‘Holy Misogyny:’ How Gender Conflict in the Church Affects the Foundations of Faith [Review]

April DeConick’s book Holy Misogyny: Why Sex and Gender Conflicts in the Early Church Still Matter is probably one of the most earth-shaking books I’ve read all year. That is a big claim, but I think the book backs it up completely. In this book, DeConick looks at the history of the early Christian church and how the role of women as leaders was erased over time. In fact, this book arguably looks at how the feminine in religion was maligned, erased and dominated by male power. As DeConick writes in her book,

The story of women in the early Church is a story of their increasing marginalization and limitation, a process that was fully engaged in the fourth and fifth centuries. One of our primary witnesses of this process is the Bishop of Salamis, Epiphanius. He takes great effort to demonstrate that women have never baptized, been apostles, or been bishops.

In fact, they have been all of that and more in the history of the church and then they were made into nothing.

Throughout the book, you can clearly see a concerted campaign to marginalize women, even by changing the words of the Bible itself to support certain misogynistic views. One famous and often cited passage in the Bible comes under fire for just this, 1 Corinthians 14:34-35:

34 Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience as also saith the law.

35 And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church.

This has been used as proof that Saint Paul was a misogynist, but it is entirely possible that hew as not as bad as some people have said. In other places, he acknowledges the work of female apostles, showing that he probably had no issues with them. So what explains the oddly virulent strain of misogyny in this passage? DeConick explains:

It is very likely that the passage in question silencing women in the churches originated from the pen of a scribe commenting on Paul, rather than from Paul himself. The words, in fact, appear to support the type of Christianity that grew up in the Apostolic churches in the second century as evidenced by the later Pastoral letters – 1 and 2 Timothy, and Titus – which, as we will see later in this book, severely censored and subordinated women in the church, removing them from their positions as apostles, prophets and deacons.

This is just one part of the book that really got me thinking. The foundations of the Christian faith can hardly claim to be divine if they are susceptible not just to an agenda made by men (literal men, not “humanity” men) which even led to an editing of Christianity’s most holy text. I’ve harped on the idea that religion is a man-made power system before, but everything I’ve thought about that was just confirmed by this book. Let’s look at another example, one that I particularly liked.

The veiling of women is kind of a big deal in the Christian church. It can take a variety of forms, but essentially it’s all about regulating the appearance of women through their dress. Today it might be women only wearing dresses or wearing a head-covering in church as the Catholics do. In ancient times, it was about wearing the veil.

Veiling adult women was a universal practice in the ancient Mediterranean world. It was part and parcel of Roman public life, and it was practiced by the Jews as well. Veils were worn by adult Jewish women in public to show their shame and modesty, as was believed to be proper for women who were good wives and not adulteresses. To unveil was to invite sexual impropriety and even violence according to the ancient people. To unveil publicly was a dishonor and a disgrace for women.

Christianity, in a big way, changed that. The egalitarian nature of Christianity on a spiritual level freed people from the less important societal mores of inequality. The women in the church in Corinth were worshiping unveiled in order to show that spiritual equality to the world.

They had mobilized their church by making their spiritual experience a social reality. Following the logic of Galatians 3.28 – “There is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” – they believed that they had been recreated in the androgynous image of God as a result of their baptism with his Spirit. As such, the strict gender hierarchy of their immediate world had been abolished for them.

Essentially, the unveiled women of Corinth were living their faith outwardly. But they were also opening themselves and by extension the church to the censure of the Roman world, which they saw plenty of. Their faith was counter-cultural, but in order to preserve it from the Romans Paul and others had to do something about it.

Instead of supporting them, Paul told them off. In fact, he even threatened them a little in a weird, ancient mythology sort of way. I want to wrap this discussion up, but it is worthwhile to put DeConick’s full explanation down here so this makes more sense.

Women need to wear a veil on their heads, openly acknowledging their husband’s authority over them, Paul says, “because of the angels.” Paul’s puzzling explanation here appears to have been such common knowledge to his readers that he did not need to explain himself further. More than likely, the angels that the veil protected the woman from were the fallen angels who raped women at the beginning of time according to Genesis 6.

So cover up, ladies, or demons will rape you. And you know what won’t be any help to you at all? The Christian faith which is supposed to protect you from that stuff by sanctifying you to Christ. Oh well.

Essentially, this story shows that some of the doctrines of the church as we know them now aren’t actually spiritual at all. They’re just the customs of the Roman world transposed into religion and brought through time. So much for eternal laws and divinely directed rules. Actually, it’s just because Paul wanted his church to have good standing in the Roman society and he used spiritual threats to do it.

So we have scribes changing what the Bible says to suit their own opinions and Paul making up rules for Christian women based, not on good theology, but a desire to be in with the Romans. All throughout this book, I kept asking myself the question: what does this do to the foundations of faith? To my mind, it radically changes our position in regards to Christianity. There are three possibilities here:

  1. This means that nothing about Christianity is really true.
  2. Christianity can be true, but now we have to re-evaluate just how much of it is really true.
  3. All of it is true anyway.

We know that number three isn’t correct. We have proof that people have fiddled with the truth, changed it to suit their desires or the to fit in with the society around them. So that leaves the first two options, and that is where the debate should really begin.

Honestly, the more you know about the history of the early church and what really happened (not just the myth of what happened), the more you have to question the church we have today. The misogyny we see in the church now is just one issue that shows this. The question is now: do we reforms the church or is it time to end the charade entirely?

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