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Five Beliefs I Continue to Hold About the Bible

8 June 2017: 5 Comments »

     By Eric Alexander This is the last installment in this opening series, and it was my most challenging to construct. In my opening articles: Five Beliefs I Continue to Hold About Jesus, and Five Beliefs I Continue to Hold About The Church, I had a lot of inspiration to write about what I …

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Question & Answer

Ann Kish from Indiana, writes:


A friend recently quoted 1 Peter 2:18-20 as her response to how to live in a country with civil disagreements. This concerns me as I have read about the role of the Confessing Church in WWII and believe that Christians are too often ignorant of political concerns and their role in defending the oppressed. How should we read this verse? Does it condone slavery or domestic abuse or being subservient in an undemocratic regime? What is the original context we should consider?




By Rev. Mark Sandlin

Hi Ann,

Interesting question(s). Let's cut right to the chase on verse 18. The word that's translated as “slaves” is οἰκέτης (oiketēs) which is a masculine noun that very specifically refers to someone who lives in the same house as the person they are under the authority of. It seems to me that that alone makes this very clearly a poor verse to choose if you are trying to make a statement about things of a political/national nature. Frankly, 1 Peter 2:13 would have been much better for making their point.

Back to verse 18. When read through our privileged, 21st century eyes, it's easy to understand the “masters” to be Christians, but the reality is that when 1 Peter was written (probably around 65 C.E.) Christians were much more likely to be the slaves than the masters. There are also indications that because of their beliefs, Christian slaves may have been somewhat persecuted by their masters.

For me, this is where your friend's choice of verses gets all the more interesting.

They conveniently stopped just before verse 21, but it seems to me that verse 21 is where 1 Peter's author starts to reveal what's really going on. What's really going on, at least in my opinion, is really crappy theology. Specifically, the concept of redemptive suffering. Seldom is suffering redemptive and if it were, surely humanity would be redeemed by now.

My translation of verse 21 would be something like, “For you have been called to this because Christ also suffered for us leaving us an example that you should follow in his footsteps.”

Even though I find redemptive suffering to be horrible theology, it does seem to be the underpinning that 1 Peter's author is using to encourage Christian slaves to endure the suffering that they are subjected to under their masters. The larger implication, however, is that you are doing it because you are “following in [Jesus's] footsteps.”

That's the interesting part.

Jesus's suffering on the cross happened because he stood up to the Powers That Be on behalf of all of those that the Powers were abusing. He did it loud enough and consistently enough that the Powers decided that they needed to eliminate him.

That's what “following in [Jesus's] footsteps” looks like.

Loudly and consistently confronting the Powers That Be when they are abusing their powers and making people suffer.

I have a feeling that is nowhere close to your friend's intention in using these verses, but it's definitively where I end up with them.

~ Rev. Mark Sandlin

About the Author

Mark Sandlin is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA) from the South. He currently serves at Presbyterian Church of the Covenant. He is a co-founder of The Christian Left. His blog, The God Article, has been named as one of the “Top Ten Christian Blogs.” Mark received The Associated Church Press' Award of Excellence in 2012. His work has been published on "The Huffington Post," "Sojourners," "Time," "Church World Services," and even the "Richard Dawkins Foundation." He's been featured on PBS's "Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly" and NPR's "The Story with Dick Gordon.” Follow Mark on Facebook and Twitter @marksandlin


Bishop John Shelby Spong Revisited

The Terrible Texts: The Attitude of the Bible Toward Women – Part II

Spong“If a woman conceives and bears a male child then she shall be unclean seven days; as of the time of her menstruation she shall be unclean. ——- But if she bears a female child, then she shall be unclean two weeks as in her menstruation; and she shall continue in the blood of her purifying for sixty-six days (Leviticus 12:02, 05).”

“When a woman has a discharge of blood which is her regular discharge from her body, she shall be in her uncleanness for seven days, and whoever touches her will be unclean until evening. And everything upon which she lies during her impurity shall be unclean. Everything also upon which she sits will be unclean. And whoever touches her bed shall wash his clothes and bathe himself in water and be unclean until evening (Leviticus 15:19-24).”

“You shall not approach a woman to uncover her nakedness while she is in her menstrual uncleanness (Leviticus 18:19).”

“Isn’t it true that a woman can neither pray nor fast during her menses?” (Islamic Scholar Razi commenting on Quran 4:11)

Is the male need to dominate the woman, and even to disparage her, a rational response, or is it based on some subliminal fear? One can certainly demonstrate that this need is universal, crossing all boundaries. This universality forces us to view it as a response to a human need, not a cultural response to a cultural need. It certainly cannot be understood as a particular religious response to a local need. So our search of the ‘terrible texts’ of the Bible takes us into the realm of the unspoken, and perhaps the unconscious, where taboos are born.

Why do religions almost universally require rites of purification after childbirth? What is unclean about having a baby? Why was it thought to be dangerous to bring a new mother back into the life of the clan, family or church until she had undergone some rite of purification? Why was menstruation feared in primitive societies? Why is it still covered with guilt or shame for many? Why were women isolated from the tribe during the days of their menstrual flow? What created this prejudice? Why were menstruating women thought to be so dangerous that it was said of them that they polluted the water, killed the fish, damaged the life of the clan and affected men adversely? How did this perfectly natural part of human life come to be called “the curse?” Why was it interpreted in such bizarre ways in the ancient world?

One of the early Church fathers even suggested that women were really castrated males and that menstruation was the way the female body once each month mourned its lost organ. This was to him a perfectly reasonable explanation. When all of these practices and definitions are gathered together, a mammoth body of evidence appears to point to the existence of an irrational male fear associated with menstruation. What is the content of that fear? Can we raise these questions to consciousness so that they can be confronted and perhaps banished or must we live forever under their power? Does the latent hostility of men toward women reside here?

As I mentioned in the first installment of this series, blood was so powerful a force in the ancient world that it has actually shaped our language. There was and is something mysterious about blood, so to ‘shed blood’ became a synonym for dying. In time of national crises, the state still asks its young people to give their ‘blood,’ that is their lives, to protect their nation. Our breath was identified with the spirit within, but our blood was the place where life itself resided.

Given that definition, menstruation was a profound mystery to human beings. The woman could bleed from her most secretive and intimate opening on a regular basis and despite that shedding of blood, the woman did not die. This was interpreted to mean that every woman possessed some magical power, perhaps the power of life itself.

When this assumption was combined with childbirth, its mystery was only enhanced. Pregnancy stopped the menstrual cycle for nine months. Then when the baby was born, the menstrual blood seemed to flow incessantly for days. These things were somehow combined in the ancient mind. The cessation of menstruation prior to menopause meant that life was being produced. The baby’s birth then inaugurated an uncontrollable flow. Perhaps the menses worked against life since the woman was incapable of producing life until it ceased. Perhaps when the baby was expelled, the unclean anti-life substance, which had been contained by this new life, was finally allowed to flow freely, a sure sign that the woman’s body was once more unclean. So purification rites were a necessity lest this latent death force be loosed publicly upon the clan. So myths grew about menstruation from the assumption that a woman’s hair would not curl during the menstrual cycle to the fear that the male organ might actually break off or become inoperative if intercourse took place during menstruation.

Women were thus thought to be so powerful that they could lose their blood and not die. They could also produce a new life and, in the process, actually stop the negative menstrual flow. Men feared this power and sought to capture it. Sigmund Freud, that brilliant product of an extremely patriarchal mentality, once suggested that women suffered from what he called “penis envy.” That was nothing more than a 20th century Freudian version of that myth that women were castrated males. They yearned, suggested Freud, to be made whole by having their penises restored. Freud’s conclusion was that since that could not happen physiologically, women addressed that need psychologically. Though I have great admiration for Freud’s enormous intellect, this is one place where I suggest Freud could not overcome his German predilection for male supremacy. Far from women suffering from a “penis envy,” I think a case can be made for the fact that men have suffered from a menstruation envy. Men yearned to capture that female life power that enabled them to bleed from their genitals and not die. That is, I believe, how circumcision entered the human and religious arena.

There is also something quite irrational about circumcision. The body of the male is mutilated and religious reasons are given to support it. Circumcision was originally a male puberty rite. It did not become an infancy rite until much later in history. Attempts to defend this practice on the basis of some presumed health value are so fanciful as to be amusing. These explanations suggest that the foreskin is difficult to clean so that it subjects the penis to potential infections. Circumcision was therefore designed to be a pre-emptive strike, a preventive measure. Does that not sound irrational? Ears are difficult to clean. Ears get infections. Yet no one that I know of has suggested that they be cut off to prevent those possibilities. There is a better solution it seems, namely to wash them. Why isn’t that procedure applied to the foreskin?

Then the suggestion has been made that circumcision protects one’s wife or partner from infection. Once again, a good shower before sex would seem to be equally effective and much less traumatic. Have we gotten to the place where we think surgery improves on creation? Did the foreskin, like the appendix, originally have some purpose that has now become lost? When that purpose is no more, is the foreskin rendered redundant so that life is actually thought to improve when the foreskin is removed? The foreskin was designed to roll back during sexual excitement and thus to provide a ridge of flesh that enhances sexual pleasure. Both the men who have been circumcised and their partners have had their pleasure diminished by this essentially barbaric practice perpetrated first in the name of religion and now widely practiced for its “health benefits.” It was also probably defended because of the extra fee charged by the doctor to perform this surgical procedure today, primarily on newborn baby boys. What is this all about? How did this strange practice enter the human experience?

I would wager that circumcision began in a male attempt to capture the woman’s menstrual power. Circumcision enabled the man, just like the woman, to bleed from the genitals at puberty and not die. It became an initiation into manhood, part of the rites of passage. It was both feared and anticipated equally, the pain being offset by the expectation of adult sexual pleasures. Its original impetus, I submit, was male envy, this need to demonstrate that men could, by being circumcised, capture menstrual power. They too could bleed from their genitals at puberty and still survive.

These thoughts were, at their inception, quite unacceptable and so they were pushed deep into the unconscious. However, what was not suppressed was the fear of women’s power that manifested itself in the constant male oppression of women, the pejorative male definitions imposed upon women and the long and brutal patriarchal abuse of women. When one quotes God to justify prejudices and to uphold definitions of inferiority and inadequacy in fifty percent of the human race, one should look beneath the level of rationality to find the reason why.

The woman’s presumed inability to function fully during the days of her menstrual flow has been used, in our pre-sanitary pad history, to keep her in protected domestic rather than in vulnerable public roles and thus to enhance her servitude. Underneath the Christian Church’s historic negativity to the ordination of women has been the fear that this would admit polluting women into the sanctuaries of church life. Behind the medieval practice of limiting church choirs to men and boys was the need to guarantee that holy places would not be corrupted by the presence of menstruating women. Is it not time to force these insights into consciousness and to purge this ancient ignorance and this patriarchal fear from our lives? The place to start this process is to challenge those “terrible texts” of the Bible that have presumed to define both women and menstruation as unclean. It is also time to redefine the claim made for this book, that somehow, it contains the very “words of God,” and to remove that book from its position of power that has allowed irrational ignorance such as this to flow from its religious pipelines into the corporate life of our society.

Anything that diminishes the life of a human being cannot be of God, if God is understood as the Source of life. Next week I will go back to the Bible and examine its oldest creation story (Gen.2: 4-25), which presented the woman as higher than the animals but still not fully human. For in that original tale of creation only the man was created in the image of God.

~ John Shelby Spong

Originally Published December 31, 2003



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