In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Sexism and Misogyny in the Christian Tradition:Liberating Alternatives
  • Rosemary Radford Ruether

The oppressive patterns in Christianity toward women and other subjugated people do not come from specific doctrines, but from a patriarchal and hierarchical reading of the system of Christian symbols as a whole. These same symbols can be read from a prophetic and liberating perspective. So what I will do in this essay is to show how Christian symbols have been read as a system of domination, on the one hand, and then how they can be read as a system of liberation, on the other hand.1 The framework for reading Christian symbols as a system of domination derives from patriarchal slaveocracies, the social system in which Christianity was born. Yet Christianity also began as critique of this system that proposed prophetic-liberating alternatives to it that were then partially repressed.

The New Testament is shaped in the context of this struggle. It contains testimonies to a subversive vision which has been partly repressed by reimposed patriarchal patterns. Thus the New Testament itself is the main source both for canonizing a sexist and slave social system and also for reconstructing an alternative egalitarian vision. In this essay I will first summarize the patriarchal reading of Christianity as it became the dominant interpretation between the second and sixth centuries, with further elaboration in medieval scholasticism. I will address this reading of Christianity under the five symbols of anthropology, sin and grace, God, Christ, and the Church. This will show that the patriarchal reading of these symbols is not a problem of the prejudices of particular theologians, but a comprehensive worldview. I will then analyze these same symbols and show how they can (and, in my view, should) be read from a prophetic-liberating perspective.

I begin with the issue of anthropology. How is gender, male and female, related to humanness? Early Christianity saw a close relation between the human soul, understood as mind or reason, and the divine logos, which was seen as the divine nature of Jesus as the Christ. They interpreted the text of Genesis 1:27, “God created the human in the image of God,” to refer to the mind or soul in each human person. The human soul as mind or reason mirrors on a created level the divine logos or reason manifest in Christ. The human soul thus partakes in a created fashion in God’s nature and so is immortal and capable of eternal life. [End Page 83]

But do women possess reason? Are they made in the image of God, or only male humans? The Greek philosophical tradition, particularly in Aristotle, which shaped early Christian views on this, believed that women lacked autonomous reason and were therefore inherently inferior and dependent on the male. For Aristotle, slaves and Asians (i.e., barbarians) were also dependent on ruling-class Greek males, who alone were fully rational.2 Thus Greek philosophy gave Christianity both a strongly gendered and also a classist and racist reading of anthropology.

The Jewish tradition was ambivalent about whether women were equally made in the image of God. Some rabbinic teachers defended the belief that women were equally made in God’s image, while others argued that Adam alone was God’s image.3 This ambivalence is reflected in Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians, chapter 11. Here Paul says, “But 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” (1 Cor. 11:3, NRS). Paul lays out a cosmic hierarchical order of headship of God over Christ, Christ over the male human, and the male human over the female human as the basis for his argument that the woman should cover her head, but the male should not cover his head. “For a man ought not to have his head veiled, since he is the image and reflection of God; but the woman is the reflection of man” (1 Cor. 11:7).

Paul goes on to insist that “man was not made from woman but woman from man. Neither was man created for the sake of woman, but...