In surveying Bible teaching about the roles of men and women, the
question arises: "How much of this was just relevant to the
local situation, time and place in which it was given?". And
that is just the question I wish to discuss in this paper, rather
than actually getting into the question of what Scripture
teaches about those roles. To put the conclusion up front: God has
perceived and dealt with the issue of gender in a manner radically
different to how it was understood in the societies contemporary
with Biblical times. For me, therefore, I have to reject the idea
that God's position on the gender issue somehow changes with time.
It was exactly because His position on it was so radically
different from that of 'religious' people at the time... that it
wasn't always perceived or accepted even by His own people. But
when it was, as it was at the time of the first century church,
the results were amazing, and became part of an irresistible witness
to this world.
Women And The Law Of Moses
The Bible emphasizes the place and spiritual status of women, in
sharp distinction to the male-dominated attitudes of the surrounding
cultures. We will also demonstrate how Bible teaching is not influenced
at all by the surrounding world. Truth is truth, and the principles
will not change with time. It should be noted that even in Genesis
there are ‘incidental’ historical examples of the attitude of believing
men to women being different from that of the surrounding culture.
Thus Abraham personally got the meal ready for his unexpected visitors,
rather than leaving it all to the wife (Gen.18).
Under the Law of Moses, both male and female could offer sacrifices
(Lev.5:4; 6:3,6; 12:5-8). This showed the woman’s direct personal
responsibility to God; if she sinned, she had to offer for herself.
She could not trust in her husband to do this for her. This was
in sharp contrast to surrounding cultures; in them, religious sacrifice
was largely male-oriented, often involving some display of male
prowess in the slaughtering of the animal. That women were allowed
to directly offer sacrifices to the God of Israel without their
husbands’ presence or approval was something radically different
from surrounding concepts of a woman’s place in religion. Indeed,
women did not have a public place in local religious rituals. Contrast
this with the women being able to take the vow of the Nazarite (Num.6:2)
and offer sacrifices. Other examples of the Law’s radically different
perspective on women in comparison to the surrounding world are
-The Mosaic Law did not contain clauses which evidently oppressed
women. Yet other broadly contemporary legal codes did, e.g. the
laws of Hamurrabi, and the local Arab traditions which form the
basis for present Islamic law, with its evident repression of women.
- Female captives were to be given a very high level of moral
and ethical protection. Immediate intercourse with them was forbidden,
and only after an elaborate, lengthy procedure could they be married
(Dt.21:10-14). This is in sharp contrast to the surrounding practice
of treating captured women as legitimate sexual booty. The mother
and courtiers of Sisera, a local Canaanite King, rubbed their hands
with glee at the thought of the fun their victorious boys (as they
thought) would be having if they had defeated the Israelites: “...to
every man a damsel or two; to Sisera a prey of divers colours...of
needlework”- i.e. an exceptionally well dressed young woman (Jud.5:30).
- The point has been made that women were usually punished for
their husband’s sin in most law codes contemporary with the Law
of Moses. But there is nothing of this kind in God’s Law- indeed,
there is the hint of the opposite (1).
- The Hebrews were to “honour father and mother”. Local
customs emphasized honour to the father, whilst if anything the
mother was supposed to honour her son once he was adult. But under
the Mosaic Law, disobedience to the mother was as bad as that to
the father (Dt. 21:18-21). Equal reverence for both parents was
a great theme of the Law: Ex.20:12; 21:15,17; Lev.19:3; Dt. 5:16.
The book of Proverbs is largely a commentary on the Mosaic Law,
and this is full of references to the importance of this: Prov.
1:8; 6:20; 20:20; 23:22; 28:24; 30:11,17.
- Israel were warned that even in the case of a female sacrifice,
it was not to be offered blemished (Lev. 3:1), as if foreseeing
a male tendency to think that the female sacrifices would be acceptable
if they were blemished. The female element in sacrifice of itself
bespoke the acceptability of female devotion as well as male.
- The marriage tie could only be broken by a “bill of divorcement”,
and then only for highly specific reasons, associated with sexual
impurity. This is in stark contrast to the local customs of the
husband being able to dissolve a marriage at will, without any legal
process or reason. This was the case even in the relatively civilized
Greek empire, where little thought was normally given to the wife
after her childbearing years were over (2). If this was the case
then, how much worse would it have been among the Canaanite tribes
and Sinaitic nomads who comprised the world contemporary to the
giving and practice of the Mosaic law. Therefore the Law’s commands
concerning divorce were radical; they did not reflect in any way
the attitudes of the surrounding world.
- “All the people”, male and female, rich or poor, slave or affluent
materialist, High Priest or mentally retarded cripple were all in
covenant relationship with God (Ex.19:11). Thus women as well as
men had to travel to the tabernacle to keep the feasts (Dt.12:12,18;
16:11,14). The Bible emphasizes how these commands were kept in
practice; hence Jud.21:9-23 shows how it was well known that women
would be present at the feasts, and 1 Sam.1 and 2:19 describe Hannah
and Peninnah going up to keep the feasts each year. Local religions
did not have this feature. The covenant was between their god and
the leaders of the nations. “That which distinguishes the God of
Israel from the gods of the (surrounding) nations is, among other
traits, his condescension to the humble; he deigns to establish
his covenant with the children, the women and the slaves... Judaism...guarantees
women a standing before God which they did not have in any heathen
religious relationship” (3).
Towards the end of Old Testament history, the church’s surrounding
world was dominated by Greek culture. We know much about the Greek
attitude to women, and it is significant that it stands in sharp
contrast to the teaching of the law of Moses, which was still practised
by Israel throughout the Greek era. In practice, the Greek wife
was not considered by her husband “in a much higher light than...a
faithful domestic slave” (4). This, again, is in sharp contrast
to the Mosaic law, whereby a husband was certainly not to treat
his wife as a slave. The Proverbs, written during the time of Solomon,
describe the faithful husband as standing up in respect to his wife,
and praising her (Prov.31:10, 25-28). There was much Greek culture
in the Lycus Valley in the first century AD; yet Paul told the church
at Ephesus that husbands should “love their wives as their own bodies”
(Eph.5:28). Clearly Paul’s commands concerning men and women were
not influenced by surrounding culture.
The Old Testament abounds with accounts of women of distinction-
e.g. Esther, Ruth, Deborah, Miriam etc. Yet the classicist James
Donaldson points out that in Athens, centre of the Greek world,
“Not one Athenian woman ever attained to the slightest distinction”
(5). The words of Pericles sum this up: “If I am to speak of womanly
virtues...great also is hers of whom there is least talk among men
whether in praise or in blame” (6). Yet the Bible abounds with records
of women, which are intended to be meditated upon by male and female
believers of all time. Jesus, speaking against a similar Greco-Roman
cultural background, said that Mary’s devotion to him would be spoken
about world-wide “for a memorial of her” (Mk.14:9). This was therefore
a radical departure from the surrounding culture, which suppressed
the mention of women.
(1) This point is expanded upon in Wang Lih Na, ‘Women victimized
by ancient criminal law’, Women Of China, April 1988 Vol.
(2) See E.Guhl and W.Koner, The Life of the Greeks and Romans
(London: Chapman and Hall, 1989 reprint), p.186
(3) Charles Ryrie, The Role of Women in the Church (Chicago: Moody
(4) Guhl and Koner, op. cit. , p. 185
(5) James Donaldson, Woman: Her Position and Influence In Ancient
Greece and Rome, and Among the Early Christians (Elibron Classics,
2006 reprint), p.55
(6) Thucydides, II, XLV, 2
Women In New Testament Teaching
Charles Ryrie concludes his research with this telling statement:
“...equally clear is the fact that Christianity stands in sharp
contrast to the treatment of women in ancient Greece and Rome” (1).
Again, the point is driven home that the attitude of Bible-based
religion to women was not influenced by the surrounding cultures.
The point has been made by many writers that the teaching of Christ
concerning women was in sharp contrast to the accepted values of
the surrounding Roman world concerning them. Jesus would not have
compromised on principles; he would not have inwardly believed one
thing about the gender issue, and yet taught something else, just
out of deference to the surrounding culture. All that we see and
know of the Lord indicates this was not how He was, nor is. True
Christianity has ever been a religion of contrast with the world
and the philosophies around it. Lightfoot (2) commented on Christ’s
attitude towards women: “To contemporaries it must have appeared
in the light of a social revolution”.
Jesus was highly sensitive to the gender division. He did not just
ignore it. The parable of the mustard seed which a man planted is
followed by that of the leaven which a woman hid in the meal (Lk.13:18-21).
Likewise in Lk.15:3-10 Jesus speaks firstly of the joy of a man
finding a lost sheep, and then of the joy of a woman on finding
a lost dowry coin. He spoke of the lilies of the field which do
not physically exert themselves in labour, as men must do, but also
who do not spin (women’s work). Christ spoke of the second coming
as finding two men in the field and two women grinding at the mill.
This parallelism of attention between men and women can be profitably
followed through the Gospel records: Lk. 8:14,15 cp. Lk. 8:16,17;
Lk. 11:5-8 cp. 18:1-8; Lk. 4:24-27; Mt. 24:43-51 cp. 25:1-13; 24:40,41;
Mt. 13:31-33 cp. Lk. 13:18-21. This approach contrasts sharply with
the male-centred teaching approach of the contemporary rabbis and
other religious leaders (19). Thus his parables were consciously
designed to appeal to both men and women. Luke particularly seems
to rejoice in observing how the Lord treated men and women in parallel.
Both Martha and the male ruler lack one thing (Lk. 10:41,42 cp.
18:22); there are two parables on answered prayer for men and women
(Lk. 11:5-8 cp. 18:1-8); the men of Nineveh and the queen of the
South are paired (Lk. 11:29-32); justice is for both male and female
servants (Lk. 12:45,46); both men and women would be divided (Lk.
12:51-53); a woman and a man are both healed on the Sabbath (Lk.
13:10-16; 14:1-6); a ‘daughter of Abraham’ and a ‘son of Abraham’
are healed (Lk. 13:16; 19:9); the woman loses a coin, a man loses
a sheep (Lk. 15:4-10). Indeed, a profitable study could be made
of how the Old Testament prophets liken God to both male and female
figures in tandem- e.g. “The Lord goes forth as a mighty man… I
will cry out like a woman in travail” (Is. 42:13,14).
The following are further examples of where the Lord’s teaching
concerning women was contrary to local culture:
- In the surrounding culture, a woman followed the religion of
her husband (3). Christ cut right across this by saying that following
him was a totally individual matter.
- The Rabbis taught that a man should not salute a woman in a
public place (4). For Jesus to talk to the Samaritan woman at the
well (Jn.4) was therefore an indication of his studied disregard
of local tradition concerning women when it clashed with spiritual
principles. The incident was “a strange innovation on Rabbinic custom
and dignity” (5). The Talmud taught: “Six things are a disgrace
to a disciple of the wise: He should not…converse with a woman in
the street” (Babylonian Talmud: Berakoth “Benedictions” 43b). A
woman could only be alone with two men, never with one, and this
was within a town; outside a town, she had to be in the presence
of three men (Babylonian Talmud: Kiddushin “Betrothals” 81a). But
the Lord spoke to her alone. A woman could even be divorced for
speaking to a man. “What conduct transgresses Jewish custom? If
she…speaks with any man” (Mishnah: Ketuboth “Marriage Deeds” 7:6).
There can be no doubt that the Lord didn’t accept the prevailing
view of women.
- Local Jewish culture stressed that the place of the woman was
about domestic matters rather than spiritual ones. Yet in the incident
of Martha and Mary, Christ commended Mary for neglecting her domestic
duties in order to concern herself with spiritual development (Lk.10:38-42).
She sat at his feet, as if a student at the feet of a rabbi. When
we read that Mary sat at the Lord’s feet (Lk. 10:39), it’s easy
to forget that to sit at the feet of a Rabbi [and the Lord was called
‘Rabbi’] meant to be a disciple of that Rabbi. And women… couldn’t
be disciples of a Rabbi. It was all radical stuff.
- The Rabbis in Christ’s time were split into two schools on the
question of divorce. One school taught that divorce was available
for any reason, whilst the other said that it was only for sexual
impurity. The question was put to Jesus as to when he thought divorce
was possible. It seemed that he was going to be forced to take sides
with one of the two contemporary attitudes. But he cut clean through
the whole thinking of first century Israel by basing his argument
on the principles of Eden: God created man and woman, and joined
them together; therefore, he reasoned, the ideal standard is that
there should be no divorce for any reason, including adultery. This
is a cameo of the teaching of Christ; through radical and fundamental
recourse to the Old Testament, his teachings cut right through all
the conceptions and expectations which were present in the mind
of first century Jewry as a result of their cultural conditioning.
We too must cut through the cultural conditioning of our era. In
the time of Jesus, Roman law allowed women to divorce their husbands;
some of the women of Herod’s family got divorces like this (6).
Jesus was aware of this, and commented upon this local social attitude,
roundly condemning it: “If a woman shall put away her husband, and
be married to another, she committeth adultery”. If Jesus was so
unafraid to challenge local cultural attitudes towards women, why
should we think that He merely went along with those local contemporary
Thus the point is established that Jesus was revolutionary in his
attitude to women. He was unafraid to challenge their accepted place
in society. The words he spoke were God’s words, and were uninfluenced
by the surrounding social situation. The Gospel records emphasize
the place of women, both in responding to the call of the Gospel,
and also in spreading it.
(1) Ryrie, op. cit., p.13
(2) Joseph B. Lightfoot, Sermons Preached on Special Occasions
(London: Macmillan, 1893), p.224. The same point is often made in
Alfred Edersheim, Sketches of Jewish Social Life in the Days
of Christ (Religious Tract Society) and W.M.Ramsay, The
Church in the Roman Empire (Hodder & Stoughton)
(3) “It is becoming for a wife to worship and to know only the
gods that her husband believes in” (Plutarch: Moralia,
(4) Aboth, I, 5
(5) C.G.Montefiore, Rabbinic Literature and Gospel Teachings
(New York: Ktav, 1970 ed.) p.47.
(6) See Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah
The Contrast Between The Bible And Contemporary Views Of
The most common objection to what we have been saying is that the
Bible simply reflects ‘sexist’ contemporary views which prevailed
at the time the Bible was inspired. Whilst in being “all things
to all things” the Bible does speak to its contemporary audience
in terms and forms acceptable to them, close analysis of the text
reveals a fundamental disparity between the contemporary views of
women and the articulation of God’s mind.
The Bible record begins with the statement that Adam was to work
in the fields as a punishment for his sin. Although it is difficult
for us to grasp hold of ancient perceptions, work in the fields
was strongly perceived as women’s work. It would have stood out
like a sore thumb throughout the first few millennia. There was
a major difference, therefore, between God’s intention for the gender
division of labour, and the way human societies saw it. Claus Westermann
comments: “Genesis 2 is unique among the creation myths [sic] of
the whole of the ancient Near East in its appreciation of the meaning
of women, i.e., that human existence is a partnership of man and
It was rare in contemporary literature for women to be named and
written about as freestanding individuals; they were normally spoken
of as the wife or brother or daughter of a great man. Yet Scripture
doesn’t do this. Take Dinah and Miriam. They are spoken of in the
Biblical record for what they did. Yet Jewish traditional literature
had a hard job accepting them as women freestanding in history;
they wanted to identify them in terms of their husbands. Thus Jewish
tradition goes to great lengths to prove that Dinah became the wife
of Job, and Miriam married Hur, Moses’ assistant. But God’s word
doesn’t seek to define women in terms of their husbands in this
way. The Mosaic law specifically prohibited the abuse of female
prisoners of war (Dt. 21:10-14); whereas surrounding culture assumed
such women to be the prizes of the victorious warriors to do with
just as they pleased (see Jud. 5:30).
Moses makes the amazing statement that Israel’s God is to be likened
to a mother eagle fluttering over them (Dt. 32:13,14). Dt. 32:18
LXX speaks of God as "the God who begot you...who feeds you"
- as if He were Israel's mother. This likening of God to a female
is repeated elsewhere. “As the eyes of [male] servants look unto
their masters, and as the eyes of a maiden unto the hand of her
mistress; so our eyes wait upon the Lord our God” (Ps. 123:2). Notice
the careful balance of figure, to include both men and women. That
Israel’s God was comparable to a woman would surely have been a
strange simile to the ears of the contemporary world. Moses likened
God to Israel’s mother (Num. 11:12; Is. 49:15). And elsewhere, God
is likened to a midwife, seamstress (Neh. 9:21; Gen. 3:21), housewife,
midwife (Ps. 22:9-11), nurse and mother (Ps. 22:9,10; 71:6; Is.
42:14; 49:15; 66:9,13; Hos. 11:1-4). Ps. 90:2 RV mg. speaks of God
giving birth to the whole earth. Thus the Lord Jesus was unashamed
to apply female images to both God (Lk. 15:8-10) and Himself (Mt.
23:37). Deut. 28, in common with Luke 21 and some other passages
in the prophets (e.g. Is. 32:9) stress the judgments to come upon
women as well as men. The Chronicles genealogies give a significant
value to the place of women, as do those of the Lord Himself, and
mention, e.g., the achievements of women like “Sherah, who built
Beth-Horon” (1 Chron. 7:24). And the ten commandments taught that
a man was to respect his mother as much as his father- radical stuff
for a patriarchal society. Significantly, Lev. 19:3 says that a
man must fear “his mother and his father”- placing the mother first,
which was uncommon in any other contemporary legal code. It was
similarly radical for David to deal bread and wine “even among the
whole multitude of Israel, as well to the women as men” (2 Sam.
6:19), thus recognizing that women had an equal part in salvation
and relationship with God. And note again how the women are mentioned
before the men.
The prophets use figures which were relevant to women as well as
men, even though they were writing in a male dominated society.
Thus Is. 30:22 likens idols to used tampons, and yet the next verse
goes on to give a figure based on the work of male farmers. “Ask
him that fleeth, and her that escapeth” (Jer. 48:19) is typical
of the subtle inclusiveness of both male and female in God's self-revelation.
And David must have shocked many by singing of how “our sons shall
be as plants…and our daughters as corner stones” (Ps. 144:12 RV).
For the corner stones of a family were perceived to be male. Yet
David foresaw the importance of women as being the foundation of
the royal house; he may even have perceived the importance of women
in the genealogy of his greater son.
The Lord Himself was evidently very conscious of the inclusiveness
of both male and female in His redemptive work. He came to save
that [both male and female] which was lost (Mt. 18:11). He asked
His people to follow Him in His cross carrying, and then told them
to follow a man bearing a pitcher of water (doing woman’s
work)- probably a slave bearing water for the purification rites
of Passover. In asking this He was requesting us to see in that
man a symbol of Himself in His time of self-sacrifice. Yet the Lord
saw Himself as a slave, a man doing woman’s work, as the seed of
the woman...surely the Lord had worked out in advance this wonderful
blend of the genders in the figure He chose to represent Him. He
spoke of leaving one’s sister for His sake as being a sacrifice,
whereas the contemporary culture would rarely have felt that way
about a female relative. Jesus not only spoke to women publically,
but is even recorded as allowing a Gentile woman to change His mind
(Mt. 15:22). This was unthinkable and shocking to contemporary society.
Likewise one is hard pushed to find women-only scenes in contemporary
literature written during Biblical times. The women are presented
in terms of the men with whom they inter-relate. Yet Elizabeth and
Mary are recorded as having a conversation with no male present
(Lk. 1:39-45); and there are other such passages in Scripture (Gen.
19:32,34; 30:14,15; Ex. 2:1-10; Jud. 5:28-30; Ruth 1:6-2:2; 3:16-18;
4:14-17; 2 Kings 5:2,3). The narrative of the women at the tomb
and the resurrection is another example (Lk. 23:55-24:4). In all
these passages, the reader is invited to share the woman’s perspective.
The Lord taught that one must forsake all that he has in order
to truly be His disciple (Mt. 13:44; Lk. 14:33). But at the end
of His ministry, He as it were chose to exemplify this aspect of
discipleship by drawing attention to a woman who gave to God “all
the living that she had” (Lk. 21:3). Putting the passages together,
the Lord is saying that she is to be the model for us all in this
aspect of devotion. And there’s another example of this when we
come to consider the woman who could not stand up; for the Lord
described His healing of her as losing her from a bond in order
to lead her away to the water of life (Lk. 13:15)- whereas this
is the very cameo of all the redeemed in Rev. 7:17.
Contrary to what is often claimed, Paul went out of his way to
show that contemporary views of women were unacceptable for those
in the Lord. His teaching in Gal. 3:27-29 that in Christ, there
is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male or female, is surely
conscious allusion to the Jewish traditional morning prayer for
men: “My God, I thank thee that I was not born a Gentile but a Jew,
not a slave but a free man, not a woman but a man”. He is surely
saying that for those in Christ, the Jewish male world-view is unacceptable.
Paul encourages younger mothers to “rule their households” (1 Tim.
5:14), using a word [oikodespoteo] which would usually
be used about the man ruling the house. His implication is surely
that in Christ, husband and wife together rule the household, notwithstanding
the wife being in submission to her husband. Surrounding Roman culture
forbad women to drink wine with men, and only permitted them to
do so in special cases if they drank different wine from a different
cup (2). But Paul in conscious reference to this emphasizes the
one cup shared by all believers, male and female, in memory of the
unity and tearing down of barriers between people achieved by the
Lord’s death. John likewise uses the neuter rather than the male
gender to describe all believers (1 Jn. 5:4).
Paul emphasized that it was by one male, Adam, that sin entered
the world (Rom. 5:12)- in designed contrast to the contemporary
Jewish idea that Eve was to be demonized as the femme fatale, the
woman who brought sin into the world. Thus Ecclesiasticus 25:4:
"From a woman sin had its beginning, and because of her we
all die". Paul is alluding to this and insisting quite the
opposite- that Adam , the male, was actually the one initially responsible.
Paul can hardly be accused of being against women! Another example
of Paul’s conscious rebellion against the contemporary position
of women is to be found in Rom. 5:12: “By one man sin entered into
the world, and death by sin”. This is an intended rebuttal of Ecclesiasticus
25:24: “From a woman sin had its beginning, and because of her we
all die”. This allusion is one of many reasons for rejecting the
Apocrypha as inspired. The idea that women were second class because
Eve, not Adam, was the source of sin was widespread. Tertullian
(On Female Dress, 1.1) wrote: “You [woman] are the first
deserter of the Divine law…on account of your desert, that is, death,
the Son of God had to die”. And Paul is consciously countering it.
Peter likewise describes sisters as ‘joint-heirs’ with their husbands,
implying “full religious equality with man- a thought impossible
for Judaism” (3).
The Gift Of Gender
Given the Lord's tearing down of male:female barriers, what, therefore,
is the significance of gender in God's service? Our gender seems
to me to be a talent we are given, which we are to use in the Lord's
service. Women are under much pressure to adapt to a man's world,
to prove that of course they can do work previously done by men.
But that isn't necessarily using the talent of gender, in this case
the feminine gender, as God intends. It's proving a point, and it's
a point well proven and that needs to be well-taken by those of
a chauvinist mentality. But it's not necessarily using the feminine
talent in the specific way God has made potentially possible. At
the last day, we will be asked what we did with our talents- not
the talents given to someone else. I rather like how Yoko Ono spoke
of women's need for "the utilization of feminine qualities
as a force capable of changing the world" (4). It's an appreciation
of this unique call which can help us resolve many crises of conscience
and conflicts of decision. Especially are women caught between wanting
to be good mothers devoted to their children, and yet wishing to
develop themselves personally by pursuing a career which enables
them to make a unique public contribution to society. These conflicts
lead in so many women to feelings of frustration and guilt. Surely
the key is to understand ourselves and to utilize our talents; for
the woman to realize that being a woman in this age, sharing in
these inevitable conflicts, is actually part of being a woman, part
of being human. And this should never be a source of guilt- it's
no sin to be glad that you're alive, that God created you as you
are. Sense, use your intuition, ask God to reveal your calling to
you, His specific intention for you, the crucial part you have to
play in the body of His Son, in which every part has a vital role,
and for His power to realize / operationalize it. In many parts
of the world, working out this realization will have radical and
painful consequences. Previous generations in the West spoke of
'knowing our station and our place'. It was a Western form of the
Indian caste system. And even today, I believe many in our societies
are increasingly being processed by the corporate mentality into
the same basic mindset . It's attractive, because it appeals to
our innate laziness and constant desire for the old wine rather
than the new. The Lord's parable about that is a telling window
into His understanding of the basic conservatism of human nature.
Becoming in Christ, a member of His body in which every part is
vital and indispensable to the growth of the whole, leads us to
shed this attitude. We are called to do unique things which only
we can, to be unique persons. The value of the individual was never
more accentuated than in the teaching and person of our Lord. For
too long, women have suffered from the objectification of people,
and the devaluing of them as persons. Their work has so easily been
unappreciated and undervalued. Too often they have been denied a
personal existence, condemned rather to living their lives through
a third party such as their husband or son; forever tied down to
providing for others rather than blossoming themselves as persons;
and so often used and identified as sex objects. But being called
to recognize our gender as a talent to be used and developed enables
women to rise above this.
Simply being a sensitive female, with a sense for the value of
persons, can of itself be a high enough calling. In many ways, women
possess a talent of spiritual perception which is far different,
far quicker and more practical, than what men possess in this area.
Consider these Biblical examples:
- The Lord's conversations with Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman
are recorded in an intentional parallel in John 3 and 4. The man
doesn't get it, he fails to perceive the double entendre in the
Lord's words, and struggles with their deeper meaning. The Samaritan
woman gets it straight away, and even responds to the Lord with
the same kind of language.
- The male disciples so tragically misunderstood their Lord. Right
up to the cross, they were expecting Him to overthrow the Romans
and establish His Kingdom there and then. They asked Him to show
them the Father, implying they wanted Him to produce a visible,
Moses-like theophany. They didn't perceive that His personality
and His upcoming death were indeed that revelation of the Father
which they so desperately sought. Their masculine objectivity got
in the way of their understanding His message. Whereas it was a
woman who perceived the Lord's death, and anointed His body beforehand
- It was women who first grasped the resurrection. It was the male
disciples who mocked them, with some pretty woman-demeaning comments
thrown in. Although note their humility in recording this in their
- It was Pilate who condemned the Lord to death, as a male caught
up in male objective politics. It was his wife who perceived, in
a dream that surely reflected her subconscious perceptions and realizations,
that Jesus was truly a man from God (Mt. 27:19).
- Elisabeth understood the significance of the birth of John the
Baptist; her husband didn't.
So in what sorts of ways can a woman use her feminine sensitivity,
intuition and perception? Bible study, writing up the results, sharing
the conclusions in seminars, preaching outreach, and motivating
other female believers. I, as a male Bible student, always enjoy
reading feminist theologians. Not that I agree with much of what
they write, but because they simply look at Biblical material in
such an insightful way that stimulates and challenges my own perceptions.
In caring... caring for the person, in a way that men can't, or
shall we say in a different way than men. In being motivational,
in a whole host of ways. We come back to Yoko Ono and women's opportunity
for "the utilization of feminine qualities as a force capable
of changing the world". Modern technology has freed women from
many of the ties that have bound them for generations. No longer
is housework so all demanding, no longer are they slaves to so many
taboos as previously. But they must use that empowerment and freedom
to achieve something.
And what are male believers to make of all this? Men need to recognize
the many Bible passages present God Himself as having both male
and female characteristics. God comforts as a mother comforts (Is.
66:13). Not surprising, seeing women along with men are made in
the image of God. Without trying to act like women, pretending they
have the feminine talents just to prove a point, without refusing
to develop the talents of their own maleness, men need to perceive
the value of women and where appropriate to seek to incorporate
feminine sensitivity, perception etc. in their approaches to people.
I remember sitting in the kitchen, chatting to Cindy as she prepared
food. I was talking about something in general terms, the topic
was dysfunction as I remember. Obviously she couldn't give me her
undivided attention as she peeled potatoes or whatever, but I remember
her looking up and asking: 'Sorry, who are you talking about?'.
I wasn't talking about anybody, I was talking generally. But it
struck me how a woman thinks in terms of persons. And how that is
overall a far more Godly way of approaching life. The Lord Jesus
was male, and yet in so many ways He combined feminine sensitivity
with His almost heroic, classic masculinity, as the King, warrior,
brave captain who gave His life for His friends. You see it even
after the resurrection- He cooked a meal for the guys as they were
out fishing (Jn. 21:9). From our cultural distance it's not immediately
obvious, but in first century Palestinian terms this was so obviously
the work of a woman. The men fished, the woman sat on the beach
preparing food for the hungry workers when they returned off night
shift. But it was a man, a more than man, the exalted and risen
Lord of the universe, who chose and delighted to do this very feminine,
thoughtful and sensitive action of service. The incident isn't merely
an insight into the Lord's humility even after His resurrection.
It speaks of how He incorporates in His person both male and female
characteristics, as the ideal and perfected humanity, the Man fully
and ultimately in the image of God. And there are other examples
in His life. He perhaps rejoiced to lead His disciples to the breaking
of bread through setting up the sign of a man carrying a pitcher
of water- which was evidently women's work. The way the Lord held
John to His breast at the last supper is likewise a classic female
image. And thus there are many examples in Scripture of men doing
what is usually women's work or sharing what is classically female
understanding- e.g. Abraham running around preparing food for the
Angelic visitors. And the reverse is true- very feminine women doing
what is typically the male role- e.g. Jael killing Sisera. Now all
this doesn't mean that the gender distinction has been collapsed
in practice- rather are we seeing men being men, women being women,
but growing up into the image of God by incorporating the strengths
and sensitivities and perceptions of the other gender into our personhood
and service of God.
(1) Claus Westerman, Genesis 1-11: A Commentary (SPCK,
(2) See A.H. Nicholls, Letters To Timothy And Titus (Birmingham:
CMPA, 1991) p. 399.
(3) K. Stendahl, The Bible And The Role Of Women, (Westminster:
Fortress Press, 1966) p. 31.
(4) Quoted in Paul Tournier, The Gift Of Feeling (London:
SCM, 1981) p. 58.
Women In The New Testament Church
It should be noted that women are not omitted from the record of
the early church; in Rom.16, of the twenty six people Paul greets,
eight are women. This would not be the case if women are omitted
or de-emphasized in the Biblical record of the early church. Indeed
the remarkable freedom offered to women was one of the reasons that
Christianity grew so powerfully in the first century.
Paul’s teaching about women also contradicts the local views. He
encourages unmarried women to stay single so that they can devote
themselves to spiritual matters (1 Cor.7:32,34). In the surrounding
Jewish culture, the unmarried woman was seen as a reproach. In the
local Greco-Roman culture, the unmarried woman would have been perceived
as an immoral woman, or one morally disgraced. Yet Paul does not
imply that once those cultural perceptions had changed, then his
advice about choosing the single life should be followed. Regardless
of the surrounding perceptions, Paul spoke forth the Spirit’s guidance.
Paul’s teaching that remarriage could only take place after the
death of the first partner (1 Cor.7:39; Rom.7:1-8) actually elevated
the status of women compared to what it was in the local culture.
He can hardly be accused of being a woman hater, in the light of
this; nor is he giving commandments regarding the place of women
which only fitted in with the local culture. Immorality, particularly
in terms of temple prostitution, was so widespread that it is hard
for us to appreciate the radicalness of Paul’s insistence on absolute
faithfulness to one’s partner.
Clement of Alexandria commented: "The Apostles, giving themselves
without respite to the work of evangelism... took with them women,
not as wives but as sisters, to share in their ministry to women
living at home: by their agency the teaching of the Lord reached
the women's quarters without raising suspicion" (1).
All these references to women in the early church teaching would
have been anathema to many of the surrounding cultures in which
the Gospel spread in the first century: “Not only the arm, but the
voice of a modest woman ought to be kept from the public, and she
should feel shame at being heard…she should speak to or through
her husband” (Plutarch, Advice to Bride and Groom 31-32).
Likewise the encouragement for a woman to “learn in silence” was
a frontal attack on the position that a woman’s duty was to follow
the religion of her husband and concern herself with domestic duties
rather than religious learning. The way the Lord commended Mary
rather than Martha for her choice to learn and her rejection of
domesticity similarly challenged the prevailing gender perception.
There is no doubt that a 1st century Christian woman was far more
liberated than in any other contemporary religion. In our societies
too, our sisters mustn’t concern themselves only with domestic duties.
Some Asian and African cultures demand this, but it is for our sisters
to reach out in witness to the world, to strengthen each other,
to take responsibility for this and not just rely on ‘the brethren’.
And it is for sisters living in European and American societies
shaped by a Godless feminism to likewise break out of the mould
that is pressed upon them by their societies.
(1) Quoted in Stephen B. Clark, Man And Woman In Christ
(Ann Arbor, MI: Servant Books, 1980) p. 116.
The Female Factor In The Early Church
I suggest that one of the reasons for the phenomenal spread of
Christianity in the first century was the role afforded to women
within Christianity. The first century society was built around
the concept of oikonomia, household fellowship. The head
of the house was the leader, and all the extended family and slaves
had to follow his religion and be obedient to him. For slaves, this
was on pain of death. However, the call of Christ was to individuals;
and yet individual conversion to a religion was unheard of at the
time. And yet further, it was usual for the head of the household
to automatically be the leader of the religion which his household
practised. But for the true Christians, this was not necessarily
so to be; for the Lord had taught that it was the servant who was
to lead, and the least esteemed in the ecclesia were to judge matters
(1 Cor. 6:4). Elders of the household ecclesias had to be chosen
on the basis of their spiritual qualification, Paul taught. The
radical nature of these teachings is so easily lost on us. Even
if not all these poor converts were slaves, they were all subservient
to their employers / sources of income. Craftsmen would have had
to belong to a pagan trade guild, normally involving idol worship
which a Christian had to refuse, and slaves of course had no ‘right’
to their own religion if it differed from that of their household.
Everything was against the spread of the Truth amongst the poor
women and slaves of the first century. And yet, the Gospel grew
and prospered, as it marched through town after town across the
Roman empire. The Romans allowed the existence of the autonomous
politaea, the city-state, so long as within its religion it featured
the worship of the Emperor. And yet the NT writers speak of the
ecclesia as a city which is independent, defiantly devoted to the
worship of the one and only true God (Eph. 2:19; 3:20; Heb. 12:22;
13:14; Rev. 21). The writers must have nervously penned those inspired
words, knowing the problems it would create. The Spirit of God could
have chosen not to so directly challenge this world; and yet there
is a chasmic difference between the community of God and the surrounding
world, which the New Testament unashamedly triumphs in. And let
us do so too, not being conformed to this word, but being transformed
unto the things of God.
Slaves in the first century were seen as mere bodies owned by their
masters or mistresses. Hence Rev. 18:13 describes slaves as somata,
bodies. They were seen as both the economic and sexual property
of those who owned them (1). It seems Paul had this in mind when
he spoke of how we have one master, Christ, and our bodies are indeed
not our own- but they are His, to be used according to His wishes.
For many slaves, this would’ve meant running the risk of death or
flogging. And yet despite this radical demand, Christianity spread
rapidly amongst the huge slave population of the first century world.
According to Plato, no artisan could be a citizen of the ideal
state. Aristotle tells us that in Thebes no man could become a citizen
until ten years after he had stopped working at a trade. Cicero
believed that "No workshop can have any culture about it"
. And then, into this culture, walks Jesus. A working man, who in
practice learnt His matchless spirituality in the workshop. And
whose religion had for its founding fathers a band of working men
from Galilee. Truly did Christianity with its women and slave converts
turn the first century world upside down. It could only have been
on the basis of their transformed personalities and that 'something'
about them, which converted the masses, and also the educated white
collar converts whom we know were made.
(1) Jennifer A. Glancy, Slavery In Early Christianity (Oxford:
The Role Of Women In The First Century
Men greatly outnumbered women in the Greco-Roman world. Dio Cassius
blamed the declining population of the Roman empire on the shortage
of females(1) . J.C. Russell (2) claims that there were 131 males
/ 100 females in Rome itself, and 140 / 100 in most of the rest
of the empire. A study of inscriptions at Delphi enabled the reconstruction
of 600 families; and of these only six had raised more than one
daughter (3) . This was partly due to female infanticide, and also
partly due to the awful methods of contraception and abortion employed,
which often resulted in the death of the woman.
And yet there is every reason to think that Christianity attracted
women to it disproportionately. It held a liberating message for
women, allowing and encouraging them to study Scripture and be independent
from their male society when it came to personal faith and relationship
with Jesus, even enabling them to formally teach each other and
those in the world. Christian women enjoyed far greater marital
security than pagans; abortion was outlawed for the early Christian;
and they were to be respected for their own personhood by their
brethren. Through being able to work with the likes of Paul in his
preaching work, they broke through the surrounding low expectations
of female roles. The competing religions offered no such respect
of women. Some like Mithraism were limited solely to males. The
Christian stress on the need to marry only within the faith must
have lead to many sisters being single for the Lord’s sake; and
there were doubtless many others who were divorced by unbelieving
husbands. Such women were usually condemned to a life as prostitutes
(hence the Lord said that if a man divorced his wife, he made her
commit adultery). Yet the sisters’ problem with finding partners
doubtless led them to go out into the world and convert men; as
well as providing the basis for a unique society of females which
would have drawn to it other hurting and neglected women within
Roman society. Another outcome of the unusual situation would have
been that women married brothers of different social rank to their
own- there are records of higher rank Christian women marrying Christian
brothers of far inferior status socially. The social world of the
first century was turned upside down by those sisters and their
preaching, in the same way as Northern Kazakhstan and other parts
of the world have likewise been by the witness of large groups of
sisters. Childless, single women would have been looked down on
even more in those days than they are in ours. Time and again, the
sisters would have asked themselves: ‘What am I doing this for?’.
And every time, ultimately, the answer was that they were committed
to this invisible man, the Lord Jesus, who had loved them to the
end and was surely coming to claim them as His own.
An inventory of property removed from a Christian house church
in North Africa listed 16 men’s tunics and 82 women’s tunics, along
with 47 pairs of specifically female shoes and no men’s(4) . Adolf
Harnack notes that the early source documents “simply swarm with
tales of how women of all ranks were converted in Rome and in the
provinces…the general truth that Christianity was laid hold of by
women in particular" (5). Henry Chadwick likewise: “Christianity
seems to have been especially successful among women. It was often
through the wives that it penetrated the upper classes of society
in the first instance”(6) .
(1) Dio Cassius, The Roman History (London: Penguin Classics,
(2) J.C. Russell, Late Ancient And Medieval Population,
published as vol. 48 pt. 3 of the Transactions Of The American Philosophical
Society, Philadelphia, 1958.
(3) Jack Lindsay, The Ancient World: Manners and Morals (New
York: Putnams, 1968).
(4) See R.L. Fox, Pagans And Christians (New York: Knopf,
(5) Adolf Harnack, The Mission And Expansion Of Christianity
In The First Three Centuries (New York: Putnam’s, 1908) Vol.
2 p. 73.
(6) Henry Chadwick, The Early Church (Harmondsworth: Penguin,
1967) p. 56.
What The Early House Churches Were Like
The household churches were a major key to the growth of Christianity
(1). 1 Cor. 14:23-25 seems to imply that unbelievers came into house
churches and ought to have been so deeply impressed that they declared
that “God is in you of a truth”. They were to be the living exemplification
of how, as the Lord had prayed in John 17, the witness of Christian
unity ought to be enough to convert the world. We need to give His
words there their true weight. To see slaves and masters, men and
women, Jew and Gentile, all sitting at the same table celebrating
their salvation in the same Lord, with offices of leadership and
responsibility distributed according to spiritual rather than social
qualifications… this would’ve been astounding to the Mediterranean
world of the first century. The way men mixed with women and the
poor with the rich would’ve been especially startling.
Women were only allowed to be present at meals with men if they
were close family members. Houses unearthed in Pompeii feature two
dining rooms side by side, for men and for women (2). And yet the
Christian breaking of bread featured a “coming together” into one
place for the memorial meal. Men and women, slaves and masters,
eating together- this was radical stuff. To simply be present at
such a meeting as an onlooker would’ve presented an almost irresistible
case for Christianity. Significantly, the catacombs around Rome
[where many Christians lived and were buried] feature meal scenes
which appear to depict breaking of bread meetings. They show men
and women sitting or reclining together around the bread and wine
(3); whereas contemporary secular art nearly always depicts men
and women feasting separately.
The dignity afforded to women by Christianity, the strange bonding
between genders, races and social ranks, all combined to make the
early house churches attractive, especially to women. Celsus complained
that the Christian sect was growing through contacts initially being
made in houses, and Christianity spreading amongst slaves and female
members of households. House groups then, as now, were the key to
the powerful spread of the Gospel. Adolf von Harnack commented that
women “played a leading role in the spread of this religion” (4).
This fact is understandable once we appreciate how house groups
were the key to Christianity’s wildfire spread in the first century.
Young People / Children
In Against Celsus 3.55, Origen defends Christianity against
the allegation that it requires men to leave the world of men and
go mix with women and children in “the washerwoman’s shop”- presumably
a house church Celsus knew. Lucian of Samosata even mocked Christianity
as being largely comprised of children and “old hags called widows”.
Marcus Cornelius Fronto likewise mocked the way “children” [and
by that term he would’ve referred to teenagers too] participated
in the breaking of bread [Octavius 8-9]. The teaching of the Lord
Jesus was attractive to children / young people. They like women
were treated as of little worth; the Greco-Roman world considered
that children had to be taught, and couldn’t teach a man anything.
But the Lord Jesus repeatedly set children up as examples of discipleship
(Mk. 9:36,37; Lk. 9:47,48; as Heb. 12:5-9). So we can understand
the appeal of early Christianity to young people, teenagers, especially
girls. O.M. Bakke has written a fascinating study entitled When
Children Became People (5). The thesis is that the teaching
of Christianity gave disenfranchised people an identity and meaning
as persons- women and slaves are obvious examples- but this also
applied to children / young people. They too were disregarded as
people in Mediterranean society; and yet in Christ they were given
their value as people. In the house church setting, we can imagine
how this happened. Celsus mocks how teenage boys go to Christian
house churches to be taught by women- reflecting how attractive
Christianity was for young people.
Slaves, especially female ones, were in a very bad situation. They
had no identity outside their family of ownership. Both male and
female slaves were used for sexual purposes at will. They were seen
as having no honour, no rights, and therefore there was nothing
to violate. They were used as objects rather than persons. But enter
the call of Christ. Now, the dominated, powerless female slave hears
of honour and beauty being ascribed to her if she is “in Christ”.
Paul’s description of all those in Christ as a beautiful, chaste
virgin must’ve struck chords of wonder with those slave women (2
Cor. 11:2). For those who had the faith to overcome the ‘Can this
all be really true for me?’ syndrome, there was a new life and self-perception-
encouraged by the way they saw others like them being transformed
as persons. Slaves were sold with their children at times, but there
are no records of slaves being sold as married couples. Their place
of origin was listed in the records as the place where they had
been purchased. They were the “people without history”, seen as
having no past and no future. They were outside of normal human
society. All this is well summed up in Patterson’s Slavery And
Social Death (6). One example he gives of how slaves were seen
as mere bodies is the way in which female slaves had to wet nurse
the children of their mistress. They were called mamma-
literally meaning, a breast. And from this came the use of that
word to mean ‘mother’. But initially, mamma meant strictly
a breast; that was the name given to wet nursing slave women. They
weren't seen as persons, but rather as a mere body part.
Into this darkness and desperation, there burst the light of Christ.
We can imagine a group of those women eagerly listening to Paul’s
latest letter being read out in the house church. They heard of
how they had been bought with the price of Christ’s blood, that
now they were slaves of the Father and Son, that their bodies were
truly not their own but His. And in 1 Cor. 7:21-23 they would’ve
heard how Paul advised them not to be like other slaves, always
dreaming of somehow getting free, but to be content with their situation
in which they had been called, to live for the daily joy of being
Christ’s slave. They were no longer part of the ‘household’ of their
master. They belonged to house churches, which were part of the
patria of God (Eph. 3:15). They belonged to another household, a
household which they perceived by faith- the household of faith
(Gal. 6:10). No wonder Celsus complained that Christianity led its
followers into rebellion against the heads of households. Doubtless
he was exaggerating, but the idea of having another head of house,
another patria , was indeed obnoxious to a slave owning society.
This is why the language of slavery permeates so much of the New
Testament letters; for according to Christianity’s critics, it was
largely a slave, female religion to start with. And of course, the
unity between slave women and free women in the house churches was
amazing; it cut across all accepted social boundaries of separation.
The Martyrdom Of Perpetua And Felicitas tells the story
of how a Christian mistress (Perpetua) and a slave girl (Felicitas)
are thrown together into the nets to be devoured by wild animals,
standing together as they faced death (7). This was the kind of
unity which converted the world.
What does all this mean for us? Firstly, we need to perceive that
the apparent freedoms we have aren’t what they appear. We’re so
easily enslaved to sin in all its guises. This world is a world
in slavery to sin. That’s the telling paradox of Rom. 6- that in
baptism, we are changing masters. We’re not giving up freedom, but
rather escaping from slavery to sin. Secondly, our appeal needs
to be made to those who perceive their slavery to this world, to
those who cry out to be recognized as persons rather than treated
as slaves. And this applies to just about everyone- children abused
by a parent, the high profile corporate manager, the druggies, alcoholics,
the ignored handicapped, the forgotten-about elderly. They’re all
in need of the amazing affirmation of the human person which there
is in Christ; that one lost sheep is worth total effort by Him.
But they need telling about it, and to see it in us; for what passes
as Christianity has evidently failed to teach them anything about
Given the predominance of slaves, children and women in the early
churches, we are to imagine those house meetings with plenty of
women, nursing mothers, kids running everywhere. Eph. 6:1 and Col.
3:20 seem to suppose that children would be present at the church
gatherings and would listen attentively to what was said. The equal
footing upon which women were accepted into the church through baptism
would itself have been shocking and a huge advert for the value
of the human person which there was and is in true Christianity.
The way true Christianity gives meaning to the individual, makes
them see their value before God, is something we need to communicate
better. We need to positively preach a definite salvation in Christ,
specifically speaking of how great is the love and passion of God
for us as individuals; the wonder of the fact that we here on earth
can please Him, can touch His heart, there in Heaven. God is a master
who is so emotionally and profoundly pleased with our service, unlike
human masters who forget. Note in passing how Heb. 11:4 speaks of
God bearing witness, giving a verbal testimony, to Abel’s sacrifice,
and that through that witness Abel is as it were still speaking
to us, in that to this day God is still speaking / testifying to
that acceptable act of service performed by Abel. This is how delighted
our Heavenly Master is with our service; and this would’ve meant
so much to first century slaves. We won’t succeed in convicting
men and women of their value before God if we’re merely preaching
ideas, theology, interpretation... And if that was all the message
of the early Christians had amounted to, they wouldn’t have enjoyed
the phenomenal success which they did amongst women, young people
Female House Churches?
What is worthy of reflection is that the New Testament speaks of
households run by women: Mary (Acts 12:12), Lydia (Acts 16:14,40);
Nympha (Col. 4:15) and Chloe (1 Cor. 1:11). These women were presumably
wealthy widows or divorcees who hadn’t remarried. We are left to
speculate whether they were in some way the ‘leaders’ of the house
churches which met in their homes. Women are described as ruling
households in 1 Tim. 5:14; Tit. 2:4,5. The woman of Prov. 31 clearly
had autonomy within the private sphere of the household, even though
the husband was the public leader. Seeing Christianity was initially
a house-church, household religion, we are left to wonder how much
women actually led house churches, especially seeing that the majority
of early Christian members appear to have been women. The wall paintings
[frescoes] found in the Christian catacombs around Rome are highly
significant for our present study. The significant ones for our
purposes are the catacombs of Priscilla on the Salaria Nuova, Callixtus
on the via Appia Antica, and that of Domitilla on the via Ardeatine.
They feature in places scenes of female Christians raising cups,
with the inscription agape over them. Some show a woman occupying
the central place in the meal, with a large cup in her hand, with
the other women looking at it intently. Some of the frescoes [there
are many of them] show women dressed as slaves doing this in what
appears to be a wealthy home. These frescoes seem to me indicative
of how groups of slave women formed house churches, and faithfully
kept the breaking of bread. Some frescoes show the women sharing
the bread and wine with children around the table; one shows a woman
holding a scroll, as if she is reading Scripture to the others.
One frescoe features a woman holding a cup of wine inscribed ‘nobis’-
‘for us’ (8). Some frescoes show men in the group, but the woman
in the centre, as if she is leading the meeting, or as the host
of the household. Why were the brothers not leading the breaking
of bread meetings? I came across a possibly similar situation some
years ago in Northern Kazakhstan, shortly after the collapse of
atheism and the USSR there. A zealous group of elderly sisters baptized
over 300 people in a short space of time, establishing a whole set
of house churches, comprised almost exclusively of women. In time,
a few men became interested. They had known little of the Bible,
coming from a Soviet background. They were taught by the sisters,
baptized by them, and became members of the already-existing house
churches. But they on their own admission felt unable to lead the
meetings, as they were babes in Christ compared to those sisters.
I can imagine similar situations arising in the early church. The
dynamic success of those female house churches in Northern Kazakhstan
was similar to what happened in the first century; groups of sisters
coming together in home situations and bonding together in Christ,
slave and free, Jew and Gentile, rich and poor… it would’ve been
an amazing thing to behold. What went wrong in Kazakhstan was what
went wrong in the early church; things got institutionalized, power
politics entered the scene, the live, raw appeal of Christ to the
world got somehow muted and made respectable.
One wonders whether our enthusiasm for church halls is in fact
in line with New Testament practice. By having them, especially
in India or Africa, we may feel that we have ‘arrived’ as a religion,
but the essential belief and practice of God’s Truth is surely independent
of them. If someone will only join us if we have a building, then
they can hardly believe the Gospel and see their desperate need
for baptism into the Lord. Psychologists have suggested that we
need association on three different levels: the large group level,
where we have a sense of belonging to something transcending our
local state and area [which we have in the world-wide membership
of the body of Christ]; the ‘congregation’ level, where people know
most of the others and yet there are a few strangers [which Corinth,
e.g., had in their occasional larger gatherings]; and the ‘cell’
level, where there is mutual support, in-depth personal fellowship
and understanding. This would have been possible in the household
ecclesias. One wonders whether our larger ecclesias should not consider
a similar breakdown. We surely need to realize that our services
are not as it were a theatre, with actors on a stage and an audience
looking on. We are a body consisting of members who share out to
each other the essence of Christ; the body makes increase of itself,
building up itself in love. We are a family, not just an audience,
linked together by a real and far reaching involvement and responsibility
in each others’ lives. We show Christ to each other; and this is
so much easier in home meetings.
(1) Robert Banks, Paul’s Idea Of Community (Exeter: Paternoster,
1980) p. 41.
(2) See Carolyn Osiek and David Balch, Families In The New
Testament World: Households And House Churches (Louisville:
Westminster John Knox Press, 1997) pp. 16,17.
(3) Ample photographs of the catacomb art depicting these scenes
are to be found in J. Deckers, H. Seeliger, G. Mietke, Die Katacombe
‘Santi Marcellion e Pietro: Repertorio delle pitture (Vatican
City: Pontificio instituto di archeologia cristiana, 1987). This
is a huge 3 volume production with a large number of photographs
of catacomb art.
(4) Adolf von Harnack, The Mission And Expansion Of Christianity
In The First Three Centuries (New York: Harper, 1961 ed.) p.
368. This same conclusion is reached by Rodney Stark, The Rise
Of Christianity (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996).
(5) O.M. Bakke, When Children Became People (Minneapolis:
(6) Orlando Patterson, Slavery And Social Death (Cambridge:
Harvard University Press, 1982).
(7) ‘The Martyrdom Of Perpetua And Felicitas’, in H.Musurillo,
translator, Acts Of The Christian Martyrs (Oxford: Clarendon,
1972) pp. 106-131.
(8) Ample photographs of the catacomb art depicting these scenes
are to be found in J. Deckers, H. Seeliger, G. Mietke Die Katacombe
‘Santi Marcellion e Pietro: Repertorio delle pitture (Vatican
City: Pontificio instituto di archeologia cristiana, 1987). This
is a huge 3 volume production with a large number of photographs
of catacomb art. The photo plates relevant to what I’ve written
of here are numbers 30a-b; 31a-b; 19a-b; 20a-b; 33c; 58a-b.
APPENDIX: Leviticus 12:2-5
The research cited above indicates that the Law of Moses was far more positive about women than other contemporary law codes. And yet it's been observed that there are places in the Mosaic law where women appear to be treated negatively. My response is that the general tenor of Moses' law was not to do this; and so those passages which appear to run contrary to the general spirit of the Law need to be re-examined to see if they do really treat women in the misogynistic manner some suppose. Lev. 12:2-5 would be a classic example- if a woman bore a male child, she was to be unclean seven days and then spend 33 days in purification; whereas if she bore a female child, she was to be unclean 14 days and spend 66 days in purification.
Firstly, let's note that the offerings were the same for both male or female children, showing that a male child had no greater intrinsic need or value than a female child (Lev. 12:6-8).
It's been my observation that seminal family events [birth, death, marriage] in primitive societies often involve actions by males against females which are degrading and abusive. There's also been observed an anger against a woman if she bears her husband a female rather than male heir. It could be that the longer period of female uncleanness was to preserve her from some form of male abuse, specific details of which we may never know.
Further, it's clear that the Bible and God's dealing with humanity does take into account human misunderstandings, and in a sense runs with them in order to make a greater point- e.g. the New Testament speaks of demons as if they actually exist, whereas I would understand the supposed exorcism of demons which is recorded as being simply another way of speaking about curing mental illness. Keil and Delitszch in their commentary on Lev. 12:5 refer to "the notion, which was very common in antiquity, that the bleeding and watery discharge continued longer after the birth of a girl than after that of a boy (Hippocr. Opp. ed. Kühn. i. p. 393; Aristot. h. an. 6, 22; 7, 3, cf. Burdach, Physiologie iii. p. 34)". So the whole legislation may have simply been a case of going along with local medical misunderstandings, in the same way as the New Testament goes along with incorrect ideas about demons being the cause of mental illness.