This week, celebrity writer and vocal atheist, Peter FitzSimons, tweeted in response to an Elizabeth Farrelly article in the Sydney Morning Herald, “‘All great religious traditions work to silence women. It is not just Judaism and Islam. Christianity too.’ Discuss.” I tweeted back that, “I would say, sadly, yes, but also no. But it takes more than a tweet to explain that!”
Even though I could write a painfully lengthy article conceding FitzSimons’ point, far less well known, by Christians and secularists, is the astonishing place that the New Testament does give women when set against the ancient context.
Coincidentally, at CPX staff meeting on the morning of FitzSimons’ tweet, we happened to be reading together the final chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans, where Paul greets and praises a long list of those in the church in Rome who had been “fellow workers”, who had “risked their lives” for him, who had worked “very hard” and had been “in prison with me”. The number of women included in this list is extraordinary for such an ancient document—Phoebe, Priscilla, Mary, Junia, Tryphena, Tryphosa, Persis, Julia and the unnamed sister of Nereus. In the patriarchal context of the time, any mention of women active in ministry is noteworthy.
What is even more striking is the titles he gives some of these women. Phoebe is called a ‘deacon’, the same title Paul uses of himself and other gospel preachers. And Junia is described as “outstanding among the apostles”.
Paul is here continuing a tradition he would have known from Jesus, who, in the way he related to women, afforded them unprecedented status, in an otherwise extremely patriarchal society.
Jesus rode over the conventions of the time with an extraordinarily high view of women. Jesus had women disciples. He had women supporters and women who travelled with him. In Luke 8:1- 3 Jesus is on the road with the twelve disciples plus Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna and ‘many others,’ who supported Jesus with their own funds (Mark 15:41). This is thoroughly scandalous for the time.
In Jesus’ famous parables, women often feature as the heroes of the story, and in one, a woman represents God (searching for precious coins). Every historical Jesus scholar notes the unusually high place he gave to women.
In the Gospels women are presented as the ones who stayed close to Jesus as he endured crucifixion and as the first witnesses to the resurrection, even though many first century Jewish men dismissed the testimony of women. It is difficult to overstate the significance of all this in the context in which it all took place.
The dawning of the Christian age meant a radical shift in the way women were perceived. Christianity’s view of the full equality of men and women was revolutionary and the implications profound. In the earliest church yet found (Megiddo early third century), five of the seven individuals honoured on the mosaic floor are female! This is an excellent early indication of why Christianity was so appealing to women and why they flocked to it. Clearly, the charge that Christianity silences women isn’t dismissed on the basis of such evidence. But it does complicate that assumption somewhat, as does the sneer of the second century Greek writer Celsus that Christianity was a ‘religion of women, children and slaves.’
In early Christian communities girls married later and enjoyed a better quality and longer life than their pagan counterparts. Largely this was due to the high rates of abortion in the Roman world—a decision made by the men, very often with catastrophic implications for the women. Sexual chastity was extended to males as well as females under Christian teaching, with the woman having as much claim to her husband’s body as he would expect of her—another major shift, meaning family life was generally more secure. Infanticide was practiced widely on girls in the Greco-Roman world, and Christianity ruled this out. Christian communities insisted on provision for widows who were among the most helpless class of people in the ancient world. The teaching of the early church prevented Christian husbands from treating their wives with cruelty or to abandon or divorce them. For these and other reasons, the early centuries of Christianity mark a great leap forward for females.
Yet we all know that as Christianity was drawn into the establishment from the fourth century onwards it found itself caught up in struggles for power, wealth, patriarchy and to various degrees was subject to corruption. The Christian church has not covered itself in glory in the matter of the treatment of women—that much must be acknowledged. It’s a cause of much sadness and distress for many people even today. Peter FitzSimons is certainly not completely wrong.
But a sober assessment of what lies at the core of the Christian faith and the story of the early church, reveals an uplifting vision of what it is to be human. The full equality of men and women was revolutionary at the time, and continues to have profound implications, which, in its best moments, the Christian community grasps and embraces. Perhaps rather than simply charging Christianity with silencing women, commentators could instead challenge today’s faithful to live up to the treatment of women that characterised the first Christians?