Judith Lieu reflects on women’s experiences within the early church.
It’s very difficult, I think, in a contemporary context to actually say this or that or something else would have been attractive to women 2,000 years ago. Try doing it today and you won’t find women very pleased being told what they ought to be attracted by!
I think it’s clear from Paul’s letters, but also from later sources, that some women found that they were able to explore their own autonomy, if I can use that word, within the Christian message. I say some women, because there were also moves within early Christianity to say things like we find in a letter called 1 Peter in the New Testament, “wives, obey your husbands”. So there were from a fairly early date the idea that Christianity ought to reinforce social norms, social values.
But we also get stories of women exerting more independence as teachers. This might not seem terribly attractive, but we get stories of women martyrs, which implies that women were recognised as actually standing up for their faith in their own person and being able to be just as brave and confident about it as their male counterparts. And in some ways that’s quite striking, because the normal model in ancient society is that bravery is a masculine virtue, women are a little bit more unstable.
So we do find women sometimes in a teaching position, although after a while the church begins to feel extremely uncomfortable about that. Paul’s teaching – neither male nor female, as well as neither slave nor free – didn’t get rid of those social distinctions (we continue to have slaves as well as free people), but it did imply that the message was equally open to all parts of society. And women may well have found that something attractive.