Respected feminist theologian Dr Niamh M. Middleton says that while society has made great strides towards enshrining equality and inclusivity, the Christian Church remains a resolutely sexist and discriminatory institution where women are still largely treated as a second sex.

In her new book Jesus and Women: Beyond Feminism, Dr Middleton provides a damning appraisal of the present-day Church’s institutional sexism which is in stark contrast to the views and actions of Jesus Christ.

In this exclusive article, Dr Middleton reflects on the #MeToo movement and how, in light of this, it is now more pressing than ever for the Church to rid itself of its fundamentally unchristian attitudes towards women.

By Dr Niamh M. Middleton

The #MeToo movement went viral on social media in 2017 due to sexual abuse allegations against film producer Harvey Weinstein. It has expanded greatly on the findings of first and second wave feminism with regard to the extent of male dominance over women as well as male sexual violence against them. The movement—a major aim of which is to show solidarity and support for women who have survived sexual abuse—could only have emerged after decades of feminist activism against sexual harassment and assault of women in the workplace. The concept of sexual harassment would have been meaningless in the pre-modern era; it constitutes a historical development in morality that could only emerge with the phenomenon of well-educated women entering the workforce.

The movement has demonstrated that sexual coercion is built into the fabric of society and can be closely associated with the phrase ‘the way of the world’. The power of social position carries its own in-built psychological force; men in positions of power can bestow or withhold the resources they control depending on the sexual compliance or otherwise of women. The movement has revealed such abuses of power in show business, the fashion industry, politics and academia as well as in normal businesses.

#MeToo has, however, stimulated reform in workplaces to make sexual harassment more difficult and is also transforming how people perceive the relationship between gender and power. Monica Lewinsky is an example of how #MeToo has transformed understanding of it. While her sexual relationship in the 1990s as a young White House Intern with President Bill Clinton led to his impeachment, he was able to move on from the scandal while Monica bore the brunt of blame and shame. In 2017 she tweeted the #MeToo hashtag, implying that her relationship with Clinton was an abusive one. In a Vanity Fair article in 2018 she explained how, looking back with the benefit of hindsight on their relationship, she realised that although it was consensual, due to the age gap and his position of power it constituted an ‘abuse of power’. In a recent interview, Lewinsky discussed the way in which #MeToo had liberated her from two decades of shame and notoriety. As she pointed out, the legacies of powerful men and vilified women are now being re-examined.

The male dominance that #MeToo has been fighting is still deeply entrenched in the Christian Church, especially in relation to the sexual double standard that—as evidenced in Monica Lewinsky’s story—demands far higher levels of sexual chastity from women than from men.

Dr Niamh M. Middleton’s new book, Jesus and Women: Beyond Feminism, exposes the Church’s discriminatory attitudes towards women as fundamentally unchristian
Dr Niamh M. Middleton’s new book, Jesus and Women: Beyond Feminism, exposes the Church’s discriminatory attitudes towards women as fundamentally unchristian

In my new book Jesus and Women: Beyond Feminism, which has just been published by The Lutterworth Press, I draw upon the latest insights from evolutionary biology to increase understanding of why this is so. Religion and politics evolved in tandem with one another as a means of ensuring male dominance over women. Religion has always supported patriarchal power systems and has been used as a force for the social control of women.

#MeToo has highlighted the fact that women are no longer prepared to be treated as a second sex either inside or outside the Church. There has been a massive fall off in female Christian practice due to the fact that Church patriarchal structures are now more sexist and morally judgemental of women than those of secular society.  Roman Catholicism’s all-male hierarchy, in particular, has led to a rigidly sexist and misogynistic treatment of women.

As I demonstrate in my book, the deeply entrenched sexism in the institutional Church is fundamentally unchristian. The insights from evolutionary biology and #MeToo discussed above highlight the revolutionary attitude of Jesus towards women in a new way that illuminates the way forward for women and can also greatly enrich our understanding of his divinity.

The Gospel texts depict Jesus’ treatment of women in an era when the alliance of Judaism with Jewish politics was particularly harsh on women, especially in relation to the double standard. Jesus accepted women as his disciples and allowed them to travel around with him at a time when they were not allowed to be educated and were segregated from the public sphere. He also befriended and defended women he encountered who were ostracised for sexual offences or diseases. Also, his eloquent and poetic use of female metaphors in his preaching and storytelling reflect a keen awareness of women’s work, joys and tribulations.

His loving and egalitarian treatment of women attracted serious hostility from the male religious establishment and was undoubtedly a factor in their determination to have him crucified. It can be deduced from the ministry of Jesus that one of its main aims was to initiate the restoration of the harmony between the sexes described in Genesis 1, a harmony that was inseparable from the joint dominion over creation given to men and women by God. The status of women in the early Church reflected their treatment by its founder. Women shared the same ministries as those of men, including the supervision of the Eucharist. When Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire, the usual male tribalistic relationship between religion and politics re-emerged and women were once again treated as an inferior sex.

The Church has a very important lesson to learn from the #MeToo movement in order to ensure the survival of Christianity. The movement expands upon our evolutionary knowledge of how the male ‘will to power’ has caused the cultural evolution of patriarchal systems and institutions that provide a context for abuses of power. Ironically, given the Church’s patriarchal power structures, #MeToo provides a striking new perspective on the way in which the path taken by its founder is directly opposite to the one that has led to both secular and religious patriarchal power systems. As Saint Paul points out in Corinthians, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave…..He humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross”.

Dr Niamh M. Middleton, formerly a lecturer in theology and philosophy at Dublin City University, says that Jesus’ inclusive attitude towards women has been supressed in the Church for more than one thousand years to preserve male dominance in politics and religion
Dr Niamh M. Middleton, formerly a lecturer in theology and philosophy at Dublin City University, says that Jesus’ inclusive attitude towards women has been supressed in the Church for more than one thousand years to preserve male dominance in politics and religion

Jesus’ path of voluntary humiliation from divinity, to incarnation down to ‘death on a cross’ both reverses and highlights the entrenched male desire for status and prestige. In further direct contrast to institutional Christianity, Jesus spent his ministry travelling and working on equal terms with a group composed of both male and female disciples.

The path taken by Jesus in his redemptive ministry should now be applied to the body of his Church. Changes in Church patriarchal structures can only be initiated and guided by Christian women, members of the non-hierarchical sex. Due to their treatment by the Church and ability to fully appreciate our new knowledge of Jesus’ revolutionary treatment of women, they will know how to achieve male/female equality and complementarity in the Church, both lay and ordained, in a truly Christian way.

A non-hierarchical, non-elitist environment will also provide the best context within which to follow the loving example of the Church’s founder, whose legendary statement “I am the way, the truth and the life” has achieved a new significance thanks to #MeToo. It will remove opportunities and temptations for power abuse and will not attract in overly-ambitious males. Its male members will be freed from feeling that they have to compete with one another and will be encouraged and enabled to fully express their capacities for empathy and compassion.

In parallel fashion, women will be enabled to fulfil their ministerial and leadership abilities. It is, in fact, only the Church—by following in the path of its founder—that can be an exemplar to the political sphere of how it should be structured. Its overall impact on the public sphere will be as liberating for men as for women.

As I argue in my book, while politics can deal with the symptoms of the perennial ‘battle of the sexes’, only a revolution of grace can restore the harmony between the sexes described in Genesis—a harmony that will provide the basis for world harmony.

Jesus and Women: Beyond Feminism by Niamh M. Middleton is available now via Amazon, priced £20 in paperback, £14.46 as an eBook and £57.28 in hardcover. The book can also be purchased directly from  The Lutterworth Press. For more information visit



We speak to feminist theologian Dr Niamh Middleton about her faith, her ground-breaking work on reconciling science and religion, and why she is calling out the Christian Church on the issue of sexual inequality in her new book, Jesus and Women.

Q. You were, at one time, an atheist before embracing Catholicism. How did you come to re-evaluate your beliefs and find your faith?

A. As a feminist and former atheist who stumbled into studying theology almost by accident, I will never forget my initial shock at encountering a Jesus in the Gospels with whom I was wholly unfamiliar. This Jesus had a revolutionary attitude towards women that was strikingly at odds with the ethos of the Church. My theological studies, most significantly my reading of the Gospel texts, caused me to have a wonderful ‘born again’ Christian experience.

Q. What would you say your faith has brought to your life?      

A. It has given me hope and purpose, as well as guidance for my way of life. It has made me a more compassionate person than I used to be, and helped to deepen my relationships.

Q. As an academic with an interest in evolutionary biology, how do you reconcile evolution with Christian doctrine?

A. My research on the implications of evolutionary biology for Christian morality led to me writing my previous book, Homo Lapsus, in which I demonstrate how evolutionary biology provides empirical support for Christian teachings on the related issues of human origins, the origin of evil, and the existence of a beneficent Deity.

Q. How does an understanding of evolutionary biology help inform our understanding of religion?

A. Religion and politics evolved in tandem with one another in support of male patriarchal power structures. As a result, religion has always been used as a force for the social control of women. A crucial distinction must therefore be made between religion as a phenomenon and the unique characteristics of individual religions when they were under the control of their founders.

Q. Britain and Ireland are becoming increasingly secular societies. Why do you think religion is still vital to the functioning of society?

A. The logical conclusion of the belief that there’s no transcendent dimension to existence is that life has no objective purpose or meaning. For persistent moral motivation people need to believe in a spiritual dimension to existence. Such belief is especially important in this scientific era as, without it, human beings will be defined purely as economic units and products to be perfected which, given that we are on the cusp of a new technological revolution, could lead to a dystopian future.

In her fiery new book, Jesus and Women, Dr Niamh Middleton makes a convincing argument for a revolution in grace that must be led by Christian women.
In her fiery new book, Jesus and Women, Dr Niamh Middleton makes a convincing argument for a revolution in grace that must be led by Christian women.

Q. As a feminist Catholic theologian, what is your perspective on the ongoing refusal of the Catholic Church to ordain female priests?

A. The early Church reflected the treatment of women by its founder; they shared equal ministries with men. Once Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire that situation dramatically regressed. Roman Catholicism, the largest and founding denomination, was shaped by the Roman Empire and remains extremely political and sexist.

Q. Why did you think it important to write Jesus and Women, and what do you hope it will achieve?

A. It’s main aim is to show that a combination of insights from evolutionary biology, feminism and the #MeToo movement highlights the revolutionary attitude of Jesus towards women in a way that illuminates the way forward for women in both the Church and society. I am hoping the book will encourage Christian women to campaign together to reclaim the status they had in the early Church, as this will be necessary for the gaining of female equality in both the Church and the public sphere.

Q. Why do you believe that the transformation of the Church must be led by women?

A. The new perspective on the divinity of Jesus facilitated by evolutionary biology and feminism can initially only be understood by Christian women. For this reason only they can propel the Church into the next phase of its journey.

Q. Your book highlights the way Diana, Princess of Wales should be seen as a religious heroine and an archetype of the harmful impact of gender inequality within the Church. Can you explain more?

A. If Shakespeare were alive today, he would undoubtedly write one of his greatest plays about her. Only a modern British female royal could highlight the male tribalistic link between religion and politics due to the close association of the British monarchy with the Church of England. The rights and freedoms gained by women due to second wave feminism had given rise to a generation of women with a degree of autonomy that would eventually lead to the #MeToo movement. Diana, a woman of her time, due to her openness, humility and exceptionally Christian charitable works, became immensely popular with women. The male establishment’s treatment of her after the breakdown of her marriage to crown Prince Charles exemplified how the sexual double standard impacts with particular harshness on royal wives who have traditionally been expected to endure their monarchical husband’s infidelities while remaining loyal and faithful themselves. It also revealed the religious and political pressures put upon them to be role models of submission and compliance for all women. In the modern era of mass media, this led to Diana becoming a martyr for her sex. 

Q. Can you realistically see the Catholic Church transforming its attitudes towards women in the coming years?

A. The massive falloff in female practice which has contributed significantly to the rising rates of atheism will hopefully provide a catalyst for such a transformation.


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