Women and the Early Christian Church

The New Testament from a Literary and Historical Perspective

History 015B: New Testament Studies
Profs. Buck & Luotto
Copyright © 1993 B. A. Collie Collier

The evolution of a cultural phenomenon can often be tracked by its response to independent thought, minorities, and women. The early Christian Church is a good example of this. In its initial stages it sought acceptance by recruiting from the disaffected and those who had nothing to lose by repudiating the status quo. However, as it moved through the different stages of growth within the culture, it became less of a resistance movement to some established situation, and more a part of the environment from which it sprang. Its final position was to be an integral part of the culture, and thus very interested in maintaining the same status quo it earlier sought to disrupt.

By examining the status of women within the Church, we can see the assimilation of the Church by the culture. This is shown by the culture's norms being slowly and forcibly applied to the emerging establishment Church, in spite of the fact that these very norms contradict the earlier teachings of the Church's founder. Thus the letters of Paul, while somewhat contradictory on the subject of women, do allow for women priests, apostles, and traveling teachers. The Pastoral letters, on the other hand, are written by members of the establishment Church and reveal a very different view of the place of women both within everyday life and within the Church.

If one looks at the members of a sect, one sees those who do not fit into everyday life. Thus Jesus is accused of (not congratulated on) being friends with tax collectors, Samaritans, and prostitutes. All of these people are considered non-people in one fashion or another by the Jewish culture. Some of these non-people are women. Note that Jesus believed all these people deserved a chance at being saved, and treated them all well, with a shocking disregard for the mores of the time. All he asked was for them to depart from the established cultural norms. As these very norms were what condemned these people to positions of powerlessness and alienation within the culture, they were easy to reject. Indeed, the disaffected, joined together in faith in Jesus' preachings, found a new security and strength in their numbers. Because of their new-found freedom from the old norms, they were able to create new norms for themselves. Thus women, a large percentage of the disaffected, became free from the cultural chains Judaism imposed upon them. They were not free from persecution for their beliefs, but they made that very persecution a bonding experience for all of them. Indeed, Jesus' imminent and apocalyptic return would be the beginning of life everlasting for them all. This was part of the message of the new Christ -- all are welcome in the kingdom of heaven, all can be saved.

As Christianity became more established, and moved into the cultic phase of its growth, more women were attracted to its teachings. The Church was beginning to have more and more "hero" teachers, women and men who could do miraculous things. This was in appearance a somewhat egalitarian situation -- all one seemed to need was faith in Jesus Christ, rather than a particular set of sexual organs. However, the first seeds of cultural assimilation can be seen within the writings of the time. Paul is an excellent example. On the one hand he declares all equal before Christ; on the other hand he sets down restrictive behavioral standards for women concerning their status both within the Church, and with their husbands and other men. [amusingly enough, Paul's restrictive behavioral standards (for both sexes) are frequently used -- often like a weapon -- against any strong-willed or independent women, but curiously forgotten when it comes to the behavior of men] The Church is still not an established part of the dominant cultures of the time -- persecution is still a bond for the members of the budding cult, and Jesus' apocalyptic return is still believed to be imminent.

However, one must keep in mind what one is studying. The situation for women may have been either better or worse than is actually shown by the included books of the accepted New Testament. It is a sure bet that these books have been either edited or selected by men to fit their conception of what the established Church should be. Thus we are studying the sectarian and cultic phases of the emerging Christian Church through the filter of the establishment Christian Church.

Bearing this in mind, we can move on to consideration of Christianity as both a church and an established part of the dominant culture. This can be easily shown by examination of the Pastoral and Catholic letters. In Ephesians 5:22-23, women are told they are subject on Earth to men, just as men are subject to God. There is no thought to women being subject to God rather than man. Women occupy a position analogous to that of animals -- perhaps it was thought only men can be that close to God. In 1 Timothy 2:8-15 the law is spoken of as more important than faith. Jewish law is not an equal opportunity experience. In 1 Timothy 3:11 and 5:1-15 women are given standards of behavior to which they must aspire. These are unsurprisingly close to Jewish law of the time concerning the status of women. In 2 Timothy 2:4-7 the status quo, of all things, is used to show the correct form of behavior. This is the very status quo against which Jesus railed! In Titus 2:1-5 more ethical (read correct for the times) behavior is shown as examples for the good Christian. Faith is not a part of these instructions. Finally, in 1 Peter 3:1-7 one could consider the metaphorical nail to have been hammered into the coffin of women's freedom within the Church. Peter, the "last word" on Jesus' teachings, the rock upon which the Christian Church is built, the one who actually spoke with the Messiah, is used as a medium to say that women should have no more freedom or self-determinism within the Church than without.

Thus we find the situation today. It is merely a dispirited and shadowy copy of the moral standards of the Jewish culture of the time. Now we have a Church of glorious monuments to materialism, the status quo, and hierarchical politics. The Bible has been carefully combed and edited so its message fits what this very patriarchal hierarchy desires to have taught as the literal "Word of God". It is unsurprising the Bible trumpets the message of patriarchal superiority -- it was written and edited by men! The excitement, newness, and freedom of the religious self-determinism residing within God's will, as taught by Jesus, has become a sad and tattered memory of what might have been. This very excitement resides today only in occasional snatches of the Bible which have miraculously avoided the above-mentioned male editors. If one were to try to actually follow the teachings of Jesus it would be a difficult road to discover, let alone follow. It is perhaps ironic that in order to do this one would have to start the cycle again, with a sect rebelling against the established, monolithic Church proclaiming itself the inheritor of the teachings of Jesus.


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