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!”

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