Sexism and Christianity: Incompatible or Fundamental

“For the non-religious readers, the idea that Christianity is “fundamentally sexist” might seem self-evident, and hardly in need of any sustained arguments to support this.¹ This post isn’t really for them. Or at least it isn’t entirely for them. I just don’t think many are going to want to devote the time to reading so much about the intricacies of early Christian and Biblical theology on sex and gender; though I dare say that many atheists’ understanding of Christian theology can sometimes rest on assumptions that haven’t really been critically tested.”

That’s how Stewart James Felker, at the Atheology blog begins his post, “Is Christianity Fundamentally Sexist?” Aside from the circularity of the argumentation being used—“I believe that Christianity is sexist and I am going to separate a text from its original historical context to prove that it is”—making such an argument, that sexism is wrong, is also fallacious because the person making the assertion has not provided a meaningful and consistent justification for the claim.

Now, to be fair, the subtitle of the article is, “Women in the Apostle Paul’s Anthropology: the Image of God, Once Removed?” So, by phrasing it as a question, they’re going to pretend to present an argument that seems to be fair and honest, of course, the question is, will it be?

Felker begins the entirety of his article by quoting two sources: a biography of a relatively famous Jewish scholar who is reacting to the teaching of a 16th century Spanish rabbi, and a quote from John P. Meier who is interacting with a Roman Catholic statement written over 40 years ago. Both quotations have questionable relevance to the issue at hand and essentially amount to poisoning the well. The focus of the article is a passage that has caused some measure of confusion over the years, especially in ignorance of the worldview and vocabulary that is being used: that of 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, and the issue of “head coverings”.

The larger context of the passage is orderliness in worship, spanning from 11:2 through the end of chapter 14. It’s depth and relevance makes it a passage that is often attacked because it is one of the most explicit sources for defining key issues of authority and propriety in the church.

The thrust of Felker’s argument is found in this paragraph

[…]I’m not talking about a sort of sexism that might be dismissed as a minor cultural artifact in the world of early Christianity (however problematically it might be so dismissed). I’m talking about one that was deeply ingrained in the anthropology and indeed overarching theology of one of the most important architects of Christianity itself, and as such was transmitted through the Biblical texts and into early Christian tradition more broadly.

Now, I’m glad that he recognizes that Christians recognize that there are certain cultural considerations that have to be taken into consideration when we interact with and interpret the text in order to make application. However, when speaking about “the anthropology and…overarching theology of one the most important architects of Christianity”, we have to ask what informed that theology and what can we use to draw from to accurately identify what it was. I would argue that it’s not a Jewish rabbi removed by fifteen hundred years, rather it is the work of the author himself, judging it for consistency, and operating with meaningful definitions.

The first question is, what is the extent of the Pauline corpus? Is he going to accept the minimalist corpus (which most scholars exclude Ephesians, 1 & 2 Timothy, and Titus), which automatically excludes what is considered to be the most sexist. However, it would include a passage that would define Paul’s consideration of women, especially since the majority of scholars date it prior to the writing of 1 Corinthians.

Second, one would have to prove that there is an inconsistency between the two. That one somehow contradicts the other on a fundamental level. I don’t think that this is the case.

Lastly, we need a functional definition of terms, namely of the word sexism.

Webster’s second definition of the term is,

behavior, conditions, or attitudes that foster stereotypes of social roles based on sex

So, what’s a “stereotype”?

This article defines it as,

“…a fixed, over generalized belief about a particular group or class of people.”

So, it can best be described as a hasty generalization of a group. In other words, a fallacy of logic. This is not to say that people don’t necessarily fall into certain stereotypes, because they often do, or that judgments based upon certain stereotypes are necessarily wrong, but that it is often the result of hindsight that fixes those beliefs. Indeed, many of the problems in society are built upon the assumption and perpetuating of stereotypes.

So, the question is, when it comes to the accusation of sexism, is Paul assuming a stereotype of women, or perpetuating one? If this is not demonstrated, then the argument, aside from any circularity, is necessarily false and can be rejected. Let’s see if Felker can get over the obstacle.

He begins, setting up his argument,

[This] post takes a closer look at what I’ll argue is an unambiguous expression of ontological sexism in the Biblical texts, specifically in what called its paraenetic or hortatory material—one that, in concert with other Biblical texts, has had a profound influence on historic Christian theologies of sex.

Now, as to what ontological sexism is,

[It] identifies ways in which dominant conceptions and practices of knowledge attribution, acquisition, and justification systematically disadvantage women and other subordinated groups…

So, going in, he’s assuming that there’s some kind of disadvantage being perpetrated, and that it is appealed to on a moral level.

He continues,

At the beginning of the 11th chapter …Paul is praising the Corinthians in general terms for their faithfulness in observing his teachings, “just as I passed them on to you,” when he somewhat abruptly shifts gears:…

Well, that’s an assertion that Paul, “abruptly shifts gears”, after quoting v. 3 he continues,

This verse in and of itself has been no small source of contention; but in any case, it serves as something of a programmatic opening for the verses that follow, in which Paul addresses the issue of veiling practices—in particular, the sex/gender difference in wearing head or hair coverings when engaged in religious activities like prayer. Paul suggests that for men to wear a head-covering while praying or “prophesying” is disgraceful, while on the other hand it’s disgraceful for women to not wear a head-covering here; and it’s clear that the latter specifically has to do with women’s hair being exposed.

He links to a Wikipedia article that gives a general overview of veiling practices in the ancient and modern world. However, any such consideration of judging them must proceed from each individual culture’s grounds for wearing the veil. The article remarks that the veil is often used to distinguish married women from single women in a variety of cultures, but sometimes, it even goes deeper than that.

For example, in the ancient near east hair had a direct reference to procreative ability, as discussed in this paper. So, women would grow their hair out, and men would cut their hair short, to reflect this accepted reality. We may consider such beliefs ludicrous, but that’s only because of our scientific knowledge of the world, which is something that they did not have. As the paper notes, much of Paul’s language in his discussion of the veil uses common medical terminology of the time. Paul’s direction has a measure of social propriety attached to it that follows from a clear understanding of the basic biological differences of men and women and how they relate to one another. There’s a greater discussion of this and more resources offered in this podcast. Now, giving Felker the benefit of the doubt, he may not know about this work because it’s only been around for a little more than 10 years.

That fact means that any source of “contention” that necessarily flows from the misunderstanding of Paul’s vocabulary or his starting point are exegetically invalid because they are starting with false assumptions.

Paul’s starting point in chapter 11 has to do with orderliness and everything follows from that. From God, as the originator, through Christ, as the revelation, to man, as creature, and the reflection of that in the image bearers, and that which is kataischynei, translated as “disgraces” or “dishonors” their respective “head”, or authority. All of Paul’s argumentation is to be understood with this in mind.

Felker focuses on vs 7-9, saying,

At the outset, even trying to characterize how scholars have interpreted these verses is somewhat difficult. On one hand, it’s often acknowledged that the import of what Paul suggests here hardly could have been clearer. On the other hand, it’s obvious that in another sense its implications are unclear; or perhaps, from yet another angle—a la the exchange re: Isaac Abravanel that I quoted at the very beginning of this post—that they’re unwanted, which sometimes seems to wrap back around and obfuscate the original interpretation itself.

Again, what does a Jewish rabbi living fifteen hundred years after Paul have to do with Paul’s own argumentation? Nothing. It’s irrelevant to the question. Further, there is no demonstration that there’s any connection.

Felker quotes from a source that is summarizing an argument that implies Paul, “presumes the metaphysical, viz. intrinsic, inferiority of women.” The obvious problem with quoting a source that is quoting a source, is that there is a potential for misrepresentation of the argument of the author. Is the author agreeing with his reference or is he preparing to respond to it. The author says that he intends to confirm the claim of the source but there is a problem: the danger of engaging in circular reasoning. This is especially true if there is no consideration of the source of Paul’s vocabulary in the text: namely that he (Paul) lifts it from medical texts.

There is an interesting parallel in Paul’s language, picked up by Roy Harrisville in the Augsburg Commentary, to the common daily prayer said within Jewish households at the time,

The argument is Jewish, echoed in the morning prayer best known to Gentiles by virtue of its quaintness. The head of the house prays; “Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who hast not made me a woman,”…

Guilty, Felker would most certainly proclaim, but that’s not the whole quote.

…and the woman: “Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who hast made me according to Thy will.”

Interesting, there’s a response in the Jewish tradition. Harrisville continues,

That is why [for the reasons just cited], a woman ought to have a—what?—on her head, because of (for the sake of?) the angels. The verse is an interpreters “cross.” The term used in the Greek… is usually translated “authority.” “The woman should have an authority on her head,” which could be interpreted to mean, “should have on her head the means for exercising power. (p.184)”

Felker seems to catch on to the basis for Paul’s argument, writing,

Paul forges a virtually undeniable link to the first creation narrative of Genesis 1, in which man is made “according to the image and likeness” of God (Genesis 1:26).

Going on to say that there is a subsequent tie to v27 of that chapter, however goes on to say,

If Paul was aware of this verse—as he surely would have been—then how can this be reconciled with what he suggests in 1 Corinthians 11:7, where it appears that Paul might deny that women really were made in the image of God?

That question has a lot of assumptions in it, namely that Paul is making such a denial. V.7 in the ESV reads,

For a man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man.

Felker’s argument, and the argument of many of his citations,seems to be one drawn from silence: since Paul does not explicitly declare woman to be the “image of God”, then Paul doesn’t believe that women are fellow imagers with man. To support this, he turns to a variety of second temple scholarship. But, what if Paul is quoting scripture here?

Now, Felker, and those he cites, recognize that Paul is throwing back to Genesis 1 and 2, especially by mentioning that woman was made from and for man. But is Paul quoting another text when he calls the woman “the glory of man”? There’s a serious problem with regards to proper interpretation of this text and extraction of a meaningful application: Paul’s vocabulary translated “man” and “woman”.

The assumption is that it is referring to the strictly ontological distinction of maleness and femaleness in the terms that are translated “man” and “woman”. Given that one of the problems within the Corinthian church was sexual immorality, and they clearly had problems with marriage, thus establishing the clear clear way that those terms are to be understood, especially given the fact that he quotes from the very creation texts that Jesus himself used to condemn unjustified divorces. If Paul is quoting from Scripture in regards to man, and the relationship of man to woman, and he focused on something that disgraces one and the other before God, it seems logical that Paul would be citing from a text that justifies what he means by the totality of the assertion. Maybe a text like,

An excellent wife is the crown (some translations read “glory”) of her husband,  but she who brings shame is like rottenness in his bones. (Proverbs 12:4, ESV)

What’s really important here is the cultural understanding of hair and its relationship to fertility. As I said, underlining Paul’s argumentation is what has come before: Paul’s vocabulary is medical and he’s dealing with dissension and division in the church. This is seen in his back-handed compliment in v3. What do I mean?

Paul’s nature argument is not limited to merely Genesis 1:26 and 2:22, but must necessarily include the entire content, which includes the command to “be fruitful and multiply (1:28),” that’s why the discussion of hair is relevant. In that culture, the hair of men and women was considered to be directly related to child bearing ability and willingness. In fact, hair was considered to be directly related to the act of conception and is actually referred to by Paul in v15 refers to considering the hair as part of a woman’s reproductive organs. (Yes, it’s absurd, but it was a common and accepted belief.) Troy Martin, whose paper I referred to earlier, in a response to a critique of that paper, writes in his defense,

[…]I would argue that the most persuasive evidence for translating περιβόλαιον as “testicle” is the specific context of 1 Cor 11:15. In this passage, Paul develops an argument from nature about the different functions of long hair in men and women. The context is thus one of physiology and the contrasting body parts of men and women. Paul’s statement that long hair is given by nature to a woman instead of a περιβόλαιον requires a translation of περιβόλαιον that refers to a male body part lacking in a woman but having a function corresponding to her long hair.

Hmmm. So, if that’s the case, then Paul’s entire argument is about presenting oneself with decency in respect to other people. Paul is speaking to wives, not merely women in general, to remind them to be honorable and respectful to their husbands in light of what their hair represented culturally. His not appealing to the imago Dei, in regard to women, is meant to draw attention to the relationship of husband and wife. Ultimately, trying to ascertain any meaningful conclusion about Paul’s about Paul’s anthropology where women are concerned from this text is simply a fool’s errand.

That understanding ultimately undermines any claims of sexism, much less ontological sexism.

Context people, it’s all about the context.

Also, see this news story about an inscription that looks to shed light on the view of women in the early church.


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