Sarah Coakley comments on the tension between what Jesus made possible and how that played out in church life.
So if there’s so much bad news about patriarchy and Christianity, what has Christianity contributed for women?
First and foremost, the teaching of Jesus set before women the possibility of – I think – truly equal treatment. It’s true that Jesus did not choose women technically to be amongst his 12 disciples, but nonetheless he had women followers who were with him throughout his teaching career, by all accounts were the ones who didn’t abandon him when his male disciples fled, and played an extraordinarily important role – especially Mary Magdalene – in the promulgation of the resurrection.
But you see very soon after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension women’s roles being as it were reallocated, even though women clearly played extraordinarily important undertakings within the earliest Pauline churches. So running through the Pauline corpus is this huge ambiguity as Paul himself and his immediate followers begin to wonder whether the end is going to come and whether Jesus is going to return imminently. And there’s that continuing egalitarian propulsion expressed in Galatians 3:28; and at the same there are local accommodations to the mores of the time which re-subordinate women, as in 1 Corinthians 11 for instance, which caused enormous trouble to early church commentators.
So the lesson here is that, in its inception, Christianity set before women a true possibility of complete transformation on equal terms alongside men. But at the same time it very quickly accommodated itself into existing religious and cultural mores. And you could say that that tension has been played out since then.