View Full Version : Women in early Christianity

June 12th, 2017, 10:55 AM
The place of the women within the Church and in the community generally is a subject of debates for a very long time. If nowadays, more and more women occupy positions of leadership in various religious names - with the exception of the Roman Catholic Church and of the Orthodox Catholic Church, who make no concession as for the inaccessibility of the women for the priesthood or for other any position in the superior hierarchy-, their role as minister or as leader still arouses discussions between churches and does not make the unanimity.

We denote moreover that this question lifts the passions and debates very often without nuances since any debuts of the Christian era. The apostles themselves and the first theologians seem clearly divided on the place of the women in the rising Church. The contrast is also surprising in Paul's epistles - that he wrote himself or which are attributed to him -, in particular by comparing the speech of the letter to Romain and first letter to the Corinthians as well as the first epistle to Thimothy.

How then be made a head with regard to all this? Is it possible, without aiming inevitably at the consensus, to clear to say the least certain shadow zones to cast a more objective lighting and less emotional person on the subject?

Active "sisters"

It is good, at first, to raise the subject by looking at concrete examples in the Paul's first letters - and not to get lost in a jargon which would be confusing, I shall use here " sister's " generic name (that is " brother's " feminine equivalent, both used to speak of the "family" recently established by the Christian Church), or simply of "woman".

In the first Epistle to the Corinthians, Paul writes this: " For it has been declared to me concerning you, my brethren, by those of Chloe’s household, that there are contentions among you. " (1Co 1:11; NKJV).

Note, please, the expression which Paul uses here by speaking about this woman: he is informed about the quarrels within people of Chloe, in other words the community for which she is apparently responsible. What lets think that Chloe, as woman, exercised certain leadership not specified here, but all the same tangible.

Paul also mentions another woman, Phoebe, in the Epistle to Romans, who, her, has a precise role in the Church, that of deaconess of the Christian community of Cenchreas. ‘‘ I commend to you Phoebe our sister, who is a servant of the church in Cenchrea, that you may receive her in the Lord in a manner worthy of the saints, and assist her in whatever business she has need of you; for indeed she has been a helper of many and of myself also.’’ (Rm 16:1-2)

In a time when the roles and the circumferences of the hierarchical organization of the Church were not still clearly defined, Paul takes nevertheless care of underlining the fact that Phoebe is a deaconess. It is necessary to repeat that the titles such as we know them in the modern Church were not clearly established at the very beginning of the Christianity. Nevertheless, certain forms of leadership and management of communities began to appear during Paul's ministry. He also is to note that the terms of "minister", "bishop" or even of "ancient" appear nowhere in the Epistle to Romain. The role of the deacons was established in Jerusalem, according to their first mention in the first verses of Acts 6. The deacons had then for mission to take care of the community, to assure that foods are in sufficient amount, to take care of the widows, orphans and suffering people and to liven up the spiritual life of their church. Although in Acts 6 we see the election of seven men in this task, it seems agreed that the women could also perform this function, because Paul confirms that Phoebe was knighted by this role by her community.

It is also interesting to notice to what extent Paul cares about the welcome which must be reserved for his sister, which demands of the Christian community of Rome for her a welcome " manner worthy of the saints " (in other words a warm, generous, open and enthusiastic welcome) and what its members " assist her in whatever business she has need of you ". In other words, if Phoebe asks for certain technical or material needs during her stay and to help her in her mission in Rome, the brothers and sisters have to answer her obligingly and obediently. Is not it the indication of certain level of authority there?

I would not either like to leave untold another woman, Prisca (or Priscilla) which, with her husband Aquilas, exercised in tandem a considerable leadership for the Church of Rome - the real founders, it of which they are, without doubt, well before Pieter's coming, which is moreover, except for his martyr, always considered as hypothetical by numerous theologians.

‘‘ Greet Priscilla and Aquila, my fellow workers in Christ Jesus, who risked their own necks for my life, to whom not only I give thanks, but also all the churches of the Gentiles. Likewise greet the church that is in their house.’’ (Rm 16:3-5)

The bombast with which Paul greets the couple seems good to indicate that both had a position and a gratitude rested by their community for their dedication towards the teaching and towards the sharing of the Gospel. Their reputation exceeds moreover widely the Church of Rome, in to say of Paul, who recognizes in them real and active comrades-in-arms, without respect in their sex or in other any sociocultural or other characteristic.

Can we then, in the light of the quoted examples higher, speak about a primitive shape of egalitarianism within the rising Church? It is a known fact that the salvation and the redemption in Jesus Christ are opened to all, no matter the sex, the language or the origin of every believer. God looks above all at the heart, what Paul expresses in the Epistle in Galatians: " There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. " (Gal 3:28). He thus has grounds there for thinking that on this principle, men and women could exercise certain roles of influence and leadership within the primitive Church, having received the Gospel and being called all of them to animate it and to propagate it in their community.

Of the equality in the submission: the example of Corinth

The speech of Paul or which is attributed to him exchange a little in the following epistles, in particular in the first letter to the Corinthians: ‘‘ But I want you to know that the head of every man is Christ, the head of woman is man, and the head of Christ is God. Every man praying or prophesying, having his head covered, dishonors his head. But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, for that is one and the same as if her head were shaved. For if a woman is not covered, let her also be shorn. But if it is shameful for a woman to be shorn or shaved, let her be covered. (...) For man is not from woman, but woman from man. Nor was man created for the woman, but woman for the man. For this reason the woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels. Nevertheless, neither is man independent of woman, nor woman independent of man, in the Lord. For as woman came from man, even so man also comes through woman; but all things are from God. Judge among yourselves. Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? Does not even nature itself teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a dishonor to him? But if a woman has long hair, it is a glory to her; for her hair is given to her for a covering.’’ (1Co:3-6;8-15)

If Paul gives evidence that the women can always pray and even prohesize (this word was synonymic then at the same time " to announce a prophecy " or " to teach "), these now have to make it, at least in Corinth, with a veil on head, marking so at the same time a submission to the man and to the God. The long hair, which are a " natural veil ", are also authorized without requiring a piece of cloth recovering the head. For lack of having both, the woman then has to shave herself completely the head, what, we guess it, was not for the taste of all, nor even for the taste of all the men.

Why does Paul here seem to stress a particular importance for the aestheticism of the women in the Church and what he connects it even some fundamental doctrinal principles, while in the Epistle to Romans, nothing of all this appears in its language and its exhortations?

The problem is maybe more for the cultural level than for the theological level strictly speaking. The old city of Corinth, at the time of Paul, was an important economic and cultural center in Greece. By its socioeconomic and cultural development and by refusing even, to a certain extent, to put on the national societal model or the Roman more and more invading model, Corinth among others wished to distance itself from the capital, Athens, by setting up its own system and its own temples while distancing itself by its activities and its crazy rhythm of life, not to say immoral in many respects.

Because it reigned in Corinth an endemic depravation and an institutionalized network of prostitution. The courtesans were there numerous and reigned there almost in rulers. They also had an approach, a hairstyle and a clothing conferring them a high status of recognition, crashed well whom they were in the slightest spheres of the society.

Thus it is not surprising that Paul, on numerous occasions, exhorts the Christians of Corinth to dissociate themselves from light pleasures of the heathen society surrounding them and to make a clean sweep on all the negative influences which eventually polluted the Church, so damaging the respect and the obedience of the message of Jesus Christ. Paul is so worried about this immoral aspect which gangrenes the Corinthian Church that he calls for a reform at the same time from the point of view of the customs that on the esthetic plan. Do not look like these sinners who do not believe in Jesus Christ, we could so summarize Paul's message. Be also aware of your position towards God and towards Jesus Christ, and thus, dress at the same time physically and spiritually an appearance of purity and obedience, marking so peacefully your distance and contributing to give body in what you believe.

If nowadays, some rare churches oblige the Christian women to carry a veil during the assemblies, most of them do not oblige that and the women are free to celebrate God combed or dressed as they want, by adorning themselves however in a decent way. For the simple and good reason that this distinction between the "pure" Christian woman and the "impure" woman, even the prostitute, is not anymore current today because of the evolution of the customs and the general sociocultural evolution of the planet, in particular the Christian world.

Silent and totally subjected?

As we have just seen it, although the speech of Paul seems to evolve as for the position of the woman in the Church, it remains nevertheless coherent if we scrutinize of more ready the sociocultural context according to which this speech evolves. Between the Epistle to Romans and the first Epistle to the Corinthians, there are actually two different worlds.

How come however that Paul's vision on the women becomes more radical between the chapter 11 and the chapter 14 of 1Corinthians? This is what Paul writes in this chapter: " as in all the churches of the saints, Let your women keep silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak; but they are to be submissive, as the law also says. And if they want to learn something, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is shameful for women to speak in church. Or did the word of God come originally from you? Or was it you only that it reached? If anyone thinks himself to be a prophet or spiritual, let him acknowledge that the things which I write to you are the commandments of the Lord. But if anyone is ignorant, let him be ignorant. " (1Co 14:33b-36).

Really? In Rome, the women have the right to speak and to teach, while in Corinth, the women, at least for some time, have to pray and speak by covering itself the head, to keep silent then totally? Is not there an obvious contradiction here? Would it be allowed to examine this last assertion with a certain smile, especially as Paul, or at least the author of the letter to the Corinthians, asserts without flinching that this rule of silence and total submission is current " in all the churches of the saints ", while it is not most probably the case? Radical speech which will moreover be taken back almost word for word in 1Timothy chapter 2.

Has not it grounds there, at this stage, for going as far as even wondering if Paul really wrote himself these passages? If it is proved true by most of the theologians that Paul is actually the author of epistles to Romans, to Thessalonicians, to Galatians and, to a lesser extent, to Ehpesians - epistles which, besides, began to circulate very early at the beginning of the history of the Christian Church, Paul's alive -, it is less obvious to attribute him the paternity of other certain letters, as the first Epistle to the Corinthians or still the first Epistle to Timothy. Certain theologians, as professor of University of Yale Dale Martin, move forward that the difference of the vocabulary, the intentions of the writer and the evolution is similar of the sociohistorical context indicated in these letters or these passages give to think that they were drafted several years later, even in second century for the first Epistle to Timothy.

This evolution is moreover objectively perceptible by examining the History of more ready. According to the dominant Roman pyramidal societal model at the time of Jesus and at the beginning of the Christian era, the woman was was considered not at all as a full citizen. She must be totally subjected to the leader of the family or the clan, just like the children and the slaves, who they found themselves at the foot of the scale. However, if a slave managed to release himself from his state, he acquired a certain freedom as well as a right of citizenship, although always considered as lower than his former boss, but becoming upper to the woman, even if this one was the wife of the leader. The Greek model, as for him, offered a bigger space for the woman, who had the right in particular to be educated and to exercise a certain freedom in its common activities.

We understand while the Roman model strictly speaking eventually dominated the whole average-oriental region, following the numerous victorious conquests of Rome on the whole continent.

The author of the first Epistle to Timothy even goes as far as advocating the celibacy for the men, pledges more real of insurance in the anchoring of the Gospel in the society. The married spouses have to as for them submit themselves to a strict behavior, the women being on no account allowed by discussions and even less to teach within the Church, their role being strictly reserved for that of the reproduction. Aims which will afterward be assumed and amplified by some of the first theologians of the primitive Church, as Ignacius of Antioch or Justin-martyr of Nablus.

Thecla to counterflow

This vision of the society and the holding of the women in the Church and in the community will be disputed however very early in papers which, as the Acts of Paul and Thecla, delivers written in the second century and having known a popularity such as it was a time considered canonical in the same way as four Gospels and other real papers or Paul's pseudoepigraphs, as well as certain other apocryphal. The heroin of the book, Thecla, is described as the lover of Paul there who tries - and makes a success - by all means to release herself from her yoke of subdued woman by meaning in particular to several high-ranking men, to break then her promise and so crush any possibility to these men to become engaged or to get married again, the remarriage being strictly banned, as indicates it moreover the epistle to Timothy. Thecla takes place in such a point of these rules which she eventually extirpates herself totally from this moral and asserting detention, by her adventures and her guile, the contradictions, even the obvious debility of this model if he is literally applied. Thecla, besides, remains totally faithful to Paul, the following one in the track and flavouring his teachings on the Gospel of Jesus Christ as any other disciples.

Given the popularity of this narrative at least feminist when we set it in a very Cartesian, pyramidal vision and not to say nuclear power of the society and the women, one has to admit that this stiff model was not received or not totally accepted by everybody. If it is true that the Greco-Roman model (thus an at the same time Roman and Hellenistic model) spread on all the planet through centuries, the diversity of points of view and debates which continued until this day demonstrate at the same time a certain viability as well as some weaknesses having led the world to adopt not this frame in a totally uniform way, but in parts or by adapting it to needs and to sociocultural development or ethnolinguistics of every nation, in particular. Both Great Wars afterward pushed the emancipation of the women and forced a more critical review of sacred texts prohibiting this opening towards to them.

Equality in the complementarity without constraints?

To return there more exactly to the status of the woman in the Church, we have to admit, today, which the debate risks not to close, such as supported in introduction. The first women pastors officially ordained appeared towards the end of the 19th century and at the beginning of the 20th - the English minister and the founder of the Methodist Church John Wesley advocated however, in 18th century, the acceptance of the women in roles of leadership, his own wife administering his local church when he left for crusade - and certain churches or names always refuse, up to here, to order women the pastorate, while in others it is not any more a problem.

The fact is that the model ranking (organizing into a hierarchy) some Greco-Roman structure became established solidly in certain said ‘‘historical Churches’’, as the Roman Catholic Church, the Orthodox Catholic Church, the Anglican Church or still the Lutheran church. Hierarchical masculine organization promoted and defended by Justin of Nablus, Clement of Alexandria and many more religious and who eventually made it a rule until the Protestant reformation, without disappearing totally from churches stemming from Luther or from Calvin, upon the only difference that, just like the Anglican Church, they accept now the ordination of women ministers or bishops. This hierarchical ecclesial model is, it against position, considered as heretic at the evangelical Christians referring more to the primitive Church of the first stammerings regarding organization than regarding a treated on a hierarchical basis Church having developed more in 2nd, 3rd and 4th centuries AD. The ministers have no superior authority to the other servants of the Church and all the Christians are at the same time priests and saints, according to Gospels and Paul's papers.

Is there exactly there a key, in the fact that, freed from any hierarchy binding and positioning rather in a mutual servitude and a complementarity in the roles which everyone can play in the Church for the announcement of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, we have all the time to manage our communities according to our real desires and our own enjoyment to spread this so beautiful message? That certain churches keep certain conservatism as for the ordination of the women, that does not raise me problem if their principle is in sync with the freedom and the liberation of the evangelic message and what this makes without constraint social or cultural.

But we should not lose sight that from the beginning, the women could as much as the men played a central role in the birth and the growth of the Church. We would not either should underestimate the fact than, well before the Christian Church, the other women were heralds and heroic and outstanding leaders, as queen Esther and prophetess Ruth, to speak only about those.

Christ either did not care about the genre by teaching or simply by discussing. Gospels state present numerous women in his gatherings, what certain Pharisees and even some of his apostles, who considered before any Jesus as a rabbi (the rabbinical school being then only reserved for the men) did not miss to slander. Nevertheless - in spite of some small factual differences - four Gospels agree to underline that certain women, as Marie mother of James and Jude and Mariy-Magdalen, remained with Jesus right to the very end, up to the Calvary, while his apostles had run away as wimps by fear of reprisals. And to whom did the angels and the Jesus himself announce in the first one the good news of his resurrection, the most beautiful which is, in which every Christian bases his hope, summoning even to these people to educate the apostles in this respect? Are not they, from a down-to-earth point of view, first witnesses direct and the first smugglers/evangelistes/prophetesses/pastors person in charge to announce what nobody then dared to believe?

June 12th, 2017, 11:11 AM
"Who is this that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge?"