John Calvin on Women

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In late October a friend of mine told me about some quotes of Calvin’s she had read that seemed to point to him being a sexist male chauvinist. I went on a wild goose chase and hunted down these quotes and what people were saying about them, read some context surrounding his quotes, and have come back to my original conclusion. John Calvin was not a sexist male chauvinist. ‘Tis true. My own research, as well as the research done by many who have made a lifetime of studying this topic, declare otherwise. John Calvin haters will always hate, but if they actually carefully read what he wrote on women, they would find that he was no radical. His theology on women fits pretty well within the complementarian box, which was actually quite rare in his day. Calvin’s views on women were no different from the Apostle Paul’s. Woman was created from man, to be his helper, and thus holds an earthly rank that could be called inferior to the rank given to the man. But Calvin was careful to point out that spiritually, and in regards to the humanness of man and women, they are equal. Unlike many theologians before him who thought woman was the more “sinful” of the genders (Aquinas was one of these), Calvin points out example after example of how a woman’s uniquely-created gifts bless not only her husband and children, but also the entire world. She does not have to have the same ranking as her husband to be equally used of God for furthering His kingdom. I don’t have the space here to quote every example of this that I found in Calvin’s commentaries, but I am putting it all in my book.

Even an essay by Jane Dempsey Douglass in the book Religion and Sexism (not exactly the place I’d expect to find it) revealed that John Calvin had a beautifully biblical view of women and their role in the family, culture, and church. She describes the “new” theology that the Reformation taught, and proves how this theology elevated women and gave them more freedom than the previous medieval and Roman Catholic perspective. Several other researchers and writers agree with Douglass’s statement that:

“The protestant doctrines of Christian vocation and the priesthood of all believers, along with a new view of marriage, did in fact tend to change the image and role of women in the direction of greater personal freedom and responsibility, both immediately and over the centuries.” (p. 141 in Religion and Sexism)

The doctrine of Christian vocation placed equal honor on the work of the field-laborer, the merchant, the mother, and the housekeeper, as on the pastor or preacher. All vocations that are not outside of the law of God, are blessed of God, and holy when done to the glory of God. Therefore, the wife and mother who found herself entirely occupied by the tasks of “taking pains about housewifery, making clean her children when they be arrayed, killing fleas, and other such like,” as Calvin writes, is giving “sacrifices which God accepteth & receiveth, as if they were things of great price and honourable.” (A Sermon of Master John Calvin, upon the first Epistle of Paul, to Timothie, published for the benefit and edifying of the Church of God [London: G. Bishop and T. Woodcoke, 1579], excerpted from Calvin’s sermon on 1 Timothy 2:13-15)

The doctrine of the priesthood of all believers freed all women to have as deep a relationship with their Lord Jesus Christ as was previously only attributed to men and nuns. Calvin used many of the stories of women in the Bible to bring out rich and nourishing commentary designed to encourage women in their faith. He writes of the power of women’s prayers, of the beautiful honor of the resurrected Christ appearing first to the women, and then with almost breathless wonder, he describes the miraculous way that women have been gifted to defeat the effects sin by bringing children into the world. His practice was no different than his writing. In 1541 during Calvin’s time in Geneva, the city set up its first Protestant school for young girls. Calvin also was the one who suggested a change in the divorce law of the city so that women could initiate divorce proceedings as well as men (within the lawful biblical parameters for divorce, of course). The Protestant Reformation, and particularly the reformation in Switzerland, brought the first instance of women joining their voices with men during the congregational singing during church, and one refugee visitor to Calvin’s church described, with great pathos, the grandeur of “women and men singing together.”

The new view of marriage which Bucer, Luther, and many other reformers held, gave women a more hopeful perspective in the way they viewed themselves and their work. Previous to the reformation, women were considered to be the cause of lust. According to some church fathers, women were specially gifted with all the pleasing characteristics that caused good men to stumble. Therefore, righteous men who were not “gifted” with celibacy or could not take the vow of the monk, married to escape the sin of lust. Yet even then, marriage was “second best” because it allowed physical intercourse, and celibacy was the ideal, if it could be achieved. Virginity received special rewards in heaven, and women who could deny every womanly desire for a husband and children were the most revered.

After the Reformation, as many historians have pointed out, the new role of “pastor’s wife” was formed. Though she was not up front teaching, she was ministering to the congregation in her own womanly way. We see this in Idelette Calvin, who could take dictation for her husband in Latin when his secretary wasn’t available, and who visited sick beds with Calvin, and who helped Calvin to open their home to house and feed many wayfaring strangers.

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