Bonjour, mes amis! It is reading week here in the great white north and I have been doing a lot of... well... reading. I've been focused on books for my term papers, meaning that my Goodreads account right now looks like I am becoming obsessed with the role of women in the early church. Rest assured, I am not obsessed, just researching! :)
I wasn't really sure what I was looking for when I started looking into this area of history. I just knew that there is a narrative that makes the rounds in academia that Christianity either a) was always oppressive to women or b) was the embodiment of what contemporary society would think of as female liberation until the curmudgeonly early fathers put the kibosh on that. After reading the secular sociologist Rodney Stark's assessment of the situation, I was reassured that early Christian women viewed the faith as liberating to them. But the question remained: where did this more negative narrative come from?
From what I've read so far, I've seen a few things that have shed some light on the positions that people take on this subject...
1. There is a popular notion that Gnosticism was the pro-female wing of Christianity that got beaten down by the woman hating conservatives. Looking at the documents that the Gnostics themselves left and other contemporary historians, it's clear that Gnostics held women in roughly the same position in worship/ministry and actually had a less female friendly view of the feminine nature: rather than affirming orthodox Christianity's position that women and men are inherently equal before God, Gnostics generally embraced the culturally normative position that women are inherently inferior to men.
2. The very harsh words that some patristic leaders have for women are for dedicated virgins who are still living lascivious lifestyles or heretical women. Tertullian, for example, is often cited as comparing all women to Eve as a manipulator or deceiver - that quote in context is clearly referring to heretics who he views as leading others astray. Harsh, yes, but not necessarily misogynistic.
3. Early fathers had a much higher view of virginity and singleness than we do - they largely view marriage as a lesser but acceptable state that should be avoided if possible. I'm not saying they are right on this, but it's worth thinking about our own glorification of family life ("You are not a Godly woman if you aren't married with kids!") in tension with their assumption that family life keeps women from following God fully ("Why would you enslave yourselves to a husband and kids?"). In this sense, these leaders have more in common with modern feminists than most evangelical churches.
4. Church fathers do not hesitate to honor women who are working in the church in their writings
5. The widows, virgins, and prophetesses of this time period of church life are depicted as an integral life blood of the church by the church fathers themselves.
6. Men who in one breath seem to be writing women off in the next breath write poetically about the shared responsibilities and gift of married life between two partners who are following God.
7. Many of the more prolific writers on the topic of women in the church were writing from a pre-conversion background of pervasive indulgence in promiscuous sex (think Jerome or Augustine). I think it's important to remember that for these guys, they are struggling against their own histories of being weak when it comes to women. Sometimes in their writings, it feels like they're really talking to themselves about the attractive bodies that they are trying to avoid... what comes out is a lot of focus on those attractive bodies, rather than the actual characters of the owners of those bodies. There are good and bad things that come from this emphasis, but it's facile to dismiss either the whole of their writings on the subject or any of the criticisms that should be made of those writings.
8. Many of these fathers had deep friendships with women, either with their wives, sisters, or a virgin of their churches. They write lovingly and praisingly of these women.
9. There is a real sense of what ancient married life entailed for women hovering over what the fathers had to say: they knew that a life dedicated to God in singleness would genuinely be a better life for many women, rather than entering into a marriage that in that culture meant literally being property, subject to abuse or danger at their husbands' discretion.
10. Bottom line: the church fathers affirm over and over again that "in Christ there is neither male nor female." They struggle to reconcile this clear Christian teaching with their own patriarchal cultural background at times, but they don't try to explain this teaching away.
All of this has been interesting food for thought and has made me think about a book by Carolyn Custis James called Half the Church. I read it a couple of years ago and I seriously think everyone should read it. Not because it's perfect, but because it asks many vital questions. One is that if Jesus is for everyone in every time and every place, it means that there is room for women of all economic, martial, and social status in the life and work of the church. Single women, married women, barren women, abused women, orphaned women, widowed women, working women, mothers, exploited women, powerful women, retired women, young women, rich women, poor women: they all belong in the church. Do our churches reflect a belief that this is so? I don't think we do. There are a lot of complex reasons why this is so, but I don't think we act like we believe that Jesus has a place for all women at every stage of their lives.
The other big question that the book asks is what happens when half the body of Christ is excluded from the work of Christ. James argues that when the church sets itself up to minimize or disenfranchise half of the working body of Christ, it literally leaves itself half paralyzed. The burden of the work of the church falls fully on the men, causing them to bear a load they are meant to share. There are a lot of important questions to work out as to how this plays itself out, but I so appreciate her main point: women are full members of the body of Christ, meaning they have both the full blessing of giftedness and the full responsibility of participating in the life/work of the body. They can't outsource their share onto their husbands or fathers.
This is my favorite quote from my research so far: “It is not surprising that women joined groups which promised them value and esteem before God and men. That this high estimation of women evidently goes hand in hand with the repudiation of ‘bourgeois’ social norms does not tell against women, but points to the guilt and deficiency of human beings and structures. Where a church does not integrate women with all their gifts into community life in accordance with the criterion of the beginnings attested in the canon, in the same way as it does men, it is laying the foundation for the next exodus of heretics. Heresies do not emerge by chance; they are also provoked. Feminist theory today is a clear warning signal.” (pg. 131, Suzanne Heine, Women and Heresy)
Amen. Anyways, that's what I spent my reading week thinking about.
What have you been doing this lovely fall weekend?