On The Baby and The Bathwater by Liz Cooledge Jenkins

It wasn’t until seminary—and even then, only sporadically—that I learned that many of the foundational figures in Western Christianity held some incredibly sexist attitudes. Somehow, in all my years of attending church, hearing sermons, participating in (and leading) Bible study groups, reading Christian books, and working in ministry, I had missed this historical reality. I just hadn’t thought about it. And the (mostly white male) Christian leaders who shaped my own faith apparently hadn’t thought about it, either. That, or they didn’t think it was important enough to talk about. Or they intentionally tried to keep it on the down low. Or some combination of these things.

In seminary, when influential theologians’ sexist views came up in class, inevitably someone would say—in a wise-sounding tone—“Well, we don’t want to throw out the baby with the bathwater, do we?”

Over time, I began to find this sentiment troubling. We don’t want to throw out the baby with the bathwater. There’s something to it, of course. No human is perfect. No historical theologian was perfect. If we threw out every (Western male) theologian who said some messed up stuff, we would not have much of a (Western male-dominated) Christian tradition left. And, in my view, there are some good things in that tradition. At its best, it is a tradition of love for God and love for people—the things Jesus named as the greatest commandments.[1] It is the tradition of Saint Jerome (347-420 CE), who honored the Roman widow Marcella’s wise leadership and sharp intellect, using biblical examples of female ministers to defend himself against male contemporaries who criticized him for “laboring so long over the praises of the ladies.”[2] It is the tradition of Saint Francis (1181-1226 CE), who gave up material possessions and committed his life to serving the poor because he saw Christ in them. For me, there is much worth keeping.

At the same time, though, we don’t want to throw out the baby with the bathwater seems to suggest that the bathwater isn’t really a terribly big deal. It suggests that a theologian’s sexist views didn’t really matter—that we can easily ignore them and move on. But the reality is more complicated. The bathwater is not so obvious and clear-cut; it is not so readily excised. When influential theologians were deeply sexist, it does matter—because women matter. If we overlook theologians’ roles in forming and perpetuating oppressive systems, we exonerate these thinkers too easily. We make light of misogyny in our present-day reality.

Moreover, the bathwater affects the baby. All aspects of a person’s thinking are interconnected. There is no worthwhile, precious, living portion of a theologian’s views that is somehow protected from the water it swims in, immune from the influence of this water seeping into its every pore. Misogyny, like white supremacy, is one of those things that poisons everything it touches. It makes people unwilling to learn from the exact people they desperately need to learn from—women, for example, and/or people of color. It keeps people from seriously and respectfully engaging with those who might be able to help them see things differently. It keeps people with power from questioning how they came to hold that power and whether they are actually using that power for good—for the flourishing of all people, as opposed to only people in their immediate spheres, those who look like them and think like them.

I don’t necessarily think we should take all the sexist male theologians out of seminary curricula—although we definitely need to balance them with female theologians, which involves recovering women’s voices that have been devalued and silenced.[3] The Western Christian tradition is what many of us have inherited, and understanding its traditional canon of thinkers can help us better understand how and why Christianity developed as it has. I don’t want to pretend these thinkers haven’t been influential. But I do want to learn how to speak of them more honestly. I want seminaries and churches and other faith communities to learn how to speak of them more honestly.

This is not an easy road. It takes courage to look theologians’ flaws in the face, especially if we love some things these theologians said. But we can do it, together. We can learn to think about thinkers in a more nuanced way. We can talk about the aspects of a theologian’s context that may have led him to think the way he did. We can reflect on the aspects of our own contexts that have led us to think the way we do. We can consider, together, how not to perpetuate a theologian’s sexist lines of thinking—how to build something better together. We can push back against attempts to hide theologians’ misogyny behind nice-sounding aphorisms. No one except oppressive power structures is served when we look the other way.


[1] In Matthew 22:37-39 (NIV), Jesus says: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’This is the first and greatest commandment.And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”

[2] Elizabeth A. Clark, Women in the Early Church, 207.

[3]As Beth Allison Barr writes in The Making of Biblical Womanhood, “Women’s leadership has been forgotten, because women’s stories throughout history have been covered up, neglected, or retold to recast women as less significant than they really were” (p. 84).

BIO Liz Cooledge Jenkins is a writer, preacher, and former college campus minister who lives in Burien, WA. She regularly shares justice-minded biblical reflections, poems, “super chill book reviews,” and more at lizcooledgejenkins.com. When not writing or reading, you can find her swimming, hiking, attempting to grow vegetables, and/or drinking a lot of tea. You can also find her on FB (Liz Cooledge Jenkins, Writer) and Instagram (@lizcoolj).



Categories: Bible, Christianity, Feminism, Feminism and Religion, Feminist Awakenings, General

Tags: , , , ,

5 replies

  1. Thank you, Liz, for this post. You shine a light on that tension between “tradition” and new understanding/interpretation of sacred texts based on the experiences of people in the “here and now.” Cultures/societies move forward. Institutions are good at lagging behind the needs of real people. Unfortunately, a traditional understanding of Scripture often keeps those people who are not like those who wield power on the periphery.

    Hope you will post again!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. “We can consider, together, how not to perpetuate a theologian’s sexist lines of thinking—how to build something better together.” I love this line especially. To me, the teaching of Jesus is unambiguous on the point of celebrating everyone’s full personhood and instrinsic value, whether in the Beatitudes or commands like “love thy neighbor as thyself” so I don’t see how someone whose life does not embrace that teaching can create authentic theology. There are so many thealogians/theologians who grant equal humanity to all people, whether academics or activists who practice an embodied thealogy/theology, from many religions and spiritual traditions who are already creating wise, insightful, joyful, and deeply compassionate theologies/theologies that should be taught in schools of divinity and elsewhere. Please do keep writing for FAR!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Excellent examination of that old metaphor. Too often, people hide behind metaphors, which help them not think about issues. But you jumped right into that “bathwater” and perhaps rescued the baby. Flush that water down the drain! (See? I’ve just used it, too. Haha.)

    I think that if Christians reread, paid attention to, and acted on the messages in the Sermon on the Mount, then that religion would be freer and kinder and certainly less sexist. But, no–they’d rather listen to and be led by the old white men, starting with Pseudo-Saint Paul. Alas. Let’s especially remember the Beatitudes. “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.” (Actually, all eight of them. And the rest of the Sermon, too.)

    Bright blessings to your work. Thanks for writing and posting this blog. Write some more for us!

    Liked by 3 people

  4. Well considered argument and I agree with you completely. Thank you.

    Like

  5. Yes. And the irony is that “love for people” somehow doesn’t interfere with their contempt for women, and failure to perceive women AS people.

    Liked by 2 people

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