Christian views (attitudes and beliefs) about women vary considerably today and have varied even more throughout the last two millennia, evolving along with or counter to the societies in which Christians have lived. All of the major world religions, including institutionalized Christianity, deprecate women to some degree.^[1]^ Since the first century, organized Christianity has interpreted the Bible as prescribing a gender-based hierarchy, claimed up to the present by Complementarians and traditionalists to be scripturally mandated. The hierarchical theology has placed woman under the man's authority — in the church, in marriage, and elsewhere. Historically, it has excluded women from church leadership positions that give women any kind of authority over men.

Only since the 1970s have more moderate views emerged. Today they are known as the Christian Egalitarianism and Complementarianism views of women and men.

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Christian Egalitarians

Their interpretation of scripture brings them to the conclusion that the manner and teaching of Jesus, affirmed by the Apostle Paul, abolished gender-specific roles in both the church and marriage. One verse in particular is seen by Christian Egalitarians as a "fanfare of freedom" for what historically have been three oppressed groups: racial minorities, slaves, and women. This verse has been called by some the "Magna Carta of spiritual emancipation."^[2]^

There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.—Galatians 3:28

Christian Egalitarians take that verse at face value, understanding it to acknowledge the elaborate system of inequalities existing since shortly after the Creation.They believe that Jesus Christ abolished those discriminatory systems for all eternity. They consider the verse's phrase "all one in Christ Jesus" to say that within his church, "in Christ," is the one sanctuary or protected place where there are no longer any secondary distinctions of race, national origin, slavery, or gender. They conclude that a true benefit of being a Christian, then, is that all are one "in Christ."

Complementarians

Complementarians, also known as Traditionalists or Hierarchicalists, interpret Galatians 3:28 differently from Christian Egalitarians. They understand it to refer only to equal availability of everyone to salvation. They claim that the freedoms offered in Christ do not apply to male-preference in marriage, the ordination of women, racism, or any other form of discrimination.

Complementarians believe the overarching views of both Old and New Testaments do prescribe a male-priority based hierarchy and gender roles in the church, in marriage, and elsewhere. These prescribed gender roles only recently have come to be ameliorated by some Complementarians as being "equal but different." Male priority still exists as a requirement of scripture, they say, but the two genders are now described as having "complementary" roles in the church and home.

Women's roles in the early Christian Church

From the beginning of the early Christian church, starting with Jesus, women were important members of the movement. The gospels of the New Testament often mention Jesus speaking to women publicly and openly against the social norms of the time. He reached out to the marginalized in his society and thus, his appeal was great. He had female followers who were his sponsors and Mary Magdalene is recorded to be the first person to have the privilege of seeing Jesus after resurrection. As time went on and the disciples continued to spread Jesus' message by word of mouth, groups of Christians organized within the homes of believers. Those who could offer their home for meetings were considered important within the movement and assumed leadership roles.^[3]^

By the time Paul began his missionary movement, women were important agents within the different cities. The Pauline letters mention women such as Chloe, Priscilla (Prisca), Euodia and Syntyche as well as Phoebe.

Chloe, a prominent woman of Corinth, appears to be the head of a household of an extended family. She and her household told Paul of the divisions in the congregation of Corinth.(1 Cor. 1:11)

Priscilla is mentioned seven times in the Bible, as a missionary partner with the Apostle Paul and the wife of Aquila. Out of seven times Priscilla and Aquila are mentioned as a couple, her name appears before Aquila's five times.

Phoebe, another woman mentioned in Pauline letters, He attaches to her three titles: diakonos meaning a deacon (lit. "servant") sister, and prostasis meaning leader and president. There is no difference when the title of the deacon is used for Phoebe and Timothy. The office of the deacon eventually became mainly associated with women and their close work with the poor.

Outside of written religious sources there is also objective evidence to support women's prominent status and roles within the early Christian church. A second century letter of a Roman governor, Pliny the Younger, to Roman emperor Trajan, demonstrates that female servants were leaders in a church in Bythnia. Pliny wrote the letter, dated 112 C.E., asking for advice on how he should handle a situation where Christians were said to have been stirring up trouble. He said he captured and tortured two female maidservants called deaconesses. These women must have been considered important church leaders since the term was similarly applied to Phoebe in the Pauline letters.^[4]^

Art has also been an important objective source showing women in leadership roles. The first or early second century fresco called Fractio Panis depicts a Eucharist ceremony. All the participants, including the main person who is performing the ceremony, are women.^[5]^ A mosaic found in a Roman basilica portrays Mary, two saints and a veiled woman. An inscription states that the veiled woman is Theodora Epicopa which means Bishop Theodora, Epicopa being the Latin feminine term for bishop. On a Greek island called Thera, a commemorative inscription has been discovered on a burial site. It named Epiktas, a female name, as a priest.^[6]^

Trinitarian analogy to the male/female relationship

Some complementarians understand the Trinity to present an analogy to the male/female relationship, as God designed it. God is one in essence and three in persons. The three persons of the God-head are absolutely equal in essence (in fact, they each share fully, simultaneously and without division the one divine essence), but they are distinct in function. Specifically, their distinction of function is marked by an intrinsic relation of authority within the God-head, by which the Son is subject to the Father, and the Spirit to the Son. 1 Cor. 11:3 states part of this: "God is the head of Christ." The clearest biblical example of Christ's subjection to the Father is in 1 Cor. 15:28 where the exalted and victorious Son "will also be subject to the One who subjected all things to Him." Given this understanding of the Trinity, it makes sense for Paul to say what He does in 1 Cor. 11:3. He speaks here of three authority lines that exist: Christ is the authority (head) over every man, man is the authority (head) over a woman, and God (the Father) is authority (head) over Christ. Just as the persons of God are equal in essence and yet they relate within a structure of lines of authority, so too men and women are equal in essence while relating within a similar structure of lines of authority.

Jesus' views of women

According to the Gospel accounts, Jesus went far beyond the customs and outlook of his environment by not conforming to the cultural mentality unfavorable to women. Instead, he reacted against inequalities based on sexual differences by calling women to follow him.^[7]^

Endnotes

  1. ? http://www.sacred-texts.com/wmn/index.htm Women and Religion index page
  2. ? Chuck Missler. Koinonia House Online. http://www.khouse.org/articles/2000/285/
  3. ? Margaret MacDonald, "Reading Real Women Through Undisputed Letters of Paul" in Women and Christian Origins, ed. by Ross Sheppard Kraemer and Mary Rose D'Angelo (Oxford: University Press, 1999), 204
  4. ? Daniel L. Hoffman, The Status of Women and Gnosticism in Irenaeus and Tertullian. (New York: E. Mellen Press, 1995), 81.
  5. ? Hoffman, 83
  6. ? Karen Jo Torjesen, When Women Were Priests: Women's Leadership in the Early Church & The Scandal of their Subordination in the Rise of Christianity (New York, NY: Harper Collins Publisher, 1995),10
  7. ? http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/audiences/alpha/data/aud19940727en.html Women and the Ministerial Priesthood. General Audience—July 27, 1994>

Literature on the history of women in the early Christian Church

  • Torjesen, Karen Jo. When Women were Priests: Women's Leadership in the Early Church & The Scandal of their Subordination in the Rise of Christianity. New York, NY: Harper Collins Publisher, 1995.
  • Wiley,Tatha. Paul and the Gentile Women: Reframing Galatians New York: Continuum, 2005.
  • MacDonald, Margaret. "Reading Real Women Through Undisputed Letters of Paul." In Women and Christian Origins edited by Ross Sheppard Kraemer and Mary Rose D'Angelo. Oxford: University Press, 1999.
  • Witherington, Ben III. Women in the Earliest Churches. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

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