Attitudes to Women in Post New Testament Times
Attitudes to Women
in Post New Testament Times
In Chapters 5 and 6 we presented a picture from the New Testament
where the evidence indicated sisters and brothers in Christ working together
without any obvious male/female distinction in roles. The same kind of language
was used of the work of each. Paul said of Euodia and Syntyche, for example,
that “they have laboured side by side with me in the Gospel, together with
Clement and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life”
(Philippians 4:2-3). From Paul’s writings in general we have observed the manner
in which he refers to all believers as adelphoi
(“brothers and sisters”) and encourages them to use their gifts “according to
the faith that we have” – whether speaking God’s message, serving, teaching,
encouraging others, sharing, holding authority, or showing kindness (Romans
12:6-8, GNB). It is a delightful picture of brothers and sisters, leading new
lives in Christ, liberated from the restraints of paganism or their previous
religious affiliations, and working together harmoniously.
The question can reasonably be put: if this was the position in
the early ecclesias, what happened? If sisters were taking part with the
brothers, what happened next? Did they continue? Were they stopped? If they
were stopped, was there no protest? What evidence is there?
What Happened to the
Active Part Played by Sisters?
Answers begin to emerge from the New Testament itself, and from
the surrounding environment.
The two passages usually quoted for the complete silence of
sisters indicate problems. We have suggested how these can be explained within
their context, but the active involvement of sisters evidently led to
difficulties. This is not surprising, when viewed against the
keep-women-restricted backgrounds as portrayed in our Chapter 3 (“Women at the
Time of Jesus”) and Chapter 26 (“Attitudes to Women in the Greek/Roman World”).
In Thessalonica the complaint was made against Paul and Silas that “These men
who have turned the world upside down have come here also” (Acts 17:6). It was
the nature of Jesus’ teaching and that of the early ecclesias to turn things
“upside down” in numerous ways. Jews, Greeks, Romans all had something to lose.
When people are turned to new ideas, the revolutionary movement can be
sustained for a while, but it is difficult to maintain the change for long.
This can be noted in three areas: the sharing of goods, freedom from the Law,
and the active involvement of sisters.
“Everything in Common”
The early church in Jerusalem made a promising start in sharing.
company of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that
any of the things which he possessed was his own, but they had everything in
common. And with great power the apostles gave their testimony to the
resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was
not a needy person among them, for as many as were possessors of lands or
houses sold them, and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the
apostles’ feet; and distribution was made to each as any had need. (Acts
But the good intentions soon began to go sour, as the sad incident
of Ananias and Sapphira testifies. The believers continued to show concern and
to share, but not at the original level. And not readily. Paul had to rebuke
those at Corinth who thought only of themselves.
meet together, it is not the Lord’s supper that you eat. For in eating, each
one goes ahead with his own meal, and one is hungry and another is drunk. (1
“Every One that Believes is Freed”
Paul preached a freedom not available under the Law of Moses.
Let it be
known to you therefore, brethren, that through this man forgiveness of sins is
proclaimed to you, and by him every one that believes is freed from everything
from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses. (Acts
He taught, indeed, that literal circumcision was no longer
necessary: circumcision of the heart (a spiritual change) being alone of real
He is a
Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart,
spiritual and not literal. His praise is not from men but from God. (Romans
Peter was given a vision in Acts 10, in which God revealed to him
the same teaching. Peter explained to Cornelius, the Roman centurion, and his
know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit any one of
another nation; but God has shown me that I should not call any man common or
unclean.” (Acts 10:28)
opened his mouth and said: “Truly I perceive that God shows no partiality, but
in every nation any one who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to
him.” (Acts 10:34-35)
There was a reaction against this teaching, a reaction within the
fellowship of the believers.
believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up, and said, “It is
necessary to circumcise them, and to charge them to keep the law of Moses.” (Acts
Even Peter, despite his vision in Acts 10, drew back when under
pressure from those who wished to conform to former ways. So too did Barnabas.
Cephas came to Antioch I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned.
For before certain men came from James, he ate with the Gentiles; but when they
came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. And
with him the rest of the Jews acted insincerely, so that even Barnabas was
carried away by their insincerity. But when I saw that they were not
straightforward about the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them
all... (Galatians 2:11-14)
There was a reaction in the opposite direction too. Some felt that
all constraints were now to be thrown off. They were free from the Law. They
could do as they liked.
we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How
can we who died to sin still live in it?
“Neither Male nor Female”
Paul taught a new beginning in Christ, a new family.
many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither
Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor
female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
But here too lay major problems. The world inevitably put its
pressures on the early church. Slavery couldn’t be abolished, for the Roman
economy was too dependent on it. Its severity could, however, be mitigated
until times changed. “Neither Jew nor Greek” was a problem to the Jewish
believers, but it could be
implemented: the Roman Empire was very international anyway. But “neither male
nor female” was up against strong society pressures.
Women had not been accustomed to the kind of freedom they were to
enjoy in the ecclesias of Paul’s day. Often ill-educated, some no doubt proved
troublesome, hence passages like 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, in whatever context we
consider them. Others at places like Ephesus may have been better educated and
felt they had a right to teach others because of their pre-Christian status
even before they had learned Christian doctrine properly. Some became involved
in gnostic-type speculation. Hence 1 Timothy 2:12. Not that sisters had the
monopoly of causing trouble to the believers: brothers were far more often
Once persecution arose, a need was felt to be as conformist as
possible to preserve the inner core of the faith.
for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as
supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to
praise those who do right. For it is God’s will that by doing right you should
put to silence the ignorance of foolish men. Live as free men, yet without
using your freedom as a pretext for evil; but live as servants of God. Honour
all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honour the emperor. Servants, be submissive
to your masters with all respect, not only to the kind and gentle but also to
(1 Peter 2:13-18)
is not the kind of environment where a new involvement of women could easily
thrive. And once their new freedom had become restricted, it was easily
restricted further by the influence of anti-women thinking imported from the
pagan world. 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 and 1 Timothy 2:11-15 then became the
normative texts, and the wider role demonstrated in the rest of the New Testament,
and the new attitude towards women shown by Jesus and the early believers, were
Moves away from New Testament Teaching
Several changes can be noticed which confirm the kind of trend we
are describing here and which count further against an involved role for women.
Leadership was narrowed down to a male priesthood, the Breaking of
Bread became ritualised, texts were altered to downplay the position of women,
women were blamed for all the world’s troubles, and Old Testament purity laws
were reintroduced. Pagan teachings and attitudes began to be imported,
especially when Christianity became state-supported under Constantine. All of
these downgraded women, and all are contrary to New Testament teaching.
Leadership was narrowed down to a single male bishop, and there
came about a corresponding increase in distance between laity and clergy.
All of you
follow the bishop as Jesus Christ followed the Father, and follow the
presbytery as the Apostles; and respect the deacons as the commandment of God.
Let no man perform anything pertaining to the church without the bishop. Let
that be considered a valid Eucharist over which the bishop presides, or one to
whom he commits it. Wherever the bishop appears, there let the people be, just
as, wheresoever Christ Jesus is, there is the Catholic Church. It is not
permitted to baptise or hold a love-feast apart from the bishop.
c.112 AD, Epistle to the Smyrnaeans, 8)
Instead of the Breaking of Bread being a meeting for communal
sharing in memory of Jesus, the meaning was transferred to the bread and wine
which were then regarded as sacred objects.
... we do
not receive these things as common bread or common drink; but as Jesus Christ
our Saviour being incarnate by God’s word took flesh and blood for our
salvation, so also we have been taught that the food consecrated by the word of
prayer which comes from him, from which our flesh and blood are nourished by
transformation, is the flesh and blood of the incarnate Jesus. (Justin
Martyr, c. 150 AD, Apology 55)
one of the faithful take steps to receive the eucharist before he eats anything
else. For if he receives in faith, even if some deadly thing is given him,
after that it shall not overpower him. Let everyone take care that no
unbeliever eats of the eucharist, nor any mouse or other animal, and that none
of it falls and is lost. For it is the body of Christ, to be eaten by
believers, and not to be despised.
c. 200 AD, Apostolic Tradition, 36-37)
We rely on a large number of handwritten manuscripts in Greek to
provide us with our text of the New Testament. Interestingly, it can be
observed that alterations were made in the second century in such a way as to
downplay the reported involvement and importance of women.
Because these changes are not followed in the majority of
manuscripts, the original text can easily be identified. But the changes
suggest a climate in which some scribes were not happy to see women prominently
The changes are slight, but significant in the thinking they
betray. They indicate an anti-women swing in at least some circles in the early
churches. In Matthew 14:21 it was reported “And those who ate were about five
thousand men, besides women and children”, but this was altered to read
“besides children and women”, the supposed logic being that the children would
include some males, so these should be given more importance in the list than
In Acts 17:4 the original text reported the converts as “a great
many of the devout Greeks and not a few of the leading women”. This was altered
to read “the wives of leading citizens”: it would not do to have leading women! Likewise, when the names
“Priscilla and Aquila appeared”, these were reversed so as to put Priscilla
second. Sometimes Priscilla was even dropped out, a fate which also happened to
Paul’s single female convert at Athens mentioned in Acts 17:33: Damaris is
omitted in the Bezae manuscript. One change could have been a scribal slip, but
there are too many of a consistent type for this to be the case. In Colossians
4:15 Paul sends greetings to “Nympha and the church in her house”. This was
altered to read “Nymphas and the church in his house”! Some of these changes
came into the Latin text, the Vulgate, and into the text used to translate the
1611 King James Version, so those who altered the texts to diminish the role of
women had considerable success in minimising the historically important involvement
of women in the early Christian movement.
Women Blamed for Everything
Women were blamed for the world’s ills in a manner thoroughly
contrary to the teaching Jesus and Paul. We have already quoted Tertullian, c.
You are the devil’s gateway; you
are the unsealer of that [forbidden] tree; 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. (Tertullian,
On Female Dress 1:1)
The apocryphal Gospel of Thomas ends with Mary being saved by
becoming a man.
Peter said to them, “Let Mary leave us, for women are not worthy of life.”
Jesus said, “I myself shall lead her in order to make her male so that she too
may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every woman who will make
herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Gospel of Thomas, Saying 114, Nag Hammadi papyri)
much for Luke 1:48: “All generations will call me blessed.”
In some areas a ban on women attending during menstruation was
women ought not to come to the Holy Table, or touch the Holy of Holies, nor to
churches, but pray elsewhere.
The Canons of Dionysius, Archbishop of Alexandria, 247 AD)
ruling was contrary to widespread previous practice, but was enforced further
as time went by. Note too how holiness was transferred from people, to things:
“the Holy table”, parts of the church building becoming “Holy of Holies”.
The teaching that women were to
blame for all this world’s ills, added to the idea that they were unclean, was
developed into a hatred for women as such and sex within marriage was disapproved
of: the proper Christian approach was celibacy for men and virginity for women.
Those known as the “Early Fathers” adopted interpretations of
Genesis from extra-Biblical sources such as the Apocrypha and from Jewish and
pagan traditions. They mixed these with pagan anti-women medical understanding
and constructed a strongly anti-women theology.
not profit a man to marry. For what is a woman but an enemy of friendship, an
inescapable punishment, a necessary evil, a natural temptation, a domestic
danger, delectable mischief, a fault in nature, painted with beautiful colours?
to John Chrysostom (347-407), Bishop of Constantinople)
Pagan Attitudes Imported
After Constantine (c.285-337), many aspects of pagan worship and
of Roman Imperial Rule were adopted, including church buildings in the style of
Roman temples (with platforms, altars, relics, and paintings), and special
clothing for the clergy, imitating that of male Roman magistrates.
Pope Gregory (540-604), gave the following advice on how to
convert the English:
been giving careful thought to the affairs of the English, and have come to the
conclusion that the temples of the idols among that people should on no account
be destroyed. The idols are to be destroyed, but the temples themselves are to
be aspersed with holy water, altars set up in them, and relics deposited there.
Bede, A History of the English Church and People,
translation, page 86)
With changes such as these, which indicate a move away from the
original gospel and from New Testament ecclesial belief and practice, it is
easy to see how the New Testament’s initial involvement of women and the
freedoms granted them there were eliminated.
Recollection of Paul’s Original Teaching?
Memory of that original involvement – very clear from the apostle
Paul’s letters – may, however, be preserved in a second-century apocryphal book
The Acts of Paul and
Thecla. This is not an authentic
historical account; it is a religious novel, extolling chastity and celibacy in
a manner the apostle did not. But in its comments about the involvement of
women, it seems to be in line with Paul’s letters. If it had been known at that
early date that Paul did not allow and did not encourage women to teach, we
might wonder why (when the climate seemed to have turned against women’s
activity), the Acts of Paul
and Thecla speaks as if such activity was normal for Paul and his
Paul, taking her, led her to the house of Hermaeus, and heard
everything from her, so that those that heard greatly wondered, and were
comforted, and prayed over Tryphaena. She rose up, and said: I am going to
Iconium. Paul said: “Go, and teach the word of God”. Tryphaena sent her much
clothing and gold, so that she left to Paul many things for the service of the
She went to Iconium. She went into the house of Onesiphorus, and
fell upon the pavement where Paul used to sit and teach her, and wept, saying:
“God of myself and of this house, where Thou didst make the light to shine upon
me, O Christ Jesus, the Son of the living God, my help in the fire, my help
among the wild beasts, Thou art glorified for ever. Amen.” She found Thamyris
dead, but her mother alive. Having sent for her mother, she said: “Theocleia,
my mother, canst thou believe that the Lord liveth in the heavens? For whether
thou desirest wealth, God gives it to thee through me; or thy child, I am
standing beside thee.” Having thus testified, she departed to Seleucia, and
dwelt in a cave seventy-two years, living upon herbs and water. She enlightened
many by the word of God.
(Acts of Paul and Thecla 41-43)
In Later Times
Under the monastic system a
leadership role for women was created, perhaps arising out of the position of
deaconesses in earlier years. The most famous is probably Hilda, Abbess of
Whitby, who died in 680 AD aged sixty-six.
undertook to organise a monastery at a place known as Streanaeshalch [Whitby],
and carried out this appointed task with great energy. She established the same
regular life as in her former monastery, and taught the observance of
righteousness, mercy, purity, and other virtues, but especially peace and
charity. After the example of the primitive Church, no one there was rich, no
one was needy, for everything was held in common, and nothing was considered to
be anyone’s personal property. So great was her prudence that not only ordinary
folk, but kings and princes used to come and ask her advice in their
difficulties and take it. Those under her direction were required to make a
thorough study of the Scriptures and occupy themselves in good works. ... Five
men from this monastery later became bishops ....
(Bede, A History of the
English Church and People, IV, 23)
This positive attitude towards women was not shared by Gerald of
Wales. In 1188 he went on a tour with the Archbishop of Canterbury to encourage
Welshmen to go on the Crusades. He reported a selection of anti-women comments
It is not to be wondered at if a
woman bears malice, for this comes to her naturally. We read in Ecclesiastes:
“One man among a thousand have I found: but a woman among all those have I not
found.” Similarly we read in Ecclesiasticus: “There is no head above the head
of a serpent; and there is no wrath above the wrath of a woman”; and again in
the same book: “All wickedness is but little to the wickedness of a woman.”
Just as we may gather gooseberries from among the thorns or pick prickly pears
from cactus plants, so, when he is describing the nature of woman, Cicero says:
“It may well happen that men will be guilty of one sinful deed in an attempt to
gain some personal advantage; but women will not hesitate to commit every crime
in the calendar simply to satisfy a passing whim.”
(Gerald of Wales, The Journey Through Wales, Book I, Chapter 2)
Off the coast of Anglesey lies “Priests’ Island”, so named because
it was inhabited by hermits. Gerald of Wales reported: “No women are ever
allowed on the island” (Book II, Chapter 7).
At the back of Durham Cathedral visitors are shown a line of
stones, marking a pre-reformation barrier behind which women had to remain.
Misogyny reached its highest extent in the persecution of witches.
There is a strong theological background. Pope Innocent VIII in 1484
enthusiastically approved a book Malleus
Maleficarum (“The Hammer of the Witches”). Thousands of innocent women were
burned at the stake as a consequence of the type of thinking shown here:
is woman but a foe to friendship, an unescapable punishment, a necessary evil,
a natural temptation, a desirable calamity, a domestic danger, a delectable
detriment, an evil of nature, painted with fair colours. ....
be noted that there was a defect in the formation of the first woman, since she
was formed from a bent rib, that is, a rib of the breast, which is bent as it
were in a contrary direction to man. And since through this defect she is an
imperfect animal, she always deceives.
answered the serpent) she showed that she doubted and had little faith in the
word of God. All this is indicated by the etymology of the word; for Femina (Latin for “woman”) comes from Fe (=faith) and Minus (=less) since she is ever weaker to hold and preserve the
Sprenger and Heinrich Kramer, The Hammer
of the Witches, page 43)
After the Reformation, leadership amongst the Protestants was
almost entirely male. Luther produced varying statements about women, some
advocating their education, but others demanding the usual domestic role:
“Women should remain at home, sit still, keep house, bear and bring up
John Knox (1514-1572), leader of
the Reformation in Scotland, attacked any idea of leadership by women. His
treatise is directed in particular to the then queen of Scotland, Mary Queen of
Scots, cousin of Queen Elizabeth of England:
... God has pronounced sentence
in these words: “Thy will shall be subject to thy husband, and he shall bear
dominion over thee” (Gen. 3:16). As [though] God should say, “Forasmuch as you
have abused your former condition, and because your free will has brought
yourself and mankind into the bondage of Satan, I therefore will bring you in
bondage to man. For where before your obedience should have been voluntary, now
it shall be by constraint and by necessity; and that because you have deceived
your man, you shall therefore be no longer mistress over your own appetites,
over your own will or desires. For in you there is neither reason nor
discretion which are able to moderate your affections, and therefore they shall
be subject to the desire of your man. He shall be lord and governor, not only
over your body, but even over your appetites and will.” This sentence, I say,
did God pronounce against Eve and her daughters, as the rest of the scriptures
do evidently witness. So that no woman can ever presume to reign above man.
(John Knox, The First Blast of the Trumpet)
Note how John Knox uses a mistranslation of Genesis 3:16 and
regards women as so mentally weak (“in you there is neither reason nor
discretion”) that they have to be ruled over by husbands. His perception of
what “the rest of the scriptures do evidently witness” displays a considerable
lack of awareness of what they actually witness.
When Queen Elizabeth of England died, she was succeeded by the son
of Mary Queen of Scots, James I of England and VI of Scots. It was this James
who authorised the King James version of the Bible. He increased the
persecution of witches. He was nearly shipwrecked, and accused witches of
causing the storm at sea. He wrote a book, Daemonologie,
in which he asserted that witchcraft appealed particularly to women. He
considered that they were more susceptible to “the snares of the Devil as was
ever well proved to be true by the Serpent’s deceiving of Eve at the
beginning.” He concluded that there were twenty times as many female witches as
there were male, and he introduced harsher penalties for witchcraft.
As is now well-known, almost all women who were tortured and
killed as witches were innocent of any crime but once charges were made,
anything they said in their defence was used instead by their accusers to
Amongst some of the anabaptists,
from whom in certain aspects Christadelphians take their descent, women again
took an active part in church meetings.
order of worship beginning with prayer and ending with the admonition to
steadfastness, a service in which, besides the Vorsteher [chief elder], all the members one after another rise to
read the Scriptures or the communal writing, to discourse, and to prophesy.
(Williams, The Radical
Reformation, 1st edition, page 795)
“Prophesy” here probably means what we mean by “exhort”.
The laity, both men and women, began to take over priestly
ministries, preaching, celebrating communion and baptising. There is
documentary evidence that women engaged in ‘corner’ preaching and evangelism.
(Hans Jürgen-Goertz, The Anabaptists,
They did this because of their confidence in “the priesthood of
all believers”, the same doctrine by which we as Christadelphians reject any
our high priest and head and all of us are his members. Now if the head is a
priest, so the hands, fingers, legs, feet, toes, body and members are priests
(Johannes Brötli, quoted
in The Anabaptists, page 115)
In the post-reformation period some women took an active part in
teaching and preaching. These tended to be in the nonconformist sects, but they
did not do so without opposition. In the 1700s women took a leading part in the
Quaker movement, and a pamphlet was written on the role of women by Margaret
Fell. But as time went on and Quakers became more established, there were
Quakers who criticised women for their speaking.
As a result of not being able to take a vocal part in church
worship or an active part in church leadership, women put their energies into
charity work and social involvement amongst the underprivileged.
The Sunday School movement got under way with the strong support
of women – and again there was protest by some men against the involvement of
women in teaching.
In 1859 Catherine Mumford Booth,
wife of the founder of the “Salvation Army”, produced a spirited defence of
preaching by women. It was reissued in 1861 with a reply added in response to a
scornful pamphlet by the Rev. A. A. Rees of Sunderland who scoffed at a woman
preacher as “impudent and mannish grown”, with discourse, gesture and
appearance calculated “to shock one’s delicacy, truth or sense”. To which
Catherine Booth replied: “At present, we are unacquainted with anything of the
kind in a female teacher or preacher.” The main work deals with the usual texts
in a scholarly manner and points out the bias with which they have often been
commentators had dealt with the Bible on other subjects as they have dealt with
it on this, taking isolated passages, separated from their explanatory
connections, and insisting on a literal interpretation of the words of our
version, what errors and contradictions would have been forced upon the
acceptance of the Church, and what terrible results would have accrued to the
world. ... In short, “there is no end to the errors in faith and practice which
have resulted from taking isolated passages, wrested from their proper
connections, or the light thrown upon them by other Scriptures, and applying
them to sustain a favourite theory.” Judging from the blessed results which
have almost invariably followed the ministrations of women in the cause of Christ,
we fear it will be found, in the great day of account, that a mistaken and
unjustifiable application of the passage, “Let your women keep silence in the
Churches,” has resulted in more loss to the Church, evil to the world, and
dishonour to God, than any of the errors we have already referred to.
Booth, Female Ministry or a Woman’s Right
to Preach the Gospel (1859), page 23)
Dr John Thomas, who was the founder of our Christadelphian
community wrote that the woman was intended to be “a dependent creature”. We
have suggested that Genesis does not teach this. Drawing on a mixture of
ancient and modern thought, and mixing 1 Corinthians 11 (out of context) with
Genesis 1 & 2, Dr Thomas says: “the woman’s companionship was designed to
be intellectually and morally sympathetic with ‘the image and glory of God,’
whom she was to revere as her superior” (Elpis
Israel, page 42, first edition 1849).
It is an interesting comment, on the one hand saying that women are
intellectually and morally at a level with men (something usually denied by
church tradition and pagan teaching), but, on the other, stating the view of
church tradition and pagan teaching that man is superior to woman. That women
are intellectually and morally at a level with men is the meaning of a “helper
fit for him”; the idea that she was created to be “a dependent creature” is
church tradition, not the teaching of Genesis nor the position Jesus accords to
For much of the period above and up to the 20th century it was
argued that women are intellectually and morally incapable of teaching or
preaching. Once it was demonstrated that women could capably do both, the
argument was switched to say that although they had the ability, it was not
their role to do these things. The term “role” was only introduced towards the
end of the 20th century, and although we and others have used it in examining
the work done by sisters, it is worth being aware that it is not a Biblical