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Chapter Summary

Despite the prominent role women played in the earliest Christian churches, by the end of the first century they faced significant opposition within Christianity. Women were denied the right to occupy positions of status and authority; the early Christian oppression of women was ultimately successful. This chapter considers this shift in the status of women.

Women in Paul’s Churches

Paul’s undisputed letters indicate that women played a role in the foundation of the earliest churches. In his letter to Rome, Paul mentions Phoebe (a deacon), Prisca, Mary, Tryphaena, Tryphosa, Persis, Julia, the mother of Rufus, and the sister of Nereus. He also mentions Junia, and names her as “foremost among the apostles.” In addition, several of Paul’s other letters, including 1 Corinthians and Philippians, suggest the importance of women in the early church.

Some women in Pauline churches took to heart Paul’s ascetic message and renounced marriage. Later letters written in Paul’s name attempted to bring such women, including the “widows,” into submission.

Women Associated with Jesus

Although Jesus’ closest disciples were men, the earliest Gospel traditions make clear that there were many women associated with Jesus. In addition to traveling with Jesus, these women provided financial support for his ministry. Women accompanied Jesus from Galilee to Jerusalem and were present at his crucifixion. They were also the first witnesses to the empty tomb and, thus, the first to proclaim Jesus’ resurrection.

Jesus’ association with women may be historically credible because of his apocalyptic views. Because part of his message was the reversal of fortunes, it is possible that Jesus’ association with women—a part of society generally perceived to be inferior—was an enactment of his apocalyptic message. The inclusion of women in Jesus’ ministry may have contributed to the prominence of women in Paul’s communities.

Paul’s Understanding of Women in the Church

Although Paul’s message may appear radical in its egalitarianism, he did not urge a social revolution. In fact, Paul urged his followers maintain their socially defined roles and wait for Jesus’ return. Equality in Christ, therefore, did not necessitate equality in society.

Women in the Aftermath of Paul

Because Paul’s views of women were ambivalent—women could serve in the church but must retain their social status as women—it is not surprising that several Christian groups subsequently used Paul to advance their own views. One group took the side that women were equal to men in every way. Other Christians, however, argued that women should marry and occupy a traditional, submissive role. The latter view, reflected in the Pastoral epistles, ultimately became canonical and thus authoritative.

Ancient Ideologies of Gender

To understand views of women in early Christianity better, we can consider ancient views of gender. In antiquity, most people thought men and women were different in degree, not in kind. There was one continuum of humanity. On the upper end of the scale were men—those individuals who, for a variety of reasons, had been formed perfectly in the womb—and on the lower end of the scale were women—those, conversely, who were imperfectly formed. Because women were viewed as underdeveloped men, they were, quite literally, the weaker sex and were expected to assume a social role in line with this weakness.

Gender Ideology and the Pauline Churches

Many Christian converts in the first centuries were women. This may not be surprising because Christian communities did not initially gather in large public spaces but, rather, in private homes where women had influence and authority. As long as Christians met within the confines of the home, women were able to hold positions of authority and prominence.

As the movement grew, however, and Christianity became more public, it became problematic for women to retain their leadership positions. As a result of the tension between public and private, some Christians argued that societal constructions of sex were not valid for those who were in Christ. These Christians urged freedom from marital constraints, claiming that it was Christ who had set them free. According to this view, women should continue leading communities because they were equal to men in Christ.

This is not, however, the view that ultimately won. Movements seeking absolute equality of women in the Christian community were opposed based on assumptions of “natural” and “unnatural” acts and spheres. When the apocalyptic fervor began to subside, Christians no longer waited anxiously for the end but began to establish a church hierarchy to guide them in appropriate Christian behavior. Public activity came to be the job of men, and women were taught to be modest, quiet, and submissive.



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