A quick review of how women’s treatment in the early Christian church changed, as the fledgling church moved from ‘cult’ status to being part of the societal ‘status quo.’
The evolution of a cultural phenomenon can often be tracked by its response to independent thought, minorities, and women. The early Christian church is a good example of this. In its initial stages it sought acceptance by recruiting from the disaffected and those who had nothing to lose by repudiating the status quo.
However, as it moved through the different stages of growth within the culture, it became less of a resistance movement to some established situation, and more a part of the environment from which it sprang. Its final position was to be an integral part of the culture, and thus very interested in maintaining the same status quo it earlier sought to disrupt.
By examining the status of women within the church, we can see the assimilation of the church by the culture. This is shown by the culture’s norms being slowly and forcibly applied to the emerging establishment church, in spite of the fact that these very norms contradict (often violently) the earlier, actual teachings of the church’s founder.
Thus the letters of Paul, while somewhat contradictory on the subject of women, do allow for women priests, apostles, and traveling teachers. The Pastoral letters, on the other hand, are written by male members of the establishment church and reveal a very different view of the place of women both within everyday life and the church.
If one looks at the members of a sect, one sees those who do not fit into everyday life. Thus Jesus is accused (not congratulated) on being friends with tax collectors, Samaritans, and prostitutes. All of these people are considered non-people in one fashion or another by the Jewish culture. Some of these non-people are women. Note that Jesus believed all these people deserved a chance at being saved, and treated them all well, with a shocking disregard for the mores of the time. All he asked was for them to depart from the established cultural norms.
As these very norms were what condemned these people to positions of powerlessness and alienation within the culture, it was easy to reject them. Indeed, the disaffected, joined together in faith in Jesus’ preachings, found a new security and strength in their numbers. Because of their new-found freedom from the old norms, they were able to create new norms for themselves.
Thus women, a large percentage of the disaffected, became free from the cultural chains Judaism imposed upon them. They were not free from persecution for their beliefs, but they made that very persecution a bonding experience for all of them. Indeed, Jesus’ imminent and apocalyptic return would be the beginning of life everlasting for them all. This was part of the message of the new christ — all are welcome in the kingdom of heaven; all can be saved.
As Christianity became more established, and moved into the cultic phase of its growth, more women were attracted to its teachings. The church was beginning to have more and more “hero” teachers, women and men who could do miraculous things. This was in appearance a somewhat egalitarian situation — all one seemed to need was faith in Jesus Christ, rather than a particular set of sexual organs. However, the first seeds of cultural assimilation can be seen within the writings of the time.
Paul is an excellent example. On the one hand he declares all equal before Christ; on the other hand he sets down restrictive behavioral standards for women concerning their status both within the church, and with their husbands and other men. The church is still not an established part of the dominant cultures of the time — persecution is still a bond for the members of the budding cult, and Jesus’ apocalyptic return is still believed to be imminent.