History Lovers and Early Church History by Sarah Goebel
June 25, 2012 4 Comments
From my posts recently, you can probably tell what I have been up to. I am back in school, hoping to get my Master’s in Theological Studies. Therefore, the books I am reading are books required for this goal. Some of my favorite reading has been in my church history class. If you have a love of history, you would probably love reading books on church history just as I do.
Justo Gonzalez, Ph.D. in historical theology, explains in his book The Story of Christianity why women were eventually forbidden to serve in leadership capacities: “… during the second century, in its efforts to combat heresy, the church centralized its authority, and a by-product of that process was that women were excluded from positions of leadership.” Yet, in the second century, Governor Pliny informed Emperor Trajan of the Roman Empire that he had ordered two Christian female ministers – ministrae – be tortured.“ Historical records such as these show that there were still some women serving in leadership roles even in the second century, if not beyond.
I am sure only a few women were prepared to exercise their leadership gifts in the first century church. After all, as Jewish women, they had not been allowed in the Synagogue as were the men, so most women needed to sit and learn before stepping into such positions. With the centralization of the church’s authority, and the influence from the popular false female gods that new converts were bringing into the church, it is easy to see how the few who were ready for leadership may have been excluded whether intentionally or not. However, could it be that there were also some prejudices, cultural tradition, and philosophical influence that influenced the church in this direction? From reading with Gonzalez, I am inclined to think so.
Consider how difficult it was for the Hebrew Christians to let go of their Jewish traditions such as circumcision. Would it not make sense that it was also difficult for them to move beyond their prejudices and traditions where women were concerned?
Consider how Greek philosophy had permeated the culture in which Christianity was born. Defenders of the faith often used philosophical traditions for interpreting the faith to outsiders, yet eventually, the philosophical views began to influence the way Christians understood their own faith. For example,
Justin Martyr, Clement, and Tertullian were all students of Greek Philosophers such as Plato. Plato was a student of Socrates. I recently read that
Socrates claimed that women were halfway between a man and an animal. Aristotle was a pupil of Plato and said, “The most virtuous woman is crass in comparison to the basest male.” Tertullian commented about women saying they “are the gateway to the devil.” Don’t get me wrong. I am grateful for the work Tertullian did that helped form the church as we know it. This should not overshadow his enormous importance in the development of the major Christian doctrines of the Trinity and Christology (which guide us today) and his contributions to understanding the less authoritatively defined doctrines of human nature (the soul), sin, salvation, sacraments and eschatology. His godly impact on the formation of the early church was great, yet, could it be that this attitude toward women is an example of the attitude of the times that helped form the direction of the church in regards to women in leadership positions?
The new Kingdom paradigm where all believers are one in Christ regardless of race, social class or gender was a revolutionary idea for the early church– “There is no Jew or Gentile, bond or free, male or female for we are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). But, since it is evident that women worked with Paul and the other apostles serving in these capacities, I think it would behoove us to consider the historical and cultural settings of those Scriptures pertaining to this issue. I believe there’s a reason those few verses don’t seem to fit. I believe historical records are vital to a full understanding and correct interpretation of many areas of Scripture. Most who have considered this have concluded that some things written and done in the early church were intended to be solutions for specific situations and not for the universal church for all time. Some of these groups include the Assemblies of God Churches, the Foursquare Churches, Regent University, Christians for Biblical Equality, and many, many more. Yet, many more in the church have refused to take the time to dig deeper into this topic, but instead continue to follow the traditions of men.