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," ...1