Mar 18, 2014

Early Church and Women – Now that’s Missional

by Mary-Elsie Wolfe

As a movement, we have been talking increasingly over the last decade or so about being more missional—being more incarnational in our communities—becoming a more redeeming presence.

Historical and archeological research confirms that quest was met by the early church. We see that evidenced in the lives of women. Christianity in its pioneering stage attracted women because it offered what no other religion or society could. Anyone could follow Jesus, regardless of status, position or the sign of the covenant in circumcision. The numerous cults dating to Rome and Greece allowed for very limited—if any—roles for women. Likewise, Judaism restricted the role of women. Christianity did not. In Christianity, women were fully able to come alongside in faith as equal partners and were given opportunities no other venue offered.

In the first and second century, infanticide and abortion were commonly practiced in all regions. Women had little choice in the decision because “Roman law accorded the male head of family the literal power of life and death over his house-hold, including the right to order a female in the household to abort.” Methods of abortion were risky for the woman. Sometimes, poison was used in the uterus or orally but doses were determined by guess work that could kill both mother and child. The archaic methods of removing a child from the uterus involved techniques of force in a time before antibiotics, potentially causing early death. Among the women who survived this ordeal, some became infertile. Those who were not rendered infertile through abortions might also have been sterilised through antiquated forms of contraception or medicine. This was the world in which early Christians lived—but not so for early followers of Jesus

Rodney Stark cites emperor Valentenian’s written order to Pope Damasus I “requiring Christian missionaries to cease calling at the homes of pagan women.” Why? Because women out numbered men as early followers of Jesus.

Christians at the onset valued life. Valuing all life was imbedded in Christian culture from Jewish teaching. Not only that, but Christian women were more fertile having not been exposed to the same obstructions to their reproductive systems. Women found freedoms in the Christian community that they weren’t afforded elsewhere. In many Greco-Roman regions, women were forced into marriage at the age of twelve. Pagans were three times more likely to marry before the age of 13 according to Stark and impregnating young girls was not uncommon.

In contrast, nearly half of Christian women had not married by the age of 18. Not only were Christian widows allowed to remain single but their status was both respected and sanctioned. Conversely, some laws outside the faith fined women who were not married within two years of being widowed. Of course, the right of property would be lost in the marital commitment—a reason why historians conclude that many women of means were drawn to the early church.

Women were crucial to the early church. Men and women met together for worship in the homes of many of these women. Affluent women had homes large enough to fit growing churches. Lydia, Priscilla, Phoebe, Apphia and Nympha are mentioned as women of stature in the church. Phoebe was a leader who helped Paul and served as a deacon in the church. A deacon was understood to have “assisted at liturgical functions and administer the benevolent and charities of the church.” As Stark explains, it was perfectly natural for Paul that a woman hold that position; thus he commended Pheobe as a deaconess to the Romans.

Living Jesus in our community brings hope that might otherwise be obstructed by social norms. That’s why we want to be missional.

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