All Quiet in the Church

By Nadia Bulkin


Nadia Bulkin

I volunteer at the Nebraska Commission on the Status of Women. This January, a letter arrived, “from the desk of Harold Farrall,” warning us that a person is either one of God’s people or a follower of Satan, and “any person who promotes gender equity falls into the category of item 2 above” (i.e. a follower of Satan). There were plenty of biblical references to back this up, most notably I Corinthians 14:33-38, which forbids women from speaking in church. Farrall claims that “while this reference is to ‘church,’ it follows that this is applied to all society functions in order to have a peaceful, healthy and prosperous God-fearing nation.”

What a crazy loose cannon, we all thought. But is he really a loose cannon? Or is he just religious? There are enough Harold Farralls in the world that there is a correlation between religion and sexism. This correlation exists for two reasons–first, because the texts encourage it, and second, because of the interpretation of these texts, both in history and in modern day.

The roots of several religions were already tainted by fundamental sexist flaws at their conception. These flaws created an inherent stereotype among followers that decried women as decision-makers and moral pillars of society. All creation myths reflect pre-existing cultural stereotypes, but writing down these myths ensured that their stereotypes would be read for many generations to come, which explains why even in this modern day my high school principal feels the need to drive a minivan with the bumpersticker “Eve Was Framed!”

Christianity is the most obvious example of a religion with sexism at the heart of its creation. God is a He, and “God created man in his own image” (Genesis 1:26). In some versions, Lilith was created next, but she refused to fall in step with her husband and was cast out. Lilith got her start in The Alphabet of Ben-Sira, a collection of heroes of the Bible and the Talmud published between the seventh and eleventh centuries, as the first wife who refused to take the subjugated position in sex, to Adam’s horror: “For you are fit only to be in the bottom position, while I am to be the superior one.” In this take, Lilith runs off with Red Sea demons and creates demonic offspring, becoming in later interpretations a Mesopotamian demon herself, feeding on children and killing men.

Although feminist groups have tried to make Lilith a positive icon, Jerry Falwell’s National Liberty Journal decried Lilith Fair for worshipping a demon. Eve was said to be created from Adam’s rib, and though she was a good wife for a while, she was susceptible to Satan; she tasted the forbidden fruit and encouraged Adam to do so as well, and thus, led all humanity into sin. For her unruliness, God punished her appropriately: “and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee” (Genesis 3:16). And while this passage is short in the Book of Genesis, it is a story that has become engrained in popular culture, from the Sistine Chapel to dating services.

The popular interpretation that blames Eve alone likely originated from the likes of Paradise Lost by John Milton, whose epic poem creates an elaborate process through which Eve is seduced by the serpent into evil: “O much deceived, much failing, hapless Eve!” Eve has eaten fruit from the “tree to be desired to make one wise” (Genesis 3:6), thus providing the grounds for denying women education and chastising them when they take initiative–the last time woman did that, it is argued, mankind fell from grace.

The Adam and Eve fable is not confined to Christianity–Islam partakes in it too, as does Judaism. This trifecta means there are billions of people who frown upon a woman seeking equal footing. As these religions’ holy books progress, so do Eve’s protgs: Lot’s wife, Delilah, Jezebel, among many others. Along with these bad examples come the reprimands: “Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection” (1 Timothy 2:11), “Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church: and he is the saviour of the body. Therefore as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in every thing” (Ephesians 5:22-24). Harold Farrall was right. I Corinthians 14:33-38 does forbid women from speaking in church.

If, of course, generations to come were more progressive in thought and did not blame Lilith and Eve for the downfall of humanity, the book of Genesis and the Qur’an would not be so dangerous in their portrayals of early woman. Unfortunately, in the past this has not been the case. Christianity’s spread across Europe and the Middle East also wiped out the pagan (i.e., non-Christian) beliefs of the area. These pagan religions did not vilify women and sometimes even glorified the matriarch. Egypt’s Isis was equal to her husband, even bringing him back to life. The Cult of Isis that developed was ruthlessly quashed by the Roman Empire, which at the time of the fourth century had newly embraced Christianity. Christianity outlived Rome, and the prejudice against assertive women also continued. Although Joan of Arc is an oft-used symbol of the medieval Christian woman martyr, it is important to remember that her culture forbade her from battle, that she was likely persecuted more harshly because she was a teenage girl, and that there was an ongoing war–i.e., she was a political symbol, too.

At that time, witch trials that took advantage of the fear of female power were sweeping through Europe. The Malleus Maleficarum wrote at the time that “Women are by nature instruments of Satan–they are by nature carnal, a structural defect rooted in the original creation” (from, quoted from Katz, The Holocaust in Historical Context, Vol. I). A neighborhood map of old Salem reveals that victims of this continent’s witch trials were most often wealthy widows living on substantial real-estate–Liliths of New England.

Similar to witch trials are the modern punishments of women in Middle Eastern Muslim communities, justly criticized by the global community, including the stoning of adulterous women and honor killings of women who have been raped. Islam stresses purity above all else, and thus steps must be taken to protect that purity.

In America, the battles are less bloody–usually. Arguments over divorce, women in the ministry, and abortion all stem from the patriarchal structure of Christianity. Nearly every “pro-life” supporter cites religion as a reason to deny women their reproductive rights, since abortion supposedly violates the sixth commandment banning murder: “Anyone taking away its life is committing a grievous act of disobedience against God (they are committing murder) and are putting themselves on a level with God who alone gives life and takes it away” (from Most anti-abortion bumperstickers will confirm this. However, the bible does not say anything specific about abortion, and no doubt its writers knew of herbal medicines used for the purpose before surgical abortion was available. Thus, the current outcry against abortion is purely the result of a modern interpretation of the bible.

The damage done to women because of anti-birth-control legislation goes beyond the immediate removal of a choice. The Bush administration’s decision not to fund health clinics in Africa that provide information about abortion may encourage “an increase in unwanted pregnancies, sexually transmitted diseases and the spread of AIDS” (from CorpWatch). Women who are denied abortions might try to abort anyway–a choice that is often fatal: “Each year an estimated 15 million women worldwide secretly undergo abortions and, of this number, at least 200,000 died and many more suffer grave, long-term health complications” (from Soundprint). And yet I can drive down Nebraska Highway and read a bumpersticker declaring, “Abortion? What Part of Thou Shalt Not Kill Don’t You Understand?”

Without the original texts casting women down, there would be nothing to interpret. Without the interpretations, the original texts would have no relevant power. But with both text and interpretation, religion as we know it today–Judaism, Christianity, and Islam–is a ruling patriarchy that will use any means possible to keep woman in her place: obeying her husband and God. When religion is used to justify banning aid to foreign countries, there can be no doubt that it is poisonous to women. At the Women’s Commission’s latest budget hearing, one of our supporters testified to the Appropriations Committee about her childhood church, which told women to sit down and shut up. She was trying to get the message across that women do not have equal rights in the community. Someone on the Appropriations Committee told her to find a new church. If only the new church, I thought, didn’t teach the bible too.

Nadia writes: “Up ’til recently I was a senior at Lincoln East High School, but I thankfully graduated and am going to Barnard College (New York, NY). I am interested in majoring in Political Science, and minoring in English and Human Rights–I would like to someday work at the United Nations.”

Freedom From Religion Foundation