Canterbury and Rome: Ecclesiastical Kindergarten Games

Column by Bishop John Shelby Spong on 19 November 2009 0 Comments
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The Rev. Dore' Patlian from Sarasota, Florida, writes:
I have long been an ardent admirer of your wonderful work to return Christianity to the root values of love, empowerment and healing of the body, mind and spirit. Anger and condemnation have no place in any church or group calling itself Christian. My question is, do you feel Paul and John, in particular, are responsible for much of the twisted doctrines of male domination, exclusion and hatred that are found particularly in Evangelical Protestantism? They did, as you point out, write nearly 80 percent of the New Testament, and Paul virtually invented Christianity as a religion.


Dear Dore',
I think you have collapsed a number of things into your final paragraph. Paul and John reflected the male chauvinist attitudes that were prevalent the world over at that time. As a matter of fact, I think the case could be made that Jesus was a radical feminist in the context of the first-century world. He clearly had female disciples who, according to Mark, Matthew and Luke "followed" him all the way from Galilee. John suggests that he violated religious custom by speaking to the Samaritan woman by the well. The other gospels tell of Jesus allowing the touch of the woman with a chronic menstrual flow. Jesus stood against the law when he supported the woman caught in the act of adultery. Even John portrays Magdalene as the first witness to the resurrection, which was clearly the early church's standard for apostleship. That being said, there is no doubt that in the early church dispute between those who came to be called the "Orthodox Party" and those who were called the Gnostics that the prejudice against women rose significantly when "Orthodoxy" won and when the Gnostics were defeated.
In some ways the Reformation of the 16th century was a reassertion of some Gnostic principles, and in the radical new Christianity being born today, other Gnostic understandings are being reasserted.
If we literalize the scriptures, as Christians have tended to do and which fundamentalists do without apology or hesitancy, we also literalize the prejudices of that era, which were against democracy, against people of color, against women and against homosexual persons. If on the other hand, we see the Bible as one stage of our development that is ongoing as we walk deeper and deeper into the mystery of God, we greet our emancipation from each of these prejudices with a sense of relief and joy.
That journey into the mystery of God captures the deepest essence of both Paul and John. Paul asks us to seek the full stature of Christ Jesus that is within us, and John has Jesus define his purpose as giving us life abundantly. Neither of these goals is possible if we are hardened by debilitating prejudices that violate the dignity of any child of God.
I always enjoy letters from you.


My best,

John Shelby Spong




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