"God showed me something small, no bigger than a hazelnut, lying in the palm of my hand… and it was round as a ball. I looked at it with the eye of my understanding and thought: 'What can this be?' And it was generally answered thus: 'It is all that was made.' It was so small I thought it might disappear, but I was answered... everything has being through the love of God." --Julian of Norwich

Sunday, June 10, 2012

A New History of Women in Church: We Were There!

Friends, this is a humble blog, and I'm afraid that the following post may be a little high and mighty in comparison with what has come before it, but I have been so profoundly encouraged by One in Christ: A Week of Mutuality going on at Rachel Held Evans' blog that I just have to express something I've been meaning to put into words for a while.  I hope that it adds to the conversation in a constructive way.  Rachel's call for women to add their voices to the choir of Christian teachers and her excellent arguments why that is not only okay, it is necessary for the life of the Church, has convicted me that I have a voice to add.

What is so deeply moving for me about what Rachel is offering to her online community, is that I have had to dig around in dry, musty theological libraries for at least 3 or 4 years to piece together the arguments for evangelical mutuality she has so beautifully synthesized for YOU in just a few posts.  Friends, you are BLESSED!  I'm positive she and I were reading some of the same books, written by brave women who blazed a trail in a few universities and colleges, hoping that it would become a firm path for those who followed.  It has.  It is now a paved highway.  And more and more men and women are able to not only walk, but run toward Zion along this beautiful road.

To use a different metaphor, we're standing on the shoulders of giants, and we are blessed beyond imagination by their faithfulness.

Rachel has looked at Genesis 1-3 and the Household Codes of the New Testament Epistles as texts that argue for the equality of men and women.  She has compiled a wonderful list of women leaders in the scriptures, and put out a call to let women speak in the church today (looking at I Tim 2).  The woman is on fire!

I also appreciated her "Ask an Egalitarian" interview last Thursday, with Center for Biblical Equality president Mimi Haddad, but it pointed out to me one thing that I have to add to the conversation.  In response to a question from Eric about the history of egalitarianism in the church, Mimi writes that there have been three main responses to "the woman question:"
  •  The Patriarchal Perspective, which calls women innately inferior and which Mimi locates as the dominant view before 1800;
  • The Egalitarian View, which argues for the fundamental equality of women and which arose in early Evangelicalism (post-1800); and 
  • The Complementarian Perspective, which emphasizes the distinct roles of men and women (a kind of "equal, but..." position) as a reaction to the breakdown of traditional morality and to secular feminism's complete rejection of the Bible.

Mimi is clearly one of the giants whose shoulders I stand on and she is bang on about the rise of Egalitarianism with Evangelical Christianity, but I'd like to push back her idea that Christianity was completely Patriarchal before 1800.

Her conclusions seem based on two things for me:
  • The early secular feminist paradigm set out in texts like Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex which sees Patriarchy in all of human history until the rise of modern feminism (amazing, brilliant woman who raised so many women to consciousness of the problems around us, but she was definitely not seeking to describe anything from a Christian perspective)
  • A way of doing Church History that argues that the scriptures got things right, especially with Jesus' teachings, but the Church mucked things up, especially after Constantine legalized and popularized Christianity, compromising the Church's purity, and in the last two hundred years (yay for America!!) we've finally gotten back to the truth.  It's called the Fall paradigm of Church History.

Maybe I'm just an optimist (okay, everyone who's met me will tell you--I'm a undying, sweetly smiling, "but don't you see the glass has so much water in it," "of course everyone deserves the benefit of the doubt," kind of girl), but I don't like Fall paradigmsI think God's Spirit has been leading His Church (the universal, small "c" catholic Church), building it on a firm Foundation, for every single one of the 2000+ years it's been around.  Of course, there have been colossal, painful, and costly mistakes, but I do believe the ultimate trajectory is slow and steady sanctification of humans and their culture.

I also believe that God meets us where we're at.  So from choosing Abram and Sarai out of ancient Mesopotamia, to guiding his people out of the cultures of Egypt and Canaan, to leading the captives out of Babylon back into Jerusalem, to Jesus' arrival in Bethlehem and beyond, God has incarnated himself in human stories so we can know him better bit by bit.  Yes, this has limited him severely.  People attempting to follow him have brought terrible misconceptions about how to please him in their cultural baggage (golden calves, virgin daughters offered as sacrifice, foreign wives cast out into the desert).  But faith in the God of the Bible is not about being bopped on the head with a magic wand and suddenly becoming perfect saints.  We should never assume these Biblical examples are automatic models-to-follow.  That's not how God works among human beings.  His life with humans is about the long, slow, painful process of helping us grow.

So let me tell you a different story about how I see that God worked in ancient, medieval and early-modern cultures to use Christianity to  liberate women:

As we look back at the world before 1800, I think we should start by trying to understand the nuances of the culture that we're looking at and listening to the voices we have from that culture, instead of assuming that a few social similarities (like inheritance through male family lines, Patrilineal culture) mean the same social problems as in our experience (like Patriarchal domination over and abuse of women).

I came to understand this through a 1988 academic title called Discovering Eve: Ancient Israelite Women in Context by Old Testament scholar Carol Meyers.  In a brilliant chapter called "The Problem of Patriarchy" Meyers argues that there is a distinction between public authority and social power in many societies.  While men may hold the official positions, with a kind of myth of male dominance, they actually live in a dynamic relationship with women where each is indispensable.  A good way of explaining this is with the quote from My Big Fat Greek Wedding: "The man may be the head, but the woman is the neck, and she turns him any way she wants."

The things we look for as evidences of women's equality in Western cultures today: rights to own property, to divorce (especially in cases of abuse), to participate in the public sphere, accesses to reliable family planning, to formal education, to her own free will for her future, while these things are important in our post-industrial culture, they may not be reliable indicators of a just and fair life for women in every culture.

A practical balance of power is often the case in agrarian societies where the private home is the primary economic and cultural center of society.  While agrarian men and women hold different roles and men often seem to dominate, the economic viability of the home relies on the mutual cooperation of every member of the household, male and female.  Can there be abuses in this system?  Yes.  But does Patriarchy automatically equal abuse or subjugation? No.  Is acknowledging this idea somehow compromising the equality of women or advocacy for women today?  Meyers would argue that it does not, in fact it re-focuses our energies to the places where change can really happen.  She says,
"Feminists who condemn or bemoan the apparent patriarchy of ancient or other societies [especially non-Western] may be deflecting their energies from what should be the real focus of their concern: the transformation of functional gender balance to situations of real imbalance.  In other words, what happened to change the myth of male dominance to the reality of male dominance?  What is there in the nature of urban and/or industrial life that alters the model of balance that exists for some peasant societies?"
This kind of perspective is part of the third wave in feminist theory.  We stand on the shoulders of the brilliant women who laid a foundation in First Wave (those brave Evangelicals!) and Second Wave (Twentieth Century) feminisms.  But we need to keep moving forward, searching for the root problems and eradicating them.  Third Wave feminists are especially blessed because we have access to more and more first hand accounts of what it was like to live as a Jewish or Christian woman throughout history, due to a lot of hard work by those who came before us and due to the information explosion of the past fifteen years.

Phew.  So that is deep, theoretical stuff.  I do think it is an important background, but now let's get into some stories that we may have been tempted to misinterpret before.

The Early Church (100-500 A.D.)

Take the early church, for example.  Rachel's analysis of some of the cultural issues facing women in the ancient Greco-Roman world is really sound.  "Even in a patriarchal culture," Rachel states, "Christians were doing things differently."  Secular culture was often (but not always) very dismissive of women.  Within this context, Paul takes small steps to show the liberation and equality that Christ brings to these situations.  Ancient Christanity was deeply attractive to women because they were treated with a new found equality in several ways:
  •  We have a few strong archaeological evidences that Junia was not the only woman apostle and that there were at least a few women bishops (just like there were slave bishops).  Women were in leadership in the Early Church, taking on roles they were not generally allowed in Roman culture.
  • Ancient Christians were committed to nursing and hospice care during the plagues that ravaged Rome, and unlike pagans they didn't discriminate between men and women nor according to class.
  • Despite the Patriarchal Roman model where the pater familias had absolute power over every member of his household and women, even unto death, and women were treated like property (they didn't even have their own names! Names like Junia and Claudia were just the feminine of the family name), young Christian women found a new purpose in singleness and many were liberated from arranged marriagesEveryone  in Roman culture was expected to participate in the cult of family and people achieved "immortality" for their family name by bearing offspring.  The Christian emphasis on singleness and virginity smashed this pagan idol to the ground.  In the first generation, some of these virgin Saints who refused marriage were martyred because of their beliefs, but their stand and the repetition of their stories enables later generations of young women to become nuns and Desert Mothers and to break free of the idea that every woman must be a mother.
  • Pagan Roman sexuality and family structures embraced various methods of contraception, abortion and infanticide, many of which were extremely dangerous to women's physical health and which placed the moral burden of killing offspring upon the women, based on the argument that "It doesn't matter if the woman does it, she's not a moral being anyway. A pater familias gave the order to kill "extra" children and female children, but it was usually mother who was forced to kill her own child.  The Church Fathers opposed these practices because they believed that every life was valuable, that of the mothers and the children, as well as believing that Christian women, like men, should not murder because their souls mattered!  Regardless of the conversation about contraception today, the rationale for rejecting it back then was to defend the dignity and equality of women.

The Medieval Church (600-1450 A.D.)

But that's not all!  There was also a space within the Medieval church for many women to achieve spiritual leadership:
  • First, we cannot confuse the Medieval view of a hierarchical cosmos with abusive patriarchy.  For an interesting (if very detailed and academic) look at the nuances of the Medieval worldview, check out C.S. Lewis's The Discarded Image.  The Medieval person saw the whole world as a perfectly working machine, and each person played the role in that machine that they inherited from their ancestors, be it as a spring or a cog or a gold case.  For the most part, this continued an agrarian culture, with the added social levels of Feudal Lords who provided protection, management and support for a local economy in exchange for wealth and power and a continuing class of village tradespeople.  Was it a perfect worldview?  None ever is.  But overall, it still provided an economy where each member's contribution was vitally importantWithout women's roles in household tasks like cooking, cleaning, spinning, sewing, child rearing, and family-based trades like dairy farming and processing, brewing, butchering, housekeeping and tailoring, the society wouldn't have been economically viable.
  • The Medieval church was the center of education during this time.  Women did not have much access to literacy or education, but neither did most men.  Christian experience and education in the Church was limited to sacramental experience and to the physical encounter with storytelling art (stained glass, sculpture, architecture) in Cathedrals and parish churches.  Frankly, no one thought that every person had a right or ability to become literate until well after Gutenburg made his press and Luther used it to disseminate the ideas of the Reformation.  It was a small, literate class who preserved knowledge in the monastic setting.  But some notable women did achieve literacy through religious education in convents including Margery Kempe (who wrote the first autobiography in English), Julian of Norwich, Catherine of Siena, Hildegard Von Bingen, and others.  All these women left behind a treasure trove of texts that help us to guess at what their lives might have been.
  • Women were able to gain spiritual authority by special Spiritual gifts like mystical visions, gifts of tears, gifts of prophecy, and many more.  And there were many women who found an opportunity for leadership in convents throughout Europe.  Here, again, at least some women were able to choose virginity as a form of cultural power: they would not bear physical children for men, but spiritual children for Christ through prayer, leadership, teaching and service.  A great example of this is Hildegard Von Bingen, an abbess who was alternately a composer, theologian, savvy political leader, and doctor.  Catherine of Sienna was able to directly influence the Pope to return to Rome from Avignon during a time of major church schism.  Claire of Assisi traveled with Francis of Assisi and together they achieved social change throughout Italy.  The Beguine nuns were early urban missionaries, living in convents together and serving the Belgian cities where they lived.
  • During the High Middle Ages, there was a strong and meaningful impulse of Christians to identify God as a mother.  The primary places we find this are in Bernard of Clairvaux and Julian of Norwich.  I've written a bit more about Julian's picture of the Mother God elsewhere on my blog.
  • Christine de Pizan, a well-educated widow and mother from Italy, becomes the first woman we know of to support herself and her family by writing in the early 1400s, and a vocal advocate for the cause of women against the courtly love ideal, portrayed in The Romance of the Rose that a woman is weak, passive and enclosed in order to be conquered and owned by the men in her life.
Basically, we can see here a church that, while often dominated by a priestly class of men, could not have functioned (in fact it may have fallen apart, especially with schism) without the presence and leadership of women.  We cannot allow the false perception that because the majority of written texts we have were by men (or even misogynist men) to imply that women didn't hold important roles in culture.

The Reformation and Early Modern Church (1450-1800 A.D.)

This was a time period of many upheavals.  The Church split up over the issues of the Reformation, the Holy Roman Empire in Europe fell apart into numerous nations, the printing press revolutionized communications and made books increasingly accessible, and social roles began to change drastically as there was a rise in the belief that an individual person could make choices and make an impact beyond his or her prescribed reality.* 
  • The general economic structure of society generally continues to be based on an agrarian model during this time, though with increasing specialization of tasks in urban areas.  However, families still work together at their trades and women have freedom to move and to transact business.  Unlike other world cultures, women in Reformation Europe do not wear veils in public.  They have begun to gain more and more public freedoms like inheritance and financial management.  More and more women begin to have access to education because of the Reformation emphasis on individual piety, even among the middle and lower classes.  More and more women become published and widely read authors.
  • Women were actively involved in the life of the church during this time period by participating in the Reformation and Counter-Reformation.  For bold, daring, non-silent women of the reformation, check out Justin Holocomb's article on the topic at (of all places!) Resurgence.  
    • One particularly wonderful woman was Martin Luther's spicy wife Katarina Von Bora, who was pretty much the economic provider for Luther through her management of the monastery and farm where they lived.   
    • Teresa of Avila became an important reformer from within of the Catholic Church, by traveling tirelessly within Spain to reform the Carmelite convents that had become wealthy, gossipy, and lazy in following the mission of God. She is one of two woman acknowledged by the Roman Catholic Church today as a Doctor of the Church for the depth of her theological writings on the soul and prayer in works like The Interior Castle and her Life.
    • Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz wrote prolifically to advocate for reform and for women from a convent Mexico.
  • There were also many important women involved in the rise of the Evangelical movement, like:
    • Susanna Wesley, who bore 19 children, though only ten survived.  Two of those survivors (#15 and #19 respectively) were John and Charles Wesley, who founded Methodism based in large part on the teaching and training their mother passed on to them.  [Just as a note: several of these women were wives and mothers.  Remember, that neither disqualifies them from making a difference, even if they weren't in "public," nor dictates that we live exactly like them to make a difference.  John Wesley was one of the early Evangelical advocates for women preachers, perhaps because of his mother's strong influence.]
 So... there you have it.  For a variety of reasons, these women's voices have been pushed to the margins, even by feminists for not being "liberated" enough, but ladies and gentlemen, women have always been half the church, they have always used their gifts to bless the church, and regardless of cultural nuances, many women have found Christian faith profoundly liberating.  I feel that I've just scratched the surface with my explanations and examples, that they are too hasty to include even a fraction of the evidence or to provide a really watertight case, but that's not my purpose.  My point is to tell the women out there: BE ENCOURAGED, YOU ARE NOT ALONE!  I can't think of any better way to end than with that.

*We take this emphasis on the individual for granted today and we take it for granted that individual autonomy is a good thing, but the twentieth century also showed us the dangers of destabilizing culture this way by it's own extremes of isolation and total war.


  1. Laura, thank you for this post! I began it the other day and returned to finish this morning. You do a great job of pointing out that the history of the church is full of examples of wonderful, strong women whose contributions were extremely important for the life of the body. Our Second Wave (great) grandmothers would commend you for refusing the amnesia that so often plagues us! I do think that the church's tendency to forget its heroes and contributors (its martyrs, its quiet reformers, its women) is one of the most dispiriting aspects of these debates about gender, politics, war, etc.

    I'm also thankful that you highlight the paradoxical nature of the church's relation to these issues, in particular the issue of sex and gender: the visible church throughout the ages has provided BOTH an empowering space for women (especially for women who subvert certain hierarchies) AND a series of limitations for those women. Dame Julian was exceptional because she was an *exception*, but that doesn't diminish the fact that it was precisely the space of the church that gave her the opportunity to express her holy vision as she did.

    May we continue to learn to live into that paradox, remembering our foremothers and following the Spirit's guiding into holiness, even when it contrasts with the cultures around us (including church culture). Thanks for challenging us with this history.

    1. Great to hear from you, Cindy! It was a bit of an e-tome that I wrote, but I'm so glad you enjoyed it. It is a paradox, isn't it, that women were there and made such a difference, but are now forgotten? But you're right, we are good at forgetting in general. That's what you and me are here for. We try to remind people to remember.