The fallacy that women are inferior to men is one of the most obstinate and damaging delusions in Christian history. Multitudes of lives, institutions, and subcultures have been shaped by this misconception. Why is it that the majority of Christians in the world still adhere to the view that women, categorically, are not as capable as men generally speaking, let alone in the roles the church has created for oversight and fulfillment of its mission?
When it comes to misconceived notions about the God-given capabilities of women, God is not the problem. In neither Scripture nor the core doctrines of the Christian faith is there sound basis for a presumption of female inferiority.
In the book of Genesis, God goes on record having created both men and women in God’s image, part of a “very good” creation. Woman and man both participated in the “fall” into sin. Whatever one wants to make of God assigning painful childbirth to women—who obviously can handle it—rather than to men, the OT also shows God successfully assigning women to key roles of faithful leadership. Deborah, Miriam, Ruth, and Esther come to mind. That the books of the Bible reflect the patriarchal contexts in which they were written in their tendency to emphasize males in their narratives does not mean that God cannot turn the tables on the number of women employed by God for any purpose at any time.
As if to underline this truth, in NT narratives, the story of Jesus’s earthly life begins and ends in the presence and support of boldly faithful women. There is no man in the Bible that can match the young, single Mary, saying yes to giving birth to Jesus, the Messiah, then serving as his parent, disciple, and evangelist. While male disciples betrayed and denied the condemned Jesus, women stood with him through his execution and were the first, by his design, to proclaim the good news of his resurrection. In his life and ministry, Jesus’s respect for women overturned the customs of his earthly culture. How quickly we Christians reverted to cultural norms upon his departure to heaven!
In what are now old arguments, the apostle Paul’s writings have been used in support of both equality between women and men, and to suppress women’s roles in the church. Many of the early, historic champions of Christian orthodoxy helped to establish religious prejudice against women, not to mention against God using women in ministry. To name a few, Tertullian’s interpretive railing against Eve as the “devil’s gateway” and the cause of Adam’s sin did not help the cause of gender equality. Augustine, influential as he was, allowed that despite Eve’s historic error of introducing sin into the world, women were a necessary creation if solely for the purpose of propagating the human race. John Chrysostom determined that woman was created inferior to man from the start, completely devoid of the image of God and thus suited only for the humbler roles in life. The church in the Middle Ages was no better, considering the pervasive influence of men like Thomas Aquinas, who, in his own brand of prehistoric biology taught that women were misbegotten men and morally inferior to them.
To this day, the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches have preserved and hallowed gendered ideas and social roles constructed in earlier centuries. With Roman Catholicism constituting approximately half of the Christians in the world today and the Eastern Orthodox Church another ten percent, the majority of Christians belong to denominations that imply inferior, restricted status for women and proscribe leadership roles in their church structures. In the US, the largest Protestant denomination, the Southern Baptist, unabashedly operates with similar views.
Yet credible alternatives have been available all along. In the NT, in addition to the “Marys,” Martha, Tabitha, Junia, Phoebe and Priscilla exercised faithful leadership alongside men. In the early church, women were martyred for their faith the same as men. Women were teachers, desert hermits, monastics, and mystics, as were men. When the Reformation opened more doors in society for women to become formally educated, ever growing numbers accepted new roles for service in the church. John Wesley in the 18th century, and the United Brethren in Christ Church in the 19th century, were among those who generously supported such developments.
Despite persisting biases, the fact remains that God often places women in what may be regarded from a human standpoint as unconventional roles of faithful discipleship and leadership. Providentially, the core orthodox tenets of the Christian faith affirm God’s prerogative in doing so. This leaves us with the question: Why the abiding, demeaning prejudice against women, especially in the church?
When we view church history through the lens of orthodox doctrine, we observe the extent of human sinfulness and church corruption that can be redeemed only through the amazing, powerful, world-shaking work of Jesus Christ. The sexism that regards women as inferior to men constitutes sin the same way that any other corruption of truth is sin. We should call it what it is.
A feminist critique of the history of Christianity up to the present helps both women and men. It helps us see how we can turn humbly to God for our salvation, let God be God, and get out of the way of God’s amazing, miraculous work in our lives and in the history of the world.