The Church Does Not Treat Women Well. Why?

While it takes both man and woman to make a baby, for much of human existence only women were physiologically equipped to conceive and carry babies to term. Often it is only when the infants arrived that men joined in their care and upbringing. In any other situation, women, by virtue of their primary role in nurturing and sustaining life, would be pre-eminent in home and society. But in biblical lore that honor would go to men. In the Bible “male headship” is achieved through denigration of women. There is systematic devaluation of the female image that begins early in the origins stories and is relentlessly advanced throughout the Bible.

Some readers might object to my negative assessment of how women are portrayed in the Bible on grounds that the examples provided are subjective and/or insufficient. I will not contest such objections, subjectivity and inadequate representation are concerns with qualitative data analysis. In this article I will strive to minimize these pitfalls.

My larger goal, however, is not merely to point out unfair portrayals. More importantly, I wish to show contexts for the continued marginalization of women in contemporary Christian societies who use biblical stories and examples as a community model. Some of our assumptions about how God relates to women are filtered through a literalistic reading of the text. We should periodically re-examine the Bible, critically, not only to reacquaint ourselves with its foundational role in defining a woman’s role, but also spur us to change outdated perceptions of women.

The poisoning of the female persona begins early in the Bible with how Eve is portrayed. Of the two creation accounts in early Genesis, the second (in chapter 2, which is considered newer), is decidedly patriarchal. In this version man is created first and instructed about his responsibilities towards the created order and limitations in exploring his environment.

It was later, after a vain effort to find him a fitting companion, that God put him to sleep and created the woman from his rib. This story describes a process where Eve seems almost an afterthought. Her presentation lacks the “magic” of conjuring Adam from nothing. Even in the first story, the special approbation of being “made in [God’s] image,” appears aimed principally at man, and somewhat belatedly at his companion. From the very beginning, an implied hierarchy that favors men seems at play.

The next time we meet Eve she is at the scene of rebellion, away from the “protection” of her man, sauntering where angels would not go. This scene, with its implied notion of the woman as original sinner (but for whose “brashness” Eden would still be ours), would forever imprint itself in our collective consciousness. From here onward she, and by extension all women, would carry the burden of being considered unreliable. Every woman’s aspirations would be checked, and their freedoms curtailed, to protect men from corruption.

The Fall narrative in Genesis 3 is both elaborate and skeletal, leaving room for creative minds to fill the void. John Milton’s creativity was unparalleled, and more than any single individual he is responsible for many of the extra-biblical detailing of this scene in Paradise Lost (PL). Sometimes we are surprised when we realize that PL, and not scripture, is the source of what we believed was biblical. In our Adventist context, when we add Ellen G White (EGW) into the mix, we create an overabundance of extra-biblical detail that can overwhelm.

Milton’s additions, however, suggest “playful” artistic indulgence and license with no “I was shown” statements to imbue the text with sacred imprimatur. In the Fall story, the pivotal period was just before the couple separated. Yet the Bible is totally silent on their deliberations, a silence Milton exploits adroitly. Just before they part company leading to Eve’s fateful encounter with the serpent, Milton has them debating their “condition”. He paints a picture of a hemmed-in Eve feeling confined in the ever-present company of Adam. She wants some “me-time” and argues for a freer range:

If this be our condition, thus to dwell

In narrow circuit straiten’d by a foe...

How are we happy, still in fear of harm?

A few lines later she adds:

And what is faith, love, virtue, unassay’d

Alone without exterior help sustain’d?

Let us not then suspect our happy state

Left so imperfect by the Maker wise,

As not secure to single or combin’d.

Frail is our happiness, if this be so,

And Eden were no Eden thus expos’d. (Book IX, 322-342)

Adam would succumb to Eve’s logic and entreaties, agreeing with her that “solitude sometimes is best society.” And in so doing would let her go to her fall. What is relevant about this depiction of Eve in this and many extra-biblical details by Milton is that it lays the groundwork for Eve to take the fall. Milton “makes” her petulant, restless and blame-worthy.

Although Milton faults Eve for the separation, there is gentleness, even kindness, to his finger-pointing. Not so with EGW, who had PL in her library and might be indebted to Milton for parts of her Fall narrative in Patriarchs and Prophets (PP). White’s additions provide an interpretation of Eve’s mindset at the crucial pre-separation period. In the EGW account Eve ignored heaven’s warning of consequences by separating from Adam. In White’s telling:

The angels had cautioned Eve to beware of separating herself from her husband while occupied in their daily labor in the garden; with him she would be in less danger of temptation than if she were alone. But absolved in her pleasing task, she unconsciously wandered from his side.

So far so good. She had innocently strayed from him and couldn’t be faulted for a momentary inattention to her surroundings. But what she does next, or fails to do on becoming aware of her state, damns her. White continues:

On perceiving that she was alone, she felt an apprehension of danger, but dismissed her fears, deciding that she had sufficient wisdom and strength to discern evil and to withstand it. Unmindful of the angels’ caution, she soon found herself gazing with mingled curiosity and admiration upon the forbidden tree. The fruit was very beautiful, and she questioned with herself why God had withheld it from them. (p. 53.5)

It is one thing to insist on a cause of action not knowing its repercussions, but something entirely different if one chooses to take that action in spite of divine counsel. In PP, EGW has Eve choosing the latter. Eve was warned. By angels. Her initial reaction on realizing that she was alone was apprehension, fear and vulnerability. But she ignored prior counsel and present inner feelings in favor of self-reliance and personal wisdom. It is the choices she made when she realized she was compromised that make her unsympathetic. We blame her because she ignored, according to EGW, angelic counsel.

But let us willingly suspend our disbelief for a moment and pretend that God did not write or dictate the sequences of the Fall narrative as it appears in the Bible (or EGW). Let us pretend that the writer, be he Moses or post-exilic priest(s), wrote the events in firm belief that God was speaking to him/them. Why did the writer choose Eve, and not Adam, for this role? Would our view of Eve, and thus women, be different – and more positive – if Adam had strayed from Eve, been tempted and failed? In this scenario the problem is not with the text as we have it, but our belief in God’s authorship.

The punishment for losing their “innocence” was swift, and Eve’s cut most deeply. She would create life, but childbirth pain would be a reminder of her assertiveness and sin. While both Adam and Eve would suffer physical pain, Eve’s would include the psychic – the guilt. Why? Because she sinned more?

From here on, identified as culprit, the woman would be “justifiably” put outside the communal camp. She is pariah and no one will plead her case. Her treatment is just punishment for one who has cost humanity so dearly. Consequently when God entered into a covenant with Abraham to make the Israelites his “people,” he would seal the covenant with male circumcision, a ritual which effectively excludes women.

Circumcision served only a symbolic function with no inherent salvific value. And by sealing the “contract” with the cutting of a body part that is exclusive to men, half the population were rendered spectators. Why didn’t God use an inclusive bodily symbol, like the ear, nose or toe for this ritual? Or, if it must be circumcision, why not circumcise both male and female? And why would no one plead on behalf of the excluded half? Abraham was not shy in asking God for favors, so why did he not view this exclusionary act as discriminatory?

By the time the Ten Commandments come along the concept of women being man’s property was clearly established. As such, women are grouped with a man’s servants, oxen and asses, in the tenth commandment, which other men are warned from coveting. And it is only in the context of owned property that men could sell their daughters, not sons, into sexual slavery; or discard their wives, not wives their husbands, like worn out clothing when they were no longer desirable “in their eyes.” And still because they were property women couldn’t represent themselves. First their fathers, and later their husbands, had that responsibility (Numb 30:1-8). Most married women in Christian societies continue to adopt their husband’s family name, honoring a practice dating back to when women were considered property.

Moses would institute a war policy (Numb 31) in which non-virgin captives (how was this even determined?) would be killed but female virgins would be ritually purified (Deut 21:10-14) and given to their male captors as sexual booty. The punishment for a rapist was “dire”: he must buy his victim for 50 shekels to keep her “because she has been humbled” (Deut 22:28-28). Polygamy was virtually the norm in the Old Testament, but polyandry was prohibited. And why is there a law of jealousy for the husband “when feelings of jealousy come over him because [he] suspects his wife” (Numb 5:11-31) and none for the husband? Is it because women are incapable of jealousy? Or they are not allowed the privilege of being jealous because they are property? Whatever the reason, the horrendous poison test to prove a woman’s truthfulness – if she died after drinking the potion, she was guilty, if she survived, innocent – is an ingenious way to rid one of a wife. But what does this tell us about the god who instituted it?

If you’ve wondered why it took so long for women to gain the right to vote in the United States it is partly because the Bible provided the template of women’s unimportance. Women, like children, in Bible times were too insignificant to count. That’s why the gospel writers point out, after Jesus fed the multitudes, that women and children were excluded. That’s also why we insist that Jacob had 12 children. Dinah was a woman, but she wasn’t counted.

Women’s poor image was settled by the time we get to Paul. We are numbed into accepting and even defending Paul’s notion that women, as a class, should be silent in church or cover their head. Whether his orders were aimed narrowly at a local Corinthian congregation is immaterial. That he would single out women to silence, because a few were unruly, is the outrage. Because Paul would not have ordered the same for men and gotten away with it.

If we then wonder why, in the twenty-first century, there are still church leaders in reputable denominations who “sincerely” believe that there are limitations to what God would do with women in ministry, it’s because they point to scripture as validation of belief. They believe that God directly superintended the creation of scripture, with little or no human influences, let alone manipulations, and are reluctant to criticize its failings for fear they might be criticizing God himself.

But the Bible is not a dictation from God. How we understand revelation impacts how we relate to biblical flaws. And even though we often deny that the Bible is verbally inspired, in reality we relate to it as though it were. If God is not behind the horrific treatment of women in the Bible, some of which I outlined in this article, then humans are. If humans, then we should hold a mirror to our faces and denounce the indefensible. It is only by repudiating these abusive laws that we are freed to redress their wrongs and bask in the joy of the other parts of scripture that elevates God and us.

Matthew Quartey is a transplanted Ghanaian who now lives in and calls the Adventist ghetto of Berrien Springs, Michigan, home. Previous Spectrum columns by Matthew Quartey can be found at: http://spectrummagazine.org/author/matthew-quartey.

Image Credit: Unsplash.com

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/9689
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Excellent background for contrasting how Christ treated women in this cultural context. Is this article set-up for a Part 2?

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As usually, Matthew Quartey delivered an excellent and rich article. I agree with Harrpa, that it deserves the “Part 2.” :+1: :+1:

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Now let someone do an essay on how Jesus treated women, at the well, at the Cross, at Simons house, the woman who touched The Garment Of Jesus, Mary’s anointing, then the scene on Sunday morning. I had a mother whose first born didn’t thrive and I came along with gusto. It took me awhile to understand. But I praise such devotion.

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QUARTEY supplies a splendid dissection of the biblical background of Adventism’s miserable misogyny, otherwise known as the women’s ordination issue.

Regrettably, the hateful, hurtful, heinous, heretical “ headship “ dogma. permeates our church hierarchy

The Old Testament is rancid and and replete with hateful, heavy handed male hegemony and pathetic, paternalistic, patronizing patriarchy.

This miserable misogyny is compounded by Paul’s malicious diatribes against the female sex, in the New Testament, thus permeating all of Scripture with an anti woman bias.

It is a wonder why any self respecting woman would want to occupy Christian pews when they have been demoted to second class, not only in Biblical Times but throughout the Christian Era.

Fortunately, some groups, notably the Episcopalians, have liberated themselves from this medieval morass of misogyny, and treat their women as equals.

BISHOP, Katherine Jefferts Schori, presiding bishop over the entire Episcopalian Church, 2006-2015, is exemplary as to how to overcome blatant Biblical bias against the female sex.

TW would canonize EGW to sainthood in a heartbeat, if he had papal powers, but our church’s prophet, Adventism’s “ Virgin Mary “ is the only SDA female on a pedestal— all others languish in subterranean sexist, sub basements.

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Please if you are going to tell us to get away from literalistic reading of the text. At least literally read the text. Adam and Eve and the tree has nothing…zero about Eve leaving the “protection” of her man! Notice he was “with her” Genesis 3:6 NIV “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.”

So why do I point this out in relation to your theme of women not treated well…because much is placed upon very subjective reading of the text. Probably very rarely is it actually taken all that literally. Literalness is so very limiting whereas subjectivity can take you almost anywhere. only limited by your imagination!

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Yes Ron, as (sections of) your comment implies, reading/interpretation of Scripture is
contingent on the hermeneutic(s) employed, whether these are Matthew Quartey’s,
yours, mine or those of others.
We should also keep in mind - as has been pointed out on this site several times - that
each hermeneutic is a child of its historical time; not to mention that the last thing that
fish discover is water.

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A powerful article…thank-you for this.

"But the Bible is not a dictation from God. How we understand revelation impacts how we relate to biblical flaws."

More please…

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What is “missing” in the Genesis accounts is the context of time. The passages we have give no time references. How long after the creation story did the fall occur? How long after Eve tried the fruit did she give it to Adam? Was he standing right beside her as she’s plucked and ate the fruit? If he was, why didn’t he stop her? In the absence of this context we only have our imagination to fill in the gaps (interpret the text).

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Perhaps we should understand that the fruit from the tree of “good & evil” has penetrated everything–even prophets that speak in God’s behalf. Culture and its norms appear to be spread throughout Scriptures, as the words of God. As a Adventist purest, I wish every word of Scripture was without flaw (as Psalms 1 states)! These accounts, in this narrative, tells us that God is less concerned with human “perfection,” since the transcript of his words have an underpinning of cultural norms of the times.

There are some areas that Scriptures rise above the clutter of cultural. They picture a God of “lovingkindness & tender mercies” (Ps 103). They plainly tell us what God wants is to “do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God.” The idea of living with humility–effectively undermines male dominance. Added to this, it tells us that we should never be dogmatic about Biblical teachings–because not everything we read reflects God’s “will and testimony.”

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No time given so a literal reading would say that it was immediately after the incident. Now the assumption that Adam would have stopped her if he was with her is in fact a very sexist idea, again not one found in the text if you take it literally. But if you stick all this extra stuff in there and it can be very patriarchal Which is pretty much what Paul does with the story, but then again he is not taking it literally. The more I think on it the less I can actually see that anyone takes any substantial portion of a Bible story literally. They may take segments literally but rarely the whole account.

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Yes, it is sexist, and an over reach beyond what is written. Adam and Eve, being equals would probably have been equally beguiled by the serpent if Adam was present.

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When one reads the Psalms one finds Two Ideas –

  1. The difficulty of Finding God and then attempting to Understand God.
  2. The difficulty of Living WITH God. He, being Spirit, changes too much
    to “pin down”. God has TOO much Fun that humans cannot understand.
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Ah, if we would only adopt western culture as the ethical norm, all would be well.

I looked up how many view pornagraphy with its objectification of women:

In terms of basic results, they found that 73 percent of women and 98 percent of men reported internet porn use in the last six months, for a total of 85 percent of respondents. For porn use within the last week, the numbers were lower: 80 percent of men and 26 percent of women.

I think there might be a bigger problem in the west than is realized.

So what compelled you into looking up porn stats of all things?

And what is your argument? Treating women poorly in the Bible is ok because doing so was normative in biblical cultures? Or that westerners are equally guilty of abusive practices against women and therefore they dare not criticize the abuse? Should selling our daughters for others’ sexual indulgence or using women as war booty be ever condoned because a given culture normalized it? What am I missing, Allen?

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Matt –
Alan DID NOT say in his statistical study HOW MANY were RELIGIOUS
and HOW MANY classified themselves as NON-Religious.
Naturally many Non-Religious would feel comfortable allowing themselves
to engage in activities that the Religious would not.
Although we do know that many “Religious” do also engage in it some. But
more DO NOT than DO.
But what does that have to do with CHURCH POLICIES not addressing the
Equal Status of Women AND Men before God as Paul tells us in Galatians 3:28.
“We are no longer Jews or Greeks or slaves or free or even merely men or women.
We are all the same – we are Christians. We are one in Jesus Christ.”
There is no “caste system” in True Christianity.
Perhaps the SDA church does “lip service” to Gal. 3:28 and that is all.
Does NOT put it into practice as being the “Role Model” for the World, as
proclaimed by the Church – the Remnant Church. No spot or wrinkle,
promoting “perfection”.

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You and most here feel that western views on women are the standard and enlightened, that is, for example, that WO is a moral obligation. That is a western view. The third world does not agree with that, and voted it down.

My point was that the west has its own problems with how it thinks about women and how it treats them.

The Bible shows the horror of men’s selfishness and their use of power over the weak. Western views improve on some of this, while practicing, in private, the same principle, and espousing a superior attitude over those who differ with them, such as on WO.

I might add, I was astounded at the prevalence of this practice. Ninety-eight percent over 6 months?! Indeed a corrupt and evil generation.

The story of Adam and Eve is so insightful that it has penetrated the cultures of the whole world. An excellent book on Gen. 2 and 3 is The Trial of Innocence, a small tome on these two chapters that discusses the Jahwehist’s skill (the author adheres to the documentary hypothesis rather than Moses’ authorship. It doesn’t matter, his thinking is still good).

The story has been taken two ways, that Adam was there (the word for “with” means “at ones elbow”) or that Eve had wandered from Adam’s side. I think either can be argued from the text.

The irony of the story is that Eve, at the tree, does all the talking, and Adam is completely silent! Why?

God did not speak to Eve about the tree. At least there is nothing said in the story about it. She had to get the information about it from Adam, to whom God spoke directly. Even at the end of the day, when God walks in the garden, he calls the man, not the woman. This seems to indicate that God saw him as the head of the pair. He created him first, and made him responsible for them both.

In other words, he failed as the responsible member of the pair.

In Romans, Paul places the responsibility for the fall on Adam (Romans 5), but in 2 Timothy, the woman is deceived. He thus does not single out one as totally responsible. Eve was deceived, but Adam went into sin with open eyes.

The story is quite nuanced, however. Adan seems an absent caretaker, following Eve around like a little puppy. We know some men like that, besotted by their lady friends…

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There is sufficient information to get the broad picture of what happened. Yet there are sufficient gaps in he detail to allow anybody to read into the story their own interpretation. The nterpretation is not the key. The broad picture is what matters as that is what gives context to the story of salvation.

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Another observation–from archaeologists I’ve known. While the Bible was written by men (mostly, as far as we know) there is evidence in some Middle Eastern countries that women had more power than we realize. Even today, women may be the decision makers, but men are the “public face” and have to consult with the matriarch during negotiations. This puts a different spin on stories such as Sarah making the decision about Hagar and Abigail and David. Abigail may have needed a man for the public face of her empire, and obviously let her first husband have too much power, but at the crucial moment, she took charge and defused the situation. Again, we need to understand the cultural context before we judge too harshly.

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