Home > early Christianity > Religion’s Egalitarianism Impulse

Most cultures have been patriarchal, and the world’s religions have for the most part sanctified patriarchy, legitimating it in their teaching and practice. I illustrate with Christianity, the religion I know best.

In most Christian cultures, women:
* Have been taught to be subordinate to their husbands.
* Have been blamed for the presence of sin in the world.
* As late as the 19th century,  could not inherit or own property, or initiate divorce.
* Until very recently, could not be ordained as clergy.
* Were sometimes persecuted with the blessing of the church (estimates of the number of women executed as “witches” vary widely, though clearly it happened a lot).

The exceptions: In the formative periods of some of the world’s religions, especially those that began with a founding figure, the status of women was more egalitarian. I have been told that the status of women in very early Buddhist communities was higher than in later Buddhist cultures. So also, some Muslim scholars affirm that Prophet Muhammad assigned to women a more egalitarian role than what developed later in many traditional Muslim cultures.

Such seems to be the case in early Christianity as well, for Jesus and Paul. Though there was a reaction to this in some documents of the New Testament itself, early Christianity for the first few centuries offered a status and opportunity to women quite different from surrounding cultures.

Why did this change? In a sentence: because of the “drag” of culture, of civilization. As these new religious movements grew and involved more and more of the population, traditional cultural conventions crept back into the religions.

Recent developments are to be commended, even as we need to recognize that they were long overdue. It was only about forty years ago that many mainline Christian denominations began to ordain women. But we now have a woman Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church. The full and equal status of women is not only one of the fruits of modernity, but consistent with the originative impulse of Christianity.

Originally posted on the Washington Post website.