Is Christianity Oppressive to Women?
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."
Tertullian lived in a Roman culture where marriage and women were degraded. And much of early Christian thought was influenced by Plato and Aristotle, neither of whom were Christian thinkers. Aristotle believed that women were irrational in relation to men and unequal in virtue.
The idea that women are equal in worth to men has only recently received widespread acceptance. As Sumner argues, we must face the difficult fact that we do not read Scripture objectively, but rather through the lenses of a long tradition of gender inequality. When we try to set these lenses aside, we begin to see a God who is counter-cultural in this respect. He is not a respecter of persons—He shows no partiality! (Acts 10:34)
From the Bible emerge three clear pictures about women. Together they show that God is an equal opportunity Creator, Forgiver, Equipper, and Empowerer.
The first picture is one of Creation: we see that like men, women are created in God's image. It takes both male and female to bear God's image. We are bone of man's bone and flesh of man's flesh. (Gen. 2:23). Right after the first woman was formed and introduced to the first man, the man was told that from that time forward, "therefore, a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined (cleave) to his wife, and they shall become one flesh." God blessed both man and woman and charged them both to have dominion over the earth. God intended them to experience oneness and to work—have dominion—side by side. That's the first picture, the creation picture.
Before the second picture, a terrible event occurs. In Genesis 3, there is the temptation and the fall. Given free will, both the woman and the man make disastrous choices. There are stunning consequences, curses from God upon the tempter, the woman, and the man. But, there is Good News: both the woman and the man are eligible for forgiveness. They can both be restored to a right relationship with God.
Again, God himself takes the initiative and provides a way back into fellowship through the life and death of his Son. Jesus is the Light that comes into the world. Men and women who believe in him are placed together into a new family. They become the children of God (John 1:12).
In the new "body of Christ," men and women are both given gifts for serving one another. Oneness between a man and woman in marriage was always God's idea. And now, oneness in the body of Christ is God's idea. He is impartial in the giving of the gifts. "But now God has set the members, each one of them, in the body just as He pleases," (I Cor. 12:18), "for the profit of all." (I Cor. 12:7).
Where in the Bible record do we see the consequences for women of this new order? In Luke 10, Mary sat at Jesus' feet and heard his word, and when her sister, Martha, complained that Mary had left her to do all the serving (traditionally woman's work), Jesus told Martha that "Mary has chosen the good part, which will not be taken away from her."
That is no isolated incident—women are right there in the center of things throughout the New Testament accounts: Women watched as Jesus died. Women were at the tomb. Women were included as Christ followers. They prayed and supported the body of Christ with their gifts and talents. Later, women such as Priscilla served as teachers. This second picture of light shows Jesus not only forgiving women, but equipping women and welcoming women to learn from him and to serve the body.
In the third picture, women are of equal worth in heaven. The third picture is the eternal picture. In heaven, men and women will stand shoulder-to-shoulder praising God. Here is a description from Revelation 22:3-5:
"The throne of God and of the Lamb is at the center. His servants will offer God service—worshiping, they'll look on his face, their foreheads mirroring God. Never again will there be any night. No one will need lamplight or sunlight. The shining of God, the Master, is all the light anyone needs. And they will rule with him age after age after age."
Has Christianity been oppressive to women? Yes. Is Christ? No. As the apostle Paul insisted, "In Christ's family there can be no division into Jew and non-Jew, slave and free, male and female. Among us you are all equal. That is, we are all in common relationship with Jesus Christ" (Gal. 3:28).
In the beginning, God created man and woman to have oneness in marriage. In the body of Christ, the church, God intends for us to have community with one another. In eternity in heaven, we will be praising God together. God's will is for men and women to be together, side-by-side. His heart is oneness.
Linda Rump holds a Masters of Divinity degree from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, IL and is a wife and mother of two adult children.
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