Christianity and Women

The Bible

Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but [they are commanded] to be under obedience, as also saith the law. And if they will learn anything, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church.  (1 Corinthians 34-35)

I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the
husband is the head of his wife, and God is the head of Christ. Any man who
prays or prophesies with something on his head disgraces his head, but any
woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled
disgraces her head—it is one and the same thing as having her head shaved. For
if a woman will not veil herself, then she should cut off her hair; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or to be shaved, she should wear a
veil. For a man ought not to have his head veiled, since he is the image
and reflection of God; but woman is the reflection of man. Indeed, man was not
made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for the sake of
woman, but woman for the sake of man. (1 Corinthians 11)

“Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord,” (Ephesians v 22)

I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deaconof the church in Cenchreae. I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of his people and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been the benefactor of many people, including me.  (Romans 16: 1-2)

When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it.  (Genesis 3:6)

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Eve giving Adam the apple

“Slaves, submit yourselves to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the cruel.” (1 Peter ii, 18)

If a man is caught in the act of raping a young woman who is not engaged, he must pay fifty pieces of silver to her father. Then he must marry the young woman because he violated her, and he will never be allowed to divorce her. (Deuteronomy 22: 28-29)

Again, the LORD spoke to Moses, saying,“Speak to the sons of Israel and say to them, ‘When a man makes a difficult vow, he shall be valued according to your valuation of persons belonging to the LORD.‘If your valuation is of the male from twenty years even to sixty years old, then your valuation shall be fifty shekels of silver, after the shekel of the sanctuary.‘Or if it is a female, then your valuation shall be thirty shekels.‘If it be from five years even to twenty years old then your valuation for the male shall be twenty shekels and for the female ten shekels.‘But if they are from a month even up to five years old, then your valuation shall be five shekels of silver for the male, and for the female your valuation shall be three shekels of silver.‘If they are from sixty years old and upward, if it is a male, then your valuation shall be fifteen shekels, and for the female ten shekels.‘But if he is poorer than your valuation, then he shall be placed before the priest and the priest shall value him; according to the means of the one who vowed, the priest shall value him. (Leviticus 28:1-8)

Later key figures in the development of Christianity

“God created Adam master and lord of living creatures, but Eve spoilt all, when she persuaded him to set himself above God’s will. ‘Tis you women, with your tricks and artifices, that lead men into error.”  (Martin Luther)

“Even though they grow weary and wear themselves out with child- bearing, it does not matter; let them go on bearing children till they die, that is what they are there for.” (Martin Luther)

[Luther talking specifically about witches here]  “I should have no compassion on these witches; I should burn them all.” (Martin Luther)

“The word and works of God is quite clear, that women were made either to be wives or prostitutes.” (Martin Luther)

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.”  (Saint Augustine)

‘the serpent, which represents the enticement to disobedience to God and the preference for selfish desires, first approached Eve, because as a woman she had less rationality and self-control and was closer to the ‘lower’ or female part of the soul…[Adam eating the apple was] ‘an act of kindly companionship, lest she be left alone outside paradise’ (Saint Augustine)


In 1 Corinthians… Paul explains that women should be veiled in church to signal their subordination to men because “the head of every man is Christ, and the head of a woman is her husband”, and that “women should beep silence in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law says”.  Paul’s statements exemplify a pattern in Christianity of all varieties.  On the one hand, egalitarian statements are backed up in practice by equal access for both sexes to the church’s key rituals and sacraments, scriptures, and the promise of salvation.  But on the other hand the egalitarian emphasis is contradicted by a symbolic framework that elevates the male over the female, and by organisational arrangements that make masculine domination a reality in church life.  Theological statements on the position of women form down the centuries testify not only to the assumption that it is men who have the authority to define women, but to the precautions that have been taken to ensure that women do not claim too much real equality with men – in this life at least.  (Linda Woodhead – Professor Lancaster, Cambridge)

Though the Christian God is sometimes said to be sexless or “above gender”, both the language and the images used to depict him are overwhelmingly masculine… He is often depicted by way of the symbols of the highest masculine authority:  throne, crown, sceptre, robes, beard.  “He” is Father and Son, King, Judge, Lord and Master…. A masculine bias is also evidence in Christian understandings and representations of “man” (humanity)… Adam is created first and Eve is taken form his side… Eve succumbed to sin before Adam…  The idea of a natural connection between masculinity and divinity is reinforced by a male priesthood ….  The image of God as father played a particularly important role in shaping Christian life and society… All of which makes it easy to explain the attraction of Christianity to men simply in terms of self-interest.  Christianity benefits men by setting male self-identity on the strongest possible foundation:  the image of man is reflected back from God himself.  Men also benefit form the way in which the Christian symbolic framework helps the male sex secure a dominant place in society as a whole.  (Linda Woodhead – Professor Lancaster, Cambridge)

Since the dawn of history every civilisation had prescribed severe laws against at least some kinds of sexual immorality.  The oldest surviving legal codes (c 2100 -1700 BCE), draw up by the kings of Babylon, made adultery punishable by death, and most other near eastern and classical cultures also treated it as a serious offence: this was the view taken by the Assyrians, the ancient Egyptians, the Jews, the Greeks, and, to some extent, the romans.  The main concern of such laws was usually to uphold the honour and property right of fathers, husbands, and higher-status groups. The same outlook underpinned the justice of the Germanic tribes that settled across western Europe and the British Isles in the final years of the roman empire…  Thus the earliest English law codes, which date form this time, evoke a society where women were bought and sold, and lived constantly under the guardianship of men.  (Faramerz Dabhoiwala – Oxford)

It was in 1854 that Pope Pius IX took the bold step of raising belief in the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary to the status of a formal dogma of the church, that is to say, of making it a belief which is obligatory for all members of the Church to hold, or at any rate all who are in communion with the See of Rome.  It was a bold step because it signalled the Pope’s determined opposition to the anti-religious spirit that was sweeping across Europe at that time.  The mood of the time was liberal, secularist, anti-clerical if not actually anti-Christian, so that the promulgation of this dogma was something like the waving of a red rag in front of a bull and it has often been described as a political rather than a theological act. (John Macquarrie – Professor Oxford)

Goddess worship is partly divine by the desire to challenge the roles for women in the male-dominated religions of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.  It’s not hard to see why the ancient Greek and Roman goddesses provide appealing alternatives to madonnas and whores.  (Helen Morales – Professor California, Cambridge)

Contemporary events

2012 Church of England vote against allowing women to be bishops.  BBC coverage here.

It was not until 1991 that English law formally recognised the concept of rape within marriage.  (Faramerz Dabhoiwala – Oxford)

Even those who are left cold by all forms of goddess worship are likely to have been affected by the death of Diana, Princess of wales, in 1997… both before and after her death, Diana’s story has been told as a myth, and as a myth that knowingly incorporates and plays upon that of her namesake, the Roman goddess Diana.  Diana Spencer was first cast as Cinderella, with her early life in particular narrated as a fairy-tale.  But with her virginity and then her motherhood so publicly emphasised, she was also given the role of the goddess Diana (who had special affinities with both states of womanhood)…. The response to her death was extraordinary by any standards.  She was mourned worldwide with rituals and shrines.  So much so that the Archbishop of York called for an end to the “cult” of Diana: “We should be careful that she is not worshipped.  That worship should be directed to the God who created her”.  (Helen Morales – Professor California, Cambridge)

St Paul’s dislike of women promoted him to discourage sex, and the Neo-Platonists, three centuries later, imported a full-blooded theory of spiritual purity and bodily uncleanness into Christianity, finishing what ST Paul started.  The rest is – unhappy – history.  (A. C. Grayling – Professor Birkbeck, Oxford)

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