In past centuries, men who were hailed as Church Fathers, Patriarchs, Doctors, and even Saints boldly expressed their view that females are inferior and loathsome; and they explained at length why God shared their perspective. Lest we fall into the conservative trap of thinking that the past was somehow better than the nasty messes we face today, it’s worth pondering some of the lovely tidbits that the Church has thought fit to preserve and promote in the centuries since Christianity was founded. Here are some of the most savory. They come from three waves of religious leaders: “Fathers” of the Catholic Church, Protestant Reformers, and American patriarchs who inherited the mantle of both.
Woman is a temple built over a sewer. –Tertullian, “the father of Latin Christianity” (c160-225)
[Women’s] very consciousness of their own nature must evoke feelings of shame.–Saint Clement of Alexandria, Christian theologian (c150-215): Pedagogues II, 33, 2
Nor are the women to smear their faces with the ensnaring devices of wily cunning. . . The Instructor [Christ] orders them to go forth “in becoming apparel, and adorn themselves with shamefacedness and sobriety, subject to their own husbands.” –Saint Clement of Alexandria, Christian theologian (c150-215): The Instructor
In pain shall you bring forth children, woman, and you shall turn to your husband and he shall rule over you. And do you not know that you are Eve? God’s sentence hangs still over all your sex and His punishment weighs down upon you. You are the devil’s gateway; you are she who first violated the forbidden tree and broke the law of God. It was you who coaxed your way around him whom the devil had not the force to attack. With what ease you shattered that image of God: Man! Because of the death you merited, even the Son of God had to die… Woman, you are the gate to hell. –Tertullian, “the father of Latin Christianity” (c160-225): On the Apparel of Women, chapter
Men have broad and large chests, and small narrow hips, and more understanding than women, who have but small and narrow breasts, and broad hips, to the end they should remain at home, sit still, keep house, and bear and bring up children. –Martin Luther, Reformer (1483-1546), Table Talk
Thus the woman, who had perversely exceeded her proper bounds, is forced back to her own position. She had, indeed, previously been subject to her husband, but that was a liberal and gentle subjection; now, however, she is cast into servitude. –John Calvin, Reformer (1509-1564): Commentary on Genesis, p. 172.
The Holiness of God is not evidenced in women when they are brash, brassy, boisterous, brazen, head-strong, strong-willed, loud-mouthed, overly-talkative, having to have the last word, challenging, controlling, manipulative, critical, conceited, arrogant, aggressive, assertive, strident, interruptive, undisciplined, insubordinate, disruptive, dominating, domineering, or clamoring for power. Rather, women accept God’s holy order and character by being humbly and unobtrusively respectful and receptive in functional subordination to God, church leadership, and husbands. –James Fowler: Women in the Church, 1999.
Why has the main current of Christianity produced a steady diet of misogyny for over 2000 years? The answer may lay partly in human biology and culture. But it also lies in the Iron Age texts of the Bible itself. The Judeo-Christian tradition of building up men by tearing down women goes all the way back to the most ancient parts of the biblical collection, to the opening pages of Genesis, and continues unabated through the New Testament.
The only thing I endorse about these ideas is that Christianity is a patriarchal religion. Many of these quotes I outright disagree with, but I do not back down from affirming that Christianity is incompatible with feminism. I stick to a very precise understanding of the relationship between men and women that the Apostle Paul offered to guide us:
22 Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord.23 For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.
25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her 26 to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, 27 and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. 28 In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church— 30 for we are members of his body.31 “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” 32 This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. 33 However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.