Sunday, June 8, 2014


Notes and a few quotes from Ross Saunders: Outrageous Women Outrageous God: Women in the First Two Generations of Christianity, Acorn Press 1996

In times of social dislocation, often it's the women who - against social precedent - 'take charge'. Aboriginal (Koori) women are often 'leading their menfolk in recovering and preserving their indigenous culture... Australia's first Koori magistrate is a woman. Australia's first recognized Koori poet is a woman.'

Christianity was born in Mediterranean cultures. Cultural anthropologists have identified four core values of these societies: [1] Honor and Shame: Everyone belonged in a great procession: the most honored at the top, the least honored (eg. peasants) at the bottom. [2] Embedded Identity: rather than having (as we do) individual rights, every person belonged to a family/tribe/village/city/country. If the head of a household became a Jesus-follower, the whole household would as well. [3] A World of Limited Good. Whereas immigrants today can rise to any position in their adopted country, back then this was virtually impossible. Your status was fixed. [4] Everything in its Place: For example, 'purity' rules dictate that when fluids emerge from the body (blood, urine, semen etc.) they are 'out of place'. Rituals were devised to deal with this perceived threat to the order and peace of the community. (Note for example all that must happen if an Israelite warrior marries a woman captured in battle, Deuteronomy 21:10-14).   

In the ancient world women were always identified in terms of their relationship to a male - husband, brother, son, uncle or cousin. A woman with no male relative was an embarrassment: in desperate situations they were sometimes forced into prostitution. A woman managed her household - food, budgets, slaves etc. As she belonged to her husband only he could touch her (males had much greater social freedoms). Women sat separately in the synagogue: in social situations they were always in the background. A female slave belonged to her master: her children remained his property.

But women in the four Gospels are named in their own right as persons. Christianity radically altered their status, giving them a separate identity and role (often as leaders). They could demand to be heard (eg. the Syro-Phoenician woman, Mt. 15:21-28; the mother of James and John, Mt. 20:20-24; Anna the Prophet, Lk. 2:36-38; the maid who challenged Peter, Lk. 22:54-60; the Samaritan woman, Jn. 4 etc.). They demanded the right to be ministered to (eg. the woman with the haemorrhage, Lk. 8:43-48, Mary and Martha, Lk. 10:38-42). They demanded the right to serve (eg. the poor widow, Mk. 12:41-44, the woman who anointed Jesus, Mt. 26:6-13). They were called to serve (eg. as first witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus, Lk. 24:1-11). They were specially chosen (eg. Elizabeth, Lk 1, Mary the mother of Jesus, Lk 1:26-38). They could also be self-servers (eg. Herodias and Salome, Mk. 6:16-29). In Jesus' parables (eg. Mt. 25:1-13, Lk. 15:8-10, Lk. 18:1-8) Jesus stepped outside the norm of women being valued simply as adjuncts to men.   

In Acts (6:1-6), the Hellenistic widows felt empowered to demand that the men do something about the injustice and cultural prejudice disadvantaging them. Sapphira (5:1-11) acted as an equal partner with her husband. Mary, the mother of John Mark, did not sell her house, but made it available for meetings. She kept her slave, Rhoda, and did not manumit her. Tabitha (9:36-43) was a 'charitable administrator' and Lydia (16:11-15) was a single businesswoman. Priscilla - whose name is mentioned before that of her husband, several times (eg. 18: 1-3, 18, 26) - actually taught male leaders! Philip had four - yes four! - unmarried daughters (21:8-9): unheard of! And they were prophets...

Paul broke with custom and demanded that Phoebe - the only person named in the NT as a 'deacon' - be treated according to her position in the community and not according to her sex (Rom. 16:1-2). In Romans 16, of 28 greeted by name, eight are women - despite cultural sanctions against women playing leadership roles in either civic or religious life. Similarly with other women in Paul's letters - Chloe, Prisca (again), Euodia and Syntyche, Nympha, Lois, Eunice, Claudia, Apphia... All this set the church apart from Mediterranean cultural norms...  

What Paul said about women. 'We must always take into account the special circumstances and the context of the city and region involved. Too often what Paul has said about women in a particular place has been universalized.' For example: 'The Roman city Corinth had a worldwide reputation for its sexual licentiousness [associated with] the worship of Aphrodite.' [p. 123]. 'Women generally were disparaged in Corinth, so that their taking part in congregational worship and teaching would have been inappropriate in Paul's mind. [For many prostitutes] having sex with a stranger was in some way an act of service to Aphrodite... [In dealing with marriage]: in Corinth women were very much seen as sex objects and breeders of children.' [p. 124] Prostitutes could be identified by their hair-styles. And when adulteresses became Christians many shaved their heads and went around 'bareheaded to atone for the disgrace they brought upon their husbands. [Connected with] Paul's invoking a 'Jewish custom that required women to wear a veil at worship. If all women wore a veil over their heads, then none of the men could distinguish those who had been prostitutes and those who had not. Men are not to wear long hair or wear veils... Women are not to wear short hair or remain bareheaded.' [So in this sort of society] 'it was necessary for change to proceed slowly. It would take a generation or two of Christianity for women to become respected human beings alongside the men.' [pp. 134-5]

'Not permitted to speak' 1 Cor 14: 33-36. What’s that about? 'We can have no idea at all what actually provoked Paul's outburst against Corinthian women here. All we need to remember is that Paul encouraged the full participation of women in his own missionary work and in congregations outside Corinth.' 'Sadly, Paul's dictum about all being one in Christ has never to this day been fulfilled to the letter in any Christian denomination' [p. 136]. (Note Brethren NT scholar FF Bruce’s: Gal. 3:28 is the lens through which we see all of Paul's ideas in this broad area...).

Ephesians: 'Christians are to defer to each other in Christ, and this is to be the guiding principle in all their social relationships. Paul then spells out what this means for three sets of relationships: husbands and wives, parents and children, masters and their slaves. In each case, each partner is to defer to the other. This means that there is no ruling partner with absolute control over the other.' [p. 140] "Headship" 'is clearly about source and not structured authority. [p.142] Paul does not distinguish between male and female slaves. In the Roman world female slaves were treated very differently from male slaves. For Paul, sex differences do not apply: all slaves are to be treated with respect.' [p. 143].

1 Tim. 5:3-16: 'The Roman world was replete with young widows because so many young husbands lost their lives in wars and skirmishes. The Roman army was the only police force throughout the empire and so it took a great number of men away from the main cities...[If] younger widows refused to become sex workers, they had little to do with their time, and became a drain on the social work funds of congregations...' 146

A "husbandless wife" is a nonperson. 'Having no husband to live for, a widow has no place in the community. 148

2 Tim 3:6-7: 'False teachers were a problem very early on in the church, especially in Asia Minor where pagan mystery religions were rife.' 150

'Paul is still somewhat patriarchal, tending to subordinate women to their menfolk. But it should still be granted to him that he stepped way beyond the mores of his time and continued the process of freeing women to be full members of society, a process begun by Jesus' 153

Peter - far more patriarchal than Paul (1 Pet 2:18 - 3:7). Heavier stress on the subordinate and deferential role of women, as well as that of slaves. He has nothing to say to slave masters, nor to husbands. 156

Neither the writer to the Hebrews nor James says anything about the place of women in the church 158. 

Apostolic Fathers: In only one of these - the letter of Ignatius to Smyrna - is there any mention by name of women (Gavia and Alce, both personal friends of the author. 'The only other time women come in for mention is to tell them to be submissive to their husbands!' 159

Bishop Clement of Rome: women, and especially Corinthian women, were to be kept in the background, where they were before Christianity had begun to liberate them. 160

Polycarp: women are back in their subservient role. 'Pure women... make sure that men do not sin; impure women result in men who sin. Men are thus the victims of women's sensuality.' 162

Didache: 'The whole tenor of this manual is thoroughly masculine. There is no absolutely no account taken of the possibility that a prophet or teacher or deacon could be a woman. Women just do not rate a single mention.' 163

Conclusion: 'Women of any social status were welcomed and encouraged to take an active part in the life and leadership of the church during the first two generations of Christianity, [but] they virtually disappear for the next several generations. The pattern is so clear: Jesus affirmed women as individuals in their own right without the necessity  to be under the control of a male sponsor.' 175

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