Because of Eve: Historical and Theological Survey of he Subjugation of Women in the Christian Tradition
By Joseph E. Early, Jr.
A Review by Dwight A. Moody
What stunning material Joseph E. Early gathers for us in this comprehensive review of our Christian tradition!
I am shocked at what I have read. Having grown up in an increasingly egalitarian context; and having been educated among scholars who hold women in high esteem as preachers and ministers, I was not prepared for the vitriol that has passed for Christian commentary about women down through the ages. It is heart-breaking.
Church father Tertullian wrote about women: “You are the devil’s gateway; you are the unsealer of that (forbidden) tree; you are the first deserter of the divine law…. On account of your desert—that is, death, even the son of God had to die” (81). Renaissance scholar Erasmus described women as “gossips, superstitious, and slanderers” (179). Twentieth century fundamentalist William Bell Riley encouraged potential ministers to “suppress your wife’s ambition, and quiet her tongue” (268).
There are scores of these quotes from men in high places in the Church, demeaning women and repudiating their capacity to serve and lead. My favorite, of those quoted by Early, is that from A. R. Funderburk, who claimed: “Every man has a quantity of dynamite … in him. The matches have, as a rule, been in the hands of the world’s womanhood” (269)!!
Shock aside, I must note that Dr. Early, a professor of Church History, Theology, and Ethics at Campbellsville University in Kentucky, has done a splendid job of surveying what men have written about women over the course of three thousand years. He begins with the Hebrew Bible and ends with documents and quotes from as recent as 2019.
And he covers most of the Christian landscape: Evangelical, Protestant, Catholic, and Pentecostal. He omits modern Orthodoxy; neither does he include some sects on the margins, like Latter Day Saints and Jehovah’s Witnesses. A scholar must draw the line somewhere, I suppose.
Three over-riding impressions are struggling for preeminence in my mind right now as I think about all the things I have read. First, the creation narratives of Genesis—Adam and Eve—play a dominant role in the Christian theological tradition (even though Eve is a very minor character in biblical literature). These stories are interpreted as proscribing human behavior (the submission of the woman to the man) rather than describing human behavior.
As a theologian myself, I contend that these stories (in reference to the origin of all things, the relations of male to female, the presence of violence and evil, and the celebration of the sabbath) are meant to explain the meaning of existing realities rather than demand that things be done in a certain way. In other words, the social realities these stories describe pre-date the biblical stories about their origin and meaning. Flipping the script like this, it seems to me, helps to undermine their prescriptive power.
Second, I shake my head, again and again, at how it has been men who have proscribed the place and power of women in the history of the Church (and the world!). Early does include a few references to the female mystics of the Middle Ages and, in modern times, to the female scholars and activists for social change. But mostly, by a wide margin, it is men who have been telling women what they are, what they can do and say, and how they are to behave. This continues right down to the contemporary Christian world: male dominated power structures in the Roman Catholic Church and in the Evangelical Church still proscribe what women can say, even where they can stand, certainly how they can serve.
My chief question is: why do women allow this?
Finally, I note that Early writes as a historian and a theologian and not as a sociologist. The focus in this book is documents not data! The sociology of religion is the rising star in our professional sky, and scholars of that sort describe for us, not what those in power are writing but how others are actually living, and working, and thinking. In our era of opinion polls, Early opens no window into the recently enlarge room of public opinion: what do people in the pews today, men and women, think about our misogynistic traditions and our repressive practices?
That is another book, and I don’t criticize Dr. Early for failing to write that book! I commend him for a scholarly survey—that’s what he calls it and so will I—of our sad and disgraceful history. As for me, I am about to be installed as the fourth pastor in the history of a Baptist church in North Carolina. I will be the first male and