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The roles of women in Christianity have varied since its founding. Women have played important roles in Christianity especially in marriage and in formal ministry positions within certain Christian denominations, and parachurch organizations.
Many leadership roles in the organised church have been prohibited to women, but the majority of churches now hold an egalitarian (men and women’s roles equal) view regarding women’s roles in the church. In the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches, only men may serve as priests or elders (bishops, presbyters and deacon-s); only celibate males serve in senior leadership positions such as pope, patriarch, and cardinals. Women may serve as abbesses and consecrated virgins. A number of mainstream Protestant denominations are beginning to relax their longstanding constraints on ordaining women to be ministers (priesthood), though some large groups, most notably the Southern Baptist Convention, are tightening their constraints in reaction. Most all Charismatic and Pentecostal churches were pioneers in this matter, and have embraced allowing women to preach since their founding.
Christian traditions that officially recognise saints as persons of exceptional holiness of life do list women in that group. Most prominent is Mary, mother of Jesus who is highly revered throughout Christianity, particularly in Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, where she is considered the "Mother of God". Both the apostles Paul and Peter held women in high regard and worthy of prominent positions in the church, though they were careful not to encourage anyone to disregard the New Testament household codes, also known as New Testament Domestic Codes or Haustafelen. The significance of women as the first to witness the resurrection is a content to be recognised across the centuries. There were efforts by the apostles Paul and Peter to encourage the brand new first-century Christians to obey the Patria Potestas (lit., "Rule of the Fathers") of Greco-Roman law. The New Testament written record of their efforts in this regard is found in Colossians 3:18-4:1, Ephesians 5:22-6:9, 1 Peter 2:13-3:7, Titus 2:1-10 and 1 Timothy 2:1ff., 3:1, 3:8, 5:17, and 6:1. As may be seen throughout the Old Testament and in the Greco-Roman culture of New Testament time, patriarchal societies placed men in positions of authority in marriage, society and government. The New Testament only records males being named among the 12 original apostles of Jesus Christ. Yet, women were the first to discover the Resurrection of Christ.
Some Christians believe clerical (clergy) ordination and the conception of priesthood post-date the New Testament and that it contains no specifications for such ordination or distinction. Others cite uses of the terms presbyter and episkopos and 1 Timothy 3:1–7 or Ephesians 4:11–16. The early church developed a monastic tradition which included the institution of the convent through which women developed religious orders of sisters and nuns, an important ministry of women which has continued to the present day in the establishment of schools, hospitals, nursing homes and monastic settlements.
Mary the Mother of Jesus, Mary Magdalene, Mary of Bethany and her sister Martha have been among the women identified as key to the establishment of Christianity. Karen L. King, Harvard Professor of New Testament Studies and the History of Ancient Christianity, writes that the history of women in ancient Christianity has been almost completely revised in the last twenty years. Many more women are being added to the list of women who made very significant contributions in the early history of Christianity. The new history comes primarily from recent discoveries of biblical text that had been neglected through the ages.
The belief that Mary Magdalene was an adulteress, the wife of Jesus, and a repentant prostitute can be traced back to as far as the fourth century. Because of the acceptance of the opinion in an influential homily of Pope Gregory the Great in about 591. The historical error became the generally accepted view in Western Christianity. In his homily, the Pope mistakenly identified Magdalene not only with the anonymous sinner with the perfume in Luke's gospel, but also confused her with Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazarus. Karen King concludes that the discoveries of new texts by biblical scholars, combined with their sharpened critical insight, have now proved beyond any doubt that the disreputable portrait of Mary Magdalene is entirely inaccurate.
Mary Magdalene was a prominent disciple and significant leader in the early Christian movement. Her designation as the very first apostle of Jesus has helped promote contemporary awareness of the leadership of women in Christianity.
The New Testament Gospels, written toward the last quarter of the first century CE, acknowledge that women were among Jesus earliest followers.
In one of her several books, Linda Woodhead notes the earliest Christian theological basis for forming a position on the roles of women is in the Book of Genesis where readers are drawn to the conclusion that women are beneath men and that the image of God shines more brightly in men than women. The following New Testament passages and more recent theological beliefs have contributed to the interpretation of roles of women in Christianity through the centuries.
In general, all evangelicals involved in the gender debate claim to adhere to the authority of the Bible. Egalitarians typically argue that the dispute has arisen because of differences in interpretation of specific passages. Nevertheless, Wayne Grudem and other complementarians have accused egalitarians of adopting positions which deny the authority, sufficiency and inerrancy of scripture.
... I believe that ultimately the effective authority of Scripture to govern our lives is at stake in this controversy. The issue is not whether we say we believe the Bible is the Word of God or that we believe it is without error, but the issue is whether we actually obey it when its teachings are unpopular and conflict with the dominant viewpoints in our culture. If we do not obey it, then the effective authority of God to govern His people and His church through His Word has been eroded, concludes Grudem.— Wayne Grudem (emphases original), Evangelical Feminism and Biblical Truth
Christian leaders throughout history have been patriarchal, taking names that underscore female leadership in the church. These include father, abbot or abba meaning father, and pope or papa also means father. Linda Woodhead notes that such language excludes women from the exercise of such roles. She also notes a sentiment in 1 Corinthians which exemplifies pattern of Christianity of all varieties where Paul explains that women should be veiled in the church to signal their subordination to men because the head of every man is Christ and the head of a woman is her husband and that women should keep silence in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak but should be subordinate, as even the law says.
However some Christians disagree with the idea that women should not have leadership positions, popular female preachers like Joyce Meyer, Paula White and Kathryn Kuhlman have had leadership roles in Church. It is mentioned in the Old Testament that women such as Deborah and Huldah were Prophets. In the New Testament Philip was said to have four daughters who prophesied.
The egalitarian and complementarian positions differ significantly in their approach to hermeneutics, and specifically in their interpretation of biblical history. Christian egalitarians believe that males and females were created equally [Gen. 1-2] without any hierarchy of roles. God created both woman and man in his own image and likeness. God made the first couple equal partners in leadership over the earth. Both were jointly commissioned to be fruitful and multiply, to fill the earth, subdue the earth and rule over it.[Gen. 1:28] At the Fall, God prophesied to Eve that one result of sin entering the human race would be that her husband would rule over her.[Gen. 3:16]
Conservative Christian theologian Gilbert Bilezikian points out that throughout the Old Testament era and beyond, just as God had prophesied, men continued to rule over women in a patriarchal system which he sees as being a compromise or accommodation between sinful reality and the divine ideal. The coming of Jesus is understood as moving forward from Old Testament patriarchy, re-instituting full equality of gender roles, as succinctly articulated in Galatians 3:28.
New Testament passages, such as "22Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord. 23For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Saviour. 24As the church is subject to Christ, so let wives also be subject in everything to their husbands"[Eph. 5:22-24] which teaches submission of wives to husbands, are typically understood by egalitarians as a temporary accommodation to a harsh 1st century culture where Roman law Patria Potestas gave fathers enormous power over the familia which included wife, children, slaves, and adult dependents. That power give the father/husband the right to kill his wife under a variety of circumstances.
Gilbert Bilezikian writes that "the poison of hierarchy generated by the fall (of mankind) had permeated relationships to such an extent that those very disciples Jesus was training in the ways of servant hood insisted on substituting hierarchy for servant hood. They kept competing among themselves for the highest status and for positions of preeminence." Bilezikian continues: "To settle the issue once for all times, Jesus sharply delineated the basic difference between social organisation in the secular world and in the Christian community". He concludes that "Consequently, there is no mandate and no allowance in the New Testament for one adult believer to hold authority over another adult believer. Instead, the overall rule calls for mutual submission among all believers out of reverence for Christ".[Eph. 5:21]
The Christian egalitarian hermeneutic has received a highly systematic treatment from William J. Webb, professor of New Testament at Heritage Theological Seminary, Ontario, Canada. Webb argues that a major challenge is determining which biblical commands are "transcultural" and therefore applicable today, versus those which are "cultural" and therefore only applicable to the original (1st century) recipients of the text. His "redemptive movement" hermeneutic is justified using the example of slavery, which Webb sees as analogous to the subordination of women. Christians today largely perceive that slavery was "cultural" in biblical times and not something that should be re-introduced or justified, although slavery was (a) found in the Bible and (b) not explicitly banned there. Webb recommends that biblical commands be examined in light of the cultural context in which they were originally written. According to the "redemptive approach", slavery and women's subordination are found in the Bible; however, the same Scriptures also contain ideas and principles which, if developed and taken to their logical conclusion, would bring about the abolition of these institutions. According to that ideal, biblical patriarchy should be replaced by the "all one in Christ Jesus" proclamation of Galatians 3:28 which says "There is no Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus."
Some other New Testament instructions that are almost universally considered "cultural" and therefore only applicable to the original (1st century) recipients of the text are for women to wear veils when praying or prophesying,[1 Cor 11:5-6] Christians to wash each other's feet (a direct command from Jesus in the Upper Room discourse), [Jn. 13:14-15] the instruction, appearing five times in the New Testament, to greet one another with a holy kiss—among others.
In contrast to egalitarian teaching, complementarians teach that male priority and headship (positional leadership) were instituted prior to the Fall[Gen. 1-2] and that the decree in Genesis 3:16 merely distorted this leadership by introducing "ungodly domination." Complementarians teach that the male leadership seen throughout the Old Testament (i.e, the patriarchs, priesthood and monarchy) was an expression of the creation ideal, as was Jesus' selection of 12 male apostles and New Testament restrictions on church leadership to men only.[1 Tim. 2:11-14]
Complementarians criticize Webb's hermeneutic. Grudem argues that Webb expects Christians to pursue a "superior ethic" to that found in the New Testament, therefore undermining the authority and sufficiency of Scripture. He claims that Webb and some other evangelicals misconstrue the biblical teaching about both slavery and women, and inappropriately confuse the two. He writes that slavery is tolerated in Scripture but never commanded but in some cases is criticized, whereas wives are explicitly commanded to submit to their husbands and male leadership is never criticized. Additionally, Grudem believes that Webb's "redemptive-movement" hermeneutic (itself a variation of the "trajectory" hermeneutic commonly employed by egalitarians) ultimately relies on subjective judgments that are incapable of producing certainty about ethical views.
Complementarians have traditionally held that Christian ministers ought to be men, because of the need to represent Jesus Christ, who was the "Son" of God, and incarnate as a male human being. A related position is that while both male and female were made in the image of God, the woman shares in the divine image through the man because she was created out of him, and is his "glory."[1 Cor 11:7-8]
To us a priest is primarily a representative, a double representative, who represents us to God and God to us... We have no objection to a woman doing the first: the whole difficulty is with the second. But why? ... Suppose the reformer stops saying that a good woman may be like God and begins saying that God is like a good woman. Suppose he says that we might just as well pray to 'Our Mother which art in Heaven' as to 'Our Father'. Suppose he says that the Incarnation might just as well have taken a female as a male form, and the Second Person of the Trinity be as well called the Daughter as the Son. Suppose, finally, that the mystical marriage was reversed, that the churches were the Bridegroom and Christ the Bride. All this, as it seems to me, is involved in the claim that a woman can represent God as a priest does.— C. S. Lewis, Priestesses in the Church? 1948
Christian egalitarians respond by arguing that God is not gendered and that males and females image God equally and without any differences. In addition, terms such as "Father" and "Son", used in reference to God, should be understood as analogies or metaphors used by the biblical authors to communicate attributes about God in a culture where men had the social privilege. Similarly, Christ became a male not because it was theologically necessary, but because 1st-century Jewish culture would not have accepted a female Messiah. Wayne Grudem takes exception to these egalitarian arguments, insisting that Christ's maleness was theologically necessary; he also alleges that egalitarians are increasingly advocating that God should be thought of as "Mother" as well as "Father", a move which he sees as theologically liberal. The Christian doctrine of the Trinity has become a major focus of the contemporary gender debate, specifically in relation to 1 Cor. 11:3. In 1977, George W. Knight III argued in a book about gender roles that the subordination of women to men is theologically analogous to the subordination of the Son to the Father in the Trinity. Australian theologian Kevin Giles has more recently responded that complementarians have "reinvented" the doctrine of the Trinity to support their views of men and women, suggesting that some complementarians have adopted a heretical view of the Trinity similar to Arianism. A vigorous debate has ensued, with some egalitarians moving towards the idea that there is "mutual dependence" within the Trinity, including "subordination of the Father to the Son", which must be reflected in gender role relations. Wayne Grudem has countered this by asserting that mutual submission in the Trinity cannot be supported by scripture and church history.
Modern complementarians argue that Genesis 1:26-28 and Galatians 3:28 establish the full equality of males and females in terms of status, worth and dignity. Complementary roles in marriage and church leadership, including the primary authority of men and the submission of wives, are not thought to contradict this principle of ontological equality. The equation of role or functional subordination and ontological inferiority is considered to be a category confusion. Egalitarian author Rebecca Merrill Groothuis has objected to this position. She argues that "woman’s spiritual and ontological equality with man rules out the sort of subordination prescribed by gender traditionalists.... It is not logically possible for woman to be essentially equal to man, yet universally subordinate to man on the basis of an essential attribute (i.e., femaleness)."
Christianity developed as a sect of Judaism in the first century AD. It therefore inherited the depictions of women already existing within the Hebrew Bible (known to Christians as The Old Testament).
In the Book of Genesis, the first creation story created man and woman at the same time, the second story of creation names Adam and Eve as the first man and the first woman; in the narrative, Adam was created first, and Eve from Adam's rib. Some commentators have suggested that Eve being God's second Creation indicated female inferiority, but in calling Eve "flesh of my flesh" others say a relationship of equality is implied.
Some women were praised in the Books of Ruth and Esther. The Book of Ruth is about a young Moabite woman's loyalty to her Jewish mother-in-law and her willingness to move to Israel and become a part of their culture. The story ends with her praise and blessing as she is married to an Israelite, who announces that he will now take care of her, and subsequently King David comes from her lineage. In the Book of Esther, a young woman named Esther of Jewish lineage is praised for her bravery as the queen of Persia who saved many from being killed by her pleas to the king.
As the founder of Christianity, Jesus never taught nor approved of any kind of subordination of one of his followers over another. Instead, he expressly forbade it in any Christian relationship. All three Synoptic Gospels record Jesus teaching his disciples that any subordination of one to another, both abusive and customary, is a pagan practice—not something to take place among his followers. Having issued his strong prohibition against subordination of others, he prescribed the Christian alternative to subordination as being the exact opposite: profound service to others, extending even to making the ultimate sacrifice of giving one's life if necessary:
"You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. Whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many"—Jesus Christ. [Mt 20:25–26a] [Mk 10:42-43] [Lk 22:25]
His first phrase, "lord it over", described the Roman dictators who wielded ultimate and unlimited power. His second phrase, "high officials", referred to lesser Roman officials who, having some limitations of power, "exercised authority" (not necessarily abusive power) over their citizens. In the nearly identical passages in all three Synoptic gospels, Jesus sternly commanded his disciple that "It shall not be so among you", clearly forbidding both abusive extreme "lording it over" others, and even more moderate, ordinary "exercise (of) authority" over others. Egalitarian Christians consider that this teaching of Jesus to the men who were the 12 Apostles trumps any subsequent teachings of Paul and Peter that Complementarians interpret as establishing "Husband-Headship" requiring "Wife-Submission", or denying women opportunities to serve in any leadership position within the Church.
Authors Marsh and Moyise also understand this teaching of Jesus to forbid any hierarchy in all Christian relationships, even when there is no connotation of abuse of authority.
The New Testament of the Bible refers to a number of women in Jesus' inner circle—notably his Mother Mary and Mary Magdalene who is stated to have discovered the empty tomb of Christ and known as the "apostle to the apostles" since she was the one commissioned by the risen Jesus to go and tell the 11 disciples that he was risen, according to the Gospels. In the Gospel of Mary, a work tied to Gnostic Christianity, Mary Magdelene was the only follower of Jesus who legitimately understood his teachings.
According to the New Testament, Christ saved a woman accused of adultery from an angry mob seeking to punish her, by saying: "He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her".
The Gospel of John[7:53]–[8:11] provides an account of Jesus directly dealing with an issue of morality and women. The passage describes a confrontation between Jesus and the scribes and Pharisees over whether a woman, caught in an act of adultery, ought to be stoned. Jesus shames the crowd into dispersing, and averts the execution with the words: "Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her." According to the passage, "They which heard it, being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one, beginning at the eldest, even unto the last," leaving Jesus to turn to the woman and say, "Go, and sin no more."
Another Gospel story concerns Jesus at the house of Martha and Mary where the woman Mary sits at Jesus' feet as he preaches, while her sister toils in the kitchen preparing a meal. When Martha complains to Mary that she should instead be helping in the kitchen, Jesus says that in fact, "Mary has chosen what is better".[Luke 10:38-42 NIV]
The story of Mark 5:23–34, in which Jesus heals a woman who had bled for 12 year suggests not only that Jesus could cleanse his followers, but this story also challenges Jewish cultural conventions of the time. In Jewish law, women who were menstruating or had given birth were excluded from society. Therefore, the woman in Mark was ostracized for 12 years. Jesus healing her is not only a miracle, but by interacting with an unclean woman, he broke from the accepted practices of the time and embraced women. [Mark 5:23-34]
Both complementarians and egalitarians see Jesus as treating women with compassion, grace and dignity. The gospels of the New Testament, especially Luke, mention Jesus speaking to or helping women publicly and openly. Martha's sister Mary sat at Jesus' feet being taught, a privilege reserved for men in Judaism. Jesus had female followers who were his sponsors,[Luke 8:1-3] and he stopped to express concern for the women of Jerusalem on his way to be crucified.[23:26-31] Mary Magdalene is stated in the Gospels to be the first person to see Jesus after his resurrection. In the narratives, Jesus charged her to tell others of what she had seen, even though the testimony of a woman at that time was not considered valid.[Mk 16:9]
The historian Geoffrey Blainey wrote that women were more influential during the period of Jesus' brief ministry than they were in the next thousand years of Christianity. Blainey points to Gospel accounts of Jesus imparting teachings to women, as with a Samaritan woman at a well, and Mary of Bethany, who rubbed his hair in precious ointment; of Jesus curing sick women and publicly expressing admiration for a poor widow who donated some copper coins to the Temple in Jerusalem, his stepping to the aid of the woman accused of adultery, and to the presence of Mary Magdalene at Jesus' side as he was crucified. Blainey concludes: "As the standing of women was not high in Palestine, Jesus' kindnesses towards them were not always approved by those who strictly upheld tradition. According to Blainey, women were probably the majority of Christians in the first century after Christ.
Jesus always showed the greatest esteem and the greatest respect for woman, for every woman, and in particular He was sensitive to female suffering. Going beyond the social and religious barriers of the time, Jesus reestablished woman in her full dignity as a human person before God and before men ... Christ’s way of acting, the Gospel of his words and deeds, is a consistent protest against whatever offends the dignity of women.— John Paul II, "Thoughts on Women─Address to Italian Maids," April 1979
There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Jesus Christ".[Galatians 3:28]
The letters of St. Paul—dated to the middle of the 1st century AD—and his casual greetings to acquaintances offer information about Jewish and Gentile women who were prominent in early Christianity. His letters provide clues about the kind of activities in which women engaged more generally.
Some theologians believe that these biblical reports provide evidence of women leaders active in the earliest work of spreading the Christian message, while others reject that understanding.
There are also Bible verses from Paul's letters which support the idea that women are to have a different or submissive role to men:
New Testament scholar Frank Stagg considers verse 10 above as being "quite enigmatic", where a woman's being veiled is "because of the angels". In his book, Stagg suggests clues to the intention. He concludes his comments on this passage by saying that "The problems here are many. What is Paul's authority or source for the hierarchy: God, Christ, man, woman? ... What importance is there to a head covering in worship? Are veils binding upon women today? What about the subordination of woman (or wife) to man (or husband)? What about the angels? What about the teaching of nature? Is custom in v.16 binding upon Christian conscience today?": p.177
From the very beginning of the early Christian church, women were important members of the movement, although some complain that much of the information in the New Testament on the work of women has been overlooked. Some[who?] also argue that many assumed that it had been a "man's church" because sources of information stemming from the New Testament church were written and interpreted by men. Recently, scholars have begun looking in mosaics, frescoes, and inscriptions of that period for information about women's roles in the early church. The historian Geoffrey Blainey wrote that the early Christian texts refer to various women activists in the early church. One such woman was St. Priscilla, a Jewish missionary from Rome, who may have helped found the Christian community at Corinth. She traveled as a missionary with her husband and St Paul, and tutored the Jewish intellectual Apollos. Others include the four daughters of Philip the Evangelist, from Caesarea, Palestine, who were said to be prophets and to have hosted St Paul in their home.
From the early patristic age, the offices of teacher and sacramental minister were reserved for men throughout most of the church in the East and West. Clement of Rome in chapter 55 of his First Epistle (AD 90) lists Judith and Esther as examples of manly feats and perfection. Tertullian, the 2nd-century Latin father, wrote that "It is not permitted to a woman to speak in church. Neither may she teach, baptize, offer, nor claim for herself any function proper to a man, least of all the sacerdotal office" ("On the Veiling of Virgins"). Origen (AD 185–254) stated that,
Even if it is granted to a woman to show the sign of prophecy, she is nevertheless not permitted to speak in an assembly. When Miriam the prophetess spoke, she was leading a choir of women ... For [as Paul declares] "I do not permit a woman to teach," and even less "to tell a man what to do."
Women commemorated as saints from the early centuries of Christianity include several martyrs who suffered under the Persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire, such as Agnes of Rome, Saint Cecilia, Agatha of Sicily and Blandina. The passion of Saints Perpetua and Felicity, written by Perpetua during her imprisonment in 203, recounted their martyrdom. The passion is thought to be one of the earliest surviving documents to have been written by a woman in early Christianity. In late Antiquity, Saint Helena was a Christian and consort of Emperor Constantius, and the mother of Emperor Constantine I. Similarly, Saint Monica was a pious Christian and mother of Saint Augustine of Hippo. In the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Church, the priesthood and the ministries dependent upon it such as Bishop, Patriarch and Pope, were restricted to men. The first Council of Orange (441) forbade the ordination of women to the diaconate.
As Western Europe transitioned from the Classical to Medieval Age, the male hierarchy with the Pope at its summit became a central player in European politics. Mysticism flourished and monastic convents and communities of Catholic women became institutions within Europe.
With the establishment of Christian monasticism, other influential roles became available to women. From the 5th century onward, Christian convents provided opportunities for some women to escape the path of marriage and child-rearing, acquire literacy and learning, and play a more active religious role. In the later Middle Ages women such as Saint Catherine of Siena and Saint Teresa of Avila, played roles in the development of theological ideas and discussion within the church, and were later declared Doctors of the Roman Catholic Church. The Belgian nun, St Juliana of Liège (1193-1252), proposed the Feast of Corpus Christi, celebrating the body of Christ in the Eucharist, which became a major feast throughout the Church. In the Franciscan movement of the thirteenth century, religious women like St. Clare of Assisi played a significant part. Later, Joan of Arc took up a sword and achieved military victories for France, before being captured and tried[by whom?] as a "witch and heretic", after which she was burned at the stake. A papal inquiry later[when?] declared the trial illegal. A hero to the French, sympathy grew for Joan even in England. Pope Benedict XV canonized Joan in 1920.
The historian Geoffrey Blainey, writes that women were more prominent in the life of the Church during the Middle Ages than at any previous time in its history, with a number of church reforms initiated by women. In the 13th century, authors[who?] began to write of a mythical female pope—Pope Joan—who managed to disguise her gender until giving birth during a procession in Rome. Blainey cites the ever-growing veneration of the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene as evidence of a high standing for female Christians at that time. The Virgin Mary was conferred such titles as Mother of God and Queen of Heaven and, in 863, her feast day, the "Feast of Our Lady", was declared[by whom?] equal in importance to those of Easter and Christmas. Mary Magdalene's Feast Day was celebrated in earnest from the 8th century on and composite portraits of her were built up from Gospel references to other women Jesus met.
Other than the institution of the convent, monarchy was the major European institution allowing women an alternative to marriage and child rearing. Female monarchs of this period include: Olga of Kiev, who around AD 950, became the first Russian ruler to convert to Christianity; Italian noblewoman Matilda of Tuscany (1046-1115), remembered for her military accomplishments and for being the principal Italian supporter of Pope Gregory VII during the Investiture Controversy; Saint Hedwig of Silesia (1174-1243), who supported the poor and the church in Eastern Europe; and Jadwiga of Poland, who reigned as monarch of Poland and, within the Catholic Church, is honored as the patron saint of queens and of a "united Europe." Saint Elisabeth of Hungary (1207-1231) was a symbol of Christian charity who used her wealth to establish hospitals and care for the poor. Each of these women were singled out as model Christians by Pope John Paul II in his Mulieris Dignitatem letter on the dignity and vocation of women.
The Reformation swept through Europe during the 16th century. The excommunication of Protestants by leaders of the Roman Catholic Church ended centuries of unity among Western Christendom. The religion of an heir to the throne became an intensely important political issue. The refusal of Pope Clement VII to grant an annulment in the marriage of King Henry VIII to Catherine of Aragon saw Henry establish himself as supreme governor of the church in England. His female Protestant successors have served as Supreme Governor of the Church of England. Rivalry between Catholic and Protestant heirs ensued. Protestantism was consolidated in England by Henry's daughter, Elizabeth I, who influenced the development of Anglicanism through cultivation of an Elizabethan religious settlement with the publication of the Book of Common Prayer. The religion of an heir or monarch's spouse complicated intermarriage between royal houses through coming centuries. Consorts of the Holy Roman Emperors were given the title of Holy Roman Empress. The throne was reserved for males, thus there was never a Holy Roman Empress regnant, though women such as Theophanu and Maria Theresa of Austria, controlled the power of rule and served as de facto Empresses regnant. A liberal-minded autocrat, she was a patron of sciences and education and sought to alleviate the suffering of the serfs. She kept Catholic observance at court and frowned on Judaism and Protestantism. She reigned for 40 years, and mothered 16 children including Marie-Antoinette, the ill-fated Queen of France. With her husband she founded the Catholic Habsburg-Lorraine Dynasty who remained central players in European politics into the 20th century.
One effect of the Reformation in the Reformed areas was to bring an end to the long tradition of female convents which had existed within Roman Catholicism, and which the Reformers saw as bondage. By shutting down female convents within the movement, Protestantism effectively closed off the option of a full-time religious role for Protestant women, as well as one which had provided some women a life in academic study.
However, some convents (such as Ebstorf Abbey near the town of Uelzen and Bursfelde Abbey in Bursfelde) adopted the Lutheran faith. Many of these convents in eastern Europe were closed by communist authorities after the Second World War. They are sometimes called damenstift. One notable damenstift member was Catharina von Schlegel (1697-1768) who wrote the hymn that was translated into English as "Be still, my soul, the Lord is on thy side".
However, other convents voluntarily folded during the Reformation. For example, following Catherine of Mecklenburg's choice to defy her Catholic husband and smuggle Lutheran books to Ursula of Munsterberg and other nuns, Ursula (in 1528) published 69 articles justifying their reasons to leave their convent. Martin Luther himself taught that "the wife should stay at home and look after the affairs of the household as one who has been deprived of the ability of administering those affairs that are outside and concern the state...." Among the many nuns who chose the domestic life over the monastic life was the wife of Martin Luther, Katherine von Bora.
In 1569 Lutheran Magdalena Heymair became the first woman ever to have her writings listed on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum. She published a series of pedagogical writings for elementary-age teaching and also wrote poetry. Calvinist Anne Locke was a translator and poet who published the first English sonnet sequence. In 1590, Christine of Hesse published the Lutheran psalm-book Geistliche Psalmen und Lieder.
John Calvin noted that "the woman's place is in the home." The majority of Protestant churches upheld the traditional position, and restricted ruling and preaching roles within the Church to men until the 20th century, although there were early exceptions among some groups such as the Quakers and within some Pentecostal holiness movements.
John Knox (1510–1572) also denied women the right to rule in the civic sphere, as he asserted in his famous First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regimen of Women. Baptist theologian Dr. John Gill (1690–1771) comments on 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, stating
(Genesis 3:16) "thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee." By this, the apostle signified that the reason women were not to speak in the church, or to preach and teach publicly, or be concerned in the ministerial function was that in the Roman Empire, those were considered to be acts of power and authority, of rule and government, and thus contrary to that subjection which God in his law requires of women unto men. The extraordinary instances of Deborah, Huldah, and Anna, must not be drawn into a rule or example in such cases.
Methodist founder John Wesley (1703–1791) and Methodist theologian Adam Clarke (1762–1832) both upheld male headship, but allowed that spiritual Christian women could publicly speak in church meetings if they "are under an extraordinary impulse of the Spirit" (Wesley), and that such were to obey that influence, and that "the apostle lays down directions in chap. 11 for regulating her personal appearance when thus employed.” (Clarke) Puritan theologian Matthew Poole (1624–1679) concurred with Wesley, adding,
But setting aside that extraordinary case of a special afflatus, [strong Divine influence] it was, doubtless, unlawful for a woman to speak in the church.
Matthew Henry (1662–1714) in his commentary, entertains allowing “praying, and uttering hymns inspired” by women, as such “were not teaching”. Within the Church of England, King Henry VIII's dissolution of the religious houses swept away the convents which had been a feature of Christianity in England for centuries. Anglican religious orders and Sisterhoods were later re-established within the Anglican tradition however.
In Europe, Portugal and Spain remained Catholic and were on the cusp of building global empires. As sponsor of Christopher Columbus' 1492 mission to cross the Atlantic, the Spanish Queen Isabella I (Isabella the Catholic) of Castille was an important figure in the growth of Catholicism as a global religion, for Spain and Portugal followed Columbus' route to establish vast Empires in the Americas. Her marriage to Ferdinand II of Aragon had ensured the unity of the Spanish Kingdom and the royal couple agreed to hold equal authority. Spanish Pope Alexander VI conferred on them the title "Catholic". The Catholic Encyclopedia credits Isabella as an extremely able ruler and one who "fostered learning not only in the universities and among the nobles, but also among women". Of Isabella and Ferdinand, it says: "The good government of the Catholic sovereigns brought the prosperity of Spain to its apogee, and inaugurated that country's Golden Age". In seventeenth-century Massachusetts, Anne Hutchison, a successful preacher and teacher was exiled because she usurped male authority.
Many women were martyred during the Counter-Reformation, including the Guernsey Martyrs, three women martyred for Protestantism in 1556. One woman was pregnant and gave birth while being burned, the child was rescued but then ordered to be burned as well. Still other women, such as those living in the Defereggen Valley, were stripped of their children so they could be raised in Catholic in an institution.
Amidst the backdrop of Industrial Revolution and expanding European Empires during the 17th-19th centuries, Christian women played a role in developing and running of many the modern world's education and health care systems. However, women "still had to work under the nominal control of a man" for missionary work as late as the end of the 19th century. Outside of these positions, "women were denied other influential public roles in the churches". The roles that women began taking began expanding. Catholic religious orders like the Sisters of Mercy the Little Sisters of the Poor Sisters of St. Joseph of the Sacred Heart were founded around the world and established extensive networks of hospitals and schools. The Anglican Florence Nightingale was influential in the development of modern nursing. While most Christian denominations did not allow women to preach during the nineteenth century, a few more evangelical Protestant denominations did permit women's preaching. In early-nineteenth-century Britain, the Bible Christians and Primitive Methodists permitted female preaching, and had a significant number of female preachers, particularly among the rural and working-class populations. Some of them emigrated to British colonies, and preached to settlers in colonies including early Canada. By the second half of the nineteenth century these denominations became more institutionalized, and thus less open to women's preaching, although a few women continued to preach in these denominations until the early twentieth century. Later in nineteenth-century Britain the Salvation Army was formed, and from the beginning it permitted women to preach on the same terms as men. These "Hallelujah Lasses", many of whom were working class, were very popular, often drawing huge crowds in Britain as well as in North America. Nonetheless, these denominations remained a minority, and in most Christian churches women remained barred from the ministry into the twentieth century. For much of the early twentieth century, Catholic women continued to join religious orders in large numbers, where their influence and control was particularly strong in the running of primary education for children, high schooling for girls, and in nursing, hospitals, orphanages and aged care facilities. The Second Vatican Council of the 1960s liberalized the strictures of Catholic religious life, particularly for women in holy orders. However, in the latter half of the 20th century, vocations for women in the West entered a steep decline. In spite of that, the Catholic Church conducted a large number of beatifications and canonizations of Catholic women from all over the world: St. Josephine Bakhita was a Sudanese slave girl who became a Canossian nun; St. Katharine Drexel (1858-1955) worked for Native and African Americans; Polish mystic St. Maria Faustina Kowalska (1905-1938) wrote her influential spiritual diary; and German nun Edith Stein was murdered by the Nazis at Auschwitz. Three Catholic women were declared Doctors of the Church, indicating a re-appraisal of the role of women within the life of that Church: the 16th-century Spanish mystic, St. Teresa of Ávila; the 14th-century Italian mystic St. Catherine of Siena and the 19th-century French nun St. Thérèse de Lisieux (called Doctor Amoris or Doctor of Love). The 19th century saw women begin to push back on traditional female roles in the church. One was Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815–1902) who worked to "liberate women from their traditional shackles":
"[O]ne of her first projects was a Woman’s Bible in which the passages used by men to keep women in subjection were highlighted and critiqued. Although some early campaigners for female emancipation belonged to the churches, and though some church-related movements helped nurture women’s entrance onto the public stage, the campaigners who embraced the feminist cause most wholeheartedly nearly always made a break from Church and Biblical Christianity.”
While Catholicism and Orthodoxy adhered to traditional gender restrictions on ordination to the priesthood, Ordination of women in Protestant churches has in recent decades become increasingly common. The Salvation Army elected Evangeline Booth as its first female General (worldwide leader) in 1934. New Zealander Penny Jamieson became the first woman in the world to be ordained a bishop of the Anglican Church in 1990 (although the queens of England have for centuries inherited the position of the Supreme Governor of the Church of England upon their ascensions to the throne). In the developing world, people continued to convert to Christianity in large numbers. Among the most famous and influential women missionaries of the period was the Catholic nun Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979 for her work in "bringing help to suffering humanity". Much admired by Pope John Paul II, she was beatified in 2003, just six years after her death. Many Christian women and religious have been prominent advocates in social policy debates—as with American nun Helen Prejean, a Sister of Saint Joseph of Medaille, who is a prominent campaigner against the death penalty and was the inspiration for the Hollywood film Dead Man Walking.
Linda Woodhead states that, "Of the many threats that Christianity has to face in modern times, gender equality is one of the most serious". Some 19th-century Christian authors began codifying challenges to traditional views toward women both in the church and in society. Only since the 1970s have more diverse views become formalized. In addition to non-Christian perspectives, four of the primary views inside Christianity on the role of women are Christian feminism, Christian egalitarianism, complementarianism, and Biblical patriarchy.
Representing an atheist perspective, author Joshua Kelly argues that the Christian Bible, in this view a creation of ancient authors and medieval editors reflecting their own culture and opinions and not the declarations of a supernatural being, describes and advocates for sexist norms, which should be rejected by modern people. Kelly points to the requirement for women to subordinate themselves to their husbands espoused in the New Testament book of Ephesians, the classification of women as property along with oxen and slaves throughout the Torah, and the permission given by the Book of Exodus for a man to sell his daughter as a slave.
Christian Feminists take an actively feminist position from a Christian perspective. Recent generations have experienced the rise of what has been labeled by some as "Christian feminism" —a movement that has had a profound impact on all of life, challenging some traditional basic Christian interpretations of Scripture with respect to roles for women. However, Christian feminism represents the views of the more theologically liberal end of the spectrum within Christianity. In contrast to the more socially conservative Christian egalitarians, Christian feminists tend to support LGBT rights and a pro-choice stance on abortion. The Evangelical and Ecumenical Women’s Caucus, a major international Christian feminist organization, values "inclusive images and language for God".
Christian Egalitarians' interpretation of Scripture brings them to the conclusion that the manner and teachings of Jesus, affirmed by the Apostle Paul, abolished gender-specific roles in both the church and in marriage.
Men, Women and Biblical Equality was prepared in 1989 by several evangelical leaders to become the official statement of Christians for Biblical Equality (CBE). The statement lays out their biblical rationale for equality as well as its application in the community of believers and in the family. They advocate ability-based, rather than gender-based, ministry of Christians of all ages, ethnicities and socio-economic classes. Egalitarians support the ordination of women and equal roles in marriage, and are more conservative both theologically and morally than Christian feminists.
A scripture passage they consider key to the advocacy of full equality of responsibility and authority for both women and men is contained in a Pauline polemic containing these three antitheses:
There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.— Galatians 3:28
Christian Egalitarians interpret this passage as expressing that the overarching teaching of the New Testament is that all are "one in Christ." The three distinctions, important in Jewish life, are declared by Paul to be invalid in Christ. Therefore, among those "in Christ" there must be no discrimination based on race or national origin, social level, or gender. They respect the natural biological uniqueness of each gender, not seeing it as requiring any dominant/submissive applications of gender to either marriage or church leadership. David Scholer, New Testament scholar at Fuller Theological Seminary, affirms this view. He believes that Galatians 3:28 is “the fundamental Pauline theological basis for the inclusion of women and men as equal and mutual partners in all of the ministries of the church.” Galatians 3:28 represents "the summation of Paul's theological vision," according to Pamela Eisenbaum, professor at Iliff School of Theology, who is one of four Jewish New Testament scholars teaching in Christian theological schools. Christian Egalitarianism holds that the submission of the woman in marriage and womanly restrictions in Christian ministry are inconsistent with the true picture of biblical equality. The equal-yet-different doctrine taught by Complementarians is considered by them to be a contradiction in terms.
Linda Woodhead claims that the modern
"egalitarian emphasis is contradicted by a symbolic framework that elevates the male over the female, and by organizational arrangements that make masculine domination a reality in church life. Theological statements on the position of women from down the centuries testify not only to the assumption that it is men who have the authority to define women, but to the precautions that have been taken to ensure that women do not claim too much real equality with men – in this life at least".
In their book Woman in the World of Jesus, Evelyn Stagg and Frank Stagg point out that in the Bible the only God-ordained restrictions on the genders is that "only the male can beget, and only the female can bear".
Gilbert Bilezikian, in his book Beyond Sex Roles—What the Bible Says About a Woman's Place in Church and Family, argues that the New Testament contains evidence of women apostles, prophets, teachers, deacons, and administrators.
Baptist theologian Roger Nicole, considered an expert in Calvinism, is a Christian Egalitarian and a Biblical Inerrantist. He recognizes that biblical egalitarianism is still viewed by many as inconsistent with biblical inerrancy, although he disagrees. He writes that "the matter of the place of women in the home, in society, and in the church is not an issue that can be conclusively determined by a few apparently restrictive passages that are often advanced by those who think that subordination represents God’s will for women."
I believe that most, if not all, of the restrictions on women in society have no basis in Scripture, and that those maintained in the Church are based on an inadequate interpretation of a few restrictive passages, which put them in contradiction with the manifest special concern and love of God for women articulated from Genesis to Revelation.— Roger Nicole, 2006
A limited notion of gender complementarity is held and is known as "complementarity without hierarchy."
David Basinger, a doctor of philosophy, says that Egalitarians point out, "Few Christians [...] take all biblical mandates literally." Basinger goes on to cite John 13:14 and James 5:14 as commandments prescribed by the Bible which are seldom followed by Christians. Basinger says that this logic indicates that traditional views "cannot be argued [...] solely because Paul and Peter exhorted the woman of their day to submit in the home and be silent in the church".
Complementarians believe that God made men and women to be equal in personhood and value but different in roles. They understand the Bible as teaching that God created men and women to serve different roles in the church and the home. In the 1991 book Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, leading Complementarian theologians outlined what they consider to be biblically sanctioned definitions of masculinity and femininity:
The Danvers Statement on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood was prepared by several evangelical leaders at a Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW) meeting in Danvers, Massachusetts, in December 1987. The statement lays out their biblical rationale for male priority and female submission in the community of believers and in the family. Additionally it cites a set of concerns shared by complementarians over other contemporary philosophies about gender:
They attribute these ills to the "apparent accommodation of some within the church to the spirit of the age at the expense of winsome, radical Biblical authenticity which ... may reform rather than reflect our ailing culture."
Complementarians tend to be biblical inerrantists who take a more literal view of biblical interpretation. They disagree with Christian Egalitarians on theological positions related to gender, such as in holding that:
Primary texts in the New Testament which they believe support male headship include these:
In Galatians 3:28, Complementarians believe that the Apostle Paul is establishing that all believers, no matter what their racial, social, or gender status, share the same spiritual status in their union with Christ. However, they do not believe that or any other scriptures put an end to positional and functional distinctions based on gender, which they see as being clearly stated and upheld in the New Testament, as a matter of Christian principle. Complementarians' understanding is that both Old and New Testaments do prescribe a male-priority based hierarchy and gender roles in the church and in marriage, where women have equal dignity with men but subordinate roles.
Biblical patriarchy as expressed by the Vision Forum is similar to Complementarianism in that it affirms the equality of men and women, but goes further in its expression of the different gender roles. Many of the differences between them are ones of degree and emphasis. While Complementarianism holds to exclusively male leadership in the church and in the home, biblical patriarchy extends that exclusion to the civic sphere as well, so that women should not be civil leaders and indeed should not have careers outside the home. Thus, William Einwechter refers to the traditional Complementarian view as "two point complementarianism" (male leadership in the family and church), and regards the biblical patriarchy view as "three-point" or "full" complementarianism, (male leadership in family, church and society). In contrast to this, John Piper and Wayne Grudem, representing the Complementarian position, say that they are "not as sure in this wider sphere which roles can be carried out by men or women". Grudem also acknowledges exceptions to the submission of wives to husbands where moral issues are involved.
Although much of the contemporary literature settles on the terms Complementarianism and Christian Egalitarianism, a number of other more pejorative terms are frequently encountered.
William J. Webb describes himself as a "complementary egalitarian." He defines this as "full interdependence and 'mutual submission' within marriage, and the only differences in roles are 'based upon biological differences between men and women'." He uses "Complementarianism" to describe what he calls "a milder form of the historical hierarchical view." Complementarian scholar Wayne A. Grudem objects to Webb's use of "complementary" and "egalitarian" together to describe a thoroughly egalitarian position. Calling the terminology "offensive and confusing," he reasons that doing so simply confuses the issues by using the term "complementary" for a position totally antithetical to what complementarians hold. Grudem finds Webb's use of the term "patriarchy" to be especially pejorative because of its connotations in modern society. He also rejects the term "hierarchicalist" because he says it overemphasizes structured authority while giving no suggestion of equality or the beauty of mutual interdependence.
The monastery is mentioned for the first time in 1197. It belongs to the group of so-called Lüneklöstern (monasteries of Lüne), which became Lutheran convents following the Protestant Reformation. [...] It is currently one of several Lutheran convents maintained by the Monastic Chamber of Hanover (Klosterkammer Hannover), an institution of the former Kingdom of Hanover founded by its Prince-Regent, later King George IV of the United Kingdom, in 1818, in order to manage and preserve the estates of Lutheran convents.