Over the past year and a half, I have been developing a series making the case that the Gospel of Jesus has done more than anything to raise the status of women, not only in "Christian" countries, but around the world.
I have often written on this subject in the past. In 2000, I began to make a case for how the Gospel helps women in Chapter Three of Jesus and the Religions of Man, a chapter about which NPR contributor Frederica Matthewes-Green said, "David Marshall takes cultural analysis several levels deeper, and in prose that is several levels higher, than we've come to expect. The result is not only enlightening but also a great deal of fun to read." In that chapter, I relied partly on a detailed United Nations survey of the status of women in 99 countries around the world, and partly on my own experience and observations as a missionary in East Asia. Seven years later, in The Truth about Jesus and the 'Lost Gospels,' I compared the kind, respectful, and liberating (but often challenging) treatment Jesus gives women in the gospels, to the sometimes rather psychodelic amorality of the Gnostic "Gospels," which Dan Brown and a forest of scholars (like the recently embarrassed Karen King) praise to High Heaven, for Lord knows what reason.
Our blog series has gone like this so far: (1) Response to some cryptic nonsense from John Loftus about how Christianity imprisons women, and my challenge to him to debate the issue. Loftus demurred in accepting that challenge, but his followers demanded that I prove my counter-proposal ("Jesus liberates women") anyway. Those challenges might be viewed as the efficient though not final cause of this series. (2) I then explained how the argument began, and how I proposed to make my case. (3) I described my encounter, as a young man, with the sex slave trade in Asia, and how the Gospel inspired me to respond. (4) I analyzed a sweeping international study by the United Nations, and what it showed about the correlation between Christian influence (and of other religions) and the status of women in 99 countries around the world, comprising some 97% of the world's population. (5) I argued that there is a body of historical evidence that helps explain that correlation as having been caused by the influence of Jesus Christ and the Gospel. (6) I analyzed every saying in the gospels baring on women, gender roles, and how men and women should treat one another, arguing that Jesus is the most plausible source of human progress in this area. (7) I then indulged myself by describing the ten dumbest responses to my arguments. (Hundreds of responses had been posted by this time, here, on Amazon, on Pharyngula, and I think on Loftus' site.)
And that's as far as we have gotten, so far. The latest of these was posted more than a year ago.
Two things that I still need to do are (a) answer the more serious challenges to my argument, and (b) take the rest of the New Testament into account, somehow.
Since Christianity is by definition focused on Christ, who is the interpretive focus of the Bible for Christians, I do insist that the gospels should be our primary source from which to decide how Christians should view women. Furthermore, since the overriding historical correlation that we have already seen ties biblical influence to an unusually HIGH status for women, rather than a low status, and since I have already given historical warrant for thinking that the Gospel is a plausible causal agent in that transformation, our main question in reading the Bible should be, "How can we explain the influence that actually dominates the historical record? What in the Bible might lead men and women who treasure the Bible to institute the reforms that actually did occur, and that have had such a huge impact in improving the lives of billions of women?"
In Jesus, we find someone who could, and apparently did, have a vast, liberating effect.
No matter what we find in the rest of the Bible, these are the primary facts, and they cannot be negated.
Nevertheless, every tradition is complicated. Certainly there have been numerous acts of misogeny (and most other forms of disgrace) in Christian history. Some of that misogeny or unjustice appears systematic. Some is callous, cruel, and has resulted in the deaths of women. In every natural river (if it is not a concrete culvert with smooth banks), there are counter-currents. It would be a continuing miracle if Christians never used the words of Scripture to oppress, and not a miracle the Bible itself leads us to expect.
But some of that injustice towards women claims warrant from the Bible.
The burning of witches is one example that skeptics frequently bring up. The Old Testament does, in fact, contain a verse that says, "You will not allow a witch to live." And in fact, three quarters of "witches" burnt to death during the Renaissance (not the "Dark Ages," that is a myth) were women.
So some of the strongest historical objections to my thesis are tied to textual objections. There are verses, elsewhere in the New Testament, that cause feminists and most modern men to wince. "What is that doing here?" "Are women really supposed to shut up in church, then meekly ask their men-folk after the service what it all means, as Paul seems to say, in I Corinthians?" "In light of these verses, can the biblical view of gender roles really be seen as both coherent and progressive?"
As I continue this series, I will, therefore, consider what the rest of the New Testament has to say about the status of women. (And also hopefully get to some of the better objections.)
My purpose now is not to prove that the Gospel of Jesus was revolutionary, or that historically, it brought about radical positive changes in relations between the sexes. I regard that as having been demonstrated beyond any reasonable doubt. Until better arguments are made against earlier posts, which are foundational to my argument, I regard those claims now as established facts.
Nor is my purpose to prove the inspiration or inerrancy of Scripture. If St. Paul really did say some dumb things, if he revealed himself at times to be a product of his times, that will not derail my argument. But such counter-currents may make the river of biblical influence more hazardous to navigate. One may still plausibly argue that it is better to take a modern road to the New Sexual Utopia (however those notions might be secretly influenced by bibilical teaching) instead of reading the Bible and trying to follow it directly.
We go on, first, to the Acts of the Apostles.
Women in Acts
Acts of the Apostles provides an endlessly fascinating photo album of the early Church, full of humorous snapshots, travel pictures from around the so-called Greco-Roman world (which is far more complex than that duality), numerous historically-verified observations about life around the big pond, and a rip-roaring missions story that Christians have always taken as normative. (The popular Perspectives on the World Christian Movement classes include two lectures on Acts, which I have sometimes had the privilege to give.)
Acts is usually not central to debates over the role of women in early Christianity. On the one hand, it doesn't show Jesus saving a woman about to be stoned for adultery, or telling Mary that she has "chosen the better part," like the gospels. On the other hand, none of the skeptics' favorite verses about keeping silent in church appear in this book, either. Luke does not focus on gender issues as much in his second work as in his first -- or perhaps the difference is that Jesus plays only a cameo role in Acts.
But there is a lot of interesting material about women, if you read carefully.
First, a few general observations that seem to reflect the society, rather than show how the Gospel might serve to change it:
(1) Acts reflects the patriarchal nature of the societies he describes by commonly using such terms as "brothers" and "fathers" to refer to a community at large, either Jewish society (7), or the young Christian church. However, it sometimes emerges that he is including women in these broad general terms, as we still do sometimes with the generic term "men" for "humanity." (1:13-14)
(2) Women are frequently involved in the story, both as heroines and as villainesses, though a bit less often than men. Sons and daughters will prophesy (2:17). Ananias and Sapphira sin in the same way, and are judged equally (5:1-10). After successful preaching, "The Jews" stir up "devout women" and "outstanding men" of Pisidian Antioch against Paul and Barnabas. Paul imprisoned men AND women, Luke points out twice in his own voice (8:3, 9:2) and once in Paul's voice (22:4).
(3) No one seems surprised to find Bernice presiding at the trial of Paul with her husband (25:30), or Lydia doing a thriving textile business (16).
Now let's look at several stories in more detail, which do suggest an emerging Christian stance towards women, which may be considered normative, because it is canonical.
(4) In Acts One, Jesus' surviving disciples are praying in the Upper Room in Jerusalem. Luke lists the male apostles, then adds "together with the women and Mary the mother of John, and with his brothers."
Clearly, Luke noticed gender. Leading male disciples had a special role in the early Church, and were recognized as figures of (very fallible) authority. Women also participate in meetings, and prominent women are also often mentioned by name.
(5) Acts Seven describes a conflict over the care of widows that divides not between genders, but ethnically. Hellenistic Jews complained that their widows were being disciminated against at meal time. So the apostles appointed seven men -- elders -- to take care of the Church's practical administration, leaving the Twelve to concentrate on spiritual matters.
Everyone in this story takes it for granted that the Church is responsible to care for needy widows, who would have been a large class in the ancient world, with older men marrying younger women, and a high mortality rate. In The Rise of Christianity, Rodney Stark spends a chapter describing the impact of such charitable works on the early Church. It may be that many widows became Christians precisely because of the kindness shown them, or which they hoped to receive. Economic support gave women the freedom to not marry again, or worse become prostitutes.
(6) In Acts Nine, a female disciple named Tabitha makes an appearance. She is described as "a woman full of good deeds and acts of charity." She dies, Peter raises her to life, and then presents her to "all the saints and widows."
(7) Three chapters later, Luke tells one of several humorous anecdotes in his book, which probably made the rounds of the early church for some time. Peter is rescued from prison by an angel in response to prayer. He makes his way to the home of Mary, where the Christians are gathered to pray for him, one presumes for his release. He knocks on the door, and a girl named Rhoda comes to answer. She's so excited to see him, that she runs into the prayer meeting and forgets to open the door.
"He's here! He's here!"
"Who's here, Rhody?"
"No, Rhody, sorry, but Pete is in jail. It must be someone else."
"I tell you Peter is knocking on the front door right now!"
"Are you nuts? He was just hauled off to the clinker, we witnessed it with our own eyes."
"No, really! I swear it's the truth!" (She "insisted up and down that it was so." One can almost see her jumping up and down, with tears in her eyes.)
"Maybe she saw the man's ghost?"
Then someone finally opens the door for poor Peter, standing out in the cold, and wondering if his brothers and sisters had held a coup d'etat while he was gone, and put someone else in charge.
Rhoda no doubt never lived that one down. But it is remarkable that the Church was so honest in relating its own failure to believe.
For our purposes, this story demonstrates two interesting facts. First, we have an echo of the Resurrection story itself, in which women were also the first to relate the rebirth of Jesus. Luke, or the Holy Spirit, does seem to be trying to tell people something.
Second, all this takes place at the home of "Mary, the mother of John-Mark." That's where the church was meeting. So women not only own property, one even seems to own the first church.
(7) In Acts 15, James offers his opinion that Jewish Christians should not trouble Gentiles with circumcision, but only ask them to abstain from eating food offered to idols, blood, strangled animals, and unchastity.
Two points, again. First, if the new community of God's people is not to be identified with a ritual limited to males, that seems to expand the franchise, making faith inherently more inclusive. (The alternative, of circumcising women along with the men, I think males and females can agree in retrospect would have been less optimal. This is not one of those customs people outside the culture take up for fun, like lacrosse or Monopoly.)
Second, as John 8 shows, women tended to suffer more from unchastity and its consequences than men. Emphasing chastity focused sexual desires on marriage, which prevents diseases, single motherhood, attendent poverty, and reprisals by an offended society. (That's just for the women, of course. Children usually benefit from having two parents, perhaps even more -- and half the children are girls. For men, in some cases it might have made things easier, too, in others, more difficult.)
(8) In Acts 16, Timothy is introduced as the son of a "believing Jewess," and a Greek father.
(9) Luke then tells two parallel stories, of a strong woman who helps the Church, and a very strange story of a weak woman who is helped by it.
This part of Acts is told in the first-person plural. (Often thought to refer to passages in which Luke writes about his own experiences traveling with Paul & Co.) "We" go down to the river in Philippi where "we" understand people habitually come to worship. We meet a businesswoman named Lydia, who is in the textile trade, a dealer in purple cloth. "She and her family" are baptised, and she invites our missions party to stay at her home.
Going to another prayer meeting (which emphasizes the parallel and contrast), the party meets a slave girl (16;16), who is being exploited for her psychic or demonic "gifts" of fortune-telling. Paul becomes annoyed at her ceaseless prattling, and tells the demons to come out of the girl. The demons leave, and the girl's masters (she apparently endures more than one human as well as demonic parasite) become enraged at their financial loss. Paul and Silas are flogged and imprisoned. While they are singing in prison, an earthquake occurs. Impressed by how they react to the earthquake (and perhaps by the rest of the week's events), the jailor converts, and helps his Christian jail birds take care of their injuries. On the way out of town, Paul's party visits "brothers" at Lydia's home (16:40), and encourage them.
So here again, we have a house church owned by a woman. Furthermore, just as the jailor's family converts to Christianity with him, so does Lydia's family convert with her. So apparently spiritual leadership can indeed come from women in a family as well as in the Church.
The liberation of the slave girl reminds me of my own work in combatting the sex slave trade in Asia. The parallel seems remarkably close: one girl owned and exploited by multiple adults for a spiritually-damaging faculty by which they make money, and who are moved to anger and violence when Christ liberates her and disrupts their cash flow.
(10) A Jewish couple named Aquila and Priscilla work with Paul in Chapter 18. Together, they instruct the young convert Apollos ("explained the way of God more accurately to him"). So it seems that whatever practices were adopted later, in the early Church, sometimes women did instruct men spiritually. And well, too: Apollos became an important figure in the early Church.
(11) Finally, as if to show that Lydia and Priscilla were no flukes, in Acts 21 we meet Philip the Evangelist, one of the Seven chosen earlier in Acts, who "had four virgin daughters who prophecied." (9) In the context -- Luke then relates a public prophecy about Paul's own coming demise, which he accepts -- there seems no reason to assume they only prophecied when the men were out of the house.
Conclusions: Acts of the Apostles shows the early Christian church, inspired and guided by the Holy Spirit, further developing the legacy of liberation that Jesus began. Women are not discouraged from owning property, teaching, hosting church meetings, or even speaking the Word of the Lord. The Church aids women in need, financially, physically, and spiritually. Nowhere in Acts are women berated or consigned to some inferior class, though the named leaders of the church are male. The fact that those who first encountered Jesus after his resurrection were female turns out to be neither an anomaly nor incidental to the story: it happens again with Peter and Rhoda. Paul and Silas risk their ministry, and also their necks, by liberating a slave girl from exploitation.
All in all the Book of Acts proves a worthy chapter in the chronicle of liberation that the Gospel has brought to women around the world. And it shows that the changes Jesus wrought, as recorded in the gospels, had begun to gather steam.