Many women I have encountered over the years perceive the Christian faith as one that oppresses women. Some will not even consider Christianity as a reasonable religion to place their faith in because of this presupposition. Is this a fair assumption? These prejudices do exist, yet I will show that they stem from a historical or a cultural bias, and they are not correct biblical views on the role of women. Oppression of women is a misconception of what Jesus modeled and taught. Instead, a better understanding of what the Bible teaches is a liberating force for the female half of the Imago Dei.[1] True biblical Christianity does not oppress women.

How did Christianity become a religion that many see as misogynist? Some of the church’s history played a role in this poor perception. Sadly, many of the Early Church Fathers of the Patristic Period (100 AD to approximately 600 AD) did not view women favorably. One reason for such a low view of women probably originated from the Early Church Fathers’ interpretation of The Fall, and specifically, Eve’s role within that narrative. For example, Tertullian likens all women to Eve, calling them “the devil’s gateway.”[2] Based on his interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:14, Tertullian saw the woman as the reason sin was released when she ate from the forbidden tree. To further illustrate the severe negative view Tertullian had of women, this is what he said in his treatise on the apparel of women:

God’s sentence hangs still over all your sex and His punishment weighs down upon you. … you are the first deserter of the divine law: you are she who persuaded him whom the devil was not valiant enough to attack. You destroyed so easily God’s image, man. On account of your desert— that is, death— even the Son of God had to die.[3]

Another prominent Church Father, Ambrose, the bishop of Milan from 374 to 397 A.D., wrote in his treatise On Paradise, that “though the man was created outside Paradise, an inferior place, he is found to be superior, while woman, though created in a better place, inside Paradise, is found inferior.” Ambrose believed it was a fact of nature that men are superior to women.[4]

Augustine (354–430 AD), perhaps the most influential of the Church Fathers, also wrote negatively about women, furthering the unfavorable attitude which affected the developing church’s response towards women, especially in the ministry. In his Literal Commentary on Genesis, Augustine speculates as to how Adam, being already spiritual “in mind” could have been led astray. He concludes that this was one of the reasons “woman was given to man, woman who was of small intelligence and who perhaps still lives more in accordance with the promptings of the inferior flesh than by the superior reason…that through her the man became guilty of transgression.” Assuming woman’s natural inferiority, Augustine asks, “Is this why the apostle Paul does not attribute the image of God to her?” Contemporary feminists would be quick to point out that this statement is perhaps the worst form of misogyny: “inferring women were not created in the image of God.”[5]

To set the record straight, this is not the correct interpretation of Scripture. The misunderstanding begins back in the Garden of Eden. The church’s predominant memory of Eve is at her worst possible moment, when she, a glorious creation placed in the Paradise of Eden to rule alongside Adam as his partner, swallowed the forbidden fruit. (Gen. 1:26). Tragically, to be Eve is to be one never forgiven.[6] In a few terrible moments, Adam and Eve were lost. Kicked out of Eden, they were thus cursed due to the Fall—something that was done together, not apart (Gen. 3:6). Eve’s sentence was painful childbirth and a desire for her husband who would rule over her (Gen. 3:16). This was part of the curse and is the effect of sin. Considering that God is full of grace and mercy (Heb. 4:16), and is in the process of redeeming all of creation (Eph. 1:10), perhaps He was merely stating what He knew would occur as the consequence of sin.

Prior to the curse, Eve was created to be an image bearer of God alongside Adam (Gen. 1:27). She was to have children (Gen. 1:28), and finally, Eve was to rule the planet together with Adam as his ezer. This is the Hebrew word translated in English as helpmate. Ezer literally means “one who helps” or “the help of God.” It occurs twenty-one times in the Old Testament in places where God helps men against their enemies, as a warrior-like deliverer or shield of protection.[7] This suggests possibly that God intended Eve to be warrior-like in helping Adam, not in the sense of being a soldier in today’s armed forces, but in a fierce determination to assist in the battle for God’s kingdom.[8]

As an image bearer, it should not surprise us that ezer is used to describe Eve. Being created in the image of God includes these qualities: reason, morality, love, wisdom, spirituality, relationality, and creativity.[9] As image bearers, humans are called to align themselves with their Creator, to share His heart of love, imitate His ways, and to join Him in the good works of His Kingdom purposes of redeeming all of creation. It is the highest honor that God calls men and women to partner with Him as His ambassadors on Earth. This is the original design before the corruption of sin destroyed the motivations of humanity. The overall meaning of ezer, however, should not be viewed negatively. Even Jesus came down to ‘help us’ become right with the Father, and to ‘help us’ learn how to be fully human. He also sent the Holy Spirit to ‘help us.’ In that case, everyone should strive to be helpers!

We are now called by Christ, who paid the price for our sin, to follow the narrow road to redeeming that which was lost—our true humanity. Thus, all people are called to know Him deeply, as “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 3:28.) We are to reflect the character of Christ, being rooted in intimacy with God.

The Bible tells the story of the history of humanity and the relationship with our Creator. This history is fraught with human error and misperceptions, since we lost our true identities and became orphans. Through faith in Christ, however, we are adopted again into the family of God. He is in the process of redeeming everything and reversing the curse, but in the meantime, humans still make mistakes.

First Century on Women’s Attire

Many people today object that Paul’s instruction on covering women’s heads is oppressive.[10] Sarah Ruden argues differently. She takes a unique approach to some of Paul’s more controversial words by setting some of his statements in context of what ancient Greek and Roman literature reveals about that culture. She recognizes a stark contrast between Paul’s writings and the exploitation and dehumanizing customs of the Roman empire in his era. Ruden contends that Paul’s main message centers on equality of all people before God, and the need to love one another in a Christ-like manner. For example, when Paul states that women in church should have their heads veiled, it is actually a “rule aimed at outrageous equality.”[11] She states that head coverings in that time were seen as the flag of female virtue, status and security.[12] For a Roman woman to veil herself was the equivalent of being married.

Ruden states, “In that culture, if a woman had committed adultery, she’d lose the right to wear a veil. Any woman who’d ever been a prostitute, the most common trade of unmarried women in those days, was not also allowed to wear a headdress.”[13] So, by requiring all women to wear a headdress, Paul was asking the church to honor all women without distinction of beauty, wealth, respect or privilege.

Women’s Sexuality in Ancient Rome

Regarding Paul’s preference for celibacy, because of a modern western view of sexuality, some have interpreted Paul as holding a grim or negative view of erotic intimacy enjoyed in marriage (1 Cor. 7). Ruden thinks that Westerners assume that marriage was a ready option for Christians when, in fact, there was a traditional tyranny of arranged unions (some women being married off at extremely young ages), or else widespread prostitution, in which case, sexual exploitation was common.[14]

Again, Ruden sees the language Paul uses in 1 Corinthians 7 as one of equality: “Paul, in a polytheistic world, was not only putting brand new limits on male desire, but licensing female desire, which had been under a regime of zero tolerance.”[15]

Greco-Roman Treatment of Women

In the ancient Greco-Roman, infanticide was widely practiced, and especially targeted toward female infants. A study of inscriptions at Delphi made it possible to reconstruct six-hundred families. Of these, only six had raised more than one daughter. As would be expected, the bias against female infants showed up dramatically in the sex ratios of the imperial population. Due to the Didache, a first-century manual of Church teachings, Christian wives did not have abortions (nor did Jewish wives).[16] This was an advantage for women, as many of these abortions were forced and unsanitary. The Christian faith thus allowed the female population to slowly increase.

Roman law also allowed arranged child marriages, usually to a far older man. Only a third of pagan girls married at eighteen or older, compared with half of Christian girls.[17] Early on, Christianity was very attractive to women, who flocked to the faith, not only for these reasons, but because there was the option of remaining single and serving the church.

Historical Women’s Influence on the Church

Historically, women have had far more involvement in the church’s mission and other ministries than has generally been realized. Unfortunately, little is known of the influence of women due to scholars’ dismissal of early women’s roles in church history. Historians have often overlooked women because of inherited assumptions about what is considered important and what counts as serious history.[18]

Thelca was a woman who held great influence early on in church history. She was a friend of Paul’s and upon hearing his preaching, refused to marry her fiancé, and decided on a life of celibacy and asceticism. This was unheard of in her day, and by doing so, she was viewed as counter-cultural and resistant to the pagan belief systems. She was eventually martyred for her faith, but she inspired countless Christians to live a life devoted to God.[19]

Later, in the 2nd century, Perpetua and Felicitus were also martyred for the faith. St. Augustine mentioned these two women as embodying the Christian ideal of suffering and sacrifice of non-retaliation in the face of oppressive violence.[20] Their story is heart-wrenching. They both had children and were sent to their deaths after handing over their newborns and infant children to caregivers.[21] Both women were captivated by Christ, prizing him beyond family or even motherhood. These women challenged deeply embedded Roman familial virtues.

Throughout the Middle Ages, becoming a nun was an option for women who desired a life other than marriage. Monasteries were some of the only places where women were educated and allowed to publically express their grasp of the Christian faith.[22] Matter of fact, Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), was the first abbess of the Benedictine community, and was renowned for her remarkable set of writings on scientific, theological, and musical subjects, as well as for discerning correspondence with kings, bishops, and religious leaders of her day.[23] Overall, women nuns contributed greatly to the expressive, contemplative, and mystical dimensions of the faith.[24]

After the reformation, Susanna Wesley had a great influence on the modern church movement in America, and is known as the “Mother of Methodism.” She was, in essence, a female apologist of her time. She homeschooled all ten of her children in a ‘methodical way,’ and taught them faith in God against an “age of reason,” or the growing secular doctrines of the early 18th Century. [25] The influence of her upbringing had great impact on her two sons, John and Charles Wesley, who went on to begin the Methodist denomination, one with a rich musical tradition and vigorous missionary work.

Regarding missionary work, women’s work in missionary activities played a significant, and historically neglected, role. Recent scholarship for several historical periods indicates that the expansion of Christianity was the work of women as well as, or even more than, men. “Where the business of the church can be counted, women normally show up more often than men,” Marl Noll said. [26] He stated that a turning point in church history is the growing public awareness of women’s importance and influence for ordinary Christian activities.[27]

Equality

Many people misperceive the Bible as teaching male superiority over women. Yet Paul writes, in 1 Corinthians 12, of inclusion and a oneness of the functioning of the Body of Christ. Each person has a different function within the Body, and without that particular part, the Body would not operate as efficiently. Note the concept that all people are created equal and endowed with certain inalienable rights comes from the Enlightenment period, but was a thoroughly alien concept in the ancient world.[28] An “all-in-one” concept was the basis of the Body of Christ in a new creation of unity as the Holy Temple of God: a relational concept. There is a larger concern here for a loving unity of God’s people in their differences. Equality, in the modern sense of the word, is not the primary goal.

“Equality speaks to one’s personal privileges and rights, whereas love describes one’s willingness to prioritize others,” Michelle Lee-Barnewall concludes.[29] She states that Paul’s overriding concern is not the rights of the individual, but the glory of God as seen through the church. The focus is more towards a transcendent way of functioning as Christians for the “sake of the gospel.” (1 Cor. 9:22-23.)

Unlike the modern concept of equality between the sexes, the Christian faith is better understood, perhaps, as one of interdependence between male and female as the primary goal. We must remember Christianity is not an “American religion,” or even a concept of Western civilization. It was birthed in the Middle East and is not of this world. The truth of Christ transcends established social structures.

Jesus was inclusive of all to become disciples in a “surrogate family”[30], despite the criticism that He did not have any female disciples. Yes, Jesus’ closest, inner circle of disciples were men. This is understandable given the lack of credence a close woman disciple would have faced in that ancient society. However, Jesus did have women disciples in the outer circle. Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Susanna are just a few mentioned in Mark 8:1-3. Later, after the resurrection event, Junia, a female believer, is mentioned as outstanding and well-known among the apostles (Romans 16:7).

Conclusion

“What is behind this way of seeing things – that women should be defined against men?” Eric Metaxas asks. He is right to point out that the reasons some prominent women made history is precisely from their being women in the first place.[31] Men and women are not interchangeable. They have different things to do and were not created by God the exact same way for a purpose. We should, instead, celebrate differences, not suppress them or denigrate them.

All people, male or female, regardless of race, culture, or status, can receive forgiveness of sins through Jesus Christ and inherit eternal life. This is true based on the Resurrection of Christ, the very foundation of the Christian faith. Recall that the Risen Lord first appeared to women, so He must have implicitly trusted them to deliver the pivotal message of the “Good News” to the other followers (Luke 24).

The oppression of women in the church was not God’s intention... Click To Tweet

The oppression of women in the church was not God’s intention, but it stems from a misinterpretation of Scripture, rooted in biased historical and cultural influences. Instead, God’s plan is for men and women to work together in a blessed alliance, no one less valued than the other. This is what the church needs to embody, and this is what biblical Christianity teaches.

 

 

Works Cited

Brekus, Catherine. The Religious History of American Women. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: The University of North Carolina Press, 2007. Print.

Clark, Elizabeth A. Women in the Early Church, Message of the Fathers of the Church, vol. 13. Delaware: Michael Glazier, Inc., 1983. Print.

Cohick, Lynn H. and Brown Hughes, Amy. Christian Women in the Patristic World. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2017. Print.

James, Carolyn Custis. Lost Women of the Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005. Print.

Lee-Barnewall, Michelle. Neither Complementarian nor Egalitarian. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker      Academic, 2016. Print.

Metaxas, Eric, Seven Women: The Secret of Their Greatness. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2016. Kindle edition.

Noll, Mark A.  Turning Points. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012. Print.

Ruden, Sarah. Paul Among the People. New York, NY: Crown Publishing Group, 2010. Print.

St. Ambrose, On Paradise. The University of Virginia, Humanities Institute of Advanced   Technology. www2.iath.virginia.edu/anderson/commentaries/Amb.html#glossGen2:15. Accessed: November 27, 2017. Website.

Stark, Rodney. Discovering God: The Origins of the Great Religions and the Evolution of Belief.
New York, NY: Harper One, 2008. Print.

Sumner, Sarah. Men and Women in the Church. Downers Grove, Ill: Intervarsity Press, 2003. Print.

Tertullian, On the Apparel of Women: Book 1, chapter 1. Christian Classics Electronic Library.       www.tertullian.org. Accessed September 25, 2017. Website.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] The Latin term for the “Image of God.”

[2] Tertullian, On the Apparel of Women: Book 1, chapter 1 (Christian Classics Electronic Library, www.tertullian.org;), accessed September 25, 2017.

[3] Tertullian, On the Apparel of Women.

[4] St. Ambrose, On Paradise (The Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities, The University of             Virginia, commentary file: www2.iath.virginia.edu/anderson/commentaries/Amb), accessed: November 27, 2017, 301.

      [5] Elizabeth A. Clark, Women in the Early Church, Message of the Fathers of the Church, vol. 13,             (Delaware: Michael Glazier, Inc., 1983), p. 40.

[6] Carolyn Custis James, Lost Women of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005), 29.

[7] Lexicon Strong’s H5828 ezer.

[8] James, Lost Women of the Bible, 36-37.

[9] James, Lost Women of the Bible, 32.

[10] 1 Corinthians 11:2-16.

[11] Sarah Ruden, Paul Among the People (New York, NY: Crown Publishing Group, 2010), 87.

[12] Ibid, 85.

[13] Ibid, 86.

[14] Ruden, 97.

[15] Ibid, 98.

[16] Rodney Stark, Discovering God: The Origins of the Great Religions and the Evolution of Belief, (New York, NY: Harper One, 2008), 320-321.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Catherine Brekus, The Religious History of American Women (Chapel Hill, North Carolina: The            University of North Carolina Press, 2007), 13.

[19] Lynn H. Cohick and Amy Brown Hughes, Christian Women in the Patristic World (Grand Rapids, MI:             Baker Academic, 2017), 12.

[20] Ibid, 28.

[21] Ibid, 33.

[22] Mark A. Noll, Turning Points (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012), 90.

[23] Noll, Turning Points, 90.

[24] Ibid, 315.

[25] Eric Metaxas, Seven Women: The Secret of Their Greatness (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2016),       kindle location 39.

[26] Noll, 315.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Michelle Lee-Barnewall, Neither Complementarian nor Egalitarian (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2016), 85.

[29] Ibid, 89.

[30] John 19:26-27.

[31] Metaxas, xix.