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Christian History Home > News > 2004 > Is Christianity Oppressive to Women?

Is Christianity Oppressive to Women?
Sometimes our Christian heritage must be overcome, not celebrated.
Linda Hartz Rump | posted 8/08/2008 12:33PM

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From the beginning of Christianity, women have been included in the New Community. In some times and places, they have found the church more affirming and liberating than their surrounding cultures. But in others, the church has fallen far from its Bible—which sees both sexes as of equal worth.

During its early years, Christianity taught a spiritual unity that at least potentially mitigated the harshness of Roman law, in which women were considered non-citizens with no legal rights. Inequality was everywhere in this system; for example, while men's adultery was assumed, women's was punishable by death. Over against this culture, the ideal of the early church is captured in the words of Paul, "Be subject to one another in the fear of Christ" (Eph 5:21). And women did, as we will see, gain some status "in Christ," filling key roles within the church.

This continued to be true in the Middle Ages, when society at large assumed women would marry and bear many children—indeed, among the elite, parents often arranged or forced marriage on their daughters. Monastic life offered many women an attractive alternative. This was a life of devotion, scholarship, travel, and spiritual fellowship and equal dialogue with male monastics and church leaders.

Nonetheless, the potential equality embedded in Jesus' message often failed to pan out in the teachings and practice of the church. In Men and Women in the Church: Building Consensus on Christian Leadership (InterVarsity Press, 2003), Dr. Sarah Sumner examines the church's decidedly spotty record on treatment of women.

Sumner cites several expressions of a deep prejudice against women in the writings of the Church Fathers. The first is from a 3rd-century treatise titled "On the Dress of Women," written and presented to an audience of women by Tertullian—the influential teacher and coiner of the term "Trinity."

Here Tertullian likens all women to Eve, calling them "the devil's gateway," "the unsealer of that forbidden tree," and "she who persuaded him whom the devil was not valiant enough to attack." It was because of Eve, Tertullian argued, and therefore because of all womankind, that "God's image, man" was condemned to death, and that the Son of God himself had to come and die. In light of this, he added, how dare any woman "think about adorning yourself over and above your tunics of skins?"

Sumner also cites Ambrose, the bishop of Milan from 374 to 397 A.D. In his treatise "On Paradise," Ambrose wrote 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." For Ambrose, it was a fact of nature that men are superior to women.

Augustine, probably the most famous theologian in all of church history, believed that God did not create the woman for any reason other than procreation. Explicitly he said, "I cannot think of any reason for woman's being made as man's helper, if we dismiss the reason of procreation." He felt that companionship was no part of God's plan for the relationship between the sexes. For the purpose of conversation, he argued, "how much more agreeable it is for two male friends to dwell together than for a man and a woman!"

Declares Sumner, "If the church fathers were prejudiced against women, and we know it, then we should be careful not to absorb their bias." In other words, "Traditional Christian thinking is not the same thing as biblical thinking about women."

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