John Pavlovitz is a Blogger whose writing I have recently come to enjoy. Last week he had a good post challenging men to take responsibility for their own sexual urges, desires and actions and to stop scapegoating women for the way they look or dress. John is a Christian, but with that post he was writing to a wide audience, addressing a problem that is widespread. I responded that I believe – at least as it pertains to the church – part of the problem is that we have justification for this behavior enshrined in the biblical text. John asked me to give him a more distilled explanation, which I did. But now I am providing him and That reformed Blog Readers with the opposite, an expanded explanation of what I mean when I say that justification for objectification of women is enshrined in our biblical text.
“Is it not monstrous, that while horses, birds, and the rest of the animals, spring and bound from the grass and meadows, rejoicing in ornament that is their own, in mane, and natural color, and varied plumage; woman, as if inferior to the brute creation, should think herself so unlovely as to need foreign, and bought, and painted beauty? Head-dresses and varieties of head-dresses, and elaborate braidings, and infinite modes of dressing the hair, and costly specimens of mirrors, in which they arrange their costume,— hunting after those that, like silly children, are crazy about their figures—are characteristic of women who have lost all sense of shame. If any one were to call these courtesans, he would make no mistake, for they turn their faces into masks. But us the Word enjoins ‘to look not on the things that are seen, but the things that are not seen; for the things that are seen are temporal, but the things that are not seen are eternal'” ~Clement of Alexandria – The Instructor III.II.
Shortly following Clement’s referencing of 1 Timothy 2:17
“Do you know that each of your women is an Eve? The sentence of God – on this sex of yours – lives in this age; the guilt must necessarily live, too. You are the gate of hell; you are the temptation of the forbidden tree. You are the first deserter of the divine law. You are the one who persuaded him who the Devil was not strong enough to attack. All too easily you destroyed the image of God, man. Because of your desert, that is death, even the Son of God had to die.” ~Tertullian – On the Apparel of Women I.I.
Tertullian is Clearly interpreting the creation account through the lens of 1 Timothy 2, and making even more egregious exegetical and hermeneutical leaps than the author of 1 Timothy.
“The woman together with her own husband is the image of God, so that that whole substance may be one image; but when she is referred separately to her quality of help-meet, which regards the woman herself alone, then she is not the image of God; but as regards the man alone, he is the image of God as fully and completely as when the woman too is joined with him in one. As we said of the nature of the human mind, that both in the case when as a whole it contemplates the truth it is the image of God; and in the case when anything is divided from it, and diverted in order to the cognition of temporal things; nevertheless on that side on which it beholds and consults truth, here also it is the image of God, but on that side whereby it is directed to the cognition of the lower things, it is not the image of God. And since it is so much the more formed after the image of God, the more it has extended itself to that which is eternal, and is on that account not to be restrained, so as to withhold and refrain itself from thence; therefore the man ought not to cover his head.” ~ Augustine – City of God XII.VII.
There is all sorts of stuff going on here, including Augustine’s time as a Manichaean and its affect on his thinking. And we ought to have a good deal of historical sympathy whenever we interact with any conversation partners across the span of time. None of these are soulless men, and they all have written plenty of good elsewhere that has fed the souls of both men and women. But once again, the biblical warrant/justification for this teaching, is most clearly spelled out in 1 Timothy 2. Here is the passage in question:
“I desire, then, that in every place the men should pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or argument; also that the women should dress themselves modestly and decently in suitable clothing, not with their hair braided, or with gold, pearls, or expensive clothes, but with good works, as is proper for women who profess reverence for God. Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through childbearing, provided they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty” (1 Timothy 2:8-15).
In this biblical passage, the author of first Timothy (probably a student of Paul, writing in Paul’s name) reads the creation and fall account this way: Eve as an archetype for all women was deceived and thus inherently – even before sin entered – more naïve than Adam. Or woman’s mind divided from man is set on a”cognition of temporal things” as Augustine put it. Because she was made second (and should have stayed that way) through her sin and suffering befall us all. And so a woman should remain silent. They will be saved by bearing children for men and dressing modestly and causing men no more temptation. It is a summation of the old “a woman is either a wife or whore” in religious language. I suspect we don’t touch it much because whether we like to admit it or not, we know that it starkly contradicts Paul’s theology of Adam, especially his Adam/Christ typology in Romans 5. And it is a rather misogynistic, sexist view of womanhood, even if one allows for gender complementarity grounded in the creation story.
I am seriously beginning to doubt that one can be an egalitarian (affirming of women’s equality in the home, the church and the world) and also subscribe to the doctrine of biblical inerrancy (that the Bible is without error or fault in all its teaching). I’m not even sure anymore that one can be a gentle and loving complementarian (one who holds that men and women have different God ordained roles in the home, church and the world) and truly believe in inerrancy. That is a really brutal passage we are asked to affirm as God’s timeless will for humanity. At the very least, one would have to try really hard to convince himself or herself that this text means something other than anything we could glean from a straight forward reading of the text. Which is what many of my well intention fellow egalitarian friends do. They make arguments about the temporal application of this passage to the women in Ephesus who must have been especially obnoxious or sexually provocative or some other thing. Does a contextual situation really warrant making wide, sweeping accusations and generalizations about one half of the world’s population with arguments grounded in the creation narrative so as to imply a timeless teaching?
Sure we can still use a slightly less strong term like infallibility and say things like, “The Bible is infallible in all it intends to teach.” But if you ask me that only adds to the confusion. The Bible we have is so much better, bigger and brighter than to be confined by modern categories of “inerrancy” or “infallibility.” Taken as a whole, the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are indeed the Word of God, and do contain all things necessary to salvation!!!! I absolutely affirm this!!!! The central story is that of the triune God’s love and care and unwillingness to abandon creation. So much so that God the Son becomes incarnate and dwells among us to teach us how to live, to show us how to die to ourselves and to raise us anew to be re-formed, by the power of God’s Spirit into the image and likeness of God’s Son. That’s truly amazing grace!!!
But the Bible is not the “words of God” it is the words of men that God breathed inspiration into. They were inspired. Quite similarly to the way your pastor is inspired when he or she gets up to preach on Sunday morning. Quite the same way he or she is fallible. Just as you and I are fallible. To insist otherwise is
1) To invite others into a pretty disenchanting faith: “Hey we serve a God who used to talk in a more magical way than God does now. But we’ve still got this book.” (Incidentally, I have had just as many Christians tell me that they wish they “lived back in Bible times” when God actually spoke to people and God’s will was easier to discern as I have had tell me they are glad they live in the “period” or “under the covenant” of grace. I will save why I find the latter equally as problematic for another post).
2) And – whether we know it or not – it is also to insist that women are inherently inferior to men and the cause of the worlds ills. It perpetuates misogyny, shaming, scapegoating and a rape-culture. And it will quietly continue to do so unless we look the world and the author of 1 Timothy, and some of our beloved Church Father and contemporary teachers square in the eye and say: Hey 1 Timothy 2:8-15 is not the only word on women in the Bible and it starkly contradicts many other messages about women in the Bible…
- When Paul instructs “any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled disgraces her head” (1Cor 11:5) he is assuming that women will be praying and prophesying in church.
- In Romans 16 Paul asks the Roman church to welcome Phoebe, a deacon of the church at Cenchreae, who was entrusted to deliver Paul’s letter to the Romans. Paul instructs the church there to give to her whatever she requires. In the same chapter of Romans Paul asks the recipients of his letter to greet his friends Priscilla and her husband Aquila who Paul says risked their necks for his life. Still in Romans 16 Paul mentions a woman named Mary and another named Junia, a relative of Paul’s. Paul says she was imprisoned with him, prominent among the apostles, and in Christ before he was. In Philippians 4, Paul mentions women who struggled beside him in the work of the gospel.
- As far as domestic and sexual relationships between men and women Ephesians 5 calls for mutual submission.
- 1 Corinthians 7 offers what Scot McKnight so eloquently called a couple of years back, “the gospel-reshaping denial of authority in the marriage bed.”
And what of that creation and fall account? First of all there are two quite different creation accounts in Genesis. Each teaches us something different about our relationship to God, each other and the world we live in.
In the first creation account, God orders all of the rest of creation into being first and then makes man and woman after the Divine likeness on the sixth and last day of creation. All of this, from the order of events, to God’s repeated refrain “It is God” to the fact that God created humanity male and female at once after the God’s own likeness, tells us something about what it means to be human. We were made for relationship. Made to be caretakers of all God made in those first five days: the land and fish of the sea, and the birds of the air, and all of the animals of the earth. We were made to be in relationship with other human beings. And we were made for relationship with God. No wonder the Psalmist said, “You made human beings a little lower than the Angels; you have clothed us in honor.” We are inherently relational beings, created – at least from a Christian trinitarian reading – by a God rich and overflowing in sociability, who creates inherently relational creatures.
Genesis 2 is different in several ways. There is a peculiar emphasis on dirt throughout the second account of creation. Just a simple count in English yields five uses of the word ground and three references to the land. Human beings are made from the same stuff that the rivers flow through and the trees and plants spring up in. Humanity is instructed to till the ground and tend to it and privileged with naming the other forms of life that God brought forth from it. Humanity’s intimate relationship to God is preserved with a detail not present in the first account: it is the very breath of God that animates the man. The ordering of events is also markedly different in the second creation account. It is in the day that God made the earth and heavens, before God had caused any plants to grow that God forms a man from the dust of the ground. He then places the man in a garden. It is here that God declares it is not good for a man to be alone. So God makes animals and the man names them all. But God determines that for the man there was not found a suitable helper to be his partner. So God makes for the man a help mate. The Hebrew word ezer (עֵ֫זֶר) is a masculine noun and is often used of God in the Hebrew scriptures.
This surely is not meant to belittle the woman or illustrate the she has a divided mind set on more earthly and less divine things (Augustine) and neither is it, in its original Hebrew context, meant to teach that women are somehow inferior to men because the woman was made second (1 Timothy). If this were so and we were going to try our best to literalize and synthesize these accounts, then we might as well suggest that human beings are inferior to the animals according to Genesis 1 or that God actually considered – if but for a time – that something from the animal kingdom might make a suitable partner for a man. Sound silly? Well have you read some of the commentary on this passage lately?
But taken together, these two narratives do paint a spectacularly beautiful picture of creation. But it is far from picturesque. And the Genesis 3 “fall” narrative helps us give voice to that. So what did Eve (Hebrew: חַוָּה Chavvah meaning life) do that was so wrong? The same thing as Adam (Hebrew: אָדָם Adam meaning man; humankind). The same thing we all do. As our archetypal figures they represent us all. The serpent whispered “God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God.” And she ate. And so did the man. There is no indication in the story that Eve called Adam over or ran to him. The implication is that he was standing there all along, equally as culpable.
And the serpent did not lie: Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked… Then the Lord God said, “See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever.”
But neither did God lie as the serpent had implied: The series of pronouncements God makes, pronouncements about enmity between human beings and nature, between men and women, and finally a pronouncement of exile from the garden which God had walked in, all add up to spiritual death. We are cut off from the land, from each other and from God. From community. From reflecting the triune God whose image we are created in.
Our efforts at self-exhalation and self-deification always fail.
And we all do this. All. The. Time. “We all like sheep have gone astray.” We forsake humility, holiness and love of God, true love and care for ourselves and for others in our efforts to become like God in wisdom, power and might. We sacrifice our families, our health, and our own true joy for the all mighty dollar, social status or endless intellectual pursuits. But the Good news, the Gospel, the message of the incarnation is that God sets aside Power and might in order to make us like God in Holiness, humility and love. To remake us into the image and likeness of the Son. There is no place in this new life that we are called to exercise our power, might and dominion over another. Not even if the author of 1 Timothy had some unresolved issues with women. Christ came to proclaim release to the captives and to let the oppressed go free!!!