The Reform Against Nature

John Hartwig was the principal of a private elementary school run by the conservative Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod. Last month, he was fired by a church council. The reasons for his dismissal are murky, but they appear to have something to do with this:

Hartwig’s father, a former pastor, authored a document years ago questioning Lutheran doctrine that says women shall not have authority over men. Church members say Hartwig, who has been principal since the summer of 2003, was accused of distributing that document to some members of the congregation.

This interpretation is supported by what happened at the church meeting where Hartwig was fired. Over 300 people attended the meeting, many of them concerned parents who supported Hartwig, to voice their opinions – but not all of them got a chance to do so. By decree of the council president, none of the women who attended the meeting were permitted to vote or even to speak:

Women who wanted to ask questions at the meeting were told to write them on a piece of paper and have a man read them aloud. But some, including Hartwig’s own daughter, said their questions were never read.

Doubtless, the church leaders got their inspiration from some of the more viciously sexist passages in the Bible commanding women to be silent and subservient to men. In particular, they were probably thinking of this one:

“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. 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.”

—1 Corinthians 14:34-35

Ironically, these verses may not have been part of the original text of the New Testament. As Bart Ehrman points out in Misquoting Jesus [p.183], we have several surviving NT manuscripts in which these verses are shuffled around: in some they appear after verse 33, in others they appear after verse 40. This is usually a dead giveaway that the verses in question were originally added as a marginal note by a scribe, then interpolated into the text by later copyists.

But whether they’re original or not, it hardly matters. These verses are accepted as part of the canon, believed to be the inspired word of God by millions of Christians, and invoked – as they were invoked in Wisconsin last month – to justify disgusting and regressive bigotry against women. These verses still motivate millions who believe that women are unfit for authority, that their assigned role is to be subservient, that they should have no voice in the decisions of society.

How are we not past this? Since these verses were written, women have been heads of state, prime ministers, powerful diplomats, brave soldiers. They’ve excelled in law, medicine, business and literature. They’ve even been the heads of churches. Yet to the fundamentalists with their eyes tightly shut, none of this matters in the slightest. To their minds, morality has no relation to reality, and the success of women at governing is irrelevant to the question of whether women should govern.

Religion is to blame for preserving this unbroken thread of bigotry and sexism through the generations. In the 1500s, misogynists like John Knox wrote about why no woman should ever be permitted to hold any position of authority. In 1869, a preacher named Horace Bushnell wrote Women’s Suffrage: The Reform Against Nature, arguing that women were “not created or called to govern”:

What now is the general result to which we are brought by this review of the Scripture, but that women are out of place in the governing of men… there is clearly never a thought that women have a claim, on any score, to be set forward as campaigners in the state with men. The assertion of their political equality with men would have shocked any apostle, or other scripture writer, and an agitation by women, based on such equality, to secure the right of open contest with men for political office and power, would have been looked upon even as an offense against nature itself — an outrage on decency and order utterly abominable.

Such writings are doubtless why Elizabeth Cady Stanton said, “In the early days of woman-suffrage agitation, I saw that the greatest obstacle we had to overcome was the Bible. It was hurled at us on every side.”

If there’s any evidence at all that religious sexism is bowing to the tide of progress, it’s this: Although many believers defend the unequal treatment of women, they seem embarrassed by it and are increasingly trying to argue that it’s not motivated by prejudice or hatred. Consider this page from the evangelical site Got Questions?:

God has ordained that only men are to serve in positions of spiritual teaching authority in the church. This is not because men are necessarily better teachers, or because women are inferior or less intelligent (which is not the case). It is simply the way God designed the church to function. Men are to set the example in spiritual leadership — in their lives and through their words. Women are to take a less authoritative role. Women are encouraged to teach other women (Titus 2:3-5). The Bible also does not restrict women from teaching children. This does not make women less important, by any means, but rather gives them a ministry focus more in agreement with God’s plan and His gifting of them.

Got that? Men aren’t better or smarter than women. It’s just that God gives them different roles: men have all the leadership, the authority, and the power, and women stay home, make babies and do what men tell them. They’re not unequal, just different! It’s the exact same logic that was used by slaveholders to argue that Africans were ideally suited by God’s design to be laborers and servants, while the superior Europeans were intended by God to rule the world.

As ridiculous as this argument is, the fact that they even feel compelled to make it shows that they’re feeling the sting of embarrassment over their own beliefs. If women are just as intelligent as men, then why shouldn’t they be allowed to teach men? Of course, these evangelicals close with the only answer that’s available to people defending the irrational and the indefensible: “Because God said so!”

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • http://steve.mikexstudios.com themann1086

    Speaking of Stanton, there’s this quote from Susan B Anthony, which was said in defense of Stanton: “I distrust those people who know so well what God wants them to do to their fellows, because it always coincides with their own desires.”

  • Penguin_Factory

    Women who wanted to ask questions at the meeting were told to write them on a piece of paper and have a man read them aloud.

    ……. What?

    I swear my brain shut down for a few seconds when I read that. I was expecting it to say that they could write their questions down and the church leadership would consider them later, but no. Apparently they have no problem with women voicing their opinions, and they have no problem with those opinions being voiced in the church…. just as long as the woman asking the question doesn’t actually ask it out loud.

    That’s the sort of loopy thinking only religion can generate.

  • Alex Weaver

    The really weird thing about this is I keep thinking of Lutheranism as a mainstream sect.

  • http://spaninquis.wordpress.com Spanish Inquisitor

    The really weird thing about this is I keep thinking of Lutheranism as a mainstream sect.

    Yes. Isn’t “Evangelical Lutheran” an oxymoron?

  • http://www.whyihatejesus.blogspot.com/ OMGF

    Apparently they have no problem with women voicing their opinions, and they have no problem with those opinions being voiced in the church…. just as long as the woman asking the question doesn’t actually ask it out loud.

    That’s the sort of loopy thinking only religion can generate.

    Ah, but remember, the questions were never read. So, they really do have a problem with it. What they don’t seem to have a problem with is lying about considering what the women have to say, having them go through the process of writing it all down, and then ignoring it.

  • Penguin_Factory

    Ah, but remember, the questions were never read.

    To be fair, they might just not have had time to read everyone’s question.

    Incidentally, I would love to know what some of them asked. Something along the lines of “What in God’s name are you thinking?” would be my first choice.

  • Katie M

    “Women who wanted to ask questions at the meeting were told to write them on a piece of paper and have a man read them aloud.”

    Penguin_Factory’s brain shut down for a few seconds. I think mine just exploded. Or maybe that was my anger.

  • http://oneyearskeptic.blogspot.com/ Erika

    It’s funny (and sad and infuriating) that the Biblical passages that can be used to oppress women are quoted so much more often than the ones that could be used to support equality. (E.g., Luke 8:1-3 which implies that it was perfectly reasonable for women to be travelling companions for Jesus and for them to have their own resources from which to support him.)

  • Thumpalumpacus

    Where the Bible is cited for justification, you can more often than not rest assured that an evil is being done.

  • http://steve.mikexstudios.com themann1086

    As my Moral Philosophy 101 course taught us, just because something is printed in a sacred text doesn’t provide justification; if it truly were divine, there would be a reason for it to be there, and we can appeal to that reason as justification. “A book said so” is not a good reason.

  • Eurekus

    I have to admit, even when I was a Xian I used to think, what a load of nonsense. There were many reasons for my deconversion, this was one. I just couldn’t treat a woman like that, even though I was irked on by the ‘faithful’.

    It’s so sad when I think about it. What a wicked religion.

    If there are Xians reading this, please put aside the bible and think of this rationally. Does this belief make sense?

  • Monty

    My parents are Evangelical Lutherans. This kind of thing makes me embarrassed.

  • Jerryd

    What is really sad is that apparently even the women in the fundamentalist churches don’t often question this. It’s in the Bible so it must be true. I have really intelligent friends who belong to one of these non-denominational churches. A few years ago I remember the wife saying something like, “Yes I realize I must take my position of subservience and be happy to be dominated by my husband.” This wasn’t said with sadness or regret, but almost happily. Like, wow, now I really get it and this will make God happy and me too. I wanted to scream, but knew there was nothing I could do to change her mind. If you believe every word in the Bible is the literal word of God, reason and logic have departed the conversation.

  • ArtyB

    The bible, no matter which way you think about it, is a misogynist text. In one instance, it gives a command not to mistreat women, and in the next it rescinds that command and advocate for the mistreatment of women. The old testament has lots of examples that supports the abuse of women, and although many people think the new testament is not as harsh as the old testament, it is no better. Since god is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow, what makes people think that he grew soft or changed his mind about what he decreed in the old testament? if he did grow soft and changed his mind about what he decreed in the old testament, then the old testament would not be the divine and inerrant word, now would it? Once a woman-hater, always a woman-hater. His followers are just following in his footsteps.

  • Demonhype

    “not unequal, just different!” I’m not entirely sure if that’s evidence that they are embarassed by their sexism. Ever read “The Feminine Mystique”? That was the kind of re-framing that was sold to American women after WWII–mostly by men taking over all the women’s magazines. “It’s not inferior to stay at home, make babies, and do what the men tell you. It’s just that it’s your place, and we’re just encouraging you to stay in your place for your own good, because you can never find any happiness or fulfillment outside of your proper place! We wouldn’t want you little ladies to ruin your lives and your happiness with these ill-conceived attempts to step out of your front door. You’ll never find happiness outside of the concerns of your womb anyway, so why try? It’s because we love you and respect you that we do this to you!”

    What scares me is how many people fall for this kind of crap–not just women either. It’s a pretty common trick with infinite variations and it doesnt’ really hold up to even a little bit of critical thought. Problem is that there aren’t enough people who are willing or able to think that far into it.

  • Andrew T.

    The WELS has always been like this…and frankly, it’s a denomination that deserves to be criticized more often.

    I have a cousin who was effectively indoctrinated into the church by her family from day one, and it was sad to see her grow into a person with consciously archaic (and often self-subjugating) attitudes.

  • Bill Dyas

    We really should remember that Paul wrote a prescription for an enduring religion. Making the oligarcy ‘men only’ was a critical piece. Its not too far from his turning the crucifiction from defeat into victory. Some parallels here with freemasonry.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    Looks like you’re biting on the “is/ought” fallacy, Bill. Am I reading you wrong?

  • goyo

    I’m waiting for the first xtian to explain how those verses don’t mean what they say…,historical context…,different meaning in the original Greek…,blah, blah.
    My southern baptist mother always hated other denominations that would permit women to preach in church. She knew her place!

  • Wednesday

    For those wondering about the “Evangelical Lutheran” business… the mainstream, fairly moderate branch of Lutherans in the US are the ELCA – Evangelical Lutheran Church of America. It doesn’t mean the same thing as Evangelical Christian (sans Lutheran), as in other contexts. Then there’s the Missouri Synod, which split off at some point and is more conservative. This bunch is the Wisconsin synod, another group that split off… and as we can see it’s is very far off the deep end.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    It’s funny (and sad and infuriating) that the Biblical passages that can be used to oppress women are quoted so much more often than the ones that could be used to support equality. (E.g., Luke 8:1-3 which implies that it was perfectly reasonable for women to be travelling companions for Jesus and for them to have their own resources from which to support him.)

    There’s also that verse from Paul which says there is neither male nor female in Christ Jesus. (The reference escapes me at the moment.)

    Of course, by selectively picking and choosing from the Bible, you can construct either a very good moral system or a very bad one. The real question is what you get if you look at the totality of the verses that speak on the subject. And that’s where I think the problem lies – because it’s relatively easy to fit the good verses into a bad framework, but far more difficult to do it the other way around. The verse from Luke could also be read to mean that women are expected to minister to and support men, but how would a biblical feminist explain away a verse that says women are forbidden to speak in church?

    Where the Bible is cited for justification, you can more often than not rest assured that an evil is being done.

    Succinctly put, Thump, and very true. The good parts don’t need to have recourse to the Bible to justify them!

  • Zietlos

    “God thinks, puppies need to die. / God thinks, babies need to drown.” (Voltaire, “God Thinks”)

    … The problem with being “logical” is that I want to say “people should behave logically”, but to them, it is logical, and therefore, I cannot assume my way of thinking is not more or less logical since I also only have my frame of reference to see through, though it may be (read: is) more within the mainstream collective thoughts of society. Can’t argue utilitarianly either, as mentioned above, some people are happy to be brainwashed, so the “greatest good”, and even the “least suffering” criteria are thrown out the window, as it is very likely such abusive men would still be abusive if their wives were not brainwashed, causing them more misery (and scientifically speaking, people will take a lot of abuse, even rational people, before seeking help). There is something horribly wrong with the picture, most anyone can see, but when verbalized, the arguments don’t work well…

    So then the argument goes “It isn’t just to do so”, but as the religious love to ask “who creates Justice?”, and the answer is of course the thoughts of the majority of influential people, so within circles of their influence, their actions, (like a certain rat-singer’s), were “just” within that circle’s context. The key would be to expand the circle and get more viewpoints in it, allowing the “justice” to move to a more societally accepted position. But of course, that would mean, long run, the government, which is an avatar of the will of the people in democracies (and in a way the other styles as well), would need to interfere, which basically reduces all religions into fringe-group cults, but to do so would require the majority of people to disregard religion, making the whole action fairly unnecessary anyways. But until they interfere, such institutions would cause more wrongs such as these and perpetuate themselves via indoctrination, and therefore would need the will of the people to interfere…

    I seem to have caught myself in a logic loop. Don’t suppose anyone might be able to lend a hand?

  • Bruce The Moose

    Women who wanted to ask questions at the meeting were told to write them on a piece of paper and have a man read them aloud. But some, including Hartwig’s own daughter, said their questions were never read.

    And the women didn’t stand up and start yelling about what a farce this all was? I couldn’t imagine staying silent in such a situation. I would shout and leave. But then, I’m an atheist, and I would have no use for this church and no desire to be a member. Why these women should, or any self-respecting man should, want to remain associated with such an organization in the face of such bigotry is a mystery I’m sure we all ponder.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    The word “programming” comes to mind. It took me years to overcome mine, and still I am fighting.

  • Eurekus

    Thumpa

    There’s so many of us mate. I occasionally have imaginings of being thrown into the lake of fire. And let’s face it, that’s what women whom allow themselves to be treated like this are afraid of, the anger of the ‘almighty’.

    To think, there are still statues of Luther erected in Germany. Let’s all hail the misogynistic bastard and the God of the misogynistic text to whom he prayed at least 1 hour a day or 2 hours if he had a busy day.

  • Drizzt

    First time I’ve posted on a site for a long time… I’ve been following your site, pz’s, ed brayton’s, hjhop’s etc… but this article just pissed me off… How can any sane person believe in the inferiority of another, because of their sex, color, whatever ?

    People used to quote the Bible as a justification for slavery… and they still quote it for another kind of slavery, the sexual one. I can’t remember the passages for slavery, haven’t read the Bible since like 10 years ago… and I’m still afraid to reread it because it’s so full of hatred, killings and bigotry. Hardest book to read for me was Mein Kampf, and I had to reread it to understand some parts… the Bible was so horrible, not hard, just horrible, I only read it once.

    There were times in my country that by just saying I didn’t believe in God I’d be thrown into jail for being a commie… I was too small to know that though… and now I can say I’m an atheist and no 1 says anything. The world has changed much but mentalities haven’t… we need to change that, and fast, or we’ll consume ourselves with religious hatred and wars.

    Back OT… that guy was fired because he wanted to educate his «flock», teach them stuff about how humanity has changed… that they rejected him says a lot about them… if he hadn’t been fired, I in his placed would’ve resigned in protest. If I was a woman I’d shout on rooftops against the stupidity that they defend. But what can 1 man do against organized ignorance ? Just hope they don’t get to be your kid’s teachers /crosses fingers…

  • lpetrich

    Ebonmuse, that verse is Galatians 3:28

    NIV: There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
    NASB: There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
    KJV: There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.

    It seems like Paul was saying that Xianity is a religion for everyone with no distinction of ethnicity or social status or sex. Nothing about the equality of the sexes or whatever.

  • Bill Johnston

    There may be something other than religion in and of itself at work when it comes to sexism.
    There is the case of the trans-gender scientist whose work was accepted easily when she was a man. When she became a woman, the scientific community was horrified when she proposed that cooperation was normal and the source of community and that sexual conflict arose later. This was contrary to the normal concept of evolution in which sexual conflict was the antecedent to cooperation.
    A lot of the scientists holding on to the latter theory would not let go or consider her theory because she was a woman.
    Whether we believe or do not believe, we base it on an emotional component. People whithout an emotional base and suffering from something like frontotemporal dementia cannot make decisions.

  • Thupmalumpacus

    My lack of belief is based on reason, not emotion. You can argue otherwise, but I regard myself as the authority on, well, myself.

  • Jim Baerg

    Bill: Can you provide a source that would give details of the case so there is some basis for judging whether this is more than the usual human reluctance to give up a currently accepted belief?

    Also I wonder whether, if irrational prejudice is a contributing factor, if it is prejudice against transgender people rather than sexism against women?

  • Alex Weaver

    There may be something other than religion in and of itself at work when it comes to sexism.
    There is the case of the trans-gender scientist whose work was accepted easily when she was a man. When she became a woman, the scientific community was horrified when she proposed that cooperation was normal and the source of community and that sexual conflict arose later. This was contrary to the normal concept of evolution in which sexual conflict was the antecedent to cooperation.
    A lot of the scientists holding on to the latter theory would not let go or consider her theory because she was a woman.

    Given the social context and the ongoing low-grade infection of religious baggage in our society (see, for example, the legacy of Puritanism in societal norms dictating that the awake-and-productive “day” starts at an hour when perhaps 10% of people’s brains are even working), even assuming that the opposition to her proposal was predicated on gender bias rather than memetic inertia, other scientists’ pragmatic personal investment in the foundational assumptions of their own research, or even, potentially, problems with specific items of, or the general completeness of, the data provided to support her claims, how does this support your contention that religion is not necessarily responsible for sexism?

    Whether we believe or do not believe, we base it on an emotional component. People whithout an emotional base and suffering from something like frontotemporal dementia cannot make decisions.

    It’s not clear to me what this statement is supposed to be a bridge to or from.

    Jim Baerg: I imagine he’s referring to Joan Roughgarden.

  • http://aebrain.blogspot.com Zoe Brain

    Jim Baerg – here’s a quote from Women in Science, regarding Biochemist Ben Barres:

    Ben Barres had just finished giving a seminar at the prestigious Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research 10 years ago, describing to scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard and other top institutions his discoveries about nerve cells called glia. As the applause died down, a friend later told him, one scientist turned to another and remarked what a great seminar it had been, adding, “Ben Barres’s work is much better than his sister’s.”

    The punchline to this story is that Ben Barres doesn’t have a scientist sister.

    Prof. Barres is transgendered, having completed the treatments that made him fully male 10 years ago. The Whitehead talk was his first as a man, so the research he was presenting was done as Barbara.

    Trans men have a 5% increase in salary on average after transition; Trans women have a 35% decrease. This can be accounted for by a 20% difference due to misogyny, and a 15% difference due to transphobia.

    These are minima: for the objective increase in productivity due to not having the psychic stress of living with the problem is non-zero, after physical recovery from the surgery.

  • Lagerbaer

    See, here’s the problem with religion: You might find some people arguing for equal rights on basis of their religion, and some people arguing against equal rights on basis of their religion.

    But how many people do you have arguing against equal rights on basis of their non-religion? Don’t get me wrong: There are also misogynistic atheists around, but their arguments don’t usually go like “Because there is no god, women should stay at home and not work”.


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