available literature demonstrates that this practice was known throughout the Roman Empire from the 3rd century B.C., when Cybele was formally recognized as a goddess of the state, at least to the time of Emperor Julian (361 A.D.), who praised the annual rite, calling it a “holy and inexpressible harvest’ (Julian, Oratio V, 168D, as cited in Henig, M. 1984. Religion in Roman Britain, London England: BT Batsford Ltd., p. 97). For a period of time, Rome attempted to outlaw the practice of self-castration in a law called the Lex Cornelia:

“The relevant laws banning the creation of eunuchs are included within the Lex Cornelia about murderers and poisoners; a law primarily aimed at punishing premeditated and intentional murder….  However, the bounds of the law expand also to cover…Jews who circumcise anyone who is not another Jew.  By this reasoning, genital mutilation is a kind of murder; it is equivalent in the eyes of the law to actions deliberately taken with the intention of causing the death of a human being, even though the victim is intended to survive the procedure. The law clearly covers both voluntary and involuntary castration, thus providing uncharacteristically strong protections against this particular bodily injury that do not apply to other amputations. Indeed, it is even possible to be punished more harshly for voluntarily having one’s self castrated than for accidentally killing another person” (Jones-Lewis, M.J. 2015. The Heterosexualized Eunuch in the Roman Empire, online).  A thorough overview of Rome’s attempts to legislate against castration in and around the New Testament era can also be found in Elizabeth Wyner Mark’s book entitled, “The Covenant of Circumcision: New Perspectives on an Ancient Jewish Rite.”

Despite legal prohibitions against self-castration, we find evidence that the priests of Cybele continued the practice:

“Two other historical anecdotes from the late second and early first centuries B.C….concern the first unequivocal evidence for self-castration in honor of the Magna Mater [Cybele] and the Roman reaction to it. In 101 B.C., a slave of a certain Servilius Caepio castrated himself in the service of the Mater Idaea; as a result he was exiled from Rome and forbidden ever to return. In itself this need not indicate total condemnation of the cult, for exile was a comparatively mild punishment for a slave. The second anecdote is more telling; in 77 B.C., a slave named Genucius received an inheritance from a freedman named Naevius Anius. Genucius, a priest of the Magna Mater, was a eunuch and was ultimately denied his inheritance on the grounds that he was neither man nor woman. Moreover, Genucius was not even allowed to plead his own case, lest the court be polluted by his obscene presence and corrupt voice. Valerius Maximus, who describes the incident, reinforces his account with a strong tone of moral condemnation, the first we note, of the eunuch Galli in Rome. Roman approval of the goddess did not extend to her eunuch priests” (Roller, L.E. 1999. In Search of God the Mother: The Cult of Anatolian Cybele. Berkeley CA: University of California Press, p. 292).

So, we have evidence that the practice was longstanding throughout the history of the Roman Empire, and that it continued even when legally prohibited. We also see that self-castration was viewed as the “crime” of “self-murder,” even if the victim/perpetrator survived. The reader may remember that “authentein” in the Greek literature of the apostle Paul’s day meant: being “one’s own murderer,” or the “perpetrator of a crime.” It could also mean one who supported this kind of action.

Historical accounts by Philo of Alexandria, Flavius Josephus and Pliny the Elder share compelling evidence that the asceticism of the Cybele cult strongly influenced the beliefs and practices of a sect within Judaism known as the Essenes. Specifically, the Essenes encouraged celibacy, fasted from wine and rich foods, and believed that their denial of the body and its passions granted them access to special revelation knowledge (gnosis) from God. After fasting from all bodily indulgences (sex, food and sleep) they would receive what they called the secret allegorical meanings behind Mosaic Law. They considered themselves to be “teachers of the law,” and they supported this claim by tracing “endless genealogies” of their leaders, allegedly back to the priesthood of Zadok.

Jones points out that the Essenes’ understanding of the rite of circumcision may also have been distorted by the ascetic beliefs and ritual castration of Cybele’s priests (Jones, A.H. 1985. Essenes: The Elect of Israel and the Priests of Artemis. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, Inc.). Similarly,  Elizabeth Wyner Mark demonstrates that influential Jewish thinkers, such as Philo of Alexandria, associated Jewish circumcision with ritual castration, viewing both as symbolic of the attainment of freedom from the body and its passions:

“In a number of little-known passages, Philo portrays the biblical character Joseph, conventionally a model of the idealized statesman, as a eunuch…. This portrayal is especially provocative, because in these cases the interpretation does not derive from negative hermeneutic play on the complexities of Joseph’s…character, but is instead aimed at depicting Joseph as a paragon of self-control and abstinence….   In his writings, Philo consistently uses the same language of ‘excision’ to describe both castration and circumcision as symbols of the separation of soul from body and of the rejection of physicality….  Within Philo’s Platonizing framework…castration, similar to circumcision, provides an apt metaphor for spiritual progress. For Philo, all circumcised Jewish men have in some respects undergone an alteration to their reproductive organs as a ritual of sanctification to ensure their inclusion in a sacred community” (Wyner Mark, E. 2003.  The Covenant of Circumcision: New Perspectives on an Ancient Jewish Rite. Lebanon, NH: Brandeis University Press, pp. 78-82).

Philo wrote his comments in support of circumcision, castration and asceticism in the same time period that the apostle Paul was writing his warnings against this very belief system.

A 3rd century work by St. Hippolytus, entitled “The Refutation of All Heresies,” highlights another possible connection between the Essenes and Paul’s prohibition against “authentein.”  Hippolytus explains that the Essenes were divided into four sub-sects.  One of these was known as the Secarii; they were given this name because of their practice of forcibly circumcising non-Jewish men, or “slaughtering” those who refused to comply:

“But the adherents of another party, if they happen to hear anyone maintaining a discussion concerning God and his laws–supposing such to be an uncircumcised person, they will closely watch him, and when they meet a person of this description in any place alone, they will threaten to slay him if he refuses to undergo the rite of circumcision.  Now, if the latter does not wish to comply with this request, an Essene spares not, but even slaughters” (Book IX, Chapter XXI).

The reader may remember that “authentein” can refer to those who perpetrate a slaughter.  It may also refer to ritual violence or murder.  This form of forced circumcision against a non-Jew was also specifically prohibited under the Roman Lex Cornelia de sicariis et venificis (the law against murderers and poisoners) referred to earlier.

I provide a detailed review of the evident influence of Cybele mythology on the beliefs and practices of the Essenes in my book entitled, “Let My People Go: A Call to End the Oppression of Women in the Church, Revised and Expanded.”

St. Hippolytus also clearly indicates that the mythology of Cybele and Attis, along with its priestly rite of castration, formed the foundation for Gnostic teaching in the early Christian church:

“Perhaps because it was written in Greek, or perhaps because of doctrinal reasons or religious politics, this work by St. Hippolytus was not known in the western part of the Christian Mediterranean. Book 5, which is of particular interest to us here, was found only in the nineteenth century, at Mount Athos, along with six other books. For us, the Refutation of All Heresies is a privileged source, revealing what could have most likely developed at the end of the second century in terms of applied comparativism. In his itinerary of errors, Hippolytus’ outraged gaze fell on the Naassenes, a Gnostic sect who acquired their name from a curious etymology, he says, combining the Hebrew naas (serpent) and the Greek naos (temple)…. The fact that the Naassenes privileged Attis, the Mother of the gods [Cybele], and the ritual of the galli demonstrates their clear interest in the metroac ritual celebrated in March, which was evidently known to them in an Anatolian version. One of the names under which they identified Attis was Papas, which directly relates to the well-documented cults in Phrygian epigraphy during the first centuries of the empire” (Borgeaud, P. Lysa Hochroth trans., Mother of the Gods: from Cybele to the Virgin Mary, Baltimore, Maryland: John Hopkins University Press, p. 102).

According to the Naassenes’ belief system, the castration of Attis freed “the soul from the earthly zones, the inferior areas of creation” (Borgeaud, p. 105). The rite of castration was therefore viewed by this Gnostic sect as symbolic of the spiritual journey that every Christian must undergo—the liberation of the spirit from matter. This is how they made sense of Jesus’ death and resurrection. They saw it in terms of freedom from the body and its “inferior” appetites.

To summarize available historical data, we have clear evidence of ascetic cults in Asia Minor that commanded people abstain from marriage and certain kinds of foods. They taught what the apostle Paul would have referred to as false teaching. Their beliefs and practices were based on mythology that was dualistic, hierarchical and profoundly sexist. Some of those influenced by this mythology claimed to be teachers of the law. They claimed to have secret knowledge (gnosis), and attempted to legitimize their authority by appealing to endless genealogies. This belief system influenced the foundation of a Gnostic sect within the early church known as the Naassenes. They based their understanding of Jesus’ death and resurrection on the myth of Attis, whose castration was re-enacted annually, even though under Roman law it was a crime compared to murder. It is also the case that a branch of an ascetic sect within Judaism (the Secarii) was forcing Gentile men to undergo circumcision.  If the men resisted, they were killed.  According to the Septuagint and the Greek literature of Paul’s day, the apostle’s language in 1 Timothy 2:12 therefore likely prohibits “self-murder,” “sacrilege,” “perpetrating a crime,” “perpetrating a slaughter,” or the “supporting of violent actions.” This language is an accurate reflection of the crime of self-castration that formed the basis of the Gnostic asceticism Paul was evidently warning Timothy about.  It also accurately reflects the crime of forcible circumcision and/or murder perpetrated against Gentile men by an extremist branch of the Essenes.

Rather than preventing women from exercising authority, abounding evidence suggests that the apostle Paul was prohibiting the teaching and practice of ascetic spirituality that was symbolized by ritual violence against men.

If evidence supporting this view of Paul’s letter to Timothy is indeed so abundant, why has the church historically understood 1 Timothy 2:12 as a prohibition against women in authority? Borgeaud suggests that important information may not have been widely available to the Western church because of “doctrinal reasons” and “religious politics.” Interestingly, Borgeaud highlights the similarities between Naassene Gnosticism and neo-Platonism (p. 104). Influential theologians and Bible translators including Origen, Ambrose, Augustine, Jerome, Erasmus and John Calvin all admittedly made sense of the Bible through the interpretive lenses of neo-Platonic philosophy. I provide detailed evidence of the manner in which this dualistic, hierarchical and sexist philosophy has historically distorted the church’s understanding of the Bible and the Christian faith in my book entitled, “A God I’d Like to Meet: Separating the Love of God from Harmful Traditional Beliefs.”

Like the spirituality of the Cybele cult, neo-Platonism was also dualistic, ascetic, hierarchical and sexist.  Men rather than women, however, were placed at the top of the neo-Platonic hierarchy. In contrast to any form of hierarchical paradigm, the apostle Paul teaches us that there is neither male nor female in Christ (Galatians 3:28). All are called to love one another and serve our Lord not according to sex, but rather in accordance with the gifts we are given by the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:4-11).

My prayer is now that the church will let go of long-held traditions based on philosophies that are foreign to the Bible. May we consider the available evidence with open minds and humble hearts, and may the Spirit of God bring freedom and healing to us all. In the name of Christ Jesus our Lord, Amen.

“See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces.” (Colossians 2:8)

By request, I have made an expanded version of this blog (with additional information and references) available in the form of a book, available here in paperback and Kindle formats: http://www.amazon.com/Apostles-Warning-Restoring-Original-Message-ebook/dp/B01BT8AAJ2/ref=tmm_kin_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1455866417&sr=8-1 (link is to the book’s second edition)

I recently completed the second edition of the book to include additional research that I found compelling, and to present the text in proper APA format.  The additional research includes a quotation from Tatian in the 2nd century A.D. about ongoing ritual violence associated with the worship of Artemis.  It also includes a sample from Polybius’ Histories, in which he uses the word “authenten” to refer to the “perpetrator of a massacre.”  I then share some additional information about Rome’s perspective on Cybele/Artemis worship, and how the Empire viewed the cult as a threat to male authority.  Finally, I’ve included some information shared by Richard and Catherine Clark Kroeger about how the ritual castration of Cybele and Artemis’ priests was viewed as “depriving men of power.”  The last two pieces of research may help us understand how a prohibition against violence done to men by a female-dominated ascetic cult could later be viewed as a usurpation of male authority.  I hope that readers find the blog and the book thought-provoking and informative.

 

 

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The Subordination of Women in the Church: Where things went wrong, and what we can now do to stand for love and equality

A man named Origen attended a school in Alexandria, Egypt in the 3rd Century A.D..  What was he studying?  Something called neo-Platonic philosophy.  He was being taught by a man named Ammonius Saccas.

Believe it or not, this seemingly abstract bit of historical information is one of the main reasons so many theologians have believed and taught that women may not share authority with men in the church or in the home.

How is this possible?  Alongside Origen was a classmate named Plotinus.  The works of these two men were discovered and embraced by an influential church leader in the 4th Century A.D. named Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan.  He in turn passed this philosophy on to St. Augustine, the influential theologian and Bishop of Hippo.  Hoping to provide a theological foundation for badly needed reform in the church, John Calvin encouraged the readers of his work entitled “the Institutes of the Christian Religion” to make sense of the Bible through the interpretive lenses of St. Augustine’s philosophy.

I wish the rest was “history,” as they say; but sadly, this philosophical framework–neo-Platonism–continues to dominate much of today’s preaching on what is wrongly called the “biblical” roles of men and women.

What did the neo-Platonists teach? They taught that the universe is best explained by a philosophy of dualism.  In other words, they broke reality down into various sets of two opposing principles: spirit versus body, mind versus emotion, man versus woman.  They also taught that the “natural order” of the universe was best understood in terms of hierarchy.  In other words, they said that the universe is functioning as it should when spirit “rules” body, mind “rules” emotion, and men “rule” women.  They also taught that the “best born” free men should rule over slaves.

How did neo-Platonists define evil?  They said that evil exists where one principle usurps the authority of another.  Sound familiar? Any “mingling of the classes” was described as “injustice.”

St. Augustine used this interpretive framework to make sense of the creation account found in the book of Genesis.  For example, when he saw Adam refer to Eve as “flesh of my flesh,” he automatically assumed that Adam must represent the spirit.  Just as spirit must rule over flesh, he concluded, so too must men rule over women.  This passage of the Bible (Genesis 2:22-23), however, says nothing about a hierarchy of authority–unless you force it into a neo-Platonic context; and that is exactly what St. Augustine did.

When John Calvin wrote his commentary on Genesis, he came to the same conclusions as St. Augustine.  That should come as no surprise, since in his commentary work, Calvin cites both St. Augustine and Plato as his influential sources.

Augustine and Calvin’s view of Genesis then impacted their understanding of all of the apostle Paul’s references to the creation account found throughout his epistles.  Both theologians automatically assumed that Paul was reinforcing the dualistic hierarchy they wrongly perceived in Genesis.

To complicate matters further, two notable Bible translators were also strongly influenced by neo-Platonic philosophy: St. Jerome of the 4th century A.D. and Erasmus of the 16th century.  Jerome’s Bible became the authorized Latin translation for the Roman Catholic Church.  Erasmus’ Bible became the basis for our first English translations, which then went on to influence popular English versions from the King James to today’s English Standard Version.

In all of these Bibles, there is mounting evidence that texts have been modified to fit into a neo-Platonic framework.  Commands are added regarding women that do not appear in the oldest Greek manuscripts (e.g. Wives submit to your husbands).  The leadership of women is maligned as sinful (c.f. Isaiah 3:12 and 1 Timothy 2:12).  Words translated as “leader” “ruler” “minister” for men are translated as “servant” or “helper” for women.  Headings are added that do not appear in the manuscripts, and that change the meaning of various passages.  Punctuation is added (or not added where it is probably necessary) to obscure or change the meaning of various texts.  Neutral, or in some cases female, pronouns in the Greek manuscripts are all rendered as male.

Due to the overwhelming influence of neo-Platonic philosophy, the Christian faith has suffered immensely.  In some instances, it no longer shares the message that was taught and lived by Jesus and the apostles.  Perhaps most notably, the Bible teaches that sin (evil) is the opposite of love, not the inversion of a neo-Platonic hierarchy.  Instead of following Jesus’ example of love, many churches now focus on the importance of power, control and exclusively male authority.  This is a travesty.

When I attended Bible College, many years ago, I first became aware that my understanding of the Bible was not shared by scholars referred to as “egalitarians.”  At the time, I wasn’t aware that my own theology had been influenced by a neo-Platonic framework.  It was then that I embarked upon a journey of many decades to try to understand why some Christians did not understand the Bible as I did.

What I discovered shook me to the core.  I’ve summarized it here today, honestly because I just felt I had to “get it out” so to speak.  It’s painful for me to see the ongoing influence of this philosophy on the church, on the gospel message, on our understanding of God, and on women in particular.

Someone might say that I haven’t supported my conclusions with any references.  Well, as far as this post goes, that’s correct.  This is from the heart.

I do, however, detail all of the reference material from Plato’s original works, to those of Origen, Plotinus, Augustine, Jerome, Erasmus, Calvin and today’s neo-Calvinist leaders in my book entitled, “A God I’d Like to Meet: Separating the Love of God from Harmful Traditional Beliefs.”

As much as possible, I reference primary source material from all of these philosophers, theologians, commentators and translators.  I investigate manuscript evidence found in the oldest available copies of the biblical text.  I also draw from the work of historians dating back as far as the 2nd century B.C..

Anyone who wants to read more about this, or investigate the references, or learn what we can do now as a church to restore the message of Jesus and his earliest followers is welcome and encouraged to read it.  I pray that it helps make a difference.  We must remove the lenses of neo-Platonic philosophy from our understanding of the life and teachings of Jesus Christ.

http://www.amazon.com/God-Like-Meet-Separating-Traditional-ebook/dp/B00NP913IG/ref=tmm_kin_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&sr=8-1&qid=1426016996

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Plato’s Spectacles: How Greek Philosophy has Distorted our View of Women in the Bible

The following presentation was shared at Emmanuel Bible College on March 3, 2015:

Plato’s Spectacles

To view the presentation, please click on the link above.  You will need Powerpoint (or a compatible program) installed on your computer to view the file.

If you would like Bob to share this or similar information at your church, group or organization, please feel free to send him a message on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/bob.edwards.letmypeoplego.

May God use this information to enlighten and encourage!

P.S. For those who do not have Powerpoint, I have added this PDF version of the presentation.  You can view it using Acrobat reader.  Hope that helps!

Plato’s Spectacles

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“It Was the Will of God”: Why this statement may not offer comfort in the face of suffering.

I’ve been a psychotherapist for nearly two decades now, and I’ve met with many people experiencing loss and/or trauma. It is often the case that well-meaning Christians attempt to offer comfort by describing some horrible experience as “the will of God.”

Typically, hardships allegedly from God are portrayed as one of three things:

1. Punishment for sin,
2. A lesson the sufferer needs to learn,
3. A necessary (though evil) means to a noble end.

Some of the tragedies I have worked to address, with the help of God, have included things like child abduction, sexual abuse, murder and ethnic-cleansing (genocide). Though it staggers the mind to consider it, some individuals have been impacted by all of these events in one life-time. Needless to say, they are in pain.

Which of the three explanations sometimes offered by well-meaning Christians affords them any comfort?

“Your child was abducted because you have sinned.”
“You were raped because God is trying to teach you a lesson.”
“God caused your spouse to be murdered to accomplish something noble, down the road.”

It’s a rhetorical question.

When presented with these explanations for tragedy, those suffering trauma or loss may feel that they can identify with the following words of Job:

“How helpful you all are to the powerless! Isn’t it wonderful that you aid the weak arm! How wonderful that you counsel the witless, always ready with a helpful suggestion! But who are you talking to, with these words of wisdom? Whose spirit spoke from your mouth?” (Job 26:2-4, TIB)

Whose spirit indeed?

Many who have read the Bible will be aware that Job is the story of a man who undergoes tremendous hardship, and is then approached by friends who attempt to comfort him. The comfort they offer is very similar to the three explanations often supplied by well-meaning Christians. Job did not receive this well.

Neither did God.

These are the words of God to Job’s would-be helpers:

“I am very angry with you and your two friends,” YHWH said, for not speaking truthfully about me as Job, my faithful one, did… I will accept Job’s prayer and not punish you as your folly deserves, for you have not spoken truthfully about me as Job, my faithful one, did” (Job 42:7-8, TIB).

The words of Job’s comforters wounded their friend; they also offended God because they did not speak truthfully about Him.

If this form of comfort wounds those we mean to help and simultaneously misrepresents the character of God, why do people offer it?

I can’t answer this question for everyone. I can, however, share what motivated a well-known theologian who attributed everything, including human sin (abduction, rape, murder), to the “will of God.” His name was John Calvin, and this is what he said,

“In short, Augustine everywhere teaches, that if anything is left to fortune the world moves at random… For which reason, he also excludes the contingency which depends on human will, maintaining a little further on in clearer terms, that no cause must be sought for but the will of God” (Institutes of the Christian Religion; as cited in Edwards, A God I’d Like to Meet, 2014, pp. 32-33).

John Calvin lived in a tumultuous time. In his own words, he tells us that the one thing he could not tolerate was the notion that “the world moves at random.” He evidently took comfort in the notion that everything on earth (including human decisions) are actually caused by “the will of God.” To paraphrase his worldview, one might say, “Despite all of the chaos, war, pestilence and plague we all experience or bear witness to, everything is proceeding exactly as God has planned.”

Is this a comforting thought? To John Calvin, it was. Apparently, he successfully addressed his fear of uncertainty by embracing a worldview commonly known as “determinism.” He is not the only influential theologian to take this approach. He indicates that he derived his worldview from the work of a 4th century A.D. Roman Catholic Bishop, named Augustine.

Augustine expressed the same deterministic worldview in the following terms:

“And so it comes to pass that the will of God is the first and the highest cause of all corporeal appearances and motions. For nothing is done visibly or sensibly, unless either by command or permission from the interior palace, invisible and intelligible, of the supreme Governor…” (De Trinity lib. 3 cap. 4; as cited in Edwards, 2014, p. 34).

In the eyes of these two influential theologians—one Catholic and the other Protestant—eliminating the notion that terrible things happen at random was paramount. To achieve this end, they also believed they had to eliminate the very notion of human choice. God, therefore, was made directly responsible for everything that takes place on earth, including human sin.

But isn’t this worldview “biblical”? Augustine believed that it was, and Calvin believed Augustine. Today, many pastors, priests and other church leaders continue to believe Augustine and Calvin. What they may not realize, however, is that Augustine did not derive this worldview from the Bible. He found it in what he referred to as the books of the “Platonists”:

“Simplicianus congratulated me that I had not fallen upon the writings of other philosophers, which were full of fallacies and deceit, ‘after the beggarly elements of this world,’ whereas in the Platonists, at every turn, the pathway led to belief in God and his Word” (Augustine’s Confessions, Book VIII, Chapter II; as cited in Edwards, 2014, p. 21).

One of the most popular Platonists read in Augustine’s day was a philosopher named Plotinus. In his work entitled, “The Enneads,” he shares a vision of a deterministic world:

“Evil has its origin in the All [the Source of all things], and without it, the All is incomplete. Are the evils in the universe necessary because it is of later origin than the Higher Sphere? Perhaps rather because without evil the All would be incomplete. For most or even all forms of evil serve the Universe–much as the poisonous snake has its use–though in most cases their function is unknown. Vice itself has many useful sides: it brings about much that is beautiful, in artistic creations for example, and it stirs us to thoughtful living, not allowing us to drowse in security” (as cited in Edwards, 2014, pp. 35-36).

According to Plotinus’ evil had its origin in the All [God] because even “vice” (e.g. human sin) “has many useful sides.” This is the source of Augustine and Calvin’s deterministic worldview. It is the source of the idea that God causes human sin: to punish us, to teach us, or to later accomplish some greater good.

If someone already believes in determinism, he or she is likely to interpret the Bible through these lenses. Bible passages that can be interpreted in many different ways will be hijacked by determinism. Present-day Calvinist, John Piper, for example uses the following passage to support a deterministic worldview:

“Proverbs 19:21: Many are the plans in a man’s heart, but it is the LORD’s purpose that prevails” (Man’s Sin and God’s Sovereignty, Christian Post article; as cited in Edwards, 2014, p. 26).

Does this verse say that God causes everything that takes place on earth, including human sin? Frankly, no it does not. We’re simply told that whatever human beings may plan, it is God’s purpose that will ultimately prevail. The gospel of John tells us, for example, that God sent Jesus to take away the sins of the world (1:29). The gospel of Matthew tells us that King Herod would have prevented this from happening by slaughtering all of the boys in Bethlehem that were two years old or younger, including Jesus (2:16). God intervened, however, by warning Joseph in a dream to take Jesus and flee to Egypt (Matthew 2:13-15).

In this story, did God cause Herod to slaughter innocent children? Of course not. What a horrendous thought! In fact, the Bible tells us clearly to never hold God responsible for human sin:

“When tempted, no one should say, ‘God is tempting me.’ For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death. Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers and sisters. Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows” (James 1:13-17).

In the story of Jesus’ preservation from Herod, did God take control of human choices? No. He simply warned Joseph in a dream to flee to Egypt, and Joseph—wisely—obeyed. “Many are the plans in a man’s heart, but it is the LORD’s purpose that prevails.” This passage has nothing to say in support of determinism, despite how it is sometimes interpreted.

When we encounter human suffering, I think we can expect to feel uncomfortable. In our discomfort, we may wish to reassure ourselves and others—as did Augustine and Calvin—that “everything is directly under God’s control.” In doing this, however, we may—like Job’s comforters—add insult to someone else’s profound injury. We may also be confusing a non-biblical philosophy (i.e. determinism) with the word of God. I pray that we will pause and reflect on other approaches to the problem of pain that is caused by human sin.

“See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ” (Colossians 2:8).

Some personal thoughts:

When I have experienced trauma or loss (and I have experienced both) I have found the following Bible passages comforting:

“And I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you for ever” (John 14:16).

“I will never leave you or forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5).

“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for You are with me” (Psalm 23:4).

“Cast your cares on the LORD and he will sustain you” (Psalm 55:22).

“In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans” (Romans 8:26).

“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). Please note, this does not say that God “causes” all things; the Bible actually never says this. Determinism is only inferred by people who already believe in a deterministic worldview.

“In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

“Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted” (Matthew 5:4).

“He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Revelation 21:4).

“God is love” (1 John 4:16).

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Confusing “Equality” with “Sameness”: Clearing up a Complementarian Misconception

Time after time, I’ve read complementarian literature that seems to misunderstand what is meant by biblical equality for women and men. The heart of the misunderstanding appears to be a misperception of what is meant by the term “equality.” Very often, the complementarian literature I’m familiar with assumes that egalitarians are advocating for the “sameness” of men and women in the church, rather than their equality. For example, in her book entitled, “The Feminist Mistake,” Mary A. Kassian uses the terms “equality” and “sameness” interchangeably (p. 37). She also assumes, wrongly, that Christian egalitarians want women to be “just like men” (p. 38).

Sameness suggests that there are really no differences between men and women. Numerous complementarian books, journal articles and blogs expend vast amounts of time and energy refuting this notion of “sameness.” They believe they are refuting biblical equality, but they are wrong.

Equality is not blind to the rather obvious biological differences between men and women. Equality, however, does not view biological differentiation as a basis for subjection. In other words, it does not believe that authority in human relationships should be designated solely on the basis of a person’s sex at birth.

Theologically, the association of “maleness” with leadership characteristics has a long history. For example, Clement of Alexandria (150-215 A.D.) declared, “Man is stronger and purer since his is uncastrated and has a beard. Women are weak, passive, castrated and immature… His beard, then is the badge of a man and shows him unmistakably to be a man. It is older than Eve and is a symbol of the stronger nature. By God’s decree, hairiness is one of man’s conspicuous qualities, and, at that, is distributed over his whole body. For what is hairy is by nature drier and warmer than what is bare; therefore, the male is hairier and more warm-blooded than the female; the uncastrated, than the castrated; the mature, than the immature” (Trombley, 2003, Who Said Women Can’t Teach, p. 234).

Clement argues that beards, penises and body hair are a sign of maturity, strength and purity. Theologians throughout church history have concluded that these qualities make men—and not women—fit candidates for leadership. Clement’s notion that beards, body hair and male genitalia relate to maturity demonstrates a profoundly androcentric and erroneous worldview. He wrongly evaluates a woman’s maturity in terms of issues related to male puberty.

Is it really true that men are more intellectually, emotionally or spiritually mature than women? If you asked St. Augustine, the influential 4th century Roman Catholic Bishop, he would have answered, “yes.” He believed that women must be subject to men because “the weaker brain must serve the stronger” (Questions on the Heptateuch, Book I, § 153).

After immersing himself in Augustine’s commentaries, prominent Protestant reformer John Calvin came to similar conclusions about a woman’s “nature” and how it rendered her unfit for leadership: “[A woman] is formed to obey; for gunaikokratia (the government of women) has always been regarded by all wise persons as a monstrous thing; and, therefore, so to speak, it will be a mingling of heaven and earth, if women usurp the right to teach” (Commentary on Timothy, Titus and Philemon). In the eyes of Calvin, women were created to “obey” not lead. He also viewed obedience and teaching as mutually exclusive activities.  In his commentary on Genesis, he referred to female subordination as “the order of nature.”

Today, complementarians continue to associate “masculinity” with “leadership” and “femininity” with “submission.” One of the founders of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, for example, said that women may not exercise authority because of their “characteristic weaknesses” (Piper, desiringgod.org, “affirming the goodness of manhood and womanhood in all of life”). Another complementarian leader expressed this viewpoint more bluntly, stating simply that women are more gullible and more easily deceived than men (Driscoll, as cited at the wartburgwatch.com, “danger flee churches which teach that women are easily deceived”).

Is it accurate to equate masculinity with leadership? No, I don’t believe so. This is really just a mental association resulting from gender-socialization. I don’t believe this particular association is evidence-based, though it has a long history in church tradition.

Do many women want to share decision-making authority in their churches and homes? Yes. Some of these women are also gifted to teach the Bible and/or preach the gospel of salvation. Does this mean that they want to be “just like men?” Only if we assume that maturity, leadership, teaching and preaching are distinctly “male” characteristics…and they are not. Equality is not sameness. Women can be distinctly female and–of course–spiritually mature; they can share decision-making authority with men, teach the Bible and preach the gospel: beards, body hair and male genitals are not required.

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Male Shame, and the Projection of Blame onto Women

When Adam ate fruit from the forbidden tree in the Garden of Eden, he knowingly disobeyed God’s command (Romans 12:5-14). Prior to this event, Adam knew no shame (Genesis 2:25). After his decision to sin, however, his feelings changed dramatically (Genesis 3:10).

When questioned by God about his actions, Adam’s first words were, “The woman you gave to be with me — she gave me fruit from the tree…” (Genesis 3:12). Why does Adam focus attention on his wife, when he is questioned about his own actions? Is this the first example in biblical history of attempting to defend against shame by projecting blame onto someone else? It may well be.

Even if this inference about Adam’s response to God is not an exact reflection of his motives, theologians throughout church history have projected blame for the fall of humanity onto women more overtly:

Tertullian: 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. (https://equalityinchrist.wordpress.com/2014/05/13/must-women-keep-silent-1-corinthians-14-the-apostle-paul-and-the-traditions-of-men/)

St. Jerome: And that the lot of a woman might not seem a hard one, [because of God] reducing her to the condition of a slave to her husband, the Apostle recalls the ancient law and goes back to the first example: that Adam was first made, then the woman out of his rib; and that the Devil could not seduce Adam, but did seduce Eve; and that after displeasing God she was immediately subjected to the man, and began to turn to her husband; and he points out that she who was once tied with the bonds of marriage and was reduced to the condition of Eve, might blot out the old transgression by the procreation of children: provided, however, that she bring up the children themselves in the faith and love of Christ, and in sanctification and chastity… (http://www.womenpriests.org/traditio/jerome.asp#undone)

According to both of these influential theologians, Adam (the man) was too formidable a target for the devil to tempt. They tell us that Satan had to work through humanity’s “weak link”—woman–to achieve his goal.

According to this incredibly sexist interpretation of the Genesis account, Adam (the man) is portrayed as a victim of female influence. It seems as though the commentators hoped to believe, “There’s no shame in being victimized by irresistible feminine wiles.”[1] Jerome even offers a solution to the alleged problem of a woman’s influence: women must be reduced to the condition of slaves.[2] Specifically, he tells us that female sin will be blotted out when women submit to men in marriage, bear them children (i.e. have sex with them), and raise their offspring “in sanctification and chastity.”

Male shame is transformed into the blame of women, which leads to their subjugation: Historically, this is the foundation for every doctrinal tradition that subjects women to the authority of men in the church or in the home.

Why were some of the early church fathers so inclined to defend against shame by projecting blame onto women? Answering this question requires at least a brief exploration of what theologians like St. Jerome were so deeply ashamed of. Put bluntly, Jerome was ashamed of simply being human. More specifically, he was ashamed of the passionate emotions that are part of human nature. This shame stems from the fact that Jerome was an ascetic. This means that he had embraced a philosophy that said the mind and the spirit are good, whereas the body and the emotions are less good. When he combined this worldview with the Bible, he came to the conclusion that his passionate emotions (especially sexual feelings) needed to be put to death (i.e. mortified). His self had to be annihilated—crucified with Christ. He felt especially successful in his pursuit of this understanding of spirituality, when he was not in the company of a woman he found attractive. If he did notice a woman that he found attractive, and if he did experience the involuntary arousal of sexual feelings, he believed he had already sinned. It seems as though the acknowledgement and healthy regulation of sexual emotions was not a concept he was familiar with. Jerome and other like-minded theologians seem to make no distinction between impulse and action.

At one point in his pursuit of ascetic spirituality, St Jerome spent three years as a desert hermit, hoping to isolate himself from environmental cues that might stimulate “concupiscence” (i.e. sinful desire). The following passage from a book entitled, “After Eve” describes this experience:

Jerome spent about three years in the desert, studying, mortifying the flesh, learning Hebrew to prevent his mind being filled with erotic fantasies. (He tells us that his mind boiled with lust in the desert and he was much troubled with visions of dancing-girls.) To his disappointment he found that the desert-hermits were less saintly than he had expected, and, not by any means for the first time, or indeed the last, he quarrelled with those around him, and gave up desert-life in disgust. (http://www.womenpriests.org/theology/barr.asp)

After this experience, Jerome returned to Rome where at last he found himself reasonably comfortable in the company of women who also embraced an ascetic lifestyle. They too denied their emotions in general (sexuality in particular) and went to great lengths to conceal their femininity, lest they allegedly cause men (like Jerome) to stumble:

Jerome became deeply involved in the religious life of Rome, the Pope took a great interest in his work, he started on a new translation of the Bible ([the Latin] Vulgate) and, very important for our subject, he became very friendly with a group of well-born Roman matrons. These ladies had already become very interested in asceticism, and when Jerome, with his own recent desert experience, arrived and became known to them, they hailed him with joy, and their delight was reciprocated. They met frequently for prayer and Bible study. They exchanged letters constantly on matters of Biblical exegesis and meanings of Hebrew words. This intimacy gave rise to prurient gossip. There were accusations of sexual impropriety, which Jerome hotly denied, and there was indignation that these ladies, with their high social standing, their beautiful villas on the Aventine Hill, were following a regime which involved dressing in rags, never bathing, and indeed carrying mortification of the flesh to such lengths that one young woman died…

…Jerome had a horror of women’s sexuality. How is his attachment to [these women] and their devotion to him reconcilable with his anti-feminist views? I think he succeeded in seeing these women, with their saintliness, their love of Scripture, their ready acceptance of asceticism, as being no longer women, but men. Let me quote a letter he wrote to Lucinius, a wealthy Spanish nobleman who has made a vow with his wife that they will live the rest of their married lives in complete continence [sexual abstinence]: “You have with you one who was once your partner in the flesh, but is now your partner in the spirit, once your wife but now your sister, once a woman but now a man, once an inferior but now an equal.” (http://www.womenpriests.org/theology/barr.asp)

When Jerome experienced passionate emotion, he felt ashamed. He believed that such feelings were an indication that he had failed to successfully “mortify the flesh” through faith in Christ’s crucifixion. To help maintain the illusion that he had succeeded at annihilating his emotional self, he spent time in the company of women who denied their femininity and their sexuality. They dressed in rags and did not bathe. Other ascetic theologians from this era (e.g. St. Augustine) insisted that women be veiled in public to avoid causing men to experience “sinful” desire. ( Edwards, A God I’d Like to Meet, 2014)

In Adam’s case, moral failure evidently led to feelings of guilt and shame. He apparently dealt with these feelings by focusing his attention on Eve’s role in humanity’s fall, rather than his own.

In Jerome’s case, the experience of passionate emotion was wrongly perceived as sin. Evidently he felt guilty and ashamed for simply being human. He also failed to distinguish between feeling and action, temptation and sin. He apparently dealt with his feelings by avoiding women who did not conceal their femininity from him with filth and rags.

In the case of both Adam and Jerome, responsibility for male guilt and shame is projected onto women. Historically, this has led to the subjugation of women, and—ironically–the disempowerment of men. Women have been compelled by the church to hide their femininity, lest they cause men to stumble. This line of thinking suggests that men cannot find a woman attractive, and yet choose not to engage in sexually sinful behavior. Men, it would seem, have no choice but to sin in the presence of female beauty. Some complementarian church leaders have told me this is exactly what they believe. This is why some faith communities insist that women clothe themselves in loose fitting attire from head to toe. This is why some religious traditions insist that a woman cover her hair.  In some faith communities the sight of a woman’s hair is perceived as an irresistible sexual cue.  There is relevance here to the all-too-prevalent practice of blaming female victims for sexual assault.

Is projecting blame onto women for male guilt and shame God’s plan for his church? No, I don’t believe it is. In fact, I strongly believe that the status quo we find in many churches is the opposite of what God would have us do.

In the case of Jerome, rather than spending time only with women who wore rags and refused to bathe, I think he needed to encounter the truth that human emotions are not evil. I believe he needed to recognize that impulse and action are not the same thing; there is an important difference between temptation and sin (Hebrews 4:15). Rather than compelling women to deny their femininity, Jerome needed to be set free from a lie—the human philosophy of asceticism: “Beware lest anyone cheat you through philosophy and empty deceit, according to the tradition of men, according to the basic principles of the world, and not according to Christ” (Colossians 2:8).

I also believe that God has provided a solution to guilt and shame other than the projection of blame onto others. John’s gospel tells us that Jesus Christ came to take away the sins of the world (John 1:29). To experience forgiveness, however, we must first acknowledge when we have done wrong (1 John 1:18). Then we can turn from sin to God, with faith that Jesus took our sins to the cross and nailed them there (Colossians 2:14). This is how we can experience real forgiveness from God.

Further, Jesus’ coming shows us that shame is essentially a lie. Shame tells us that if we have made mistakes we are worthless failures that cannot be loved. The truth of the matter is that God does not see us this way. God loves us, even though we are not perfect. Jesus died for us on the cross to take our sins away, while we were yet his enemies (Romans 5:10). God sees us as people who are worth saving. He sees that we are worth loving. I recognize that some theologians dispute this, claiming that God can’t help loving us, because he is love and we are all just loathsome worms. This is the very theological tradition, however, that springs from St. Jerome’s blending of the gospel with the human philosophy of asceticism. I do not believe it is an accurate interpretation of God’s love, made known to us in the person of Jesus Christ.

Ascetic philosophy would have us believe that passionate emotion is evil. It would have us make no distinction between impulse and action, temptation and sin. Human defense mechanisms would have men deny responsibility for their own behavior and project blame for any wrong-doing—be it actual or merely perceived—onto women. Continuing in this direction will continue to oppress women and disempower men.

I don’t believe this is God’s redemptive plan for humanity. Rather, I believe God would have us trust in the love that has been revealed to us in Christ, accept ourselves as God’s dearly loved children, and love our neighbour as ourselves by saying “no” to impulses that would lead us to engage in hurtful behaviour. I believe this is the promise and hope of the “gospel” message, and that we can continue to grow in this direction, with the help of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:14-25). Surely this is a better solution to male shame than blaming and subjugating women.

End Notes

[1]In the Middle Ages, this belief had horrific consequences. Men caught in sexual sin would accuse women of irresistibly enticing them, with the aid of the Devil, through witchcraft. Many women were subsequently put to death. Shockingly, women who challenge patriarchal traditions in the church today are still accused of witchcraft, or of having a “Jezebel spirit.”  Have patriarchal church leaders forgotten that similar accusations were made against Jesus (i.e. that he had a demon) when he challenged the religious traditions of his day?

[2]Yet the Bible tells us that in Christ there is neither male nor female, slave nor free (Galatians 3:28).

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How Prejudice Can Distort the Bible

What does it look like when the Bible is taken out of context, and seen through the eyes of prejudice…against men?

It might look something like this:

We can see in the Genesis account that God’s creation progresses from those things that are more basic to those that are more complex and beautiful. Thus we see God begins with creating such basic things as light and dark, land and water. He then creates plants and basic animal life. Finally, he progresses to humanity, beginning with the man and finishing with the pinnacle of his creative work: woman. (Genesis 1:1-27)

The notion that God’s creation progresses from the lesser to the greater is affirmed in the writing of the apostle Paul. Specifically, he refers to the first man as “the glory of God,” whereas he refers to the woman as the glory of this glory. By this the apostle indicates that the woman is twice as glorious as the male! (1 Corinthians 11:7)

That women are the pinnacle of God’s creation is also demonstrated in God’s choosing a woman, without the involvement of a man, to give birth to the Savior. “And of Jesus Christ, the birth was thus: For his mother Mary having been betrothed to Joseph, before their coming together she was found to have conceived from the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 1:18). It is clear that a man would not have been worthy to play a role in God’s redemptive plan, because it was the man—not the woman—through whom sin and death came to the whole world: “through the disobedience of the one man, the many were constituted sinners” (Romans 5:19).

We see, in fact, the cowardly and unbelieving nature of men (in general) by looking at the story of Barak and Deborah. Barak, a man, was unwilling to obey the Lord’s command to go into battle. He would only go if accompanied by Deborah. Deborah, a woman, had faith and courage. Therefore she enjoyed the Lord’s blessing and was appointed a leader over Israel. (Judges 4:4-8)

The fearful and unbelieving nature of men is further demonstrated in the New Testament, when Jesus entrusted the news of his resurrection exclusively to women. They bore witness to our Lord’s victory over sin and death. The men who first received the good news–even though they had spent much time in the company of the Lord, and had seen many miracles–did not believe: “When they came back from the tomb, they told all these things to the Eleven and to all the others. It was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the others with them who told this to the apostles. But they did not believe the women” (Luke 24:9-11).

What have I done to achieve such a monumental distortion of the Bible’s message? I simply began reading with the underlying assumption that men are inferior to women, and that Adam (because of his inferiority) was ultimately responsible for humanity’s fall. This assumption has reframed each and every text I’ve cited, removing it from its original context, and distorting its meaning.

Throughout church history, the same process has been used to distort the meaning of the Bible as it relates to women. The following influential theologians began reading the Bible with the basic assumption that women are somehow inferior to men and that they are ultimately to blame for humanity’s fall:

Origen: “It is not proper for a woman to speak in church, however admirable or holy what she says may be, merely because it comes from female lips.”

Tertullian: “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.”

Augustine: “It is the natural order among people that women serve their husbands and children their parents, because the justice of this lies in (the principle that) the lesser serves the greater…. This is the natural justice that the weaker brain serve the stronger. This therefore is the evident justice in the relationships between slaves and their masters, that they who excel in reason, excel in power.”

Calvin: “Augustine is so wholly with me, that if I wished to write a confession of my faith, I could do so with all fullness and satisfaction to myself out of his writings.”

and

“Let the woman be satisfied with her state of subjection, and not take it amiss that she is made inferior to the more distinguished sex.” (https://equalityinchrist.wordpress.com/2014/05/13/must-women-keep-silent-1-corinthians-14-the-apostle-paul-and-the-traditions-of-men/)

Today, the interpretive framework laid down by Origen, Tertullian, Augustine and John Calvin continues to lift the biblical text out of its original context, and make sense of it as if there is something inherently wrong with women. One prominent complementarian, for example, explains that women may not share leadership authority in the church or the home because of their “characteristic weaknesses” (http://www.desiringgod.org/sermons/affirming-the-goodness-of-manhood-and-womanhood-in-all-of-life). Another has said that women are simply more gullible and more easily deceived than men (http://www.dennyburk.com/mark-driscoll-on-women-in-ministry-2/). Ignoring the context of various biblical passages, these and other like-minded leaders in the church, infer a doctrine of male authority and female subordination.

As a result of reading the Bible through the lenses of systemic prejudice, women have been given lists of what they may not do in the church or in the home. Essentially, they may not lead or teach. In other words, they are prohibited from sharing decision-making authority and/or teaching the Bible…because of alleged characteristic weaknesses.

This article is an attempt to highlight how prejudice can affect our interpretation of the Bible, and how this kind of prejudice still affects women in the church today. It is also a call for humble reflection, and—I hope—repentance. My prayer is that the church would lay aside the distorting lenses of prejudice against women once and for all, in Jesus name.

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