Against Fundamentalism in Christian Bible Interpretation: The Biblical Case for Feminism and Gay Rights

What is astonishing about all the forms of American fundamentalism—new natural law, Protestant fundamentalism, and Mormonism—is that their hostility to feminism and gay rights rests on a reading of ostensibly Christian texts that pays little or no attention to the life and teaching of the historical Jesus.

See Also: Fundamentalism in American Religion and Law (Cambridge University Press, 2011)

By David A.J. Richards
Edwin D. Webb Professor of Law
New York University
October 2011

a. The Historical Jesus

Jesus takes a remarkable interest in women, as persons, and they take an interest in him. Women were not only disciples,1 but they were among the most faithful of his disciples, holding onto their relationship to Jesus in a way that men did not. The interest of women in his teaching is portrayed as something that legitimately engages their intelligence as persons, as Jesus defends Mary’s listening to his teaching from her sister Martha’s distracted insistence that Jesus patriarchally tells Martha to help her in the womanly tasks of serving, Luke 10:38-42. Jesus clearly teaches and ministers to women in ways that speak to their subjective experience, including their experience of suffering as women, even when traditional outcasts.2

The interpretive issue raised by Jesus’ attitude to women is the critical position to patriarchy that his attitude suggests. Certainly, his defense of the woman taken in adultery calls for skepticism about one of the roots of patriarchal violence, namely, violence against women who transgress patriarchal demands placed on their sexuality, John 8:1-11.3 As one careful student of the historical Jesus concludes, his teaching, at a minimum, “entailed a certain reformation of the patriarchal structure of society.”4 If we take seriously, as contemporary feminist Bible scholars do, the degree to which Jesus’ critique of patriarchy was diluted by the sexism of his later followers - who, ministering largely to highly patriarchal Greco-Roman audiences of potential converts, chose as canonical texts and traditions those closer to the patriarchal assumptions of their audiences - a reasonable case may be made that the historical Jesus’ critique of patriarchy was probably much more profoundly radical.

Consider, from this perspective, Jesus’ teachings about non-violence: namely, the Sermon on the Mount, Matt. 5:7. There are compelling reasons for believing that the historical Jesus could not have meant Matt. 5:36-42 to forbid the role that the principle of self-defense plays in criminal law. Rather, Jesus is addressing “the urge to resent a wrong done to you as an affront to your pride, to forget that the wrongdoer is your brother before God and to compel him to soothe your unworthy feelings; and it advocates, instead, a humility which cannot be wounded, a giving of yourself to your brother which will achieve more than can be achieved by a narrow justice.”5

What distinguishes Jesus’ commands “not to resist one who is evil” and “turn the other [cheek]” is the way he grounds its motivations in an inclusive caring love that here asks men in particular to question the force of the Mediterranean honor code in their lives, whose demands require that insults to manhood unleash a cycle of violence. Such honor codes are framed in terms of patriarchal gender stereotypes, and the violence is the way such stereotypes are enforced, for the violence is keyed to threats to honor defined by patriarchy. Jesus, here as also in his defense from stoning of the woman taken in adultery, John 8:1-11, is asking men to question the role such violence plays in their sense of manhood. Historically, Jesus’ stance is remarkably anti-patriarchal.

Roman political authority was, of course, itself highly patriarchal, resting on a conception of patriarchal manhood which made possible a military life and rule that legitimated aggressive war, imperial rule, and the enslavement of defeated peoples on which the Roman imperium and economy depended.6 The Roman governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate, exemplifies such patriarchal hierarchy and violence--a servile devotion to his superiors, contempt for the people he ruled, cowardice, and cruelty.7 Jesus may have been as much critical of the patriarchal violence of Rome as he was or would have been of the forms of it in Jewish culture, including those forms that would later develop into the violence of the Zealots in the First Jewish Revolt (C.E. 66-70). The death of the historical Jesus thus exemplifies what may have been one of his distinctive teachings: that the violence of patriarchal manhood in any of its forms requires the unjust repression of free ethical voice.

b. Patriarchal Formation of Christian Tradition

What is astonishing about all the forms of American fundamentalism—new natural law, Protestant fundamentalism, and Mormonism—is that their hostility to feminism and gay rights rests on a reading of ostensibly Christian texts that pays little or no attention to the life and teaching of the historical Jesus. Such fundamentalisms are incoherent with what should, on internal biblical grounds, be the best evidence of the life and teaching of the founder of Christianity, Jesus of Nazareth, namely, the four gospels, and for this reason deeply unreasonable.

To the extent fundamentalism claims biblical support, it primarily draws authority not from Jesus, but from other texts of the New Testament, in particular, the letters of Paul.8 Christianity is a historical religion, and, of all the texts in the Hebrew and Christian Bibles, some of the texts of the New Testament are among the most historically reliable, as they were written much closer to the alleged historical events than most biblical texts, certainly, most of the texts of the Hebrew Bible.9 Because the authentic Pauline letters we have are the earliest Christian texts we have (written before any of the Gospels), they are among the most reliable, certainly, about the earliest views of Christian believers after the death of Jesus. However, there are several historical difficulties with the appeal to Paul in interpreting Jesus when there is clear interpretive conflict. First, several of the letters, including one on which fundamentalists depend as the ground for their literalism, is not authentic.10 Second, Paul never knew Jesus personally, unlike the apostles and other followers, but he claimed to know him problematically through visions. Third, in contrast to the apostles, who thought of Christianity as a sect within traditional Judaism, Paul conceived his mission as one to Gentiles many of whom were not Jews, and came to regard Christianity as not requiring traditional Jewish practices, including circumcision and observance of dietary laws. With the destruction of Temple Judaism by the Romans and the murder and disruption of the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem, Paul’s mission to the Gentiles became Christianity, though a form of Christianity discontinuous with its roots in the historical Jesus. Fourth, because of the character of Paul’s mission and his audience, there are good reasons for historical skepticism about the authority of his view of Christianity when his view contrasts sharply with the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.

The main reason for this skepticism is the anti-patriarchal character of the life and teaching of Jesus of Nazareth and yet the hegemonic authority of patriarchal assumptions in the ancient Roman world, the world of the Gentiles that Paul took as the audience for conversion to Christianity. The passages in the authentic Pauline letters, to which fundamentalists appeal as authority for their views of gender and sexuality, reflect these assumptions, and must be read skeptically for this reason, in particular, when they distort and even betray precisely the ethical impulses of freedom and equality that are so distinctive of the anti-patriarchal life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth himself. If anything, the problem of patriarchy, in the transmission of authentic Christianity, was very much heightened over time, in particular, when Christianity becomes under Constantine and his successors the established church of the Roman Empire, becoming more Roman than Christian.11

c. Dependence on Augustine

It is remarkable to contrast the historical Jesus with the form Christianity took after it became the established church of the Roman Empire. I have discussed elsewhere at some length Augustine’s role in establishing, building on Roman political and religious models, a male celibate priesthood that was highly patriarchal, religious authority being placed in this priesthood that successfully appealed, as Augustine often did, to imperial authorities to enforce its view of religious truth.12

Three forms of fundamentalist opposition to feminism and gay rights (new natural law in Roman Catholicism, evangelical Christianity, and Mormonism) have become particularly important in American politics and law.13 Their interpretive approaches to Christianity could not be more different: new natural law appeals not to religious texts as such, but to what it alleges to be the secular claims of a contemporary form of Thomism developed by the theologian German Grisez; in contrast, evangelical Christianity claims to find its view in Biblical texts that it supposes to be authoritative;14 and Mormonism appeals, in addition to Hebrew and Christian texts, to the various texts disclosed to its prophet, Joseph Smith. Despite all these differences, all these forms of Christianity share a common political position on the wrongness of the central claims of feminism and gay rights relating to the injustice of the subordination of women and the rightness of contraception, abortion, and gay/lesbian sex, and have mobilized an American politics that has elected conservative presidents and influenced appointments to the Supreme Court. All the contemporary fundamentalisms under study here follow Augustine in limiting the priesthood to men, though two of them (evangelical Protestantism and Mormonism) do not require priests to be celibate. It is their common patriarchal priesthood which explains how and why three such different forms of Christianity should converge, as they do, on the reactionary politics they do in the United States—mobilizing coalitions based on hostility to feminism and gay/lesbian rights, expressed in the polarization of American politics into red and blue states.

d.Feminism and Gay Rights and the Attack on Patriarchy

It was the American abolitionist feminists, many of them Quakers, who showed so reasonably that the teachings of Jesus, which challenged dominant codes of patriarchal masculinity, supported a feminism which challenged the role the gender binary had unjustly played in the enforcement of patriarchy.15 Much the clearest statement of this view is Sarah Grimke’s Letters on the Equality of the Sexes and the Condition of Woman.16

Sarah Grimke’s argument centered, first, on making her case that the dominant Biblical interpretations of normatively influential texts of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament wrongly ascribed to them the moral ideology of separate spheres and the inferiority of women, and, second, on showing how this had happened. The dominant misogyny of Bible interpretation assumed, on examination, a wholly corrupt and illegitimate political epistemology that unreasonably entrenched a patriarchal hierarchy of power and privilege over women (including a masculine monopoly of Bible interpretation); this corrupt epistemology narrowed the terms of debate to the cramped measure of masculine self-protection and for this illegitimate reason excluded women from reasonable participation in its dialogue.

Grimke’s substantive exercises in Bible interpretation applied a normative conviction that she took to be central to the entire narrative and, thus understood, to be reasonably supported by the narrative, namely, that all persons, made in the image of God, have the creative powers of “a moral and responsible being.”17 As such, each person was ultimately ethically responsible for one’s self and accountable as such directly to God and to no other person. In the light of this normative perspective, Grimke’s substantive exercises in Bible interpretation had two strategies: first, to show that the texts most commonly urged as supporting women’s moral inferiority did not reasonably require that reading; and second, to point to the often ignored texts that support women’s equality as creative moral agents. As regards the former, two texts were central: the Adam and Eve narrative and the epistles of St. Paul.18

Grimke’s reading of the Adam and Eve narrative argued that it cannot reasonably be interpreted to justify women’s inferiority as God’s punishment for the Fall. In fact, both Adam and Eve shared equal moral fault in the Fall; certainly, “Adam’s ready acquiescence with his wife’s proposal, does not savor much of that superiority in strength of mind,19 which is arrogated by man.” Adam and Eve were punished by the loss of Paradise, but that punishment did not change their natures of equally morally accountable agents. Properly understood, God’s statement, “Thou will be subject unto thy husband, and he will rule over thee,”20 was a prophecy of man’s corrupt subjection of women, not a normative command for such subjection. The contrary view reflected the failure of male Bible interpreters to note the ambiguity of the pertinent Hebrew word for “will” (between the normative “shall” and the predictive “will”), a failure Grimke explained in terms of “translators…accustomed to exercise lordship over their wives, and seeing only through the medium of a perverted judgment.”21 Grimke’s hermeneutic principle was that, among two readings of an ambiguous text, the one should be preferred that better coheres with the basic normative purposes of the text as a whole—in this case, the primary ethical principle that all persons are equal moral agents.

Grimke appealed to this hermeneutic principle in repudiating the misogynist interpretation traditionally assigned to various passages in Paul’s epistles, for example, “Wives submit yourselves unto your own husbands as unto the Lord.”22 For Grimke, the traditional reading cannot be believed because it conflicted with the primary ethical principle of the Bible, the equality of all persons: “Now I must understand the sacred Scriptures as harmonizing with themselves, or I cannot receive them as the word of God.”23 Other reasonable readings were available that interpreted such passages without compromising this principle. Such passages might, for example, be contextualized to a specific historical circumstance (converted Christian women married to unconverted men) urging women in these circumstances patiently to bear the evil.24 This interpretation granted that husbands had no right to oppress women but insisted that the response to such evil not appeal to what Grimke took to be un-Christian principles of violent resistance.

Grimke’s affirmative interpretive relied heavily on the role of powerfully active female prophets in the Hebrew Bible and the comparably important role played by women as preachers in early Christianity.25 Her central claim was that the dominant Christian tradition endorsing the subjection of women was illegitimate, giving rise to an unreasonable genre of Bible interpretation that betrayed early Christianity’s treatment of women as the moral and spiritual equals of men, a view strikingly taken to similar effect today by, among others, Elaine Pagels.26

The gender binary divides human abilities (splitting reason from emotion, mind from body, self from relationship). A feminism, like Sarah Grimke’s, that challenges the gender binary challenges the role the gender binary plays in legitimating patriarchy, requiring a man not to be a woman and to be on top of the gender hierarchy in religion, ethics, culture, and politics. It is a distinctive feature of this interpretation of feminism that it focuses on the way the unjust form of the gender binary under patriarchy has disastrously injured men as well as women, dividing both from their common humanity through a psychology of traumatic broken relationships that leads to patriarchal violence between men and to such violence against women (both keyed to the codes of patriarchal honor Jesus condemned). It is not surprising that it was this kind of feminism that rediscovered the anti-patriarchal features of the Gospels, interpreting the Christianity of the Gospels as calling for a democratic equality of voice (including sexual voice) and questioning the dominant patriarchal interpretation of Augustinian Christianity that rests on the repression of such equal voice and thus rationalizes and supports the irrational prejudices that arise from the repression of voice (including sexual voice)—anti-Semitism, racism, sexism, and homophobia. It was a crucial feature of such feminism that women, straight and gay, and gay men could as much be priests as men (the priesthood of all believers), and that such equal moral and religious authority of voice was suppressed, not advanced, by the incoherence of a Protestant fundamentalism that relegates the voices of women (straight and gay) and gay men to an abject, unspeakable marginality.

These observations clarify why love between equals continues to be so threatening to many, precisely because it observes how such love expresses itself to resistance to the ways in which patriarchy distorts and destroys the responsive relationality of love. Because Christianity has been so uncritically read in the terms of Roman patriarchy, many of those most threatened by such love are themselves Christians, fundamentalist Christians who read patriarchy as nature.

What they fail to see is how the alternative anti-patriarchal reading of Christianity I propose clarifies what Jesus thought were the difficulties for us of an ethics of love under patriarchy and why he expressed these difficulties through the command to love even our enemies under the terms of a patriarchal culture that made such love unspeakable, indeed unnatural. The familiar King James version translation of Matt. 5:48 is: “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Bible, Matt., 1998, 8). Jesus models our love for one another (including loving even our enemies) on God’s love for us, as relationally responsive and responsible persons and as equals. If so, the deepest impulses within Christianity call for a love only possible for us as equals in responsible relationship, the basis for what is distinctive in contemporary feminism and gay/lesbian rights.


1 See John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus: Volume I: The Roots of the Problem and the Person (New York: Doubleday, 1991), at pp. 73-80.

2 See Ben Witherington III, (1990) Women and the Genesis of Christianity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), pp. 52-64.

3 This passage may have been so threatening to the sexism of the early church that it was not accepted into the canon until a more tolerant period. See, on this point, Raymond E. Brown, The Anchor Bible: The Gospel According to John I-XII (New York: Doubleday, 1966), p. 335. This interpretive view, though controversial among Bible scholars, is consistent with my general claim that patriarchy has distorted a reasonable understanding of the Christian tradition, including of the historical Jesus.

4 See Witherington, id., xiv, 15.

5 See David Daube, The New Testament and Rabbinic Judaism (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1998), pp. 258-9.

6 See Carol Gilligan and David A.J. Richards, The Deepening Darkness: Patriarchy, Resistance, and Democracy’s Future (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009)

7 See David Flusser, Judaism and the Origins of Christianity (Jerusalem: The Magnes Press, The Hebrew University, 1988), pp. 155-73.

8 Vincent Crapanzano, Serving the Word: Literalism in America from the Pulpit to the Bench (New York: New Press, 2000), pp. 57, 75-77, 84-7.

9 See Robin Lane Fox, The Unauthorized Version: Truth and Fiction in the Bible (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992).

10 See Fox, id., pp. 131-6.

11 See Gilligan and Richards, op. cit.

12 See Gilligan and Richards, op. cit., pp. 102-118.

13 See David A.J. Richards, Fundamentalism in American Religion and Law: Obama’s Challenge to Patriarchy’s Threat to Democracy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010)

14 Nicholas C. Bamforth and David A.J. Richards, Patriarchal Religion, Sexuality, and Gender: A Critique of New Natural Law. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008).

15 See David A.J. Richards, Women, Gays, and the Constitution: The Grounds for Feminism and Gay Rights in Culture and Law (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998).

16 See Larry Ceplair, ed., The Public Years of Sarah and Angelina Grimke: Selected Writings, 1835-1839 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1989).

17 See Larry Ceplair, id., p. 205.

18 See, for fuller discussion of her arguments, David A.J. Richards, Women, Gays, and the Constitution, pp. 95-101.

19 See Larry Ceplair, op. cit., p. 208.

20 See Larry Ceplair, id., p. 206.

21 Id., p. 207.

22 Id., p. 244.

23 Id., p. 244.

24 Id., pp. 244-45.

25 Id., pp. 250-57.

26 See, in general, Elaine Pagels, Adam, Eve, and the Serpent (New York: Random House, 1988).

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