Women, Church and God: About a thousandish years of Christian tradition!

During the first two eras of the Christian church, spanning from the death of Christ through the end of the medieval period, women became active participants in the church and then struggled to keep that involvement possible. The first six hundred years of the church is marked by an initial force of women in leadership that is quickly replaced by stringent patriarchal gender roles. These strict gender roles, which continue today in some branches of the church, shaped the dualistic mentality of women and spirituality during the medieval period.

In the decades immediately proceeding the death of Christ, women became heavily involved in church practices, preaching, teaching and leadership. Paul’s letters frequently refer to women workers in the church with the same titles used for men. Phoebe was a deacon (Rom. 16:1) and Junia was an apostle (Rom. 16:7). Priscilla is always mentioned before her husband Aquilla (Rom.16:3). Paul commends Mary, Tryphaena, Tryphosa and Persis for laboring hard in the Lord (Rom. 16:6, 12). Acts 16:14 reveals Lydia, a businesswoman and home church leader. During the ministry of Jesus while on earth, he consistently supports and uplifts women, and women are the followers to continue with Jesus through his death, whereas most of the men depart.

Some of the writings by Paul about women are radical and liberating. In Galatians, he pronounces that there is neither “Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female” (Gal. 3:28, ESV), which is complete upheaval of the ethnocentricity of Judaism. However, some passages in his letters present a strong antagonism toward women. For example, in Titus 2:3-5, Paul commands older women to be reverent, to work in the home and to teach younger women to love their husbands and children. In Her Story: Women in Christian Tradition, Barbara J. MacHaffie argues that these antagonistic passages are not original to Paul’s letters, and that Paul himself shows an ambivalence toward women and is willing to accept them as peers in leadership (MacHaffie, 14).

This is the book that I'm working with.

This is the book that I’m working with.

Despite the initial prominence of women in the church, within the next few centuries, a new generation of patriarchal church leaders known as the church fathers began to vehemently exclude women from leadership and public roles. Because of the limitations placed on women, after the immediate beginning of the church, there is a near stopgap of information about women’s involvement. The Greco-Roman culture surrounding the early church separated men into public positions of honor and women into private spheres of shame. As the Christian movement further codified into a religion, women were once again relegated into the seclusion of private life (MacHaffie, 16).

The early church fathers believed that women were more prone to sin and that their menstrual cycles associated them with the flesh and fleshly desires. They all plea for virgin lives, and though they do not completely condemn marriage, they tend to view all sexual intercourse as tainted by sin. Thus, sex for procreation was the only permissible sex in their eyes (MacHaffie, 24). Widows occupied a special position within the church during the third century. They were appointed to pray for the church and they laid hands on the sick to pray for healing. Widows were legally independent and had life experience, and sometimes wealth, making them dangerous to the established patriarchal church system, so the official designation of widow eventually dissipated (18).

Virginity was highly regarded by the church fathers, and women could choose to lead a virgin life. This spiritual discipline in women was highly persecuted, and some women who would not consent to marry or to have sex with their new husbands would be martyred for their dissent from social norm. Despite this risk, dedicated virgins gained enough levels of autonomy and admiration within the church that eventually they were cloistered into heavily secluded monasteries (MacHaffie, 25).

This veneration of virginity continued through the medieval period, where it became an obsession. Unmarried women sequestered themselves in their parents’ homes or in cloisters, anchoresses locked themselves into isolation chambers and wives negotiated sexless marriages (MacHaffie, 52-56). Along with virginity, many women also chose asceticism. Through self-starvation, women could control or completely stop their periods, lose the feminine contours of their bodies and appear more and more like men. These ascetics were frequently venerated for their ability to separate themselves from the evil, sexual nature of womanhood (57).

The middle ages saw a rise in a dualistic impression of femininity. Women were either considered to be pure and pious or to be evil and heretical, both by nature of being women. Women who chose the virgin life associated themselves with the Virgin Mary, whose mythology had been growing and exploded during the medieval period. Mary, humble and pious and forever a virgin, interceded for sinful people and pled for grace (MacHaffie, 62). A woman that was not pursuing virginity ran the risk of being labeled a witch. Witch hunts across Europe became common during the later medieval period through the mid eighteenth century, the most famous of which being the Salem Witch Trials in the young British colony of Massachusetts in the 1690s. Witches were believed to be in sexual relationships with the devil, to eat the flesh and drink the blood of children and to pronounce curses on their neighbors that would result in failed crops or miscarriages (65). Though historians believe that this conception of witchcraft was probably never practiced, the image of the witch took root in the ideology of womanhood. Though some men were accused of witchcraft, four times as many women suffered the label through to the point of execution (66).

The medieval period hosted the time of the Christian mystics, a group that was largely dominated by women. Christian mystics received visions directly from God, met with and spoke to Christ and to the saints, including Mary. They received the Eucharist from the hands of Christ himself, lambasting the authority of the church. The famous Christian mystic Julian of Norwich reconceptualizes God and the Trinity in such a way that Jesus, instead of being associated with sonship, is associated with motherhood. Christ is the mother figure who gives spiritual birth to believers and who watches over the believers on earth (MacHaffie, 71). The mystics sought to experience God authentically and powerfully. Despite the womanhood of many mystics, and perhaps because of it, the church accepted their revelations from God as authoritative. The mystics would often describe themselves in denigrating terms, in order to elevate the importance of their messages from God (73).

julian-of-norwich

Everybody’s favorite mystic!

During these first two major eras of the Christian church, women found ways to subvert patriarchal power and pursue relationships with God. Pursuing virginity and asceticism gave women the opportunity to engage in monasteries and cloisters that would provide education and training in the scriptures. At different moments, women slipped either into leadership positions or the public eye, each time eventually causing further restriction on future generations of women. In order to pursue God and religion, women suffered in denying themselves their sexual natures and by starving themselves to reduce their womanhood. The virgins and the ascetics sacrificed greatly in order to succeed in a patriarchal society.

MacHaffie, Barbara J.  Her Story: Women in Christian Tradition. Augsburg Fortress, 2006. Minneapolis, MN

Full of Quivers After Reading Quiverfull

Remember all those times I swore I had left the nineteenth century behind?  Well, if you look at a calendar, we’re sitting in the 21st century in Quiverfull, but most of the time it feels like the nineteenth (or maybe even the seventeenth).

Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement by Kathryn Joyce is a gripping and horrendous outsider approach to the complementarian evangelical Protestant church — a world in which I sometimes occupy space.  Joyce approaches Christian patriarchy with an investigative eye, but she warns in the introduction that she’s interested in extremists and fundamentalists.  This book is by no means representative of the whole; rather, it is an exploration of a small subset within Christianity.  That being said, to my own personal chagrin, I was disturbed by how much seemingly neutral Christian culture that I grew up with made it into the book.  At one point, Joyce even mentions a Christian and Missionary Alliance Church.

quiverfull-inside-christian-patriarchy-movement-kathryn-joyce-hardcover-cover-art

Quiverfull, by Kathryn Joyce

Joyce herself is not a Christian, but she is fluent enough in “Christianese” to both communicate with her contacts and to convey their stories to people outside of evangelical Protestantism.  At times, she is too quick to boil everything down to five-point Calvinism, perhaps because John Piper and Wayne Grudem of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (and editors of Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism) are themselves five-point Calvinists.  There are Calvinists who are egalitarian (like myself, hovering between three and four points of agreement usually) and there are Arminians who are complementarian.  Other than discussing the five basic tenants of Calvinism and the doctrines regarding men and women, Joyce avoids theology and never blames Christianity itself (or Jesus, for that matter) for the injustices of the complementarian church.

The book is divided up into three sections, WivesMothers and Daughters.  Joyce works through the flagship Bible verses defending complementarian hierarchy while simultaneously telling the stories of women within the confines of the patriarchy movement.  The wives either meet with each other for weekend retreats where their male pastor has to supervise their activities or they contribute food to potluck lunches or they keep quietly to themselves at home.  In some of the extreme churches that Joyce visits, women are discouraged from having any relationships with other women.  Female friendship leads to gossip, nagging, discontent — the women must be available for their husbands at all times, and the husbands alone are to provide for their wives’ emotional needs.  This kind of power monopoly, instead of leading to the healthy lives that the CBMW proposes, damages subjugated women psychologically.  Isolation, defined as controlling what you do, who you see and talk to, where you go, limiting your outside involvement; using jealousy to justify actions, and sabotaging new and old relationships, is considered a type of abuse.  In these patriarchal churches, men are admonished to treat their wives exactly like that.

With power comes the abuse of power, and Joyce gives several examples of places where psychological abuse becomes physical.  The church tells women that their duty as Christians is to be sexually chaste until marriage, but then suddenly sexually available whenever their husband desires sex (whether or not she wants it).  Wives in some of these patriarchal communities become the victims of spousal abuse, marital rape and murder plots.  Going to the church instead of to law enforcement, they are asked about whether or not they have been nagging their husbands, or if they were being as submissive as they could be.  In one of Grudem’s essays in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (because I own a copy of this book), he provides a list of things that submission shouldn’t be, and these abuses are considered wrong in theory.  But in practice, the submission preached by the extremist complementarians is dangerous.

This book is not really a response to anything.  The CBE's affiliated work came after.

This book is not really a response to anything. The Christians for Biblical Equality‘s affiliated work came after.

The mothers and daughters in this patriarchal world fare no better than wives, and most women are expected to fulfill all three roles at the same time.  Daughters must remain faithful to their fathers until they marry, usually at an early age after a courting period instead of dating.  New wives must be sexually available to their husbands, and birth control is considered evil.  Thus, wives become mothers quickly and over and over again.  This constant pregnancy has become a part of the complementarian system.  Good Christian families must have many children, a full quiver of them, as prolonged spiritual warfare.  Because naturally, if you are a part of the elect chosen ones of God, then your offspring, and their offspring, and their offspring, will all be valiant Christian soldiers as well (because salvation by faith is not, you know, an individual choice or anything, right?  I guess not, if you’re a hyper-Calvinist).

So why did I bring up the nineteenth century at the beginning of this post?  Because extreme complementarianism, as it is being practiced in the United States, is like a photoshopped version of the nineteenth century.  Men and women are in separate spheres.  Men lead public lives, women lead private ones.  Nuclear family is the key building block of society.  Young men and women seek parental approval to court one another (and of course are not having sex until marriage).  In some of the communities, strong and intimate female friendships exist and are reinforced by women’s retreats and same-sex Bible studies.  They believe that men should be paid a “family wage” to support their whole family, while women should be paid much less, because her income does not contribute to the family.  A real woman should not work at all.  Some of the male leaders of the extreme complementarian churches Joyce researches in Quiverfull actively pursue recreation of the past, including the Jamestown settlement, as a part of God’s mandate to take dominion over the earth.  These same men wish that the technological advances of the forties and the fifties, like laundry machines and dishwashers, had never been invented.  The fanciful obsession with nineteenth century life, in this airbrushed form, becomes an oppressive way of life defended as biblical (despite some glaring misinterpretations and a rejection of large portions of Old Testament scripture.  Deborah, anyone?).

Quiverfull is a fantastic book.  I highly recommend it to anyone interested in the theological debate over manhood and womanhood, and to anyone — especially Christians — who is interested in the way our society works.