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The Legitimation of the Abuse of Women in Christianity

The Legitimation of the Abuse of Women in Christianity

by Dr. Mary Ann Rossi -- credits

Published in Feminist Theology 4 (1993) , pp. 57-63 (Sheffield Academic Press); here re-published on the Internet with permission of the author and the publishers (1).

How could it have come about that a religion rooted in equality and mutuality should have been transformed into a man-centered cult with the basic tenet of excluding half of the human race from full personhood? When women are perceived as less than human, the consequence is violent abuse, such as woman battering, a crime that was not even acknowledged in our legal codes as recently as two decades ago, let alone addressed as a significant social problem or as one that must be addressed from the pulpit. I am convinced that the misshapen society resulting today from this Christian mindset is adversely affecting the lives of both women and men who refuse to challenge injustice to all women inherent in Christianity. This injustice stems from the misogynistic assumptions of the Christian teachings derived from Augustine, Aquinas, Gratian, and other founders of Christian precepts grounded in the Aristotelian conviction that females are defective males. This paper will make the connection between these Christian teachings and the acceptance of wife abuse as a private matter, and not open to public debate, and certainly not to acknowledgement from the pulpit.

The crime of battering came to my attention nearly twenty years ago. I was confronted with the problem when Cathy, a ‘good Christian woman’, knocked on my door and asked me to help her. Thinking that her husband was drinking too much she went to a tavern to ask him to come home; his response wás to beat her in the parking lot so severely that she was taken to the emergency ward, where the doctor, whom she had never met, asked ‘What did you do to provoke him this time?’. This case and many similar episodes led to my legislative work in Wisconsin as a member of the Battered Woman Task Force. It was in this capacity that I began to suspect a strong connection between Christian upbringing and the acceptance of battering by women and men. In particular, a strongly worded letter from a rural Wisconsin woman accused me of sinful ways in trying to urge women to leave a battering situation; as she put it, it was woman’s God-given duty to submit to her husband and to suffer in silence as a good Christian woman. I was motivated to discover how this woman had received such a message from her Christian education: that is, that for the sake of keeping the family together, a woman had to sacrifice her own safety and that of her children. Furthermore, the wife who is battered is made to feel the cause of this abuse, and—like the guilty Eve—shares the guilt that accrues to all women from the verses of Genesis.

As legislative chair of the Governor’s Commission on the Status of Women, I monitored new legislation making the crime of wife battering a felony in Wisconsin statutes; It had always been a legal prohibition to batter a stranger. But a man’s home was his castle, and this mindset reflected (and often still does) the English law of coverture, the basis of our American laws: that is, in marriage the man and the woman become one, the man. Anyone who has attended a Christian wedding ceremony recently can testify to the strangle-hold of this perception in requiring a woman to ‘obey’ her husband, and in acknowledging and affirming the reading of the passage from Genesis relating to the fashioning òf the guilty Eve from Adam’s rib, which is the most pernicious myth perpetrated against women since the ancient Greeks contrived the myth of the birth of Athena from the head of Zeus. And the continuing presence of this myth of Eve still exerts a strong influence on woman’s selfperception today.

Let us now consider the single most powerful and persistent model of the ‘good Christian woman’, Monica, the mother of St Augustine (d. 430), the Father of the church, who was the most influential author of Christian doctrines regarding the inferiority of women. Although Monica is often the scapegoat of the psychoanalysts of Augustine’s sexual hangups, she was abused by Patricius, her pagan husband, and her advice to battered women who came to her for help was to return to their husbands ànd suffer in silence. It was Monica’s virtue as a good Christian woman never to speak of what she endured at the hands of her violent husband. The heritage of Monica’s lesson is in the countless cases of wife battering, unrecorded, unprosecuted, unacknowledged by their ministers, priests and fellow parishioners.

Let us turn now to the attitude of the church towards sexuality. Those of us raised in the Roman Catholic faith cannot discuss the defilement of the body by sexual intercourse without tracing the root of this ‘mindset’ in the teachings of the Fathers of the church, of whom the most notable is Augustine. The early Christians as they chose their canonical texts excluded all writings that conceived of God as both male and female. The orthodox (‘straight-thinking’) God is exclusively male. Eve is created from Adam’s side for his fulfillment. This is translated in society into the domination of men over women as the proper God-given order for the human race and for the Christian church.

In Augustine maleness is assimilated into monism; femaleness becomes the image of the lower corporeal nature, or carnality and sexuality. Male/female dualism is assimilated into soul/ body dualism. Woman is seen ethically as dangerous to the male. Let me illustrate the persistence of this male suspicion of all women. In 1962 at the first ecumenical council convened by Pope John XXIII in Rome, an Anglican journalist and dear friend of mine, Ann Cheetham, having been invited to attend, was confronted by a cardinal who screamed: ‘Leave this place immediately! Do not sully this conference with the presence of a woman.’ Deeply humiliated, Ann Cheetham, a lifelong worker for the cause of women’s equality in the church, left Rome in tears, women’s only resort in the face of a hierarchy deaf to the voices of women.’

At a meeting of older religious women in April, a letter was sent by the group to the Archbishop to protest the exclusion of women from a Synod on religious life. The exclusion of women from decision making in regard to their own lives continues in the church to this day and punctuates the failure of the hierarchy to acknowledge the full humanity and personhood of women, often recognized in society, but not in the Catholic Church, in this last decade of the twentieth century.

As a counterpart to the debasing of women as an embodiment of the lower, or corporeal, nature, we must look to the exclusion of women in the perception of deity. To regard God in anthropomorphic terms as an elderly white male is detrimental not only to other races, but to all women. The works of outstanding theologians like Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, Rosemary Radford Ruether and Elaine Pagels have succeeded in recovering the female images and metaphors of God. The transforming of the female apostle Junia (Rom. 16.15) into the male name Junias in the sixth century illustrates one way the testimony of women leaders was purposely erased from church history.(2) This cover-up of women leaders in the early church fortified the male hierarchy in their consolidation of power; the exclusion of women from priesthood and the imposition of mandated celibacy by the canons of the fifth and sixth centuries were the capstones to this encapsulation of women’s basic inferiority to men. Battered women today still suffer the effects of this androcentric perception of human nature.

Augustine locates the source of original sin in the male erection and women are the cause of it. The depersonalization of women into whore, wife or mother may be traced to his writings. Most damaging is his reiteration of the precept that the wife must submit completely to her husband, even to the point of physical abuse and death. Augustine formulated the idea that women were good only for reproduction and unqualified for anything connected with mind or intelligence. Thus Augustine was the inventor of what the Germans call the three K’s, Kinder, Küche, Kirche: that is children, kitchen and church, an idea that still has life in it. In fact, as the German theologian Ute Ranke-Heinemann notes, it continues to be the Catholic hierarchy’s primary theological position on women.(3)

In conjunction with this debasing of women in the conception of humanness, we must acknowledge the purposeful if often subliminal cover-up or omission of female images in Scripture or commentaries on Scripture. For example, a French Jesuit translator of the Bible replaces the Greek verb for parturition—I am the God who gave you birth—with the phrase ‘I am the God who fathered you’(4).

Augustine describes the Catholic Church as the ‘true Mother of all Christians’, as if it might be the mother of all humanity and the guarantor of all existing social bonds: ‘It is you who make wives subject to their husbands...by chaste and faithful obedience; you set husbands over their wives’.(5) Peter Brown sums up Augustine’s influence: ‘Augustine created a darkened humanism that linked the pre-Christian past to the Christian present in a common distrust of sexual pleasure’.(6)

If we believe, as Clifford Geertz states, that religion is the shaper of society, we must acknowledge the potential for healing and reform that resides in the decision-making bodies of the church. How can we effect change that will bring women into the deliberations that will affect their lives and their future? First of all, we must recognize and acknowledge an evil before we can confront it and extirpate it whether from our consciousness or from the mores of our society.

There are three ways of accomplishing this goal:

(1) Recognize the omission of women from the texts of early Christian history. Thanks to feminist theologians such as Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, Rosemary Radford Ruether, Elaine Pagels and others, we have seen a proliferation of research on the presence of women in the early church, from Junia the Apostle to priests like Leta, recovered by Otranto of Italy.(7) To such an extent have women been erased from androcentric texts that we must resort to archaeological clues, such as the catacomb painting of women celebrating the eucharist (with a modern reproduction transforming the women into men), and locating a bishop Theodora in the Church of St Prassede in Rome (with the last part of her name scratched out).(8)

(2) Recognize the seeds of the biological construction of woman’s inferiority in two of the most influential Greek thinkers of all time: Plato and Aristotle. In the Laws , Plato concludes that a woman has less potentiality for virtue than a man; he says further that it is women’s weakness and timidity that make them sly and devious (781 b 2-4). Again Plato shows his contempt for women: ‘Human nature being twofold, the better sort was that which should thereafter be called man’ (Timaeus 42 e). And twice he says: ‘Evil and cowardly men are reborn as women, that being the first step downward to rebirth as animals’ (42 b3c4; 90 e 6-91 a 4). Aristotle sees woman as a misbegotten male (De Generationel IV 6; Metaphysics X 9) perhaps caused by some adverse circumstance, such as a southeast wind that is moist. This Aristotelian conception is adopted with approbation by Augustine and Aquinas, and we might observe the effects of such a mindset in the pages of medical textbooks in the USA up to a few years ago; the anatomy of the male is treated as normal throughout, and the differing features of the female anatomy as anomaly or abnormality.(9) The Aristotelian conception of procreation as male begetting and woman conceiving (or receiving the seed) is so imbedded in our thinking that we retain these terms, even though the female ovum was discovered by Van Baer in 1827, the first time that the woman’s equal role in conception was realized. Such is the influence of language on the shaping of our thoughts.

(3) We must reconstruct our historical perception of women’s equal role in the ancient Christian church in order to conceive of a liberating praxis in our present crisis. Such a praxis, wherever it is being learned and disseminated, will inspire its adherents to three actions: first, to work for the solidarity of women within or outside of their Christian congregations in order to voice their consensus; secondly, to refuse to accept interpretations of the Bible or any canonical doctrine that demeans or diminishes the worth of women as human beings; and thirdly, to urge governments to enact legislation recognizing that violence motivated by gender is a violation of civil rights.(10)

We are more and more aware that the greatest and most profound shaper of our thoughts and our society is religion. Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza has pointed the way to the recovery of women’ s Christian past by a method she calls feminist critical hermeneutics.(11) Her works have inspired and directed my research into the formation of the female mindset in Western society, especially in woman’ s compliance with battery and subservience according to the dictates of her Christian faith.

Women and men working on the problem of battering conclude: the legal system alone cannot eliminate this problem, for it is rooted in the pernicious and misguided fallacies of Christian teachings.(12)

Women and men working on the problem of battering conclude: the legal system alone cannot eliminate this problem, for it is rooted in the pernicious and misguided fallacies of Christian teachings. The theory set forth in the works of feminist theologians urge us to approach androcentric texts with a hermeneutics of suspicion, and they pose an advocacy stance. That is, if biblical texts say it is natural and permissible to abuse women, they cannot be accorded scriptural authority.

The Christian fabric of modern society contains the imbedded and false text of woman’s innate inferiority to man, the root of woman-hating and woman-battering today. The restoration of the women leaders and priests of the early church has transformed our understanding of this formative period as ‘what shall be remembered’, and we can never again accept as authority a text that demeans and debases half of the human race.


1. This article is a longer version of a paper presented at an International Conference of Law and Society in Amsterdam, 1991, and at the University of Bremen at a feminist conference on ‘Equality and Difference’.

2. Cf. E. Schüssler Fiorenza, In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins (New York, 1989).

3. U. Ranke-Heinemann. Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven (New York. 1990).

4. Deut. 32.14.

5. P. Brown, The Body and Society (London: André Deutsch, 1988), p. 426.

6. Brown, The Body and Society, p. 426.

7. ‘Priesthood, Precedent, and Prejudice: On Recovering the Women Priests of Early Christianity’ (English trans. G. Otranto’s ‘Notes on the Female Priesthood’), Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 7.1 (1991) pp. 73-94.

8. D. Irvin ‘The Ministry of Women in the Early Church: The Archaeological Évidence’, in Duke Divinity School Review 45.2 (Spring, 1980), pp. 76-86.

9. For these and other citations, cf. M. Horowitz, ‘Aristotle and Woman’, Joumal of the History of Biology IX (1976), pp. 183-213.

10. E.F. Defeis, ‘An International Human Right: Gender Equality’, Journal of Women’s History 3.1 (1991), pp. 90-107.

11. E. Schüssler Fiorenza, In Memory of Her.

12. S. Brooks Thistlethwaite,’Every Two Minutes: Battered Women and Feminist Interpretation’, in L. Russell (ed.), Feminist Interpretation of the Bible, pp. 96-107.

Further Reading

Alsdurf, l., and P. Alsdurf, Baltered into Submission (Intervarsity Press, 1989).

Bleier, R.,’Science and Belief: A Polemic on Sex Differences’, in C. Farnham (ed.), The Impact of Feminist Research’ in Academy (Bloomington, 1987), pp. Ilt-30.

Bohn, C.R.,’Dominion to Rule: The Roots and Consequences of a Theology of Ownership’, in Christianity, Patriarchy, and Abuse: A Feminist Critique (NY, 1989).

Brown, 1.C., and l.R. Bohn (eds.), Christianity, Patriarchy, and Abuse: A Feminist Critique (New York, 1989).

Douglas, M., Natural Symbols (London, 1970; New York, 1982).

Ettlinger, G.H.,’Church Fathers and Desert Mothers: Male and Female in the Early Church’, America 164.20 (May 1991), pp. 558-65.

Gillespie, C.K., Justifiable Homicide: Battered Women, Self-Defense, and the Law (Columbus, 1989).

King, K., Images of the Feminine in Gnosticism (Philadelphia, 1988).

Kraemer, R., Maenads, Martyrs, Matrons, Monastics: A Sourcebook on Women’s Religions in the Greco-Roman World (Philadelphia, 1988).

Milne, P.J Eve and Adam: Is a Feminist Reading Possible?’, Bible Review 5.3 June 1988), pp. 12-31, 39.

Pagels, E.,’What Became of God the Mother? Conflicting Images of God in Early Christianity’, Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 2.2, (1976)

—The Gnostic Gospels (New York, 1979).

—Adam, Eve, and the Serpent (New York, 1988).

Rossi, M.A., ‘The Passion of Perpetua, Everywoman of Late Antiquity’, in Lounibos and Smith (eds.), Pagan and Christian Anxiety: A Response to E.R. Dodds (Philadelphia, 1985).

Ruether, R.R.,’Misogynism and Virginal Feminism in the Fathers of the Church’, Religion and Sexim (New York, 1974).

—Sexim and God-talk: Toward a Feminist Theology (Boston, 1983).

and E. Mclaughlin (eds.), Women of Spirit: Female Leadership in the Jewish and Christian Traditions (New York, 1979).

—Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 8.3, (1983).

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