Women and the Apostolic Community
by Madeleine I. Boucher
from Women Priests, Arlene Swidler & Leonard Swidler (eds.), Paulist Press 1977, pp. 152-155.
Republished on our website with the necessary permissions
Madeleine I. Boucher received the M.A. in English Literature from the Catholic University of America and the Ph. D. in Biblical Studies from Brown University. She was at the time Assistant Professor of New Testament in the Department of Theology at Fordham University, and a member of the Executive Board of the Catholic Biblical Association of America. She is the author of The Mysterious Parable: A Literary Study.
The Declaration introduces the section on the apostolic age, the first generation of Christians, with this sentence: “The apostolic community remained faithful to the attitude of Jesus towards women.” The statement makes two points. It refers back to the Declaration’s earlier argument that Jesus, who broke through cultural boundaries by his positive attitude toward women, nevertheless showed by choosing only men for membership in the Twelve that he “willed” to exclude women from ordination. It also implies that the apostles consciously intended to follow in their teaching and practice what they understood to be the mind of Jesus regarding the place of women in the Church. Neither of these assertions can be derived from the New Testament. Both stages of the argument read far more into the biblical passages than can be learned from them by careful historical – critical analysis. We have here an example of eisegesis, not exegesis—of reading into, not out of the text.
The line of argument of the Declaration requires that a proper response begin by stating what might seem obvious, that Jesus was a first-century Palestinian Jew who was by and large bound by both the religious and the social limitations of that historical situation. He attended the synagogue, regarded the Temple as the center of Jewish worship, understood the Scriptures as expressing God’s will, adopted as his own the eschatological perspective current at the time, that is, the view that the end of history was near and that a new era, the reign of God, would soon be inaugurated. He also lived for the most part within the accepted social norms of his culture.
Jesus dared to shatter these limitations in one respect: he sharply criticized the repressive legalism of the Jewish authorities, especially the scribes and the Pharisees and Sadducees. The Gospels tell us that their system could not break out of a sterile ritual to serve the sick (Mk 2:1-12; 3:1-6), the sinners (Mk 2:15-17), the hungry (Mk 2:23-28), even one’s father and mother (Mk 7:9-13). Because of this, according to Mark, Jesus leveled at them the accusation, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God, in order to keep your tradition!” (Mk 7:9). His teaching placed Jesus in line with the great Israelite prophets, who spoke out against a mere external fulfillment of ceremonial commandments that was not based on justice and mercy (Am 5:21-27; Hos 6:6; Isa 1:11-17; 58; Jer 7:21-26). Jesus’ message concerning the requirements of the law was to stress the ethical over against the cultic-ritual. He taught above all the unsurpassed importance of the double commandment to love God and neighbor (Mk 12:28-34).
It is in this context that Jesus’ attitude toward women is to be interpreted. He disregarded whatever conventions might have interfered with his ministering to any class of people. He worked miracles for women (Mk 1:29-31; 7:24-30) and accepted them as friends and disciples (see Mk 15:40-41, which says that women followed Jesus in Galilee and on the way to Jerusalem). Jesus preached and worked among the poor, the outcast, the weak. He violated rabbinic regulations in this as in other matters (the Sabbath, ritual cleanliness, food laws). It is essential to understand that Jesus was not carrying out a program to bring about social equality by these deeds. Jesus’ role was as the agent of eschatological redemption; his mission was to bring to the simple people of the land—to all classes, bar none—God’s final forgiveness and salvation.
Jesus remained within the boundaries of the social mores of his time. It is for this reason that he chose only men for the Twelve, the future rulers of Israel in the new age. Jesus acted according to the social norm he knew, that positions of authority were reserved to men. To say that he “willed” thereby to exclude women from an ordained ministry in the Church that was to develop after his death and resurrection is to attribute more to Jesus than the evidence of the Gospels allows.
The early Church, apostolic and post-apostolic, can be described in much the same way, as we know from the epistles and the Acts of the Apostles. There are no texts which address the specific subject of women’s ordination (a question which no doubt did not arise in the earliest Church), but there are passages which shed some light on women’s status in general in the New Testament period. Women enjoyed full membership in the Church. They taught and took part in the spread of Christianity (Phil 4:2; Rom 16:34; Acts 18:24-26). They could prophesy at worship (1Cor 11:5). One woman, a co-worker of Paul, was called a deacon (Rom 16:1-2). Still, positions of authority in the churches seem to have been held exclusively by men in both the Jewish and Hellenistic environments.
New Testament texts that speak explicitly on the role of women give.us a qualified picture. Paul stated that “in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female” (Gal 3:28), teaching that in the “new creation” national, social, and sexual barriers were transcended. He enjoined woman’s subordination in 1 Corinthians, but then toned down its absoluteness with the addition: “Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man nor man of woman; for as woman was made from man, so man is now born of woman. And all things are from God” (1 Cor 11:11-12). Similarly the author of 1 Peter, after telling wives to be subject to their husbands, concluded by referring to the two as “joint heirs of the grace of life” (1 Pet 3:7). What this means is that the early Christians held a concept of equality coram Deo, before God.
The early Church did not, however, feel any compulsion to implement this religious equality in social structures. In marriage, wives were to be subject to their husbands (Col 3:18; 1 Pet 3:1-6; Tit 2:4-5; Eph 5:22-24). In the congregation, women must wear veils when praying or prophesying (1Cor11:3-6) and must remain silent (1 Cor 14:33-35, probably an addition by a later hand, 1 Tim 2:11-15), because they were subordinate. It is clear that these Christian writers (perhaps like their Jewish predecessors) maintained a dichotomy between the religious and social domains, and had no difficulty in holding together the recognition of equality before God and the practice of inequality in society.
The first Christians, like Jesus, hardly envisioned a program to change the established social structure. For Paul and the other apostles slavery was a legitimate institution. The subordination of woman was taken for granted as part of the created order. Even had their cultural background not been a limitation, the apostles would scarcely have thought in terms of social reform because of their belief that the end of the world was fast approaching. “The appointed time has grown very short,” Paul reminded the Corinthians (1 Cor 7 29) In view of this he told these converts, Jews and Gentiles, slaves and freedmen, to remain in their present state of life: “Every one should remain in the state in which he was called” (1 Cor 7:20). It is evident from this passage that Paul did not preach social revolution. It is also evident that he saw a dichotomy between one’s social state and life in Christ, for he said that the slave is “a freedman of the Lord” and the freedman “a slave of Christ” (1 Cor 7:22).
Paul did, however, call for one change of great consequence: this was the admission of Gentiles into the Church without the imposition of the Mosaic law (especially circumcision and dietary prescriptions). Just as Jesus’ concern was to cut through legalism to the will of God, so Paul’s desire was to win membership for Gentiles, law-free, in the Church. This is probably the real thrust of Gal 3:28, and of the other passages where Paul employs the pairs Jew/Greek and slave/free (1Cor 12:13; Col 3:11): persons of all stations in life can be brought together in the Church. The statement is a baptismal ecclesial one, and Paul is speaking not so much of equality as of unity in the Church: “we were all baptized into one body” (1 Cor 12:13; cf. Gal 3:28). Yet the revolutionary character of Paul’s position can hardly be overestimated. He challenged centuries of tradition based on the Scriptures, and indeed the position of the first church in Jerusalem and the Twelve, in declaring the Mosaic law null and void.
The epistolary literature does not provide any theoretical discussion of either slavery or the role of women. Such references as there are to either are brief and directed to specific and limited situations. At 1 Cor 11:2-16, for example, in telling the women to wear veils Paul is simply instructing them to act with decorum and in conformity with social conventions so that the new converts will not appear conspicuous and eccentric in the eyes of thc world. If the apostles did not call for the abolition of slavery or woman’s subordination, neither did they set down social principles to be permanently normative. There is here no blueprint for society in an on-going history.
It is important to inquire into the rationale which the New Testament writers give for their views on women. Nowhere in any epistle does the author give as the ground for the subordination of women the will of Jesus. This is all the more striking since Paul cites a command of the Lord in connection with several other issues, one of which is divorce (1 Cor 7:10, 25; 9:14; 11:23, 25; 14:37). Had his teaching on women come from Jesus, he wou1d undoubtedly have said so. There is no evidence that the apostolic community knew of any tradition about the “will” of Jesus in this regard
When exhorting women to behave in a submissive manner, the New Testament writers sometimes appealed simply to what was fitting (Col 3:18) or customary in the churches (1Cor 11:16) or “natural” (lCor 11:14). The only text where Paul attempted to give his statement on women’s subjection a theological grounding is 1Cor 11:8-9, and there it is not the teaching of Jesus to which he appealed; it is the notion that woman is subordinate in the order of creation, an idea which he derived (correctly or incorrectly) from the second creation account (Gen 2:4-3:24). (The same argument appears in I Tim 2:13-14; cf. I Cor 14:34.) Any attempt to put forward the New Testament texts on women’s subjection as normative will therefore have to deal with that notion. The question cannot be evaded: Can the idea that woman is subordinate in the created order still be entertained as serious and valid’ In light of the empirical evidence of women’s equality in so many areas of achievement, it is extremely doubtful that we can continue to take that view as “revelation”; the evidence fairly compels us to attribute it to the cultural limitations of the biblical writers.
New questions are asked by each generation from its own perspective. History, despite the apostles’ expectation of the imminent end, goes on. Social issues have arisen which they did not foresee. We, unlike the ancients simply cannot regard as compatible a belief in equality before God on the one hand and the practice of inequality in Church and society on the other. The Bible does not fail to give us pointers toward solutions to these problems. What we can know about the intention of Jesus and Paul is that both taught the centrality of love of God and neighbor and freedom from convention tradition, law. It is this ethos that turns out to be sound and enduring in Christianity. The ultimate question is whether the Church’s practice of keeping women in a second-class status can any longer be reconciled with such basic ethical guidelines as the principle of love and liberation from the constraints of tradition.
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