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SIDIC Periodical IX - 1976/3
Women in Jewish and Christian Tradition (Pages 08 - 13)

Other articles from this issue | Version in English | Version in French

Christian tradition on women
Sandra M. Schneiders


Over a year ago I agreed to write an article on The place or role of woman in Christian tradition . Now, a year later, it seems clear that such an article would amount to a superficial summation of the enormous amount of serious work on the subject which is readily available to the interested reader.' Consequently, this article will focus on another aspect of the problem of women and Christian tradition, narrower in scope, but of increasing pastoral urgency, namely, What has Christian tradition done to biblical revelation about women and what effect has this had on women's religious experience? After treating these two topics I would like to make some scripturally-based suggestions concerning what can and must be done about the resultant situation within the Christian (and specifically the Roman Catholic) community. This situation is becoming pastorally critical as increasing numbers of Christian women abandon the Church which has rejected them.

In speaking of Christian tradition , I am not using the term in its technical sense to denote the Spirit of Truth handed over (paredoken) to the Church by Jesus (cf. Jn. 19:30) and the activity within the Church of that same Spirit who leads the Christian community, over the course of history, into all truth (cf. Jn. 16:13). I am using it to denote the human traditions of the Christian community, the ideas, attitudes and behaviors which have developed in the community and which have no essential relation to divine revelation even though the community as a whole has accepted them within a religious context and as based on Scripture.

Some religious traditions have, in fact, developed in diametrical opposition to revelation, e.g., the condoning of slavery and the promotion of anti-Semitism. One of the truly diabolical characteristics of such false religious traditions is that they usually appeal to Scripture for their justification and eventually become a false norm for the interpretation of Scripture in their own deformed image. This is precisely what drew from Jesus that condemnation of his own co-religionists: You have nullified the word of God on account of your traditions (Mt. 15:6). It is such traditions concerning women which we must now examine. It seems to me that Christian tradition has deformed revelation, as that revelation touches women, in two major areas: 1) revelation about God; 2) revelation about humanity.


Without ever explicitly making such a statement (which would be outrageous even to the theologically unsophisticated), Christian tradition has implicitly interpreted biblical revelation as affirming that God is a male being.2 This obviously false position is not without some basis in Scripture. As in most cases of erroneous traditions, the error springs from the unavoidable process of reading the Scriptures through the available cultural glasses which leads, almost inevitably, to the ignoring of certain biblical data and the misinterpretation of other data.

In the case before us what is ignored is the clear affirmation of both the Hebrew and the Christian Testaments that God is spirit and, as such, totally transcends the category of sex which is rooted in materiality. The God of Hebrew revelation is categorical about the divine transcendence. God's self-affirmation is I am (Ex. 3:15). God's judgments are confusion for the human mind because, precisely, God is not a human being. In 1 Samuel 16:7 God says plainly that it is not as man ('adam) that God sees and judges, for God sees the heart. 'Adam is the Hebrew for human being , equivalent to the generic English term man . Job declares that God is not a man ('ish) like myself (Job 9:32). "Ish is the Hebrew for male human being . The citations could be multiplied, but what is perfectly clear from the Hebrew Bible is that God is not even man in the generic sense, and even less in the particular sense of male . In the New Testament Jesus clearly affirms that God is spirit (Jn. 4:24). The God of Christian revelation is no less transcendent than the God of the Hebrew Scriptures. Sex is a totally irrelevant category for God.

Nevertheless, because of the very nature of the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures as the literature of an historical community, such massive theological statements are relatively few in number and, in their very abstractness, less impressive and memorable than much of the figurative language of the Scriptures. This quantitative and emotional difference says nothing at all about the relative theological importance of the various statements. However, it says a great deal about what is spontaneously grasped by the readers of Scripture and about what those readers will identify with at the level of felt meaning. This is the root of the consistent misinterpretation of the biblical data on women.

What is misinterpreted is the anthropomorphic language about God which was spontaneous, and rather adequately expressive, in a patriarchal society. God, who is correctly considered to be a personal being, is denoted by the personal pronouns which, in a male-dominated society, are the logical ones: he, him, his. God, who is correctly considered to be supreme, is assigned the titles and roles which, in a male-dominated society, are logical images of supremacy: king, father, husband, etc. Both the Hebrew and the Christian Scriptures are the literature of patriarchal societies, even though male dominance was radically challenged and,in principle, abolished by Christ. Unfortunately, but understandably, the masculine anthropomorphic language exercised, and still exercises, such influence over its users that they find it almost impossible to think of or feel about God except as a male human being. Rather than relativizing the male , we tend to relativize the human being , imagining God as a kind of superman . The super negates, or at least relativizes, humanness >> as an implicit predicate of God. But the man leaves intact the implicit predication of maleness .

The overwhelming quantity and affective quality of the masculine anthropomorphic language is simply not adequately balanced by the few clear examples of feminine figurative language for God in both the Hebrew and the Christian Testaments. God is presented in the Hebrew Scriptures as a mother whose overflowing tenderness towards Israel, her child, is everlasting (cf. Is. 49:15; 66:13) and Israel as a little child in relation to God the mother (cf. Ps. 131). In the New Testament Jesus presents himself in his transcendent salvific role not only as a shepherd seeking his lost sheep but also as a woman seeking her lost coin (Lk. 15:8-10), and as a mother bird desiring to gather her young under her wings (Lk. 13:34). Such feminine figurative language does not, of course, mean that God is female any more than the masculine language means that God is male. But it does mean that, in itself, feminine language is just as apt for talking about God as is masculine language.

The fact is that a male dominated culture used feminine language for God very infrequently and, consequently, the Bible's figurative language for God is overwhelmingly masculine. This has unfortunate consequences in a religious society which has begun to repudiate male dominance, not only because such dominance is becoming culturally disfunctional but also because it is coming to be seen as an institutionalization of that existential sinfulness which expresses itself in oppression.

However, even though we must admit that the Bible as it has been and is used by human beings does supply a basis for thinking of God as male, the Bible in what it actually says about God does not justify such a patently erroneous judgment. What we have chosen to ignore we must begin to emphasize, namely, that God is neither male nor female. And what we have habitually misinterpreted we must begin to interpret more correctly. Figurative language about God is simply not to be taken literally. Just as God is not a rock or a fortress, God is not a king or a shepherd. And because the Bible uses more masculine than feminine imagery for God does not mean that we must maintain that culturally determined proportion. This brings us to our second, and in many ways more important, topic.


The most disastrous consequence of the traditional misinterpretation of biblical revelation which leads to an implicit affirmation that God is male is what this implies about humanity, namely, that the male mode of being human is somehow normative. If God is male, to be male is to be more like God. Therefore, males are superior to females not only humanly but especially religiously. Now, obviously, since God is not male there is simply no basis for this line of reasoning. Nevertheless, like the traditional deformation of revelation which leads to the conception of God as male, the traditional misuse of revelation to foster the idea of male superiority and the practice of male supremacy is likewise based on the ignoring of certain biblical data and the misinterpretation of other data.

In this case also, what is ignored are certain lapidary theological statements which, in their very abstractness, often fail to capture the imagination. The Hebrew Testament, written many centuries before Christ and even longer before the twentieth century raising of consciousness on human equality, is amazing in its clear dogmatic affirmation of the perfect equality of man and woman. Direct creations of God, they constitute together God's image in this world:

And God said: Let us make humankind ('adam not 'ish) in our image... and God created the human being in his own image; in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them (Gen. 1:26-27).

One wonders, in the face of such an unambiguous and non-figurative text, how Augustine arrived at his judgment that

the woman herself alone is not the image of God; whereas the man alone is the image of God as fully and completely as when the woman is joined with him.3

The answer, of course, lies in the fact that Augustine, genius though he was, interpreted Scripture in terms of his own culturally conditioned experience. His culture considered women as complete human beings (and consequently as images of God) only when they were joined to their husbands, for a woman had only one significant role, namely maternity, in his society and that role required a man. Men, on the contrary, were considered complete human beings in themselves. Augustine was simply wrong in his interpretation of Scripture on this point and his interpretation, regardless of the enormous influence he has had on subsequent generations of Christians, does not make void the clear scriptural teaching on the perfect equality of man and woman, nor on the source of that equality in the divine creative will.

The New Testament teaching on this subject is equally unambiguous. In Christian revelation the ultimate gauge of human worth is one's relationship in obedient faith to Jesus. The early Church, in admitting women to Baptism and therefore to full Christian identity and mission, from the very beginning and apparently without discussion, was merely institutionalizing Jesus' own policy of admitting women to full discipleship during his lifetime (cf. Lk. 8:1-3; Jn. 11:5), accepting their apostolic activity as valid (cf. Jn. 4:39-42), and setting no sexual qualifications for discipleship (cf. Lk. 9:23-27) or apostolic ministry (cf. Lk. 10:1-16). In the teaching of Jesus all physical qualifications, race, color, sex, family ties, are strictly irrelevant in the religious sphere. Obedient faith alone establishes Christian identity (Mt. 12:46-50; Mk. 3:31-35; Lk. 8:19-21; Jn. 15:14). Consequently Paul's explicit dogmatic statement: There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Gal. 3:28) represents the authentic development within the framework of the Christian mystery of that which was established by God in creation, namely, the complete natural and religious equality of man and woman.

Not only is this clear teaching on the equality of man and woman as creatures and as Christians usually ignored or under-emphasized in Christian tradition, but much on this subject in the Hebrew and the Christian Scriptures is misinterpreted. This misinterpretation has two major forms: reading biblical events wrongly in terms of cultural prejudices; taking for theological statements what are simply cultural formulations.

The event in the Hebrew Bible which has been most consistently and disastrously misread by Christian tradition is surely that of the sin of our first parents. St. John Chrysostom's conclusion: the woman taught once, and ruined all. On this account ... let her not teach... the whole female race transgressed 4 is unfortunately not the fantastic whim of a Church Father who was slightly unbalanced in regard to sexual matters. It is typical of a long tradition that began in the Fathers and was canonized in Church law in such texts as the following:

Adam was beguiled by Eve, not she by him. It is right that he whom woman led into wrongdoing should have her under his direction, so that he may not fail a second time through female levity.5

One is tempted to ask why the Genesis account never seemed to suggest to men that man should get himself under his own direction, as befits a human being with free will, so as not to fail again through his own levity. The human tendency to blame one's sins on someone else is not unique to men. But men's projection onto women of their own lack of control, especially in the sexual sphere, is a peculiarly virulent form of the common malady and pervades the entire history of the double standard as well as the presentation of woman as the seductress . The members of the weaker sex have always been considered much stronger, morally, than men who are simply helpless in the face of temptation and, therefore, more to be pitied (or admired!) than blamed when they transgress. The woman, however, is to be held fully and strictly responsible and to be punished severely and mercilessly. The double standard in morality is not based on the Genesis account. Rather, the Genesis account is used to rationalize in religious terms the culturally conditioned practice of a male dominated society which could not condone promiscuity or unfaithfulness but did not wish to penalize very heavily the male transgressors. By holding the women responsible (despite the evident physical fact that a woman cannot sin sexually with a man without his consent and cooperation!) the society could state its opposition to socially disfunctional behavior without seriously hampering male pleasure. In other words, the Genesis account of the fall which quite clearly presents both man and woman as free and responsible agents who chose, individually, to disobey God and who bear equal responsibility before the Lord for their sins, has been consistently misread by tradition under the influence of a cultural tendency to make women bear major responsibility for morality in societies dominated by men.

Certain New Testament episodes have been traditionally misread in the same vein. The story of the woman taken in adultery (Jn. 7:53-8:11)8 is a case in point. Not only has it rarely occurred to the commentators to note that if the woman was actually caught in the act of adultery o a man was caught at the same time and in the same sin, but also one of the major points of the story is usually passed over in favor of long meditation on the terrible sin of the woman and Jesus' incredible mercy in forgiving her even such a heinous offense. Everyone in the story, with the exception of Jesus, is forcefully presented as sinner. Only one of the sinners, the woman, is forgiven. She alone among those present is unhypocritically repentant in her silent appeal for forgiveness. Her accusers are convicted by Jesus as the lecherous old men who attempted to seduce Suzanna were convicted by Daniel (Dan. 13). They slink off in their self-righteous hardness of heart, admitting nothing and seeking no pardon. The point of the story is that we are all sinners. We differ only in our capacity to accept forgiveness with humble gratitude. The woman is religiously far superior to the evil men who surrounded her and is presented as a model to all of us, women and men, of the only kind of sanctity available to us, for we are all an adulterous generation .

An even more serious misreading of New Testament texts is the traditional reduction of Mary Magdalene's role as witness to the Paschal mystery and recipient of the first Easter Christophany (Jn. 20:11-18; cf. Mt. 28:9-10 and Mk. 16:9) to a pious anecdote. Despite clear evidence to the contrary the Christophany has been traditionally interpreted as a private or unofficial appearance without apostolic import. This interpretation is not based on the text but is imposed on the text because of the a. priori conviction of a male dominated Church that nothing involving a woman could be apostolically significant.

These two examples are not the only cases of traditional misinterpretation of Gospel material to the detriment of the Bible's genuine revelation that women and men are perfectly equal within the Christian mystery. But they do illustrate the two major areas of this culturally conditioned misinterpretation: morality and ministry.

The second type of misinterpretation mentioned above, namely, taking cultural formulations as dogmatic revelation, is most clearly seen in the traditional use of some Pauline texts. If we leave aside those anti-feminist texts (e.g., 1 Cor. 14:34-35) which are generally recognized by exegetes to be non-Pauline interpolations,' the most serious problem attaches to Ephesians 5:22ff:

Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is head of the wife as Christ is the head of the Church, his body, and is himself its Savior. As the Church is subject to Christ, so let wives also be subject in everything to their husbands.

This text has been traditionally interpreted as a dogmatic statement on the nature of the marriage relationship, as the divine institution of subordination of woman to man in marriage. It is also used to implicitly assimilate the husband to Christ, reinforcing the misconception that maleness is the norm not only of humanity but of Christianity.

The clearest evidence that neither of these traditional interpretations is correct comes from the same epistle, Ephesians 6:5-8, in which Paul urges slaves to be obedient to their masters as to Christ . Human moral development has reached the level where very few Christians of either sex would maintain that slavery is of divine institution. And hopefully no one would consider being a slave-holder as a special assimilation to Christ!

In Paul's society male dominance within marriage was unquestioned and slavery was an accepted institution. Paul, in Ephesians, is not passing judgment on either institution (although he questions the first in Galatians 3:28 and the second in 1 Corinthians 7:21-23). He tries, rather, to suggest how two painful human situations, oppression of woman in marriage and of the slave by the master, can be borne and even sanctified by being accepted in faith and integrated into the oppressed person's Christian experience. He urges the Christian to transform every state of external servitude and oppression into an interior service to Christ: to serve Jesus rather than the external oppressor. And he does not neglect to try to Christianize also the oppressor by reminding him that he also should imitate Christ, exercising authority as Christ did, namely with love and consideration. This is no canonization of either form of authority, that exercised by the husband in marriage or by the master in slavery, much less of its tyrannical abuse. It is an attempt to Christianize already existing, culturally entrenched, hierarchical institutions.

Through these few examples I have tried to illustrate how Christian tradition, by ignoring major theological teachings in both Testaments and by consistently misinterpreting other passages because of cultural a priori's which are foreign to revelation itself, has seriously deformed biblical revelation both about God and about humanity. God has been consistently thought of as a male being; maleness has been made the norm of humanity and Christianity. Woman has been presented as the author of human sinfulness and as particularly morally depraved; as deprived of Christian ministry by the will of Jesus; and as subordinate to man by divine institution.


The effect on the religious experience of woman of this traditional warping of biblical revelation has been deeply damaging. Both by explicit teaching (e.g., that women are intrinsically incapable of priesthood solely because they are female) and by innumerable implicit and non-verbal forms of rejection and degradation (e.g., exclusion from public roles in worship; sacramental subjection and dependence on men; exclusion from participation in decision-making and leadership in the Church; denial of theological education, etc.), Christian women have been taught to think of themselves as essentially alienated from God, unholy by nature, dependent on men for all approach to God. A woman becomes holy to the extent that she approaches masculinity (cf. the collect in the old Roman missal for a woman martyr which praises God for giving masculine virtue even to members of the weaker sex ). Consequently, women have learned to experience their femininity as an obstacle to union with God rather than as a privileged mode of experiencing God. Even the traditional assimilation of women to Mary, the Mother of Jesus, has been a generally negative development. It has been used to idealize women and thus to effectively remove them from participation in the common Christian endeavor, while sacralizing their domestic role which has been the most effective tool of domination by a male society. There have been occasional positive notes in Christian tradition's treatment of women, such as the admission of women to Baptism (largely negated by their exclusion from Orders), the exaltation of monogamy (largely negated by the double moral standard in practice) and the recognition of women's religious life (partly negated by the denial to women religious of all forms of self-determination and their total subjection to the ecclesiastical authority of men). But the overall record of tradition is dismal when one considers the truly sublime teaching of Jesus on discipleship. The only honest judgment that can be made is that the Christian community, on the subject of women, has indeed nullified the word of God on account of [its] traditions .

The crucial question at this point in history, when the consciousness of both men and women Christians is rising rapidly despite (or perhaps because of) Rome's consistent efforts to maintain the subservience of women to men in the Church and the effective exclusion of women from full participation in Christian life, is, What can be done about an admittedly had situation?

The answer, for increasing numbers of women, is to abandon Christianity as a degrading experience. But this is to participate in nullifying revelation by admitting that the erroneous tradition is more important than the truth of God. If it is sinful to bind the Word of God by our traditions it is also wrong to abandon the community of revelation because it is in the iron grip of sinful tradition. The answer, it seems to me, can only lie in the reform of the tradition, in the liberation of revelation from the deforming power of false interpretation.

This is not easy, because, first of all, women are officially excluded (by men) from all positions in the Christian community which could give them a real impact on the institutional life of the Church. This disability is compounded by the fact that Christian women are the victims of that ultimate and most devastating effect of prolonged oppression, the projection of self-hate onto one's co-members in the oppressed class. It is, in large measure, women who consider women unfit for full Christian participation, who wish to be ruled by men, represented by men, and legislated for by men. Under this double handicap of institutional disenfranchisement and sociological crippling how can women participate in the reformation of Christian tradition and have a liberating influence on a culturally imprisoned community consciousness?

It seems to me that the struggle must go on in three spheres. First, in the realm of the spiritual, women must come to grips with the mystery of the cross which Christian participation in a male Church constitutes for them. The suffering that a woman must undergo as she begins to realize what has been and is being done to her in the name of Christ is unimaginable to those who have not experienced it. For the twentieth century Christian woman, there is no way to avoid the spiritual struggle unto death in which she will learn to pray for her brothers who are crucifying her thinking that they are giving glory to God: Father, forgive them for they know not what they do; Lord Jesus, lay not this sin against them . But until this identification with Christ in his salvific death for his persecutors (who we all are) begins to take place, the Christian woman is not equipped to do battle with the institutionalized sin of the Church.

Secondly, in the sphere of felt knowledge, women (and men) must begin to get over the depth conviction, which resists all rational attack, that the traditional position of the Church on women must be true, must be the authentic Christian tradition. Christian tradition on women is no more true or valid than the persistent Christian tradition of anti-Semitism or of rejection of the blacks. Both men and women need to study the passages of Scripture which bear on this question, both to correct the erroneous interpretation and to affirm the genuine teaching of revelation, and to interiorize the truth by prayer and practice. The truth will make us free if we give ourselves to it with enough perseverance and faithful love.

Thirdly, all possible political pressure must be brought to bear from within the Christian community to change the present situation of rejection and oppression to one of full acceptance of women. Prudential judgments will have to be made about the advisability of selective and loyal disobedience. And courageous stands must be taken. The responsible and active participation of men in this struggle for justice and holiness is essential. Just as Christians have no choice but to battle actively against anti-Semitism, and whites to struggle against the oppression of blacks, so men do not have a moral choice about joining their sisters in the struggle for justice in the Church.

Man has indeed disjoined what God has created and redeemed together, and our tradition has nullified the Word of God about himself and about us. In recognizing the sinfulness of the present situation in the Church in regard to women we cannot pretend to be sinless ourselves. We can only choose between the attitude of the repentant adulterous woman before Christ and the attitude of her doubly adulterous oppressors.

Sister Sandra Schneiders i.h.m. has a doctorate in Sacred Theology from the Gregorian University, Rome. She is a faculty member of the Institute of Spirituality and Worship at ,the Jesuit School of Theology, and teaches New Testament and Spirituality in the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California.

1. See, e.g., the 69 page bibliography entitled Woman: A Theological Perspective: Bibliography and Addendum prepared by C.B. Fischer and R. Gatlin (Berkeley, California: Office of Women's Affairs of the Graduate Theological Union, 1975). Further bibliography is available in the special issue of Theological Studies 36 (December 1975) entitled: Woman: New Dimensions.
2. See C. Miller and K. Swift, Women and the Language of Religion , The Christian Century (April 14, 1976) pp. 353-358, for an excellent demonstration of this statement.
3. The text is from Augustine, On the Trinity XII, 7, 10 (P.L. 42, 1003-1004). It is cited on page 142 of an extremely informative historically arranged collection of texts on women entitled Not in God's Image: Women in History, ed. J.O'Faolain and L. Martines (Glasgow: Collins/Fontana, 1974).
4. John Chrysostom, Homilies on the First Epistle to Timothy IX, 1 (P.G. 62, pp. 543-545).
5. Corpus Iuris Canonici I, Pt. II, C. 33, q. 5, c. 18. Cf. also c. 12, 13 and 17! No one today would appeal to this text from Gratian's Decretals but the spirit of these texts is still very much alive as is shown by the fact that, despite repeated requests by women religious, not a single woman has been allowed to participate as a consultor on the committee of consultors to the Pontifical Commission for the Revision of Canon Law which is concerned with the revision of Canon Law concerning Consecrated Life. Although women religious far outnumber men religious, women are allowed to make no official contribution to the law which governs their lives. The official position of the Roman Catholic Church is still that men should determine everything that guides the lives of women.
8. The passage in question is generally recognized by exegetes to be a late interpolation and it has no parallels in the Synoptics. However, as R.E. Brown points out in The Gospel According to John, vol. I [Anchor Bible 29] (Garden City/New York: Doubleday, 1966), pp. 335-336, there is good reason to consider the passage ancient. It could well date from sub-apostolic times.
7. Cf. A. Lemaire, Les ministeres dans l'iglise [Croke et Comprendre] (Paris: Centurion, 1974), pp. 39-41.


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