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Pope John Paul II was a feminist!

Tuesday, 18 May 2010  | Kevin Giles

The Pope’s teaching
In his 1988 authoritative encyclical, Mulieris Dignitatem, Pope John Paul II broke completely with the traditional interpretation of Genesis 1-3, arguing that these chapters do not subordinate women to men in creation prior to the Fall. Women’s subordination, he ruled, is a consequence of sin (Gen. 3:16) and is thus to be opposed by Christians. The reason why the Catholic Church opposes the ordination of women, the Pope added, is because the twelve apostles were all men. (This conclusion would seem to be inconsistent: the sexes are essential equals but not when it comes to ordination).

Here we should note that interpretation of Genesis 1-3 is the most important exegetical issue in the debate about the status and ministry of women. For one side Gen 1-3 is read to make the subordination of women the God-given ideal. For the other side Gen 1-3 is read to make the essential equality of the sexes the God-given ideal. Paul’s writings are then read one way or the other in the light of the prior interpretation given to Gen 1-3.

In the Catholic and evangelical discussions on the status and ministry of men and women three terms are particularly significant and need to be defined: ‘equal’, ‘different’, ‘complementary’.

Everyone in this debate affirm the ‘equality’ of the sexes but for those who believe God has given men authority over women this term alludes only to ‘spiritual equality’- equality in sin and salvation. The Pope, like egalitarian evangelicals, insists in contrast that spiritual equality demands social equality. Men and women should be accorded equality of opportunity to use God-given gifts of leadership.

Again all agree men and women are ‘different’. They have different bodies, chromosomes, and genes and have a different part to play in procreation. For Catholics and many evangelicals these differences do not prescribe what men and women can or cannot do, except in the baby business. They are seen first and foremost as co-humanity. However, for some evangelicals biology supposedly prescribes certain roles to men and women, most importantly the ‘headship role’ to men and the ‘subordination role’ to women. Pope John-Paul II made an important contribution to the debate about sexual differentiation by locating sexual differentiation primarily in the body, which he says is the outward and visible form of the human spirit - i.e. who ‘I’ am. He opposes the idea that it is based in power relations.


Yet again both sides in this debate agree that men and women complement each other. They however mean different things by this affirmation. The word ‘complementary’ refers to what ‘completes’ the whole, or to what when taken together is greater than the sum of the parts. I call these the partitive and the additive understandings of this word. For those evangelicals who co-opt the term ‘complementarian’ to designate their hierarchical understanding of the male-female relationship the word is given a partitive meaning – men provide the leadership women lack. When Pope-John Paul used the word he used it in the additive sense as do egalitarian evangelicals. The sexes complement each other in the sense that men and women together are more than one sex alone

The ‘co-equal’ Trinity
It should also be noted that no Roman Catholic theologian in any way gives support for the novel evangelical ‘doctrine’ of the eternal subordination of the Son in role and authority. For all Catholics and confessional Protestants, such as Anglicans and Lutherans, the Athanasian Creed is binding. This declares all three divine persons are one in power and ‘co-equal’, ‘none before or after, greater or lesser.’

Kevin Giles has served as an Anglican Minister for forty years. He has written widely on women in the Bible, the church, ministry in the apostolic age, and the Trinity as model for mutually enriching relationships and church health. Kevin will be one of the Key Speakers at the CBE (Christians for Biblical Equality) International Conference to be held in Melbourne June 11-14 www.cbe.org.au


Alasdair Livingston
February 2, 2011, 10:32PM
I do not agree that men and women are "equal" in any sound meaning of the word. It is a mathematical term, and implies measurement. In just about anything measurable (height, hairiness, hormones or haemoglobin) men and women (on average) are unequal. However, I confess I have no offer of a word to replace "equality" as a description of the true relationship between the sexes. Would "consistent" do? Perhaps another contributor can suggest one.
Gen. 1;27 clearly states that the woman is just as much an expression of God's image as the man: it follows that there is both maleness and femaleness in God, though he immeasurably transcends both.
While I understand Scripture unequivocally to give the husband the leadership role in the family, it is in a context of mutual submission. It is a medicine for a fallen race, not an expression of the original paradisal condition.
The husband's task, as I see it (and I do not claim to have fulfilled it well), is to make his leadership so light that his wife is scarcely aware of it: that is, to approach the paradisal condition as nearly as possible. We are to love our wives as Christ loved the church, and gave himself up for her (Eph.5;25). True love is sacrifice.
October 21, 2011, 8:01PM
Nowhere in the Bible do I see instructions for a husband to 'lead' his wife i.e. take charge in what happens in the family and relationship. I see plenty that say provide, love, honour and even obey, but none that say he can have his way over hers.

I believe a husband does have SOME headship, but that headship role is ONLY to love and provide for his family. It doesn't make the wife less equal or important, or even less capable of doing this role herself, it simply takes the responsibility off of her. When Paul was describing the love and mutual submission in marriage, he was describing how the two sexes can do it for each other. For a man, his act of love and submission is to treat his wife like he would his own body and to love her like Jesus loved the Church. Yes Jesus did give guidance as part of that love, but also remember Jesus came for the benefit of humanity, and said he came to serve. This kind of caring 'authority' does require a degree of submission on the wife's part, and that's fine. But that role doesn't extend to him being allowed to dictate and have the final say - that behaviour is NOT ordained in the Bible and if it takes away her happiness and freedom, it counts as sin. God doesn't give anyone the authority to sin. And while the verse says he should love like Jesus, it doesn't say he should lead 'over her' like Jesus. No verse does, except Gen 3:16 which is description of sin, NOT a command or ideal. If it's sin, the ideal is the opposite.

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