How Some of the Early Church Fathers' Views on Women Affect Us Today

Introduction

In the Protestant circles I’ve been a part of for the last two decades (Evangelical Presbyterian, Presbyterian Church of America, non-denominational evangelical, Anglican Church of North America, Evangelical Free Church of America, and presently, an independent Bible Church), whenever the early church fathers are mentioned, it’s always laudatory and in reference to their great contributions to Christian theology, doctrine, apologetics, and practice. Indeed, their contributions were and continue to be significant, and we do owe them a debt of gratitude for the many vital ways they preserved and enriched the holy catholic and apostolic church (per the Nicene Creed). I’ve personally benefited from reading both their works and their biographies.

As remarkable as they and their contributions were, though, they were still fallen human beings. Like we are today, they were vulnerable to the worldly influences of their day and prone to certain blind spots as they approached God’s Word—particularly texts that involved women, such as Genesis 1-3; 1 Corinthians 7, 11, and 14; Galatians 3; Ephesians 5; and 1 Timothy 2. To be clear, I hold to the belief that all Scripture in the canon is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness (2 Timothy 3:16), and that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by human will, but men and women moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God (2 Peter 1:20). Whenever I’m considering the culturohistorical context of the biblical authors, my intent is never to explain away passages I don’t like or find uncomfortable; it is to understand as accurately as possible what they were saying when they wrote them so that I can understand what God is saying to us today. In this piece, it’s not Scripture itself I’m challenging but the potentially erroneous interpretative traditions of men who were not receiving the same level of divine revelation when they penned their own writings.

This is a limited essay, meant more to raise questions and spark discussion than to provide answers, but I’m going to present excerpts from the writings of some of the early church fathers that most lay people have never encountered, even though they’re contained in the very works from which pastors and teachers frequently quote. The ideas in many of these excerpts are downright revolting to our modern sensibilities, even to the most conservative among us (you don’t have to be a feminist to find them offensive), so I need to emphasize that the collection I present here is not a comprehensive representation of the early church fathers’ views of women. Yes, some of these men consistently wrote about women in the Bible and women in general in horribly demeaning ways, but others seemed capable of nuance and occasionally expressed an appreciation for women. It would be very misleading, then, to say without qualification on the basis of these excerpts alone that the early church fathers as a whole were misogynists committed to oppressing women.

What we need to do is attempt to understand the social and philosophical contexts the early church fathers were part of and the way deeply entrenched, taken-for-granted worldly assumptions that existed in those contexts formed their beliefs about and sensibilities toward women—beliefs and sensibilities they unwittingly imported into their reading of certain biblical texts. My goal is for readers to consider the possibility that we inherited from some of the most influential church fathers a mix of sound biblical theology and traditions/interpretations steeped in assumptions about the inferiority of women. Such assumptions were explicitly articulated in classical medical theory by ancient Greek physicians and in the writings of Greek philosophers—all of which shaped the dominant thinking in the centuries leading up to and following the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. While most Christians today would reject the misogynistic ideas that are articulated in these bodies of work, a lot of us probably haven’t considered the way they continue to haunt our approach to biblical passages that involve gender.

The Philosophical Milieu of the Greco-Roman World

Before we get into the writings of the early church fathers, let’s start with a super basic primer on the various forces that shaped the cultural and philosophical landscape of the Greco-Roman world.

We’ll begin with Alexander the Great, King of Macedon, because this map of his empire is a great visual aid. Through a decade of tireless conquest, he created one of the largest empires in the history of the world. It stretched from Greece and Egypt on the west to northwest India on the east. Although he died young at the age of thirty-two in 323 BC, following his death, Greek culture came to dominate the Mediterranean world, much of West and Central Asia, and parts of the Indian subcontinent. It influenced all aspects of life – architecture, literature, theater, art, music, mathematics, science, medicine, and philosophy. This period of influence is known as the Hellenistic period, which lasted until the rise of the Roman Empire in 31 BC. This period saw the rise of the philosophies of StoicismEpicureanism, and Pyrrhonism. Aristotelian thought continued to exert a powerful influence throughout this time because although Aristotle[1] had lived from 384-322 BC and predated the Hellenistic period, he had been a prolific writer who had synthesized knowledge in an unprecedented manner across many different disciplines, including physics, biology, ethics, logic, aesthetics, poetry, rhetoric, linguistics, political theory, economics, metaphysics/philosophy of mind, and more. 

Hippocrates, a Classical Greek physician who lived from 460-370 BC and is often referred to as the “Father of Medicine, greatly influenced Aristotle. Practitioners of medicine in the Hippocratic tradition wrote numerous works that were compiled between the 6th and 4th centuries BC into what is known as the Hippocratic Corpus. The impact of these works cannot be overstated. Relevant to our discussion here are the theories on the nature of male and female bodies. They’re summarized as follows:

“Greek biological and medical texts constructed a particular conception of male and female bodies. According to Ancient Greek biologists and physicians, the differentiation begins at embryogenesis and continues during foetal development. In a medical thought dominated by physiology, male and female bodies were assumed to be in obvious opposition, according to certain suggestive criteria : in particular the female body was seen as wetter and cooler than the male body and moreover marked by an anatomical peculiarity: the uterus was thought of as a living being. The difference between male and female bodies, whether described as radical (difference in nature) or relative (greater or lesser degree of perfection), is always presented in these texts by reference to the male body, compared with which the female body is thought of in terms of incompleteness or inversion. Such difference also carries connotations of hierarchy.”[2]

“From the time of the Hippocratic collection, it was believed that the uterus consisted of two chambers; the right side was a hot cavity and the left side a cool cavity. Women were thought to have two testicles like men, but they remained internal and less perfect. Male embryos came from the right chamber, as it was thought to retain more heat, and females came from the left as it was heat deficient… It was also thought that the male embryo came from the right testicle of a man, as the blood was purified by the kidneys, therefore was thicker and hotter than the blood produced by the left testicle. However, if the male sperm was not thick enough, female sperm might win. Doctors advised men to bind their left testicle so that only the right produced sperm… It was believed the female foetus was weaker and more fluid than the male… This is because the female foetus was formed in the cooler part of the uterus and created by the weaker seed. The theories that have been discussed so far certainly view females as the weaker sex, even from before the time of conception. Females were viewed as imperfect, even as defective; males were simply stronger, cooler, and not ‘spongy.’”[3]

Aristotle, like many of his contemporaries, believed unapologetically in human hierarchy. He believed some individuals and ethnic groups were born to be slaves, and others were born to rule. And based on the medical theories put forth by Hippocrates and Hippocratic physicians, it’s no surprise that both he and his teacher, Plato, another pivotal figure in Western philosophy, believed that women were by nature inferior to men. What’s striking is the enduring legacy of Aristotelian thought. We can trace its influence from Plato to the Neoplatonists; from early Islamic philosophy to Maimonides; from Albertus Magnus (author of a paraphrase of the Aristotelian corpus and the first to apply Aristotle’s philosophy to Christian thought) to his pupil Thomas Aquinas, to prominent European Enlightenment philosophers Christian WolffImmanuel KantGeorg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, and even Karl Marx.

I’m including a bunch of quotes from Plato and Aristotle, and I’ve linked to the full documents so you can read them if you’re interested, but feel free to skim this section if after reading just a few, you get the point:

“Do you know of anything that is practiced by human beings in which the class of men doesn’t excel that of women in all these respects? Or shall we draw it out at length by speaking of weaving and the care of baked and boiled dishes—just those activities on which the reputation of the female sex is based and where its defeat is most ridiculous of all?… Therefore, my friend, there is no practice of a city’s governors which belongs to woman because she’s woman, or to man because he’s man; but the natures are scattered alike among both animals; and woman participates according to nature in all practices, and man in all, but in all of them woman is weaker than man.” (Plato, Republic, 455c,d)

“As human nature was of two kinds, the superior race would here after be called man… He who lived well during his appointed time was to return and dwell in his native star, and there he would have a blessed and congenial existence. But if he failed in attaining to this, at the second birth he would pass into a woman…” (Plato, Timaeus)

“The family is the association established by nature for the supply of men’s everyday wants, and the members of it are called by Charondas ‘companions of the cupboard,’ and by Epimenides the Cretan, ‘companions of the manger.’” (Aristotle, Politics, I, ii)[4]

“For that some should rule and others be ruled is a thing not only necessary, but expedient; from the hour of their birth, some are marked out for subjection, others for rule.” (Aristotle, Politics, I, v)

“Again, the male is by nature superior, and the female inferior; and the one rules, and the other is ruled; this principle, of necessity, extends to all mankind.” (Aristotle, Politics, I, v)

“Of household management we have seen that there are three parts—one is the rule of a master over slaves… another of a father, and the third of a husband. A husband and father… rules over wife and children, both free, but the rule differs, the rule over his children being a royal, over his wife a constitutional rule. For although there may be exceptions to the order of nature, the male is by nature fitter for command than the female, just as the elder and full-grown is superior to the younger and more immature. But in most constitutional states the citizens rule and are ruled by turns, for the idea of a constitutional state implies that the natures of the citizens are equal, and do not differ at all. Nevertheless, when one rules and the other is ruled, we endeavor to create a difference of outward forms and names and titles of respect… The relation of the male to the female is of this kind, but there the inequality is permanent. The rule of a father over his children is royal, for he rules by virtue both of love and of the respect due to age, exercising a kind of royal power.” (Aristotle, Politics, I, xii)

“…the freeman rules over the slave after another manner from that in which the male rules over the female, or the man over the child; although the parts of the soul are present in an of them, they are present in different degrees. For the slave has no deliberative faculty at all; the woman has, but it is without authority, and the child has, but it is immature… the temperance of a man and of a woman, or the courage and justice of a man and of a woman, are not, as Socrates maintained, the same; the courage of a man is shown in commanding, of a woman in obeying… All classes must be deemed to have their special attributes; as the poet says of women, “Silence is a woman’s glory,” but this is not equally the glory of man.” (Aristotle, Politics, I, xiii)

“For a man would be thought a coward if he had no more courage than a courageous woman, and a woman would be thought loquacious if she imposed no more restraint on her conversation than the good man; and indeed their part in the household is different, for the duty of the one is to acquire, and of the other is to preserve.” (Aristotle, Politics, III, iv)

“For barbarians, being more servile in character than Hellenes, and Asiadics than Europeans, do not rebel against a despotic government… the people are by nature slaves.” (Aristotle, Politics, III, xiv)

“For the actions of a ruler cannot really be honorable unless he is as much superior to other men as a husband is to a wife, or a father to his children, or a master to his slaves.” (Aristotle, Politics, VII, iii)

“Those who live in a cold climate and in Europe are full of spirit, but wanting in intelligence and skill; and therefore, they retain comparative freedom, but have no political organization, and are incapable of ruling over others. Whereas the natives of Asia are intelligent and inventive, but they are wanting in spirit, and therefore they are always in a state of subjection and slavery. But the Hellenic race, which is situated between them, is likewise intermediate in character, being high-spirited and also intelligent. Hence it continues free, and is the best-governed of any nation, and, if it could be formed into one state, would be able to rule the world.” (Aristotle, Politics, III, vii)

“Neither should men study war with a view to the enslavement of those who do not deserve to be enslaved; but first of all they should provide against their own enslavement, and in the second place obtain empire for the good of the governed, and not for the sake of exercising a general despotism, and in the third place they should seek to be masters only over those who deserve to be slaves.” (Aristotle, Politics, VII, xiv)

“Again, one quality or action is nobler than another if it is that of a naturally finer being: thus a man’s will be nobler than a woman’s.” (Aristotle, RhetoricPart 9)

“Now of course, the female, qua female, is passive, and the male, qua male, is active—it is that whence the principle of movement comes.” (Aristotle, Generation of Animals, I, xxi)

“it will surely be for the sake of generation that ‘the male’ and ‘the female’ are present in the individuals which are male and female. And as the approximate motive cause, to which belong the logos and the Form, is better and more divine in its nature than the Matter, it is better also that the superior one should be separate from the inferior one. That is why wherever possible and so far as possible the male is separate from the female, since it is something better and more divine in that it is the principle of movement for generated things, while the female serves as their matter.” (Aristotle, Generation of Animals, II, i)

“Just as it sometimes happens that deformed offspring are produced by deformed parents, and sometimes not, so the offspring produced by a female are sometimes female, sometimes not, but male. The reason is that the female is as it were a deformed male; and the menstrual discharge is semen, though in an impure condition; i.e., it lacks one constituent, and one only, the principle of Soul.” (Aristotle, Generation of Animals, II, iii)

“The fact is, the nature of man is the most rounded off and complete, and consequently in man the qualities or capacities above referred to are found in their perfection. Hence woman is more compassionate than man, more easily moved to tears, at the same time is more jealous, more querulous, more apt to scold and to strike. She is, furthermore, more prone to despondency and less hopeful than the man, more void of shame or self-respect, more false of speech, more deceptive, and of more retentive memory. She is also more wakeful, more shrinking, more difficult to rouse to action, and requires a smaller quantity of nutriment.” (Aristotle, History of Animals, IX, i)

 

The Early Church Fathers

Now that we’ve covered the philosophical milieu of the ancient Greco-Roman world and can appreciate how ideas became firmly established and were subsequently transmitted, we’re ready to move on to the church fathers. In this section, I’ll provide a brief introduction to several early church fathers, mostly of the Latin tradition, and then present excerpts from their writings that reflected their thoughts and beliefs on women.

Tertullian (155-240 AD) was from Carthage in the Roman Province of Africa. Although he has been called the father of Latin Christianity, he was the son of a centurion in the proconsular service and was a pagan until his 40s, indulging his passions as he saw fit. He became a Christian after witnessing the courageous martyrdoms of ordinary Christians in Roman games. Soon after, he became a priest in the church of Carthage. At some point, he became disillusioned with the church for what he believed to be compromise and aligned himself with the more ascetic Montanist sect. Nevertheless, he is known for defending the church against heresy (namely Christian Gnosticism), paganism, and persecution. He is also credited with being the first to use the term “Trinity” (Latin: trinitas) when discussing the nature of God.. 

Here is an excerpt from Book I of Tertullian’s “On the Apparel of Women”:

“And do you not know that you are (each) an Eve? The sentence of God on this sex of yours lives in this age: the guilt must of necessity live too. You are the devil’s gateway: you are the unsealer of that (forbidden) tree: you are the first deserter of the divine law: you are she who persuaded him whom the devil was not valiant enough to attack. You destroyed so easily God’s image, man. On account of your desert—that is, death—even the Son of God had to die. And do you think about adorning yourself over and above your tunics of skins?”

John Chrysostom (349-407 AD) was the Archbishop of Constantinople from 397-403. He was one of the most prolific writers of the early Christian church, second only to Augustine. He’s the chief representative of the exegetical principles of the School of Antioch, which used the grammatico-historical method of interpretation, in contrast to the allegorical and mystical interpretive methods of Origen and the Alexandrian school.

From Homily 26 on First Corinthians:

“This is again a second superiority, nay, rather also a third, and a fourth, the first being, that Christ is the head of us, and we of the woman; a second, that we are the glory of God, but the woman of us; a third, that we are not of the woman, but she of us; a fourth, that we are not for her, but she for us.” 

From Homily 9 on First Timothy:

“Neither was the man created for the woman, but the woman for the man.” (1 Corinthians 11:9) Why then does he say this? He wishes the man to have the preeminence in every way; both for the reason given above, he means, let him have precedence, and on account of what occurred afterwards. For the woman taught the man once, and made him guilty of disobedience, and wrought our ruin. Therefore because she made a bad use of her power over the man, or rather her equality with him, God made her subject to her husband. “Your desire shall be to your husband?” (Genesis 3:16) This had not been said to her before.”

It’s interesting that Chrysostom argued here that female subordination and the restriction on women teaching men was a direct result of Eve’s sin. He referred to the curse in Genesis 3, which he understood as the wife being made subject to her husband, but then extrapolated it to women being made subject to men in general. His statement, “This had not been said to her before,” indicated his understanding that it was a consequence of the fall. In other words, he wasn’t making an argument that this hierarchical arrangement was based on the created order. He spelled it out explicitly by reasoning that women were now subordinate to men because Eve had used her equality with Adam poorly.

“But how was Adam not deceived? If he was not deceived, he did not then transgress? Attend carefully. The woman said, ‘The serpent beguiled me.’ But the man did not say, ‘The woman deceived me,’ but, ‘she gave me of the tree, and I did eat.’ Now it is not the same thing to be deceived by a fellow-creature, one of the same kind, as by an inferior and subordinate animal. This is truly to be deceived. Compared therefore with the woman, he is spoken of as not deceived. For she was beguiled by an inferior and subject, he by an equal. Again, it is not said of the man, that he saw the tree was good for food, but of the woman, and that she did eat, and gave it to her husband: so that he transgressed, not captivated by appetite, but merely from the persuasion of his wife. The woman taught once, and ruined all. On this account therefore he says, ‘let her not teach.’ But what is it to other women, that she suffered this? It certainly concerns them; for the sex is weak and fickle, and he is speaking of the sex collectively. For he says not ‘Eve,’ but ‘the woman,’ which is the common name of the whole sex, not her proper name. Was then the whole sex included in the transgression for her fault? As he said of Adam, “After the similitude of Adam’s transgression, who is the figure of Him that was to come.” (Romans 5:14); so here the female sex transgressed, and not the male. Shall not women then be saved? Yes, by means of children.”

This paragraph above, which immediately follows the previous one in the original homily, contains conflicting elements. Chrysostom used equality of the sexes only as a theoretical construct, insofar as it supported Adam’s superior qualities; otherwise women were not actually equal to men. Note the ideas: a) Eve was deceived by the serpent, an inferior animal, b) Adam was… deceived? no, beguiled? no, persuaded by? his wife, an equal, c) the female sex is weak and fickle and therefore inferior to the male sex. And he seemed not to have an issue with reading it literally that women will be saved through having children. If you look up and read the rest of the homily, in the section that followed this, he began to address the natural question that arises – what about widows whose husbands die before they can have children, or those who never marry? – but he stopped short of providing an adequate response.

Ambrose, Bishop of Milan from 374-397 AD, is remembered for baptizing Augustine, fighting successfully against Arianism (a heresy that denied the deity of Jesus Christ), standing up to several emperors, and teaching on a vast number of subjects, including the Old Testament, congregational singing, Jesus’s incarnation, the Holy Spirit, and Christian ethics.

In his treatise, “On Paradise,” he wrote:

“In fact, even though the man was created outside Paradise (i.e., in an inferior place), he is found to be superior, while woman, though created in a better place (i.e., inside Paradise) is found inferior.”[5]

Augustine of Hippo (354-430 AD) is regarded as one of the most important church fathers of the Latin Church because of how his theological, anthropological, philosophical, and sociological writings influenced the development of Western Christianity. Even those who have never read any of his works have most likely heard the following quote from Confessions: “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.” I heard it just three months ago in an introductory Sunday-school lesson on Ecclesiastes.

In “Literal Commentary on Genesis,” Augustine wrote: 

“If it were not the case that the woman was created to be man’s helper specifically for the production of children, then why would she have been created as a ‘helper’ (Gen. 2:18)? Was it so that she might work the land with him? No because there did not yet exist any such labor for which he needed a helper, and even if such work had been required, a male would have made a better assistant. One can also posit that the reason for her creation as helper had to do with the companionship she could provide for the man, if perhaps he got bored with his solitude. Yet for company and conversation, how much more agreeable it is for two male friends to dwell together than for a man and a woman! . . . I cannot think of any reason for woman’s being made as man’s helper, if we dismiss the reason of procreation.”[6]

And also, this paragraph on Adam’s inherent inability to be deceived and woman’s small intelligence:

“How could he [Adam] have believed what the serpent said? For the serpent said that God prohibited them from eating the fruit of that tree because he knew that if they did so, they would become as gods by their knowing good and evil (Gen. 3:5)—as if God begrudged his creatures so great a blessing! That a man endowed with a spiritual mind could have believed this is astonishing. And just because it is impossible to believe it, woman was given to man, woman who was of small intelligence and who perhaps still lives more in accordance with the promptings of the inferior flesh than by the superior reason.”

In his commentary, “On the Trinity,” Augustine asserted that women alone were not the image of God but could become the image of God if they married a man: 

“when I was treating of the nature of the human mind, that the woman together with her own husband is the image of God, so that the whole substance may be one image; but when she is referred separately to her quality of help-meet, which regards the woman herself alone, then she is not the image of God; but as regards the man alone, he is the image of God as fully and completely as when the woman too is joined with him in one.”

A bit further in the same paragraph, he reasoned,

“when as a whole [the human mind] contemplates the truth it is the image of God; and in the case when anything is divided from it, and diverted in order to the cognition of temporal things; nevertheless on that side on which it beholds and consults truth, here also it is the image of God, but on that side whereby it is directed to the cognition of the lower things, it is not the image of God.” 

Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274 AD) is considered one of the greatest Christian thinkers and philosophers in history. In his masterpiece, Summa Theologica, he accomplished the classical systematization of Latin theology. Bible teachers quote from it often and with great respect. In the same lesson on Ecclesiastes, the Sunday-school teacher who quoted Augustine (above) also quoted from Summa Theologica, “It is impossible for any created good to constitute man’s happiness…This is to be found, not in any creature, but in God alone.” (Summa Theologica II, Q. 2, Art. 7)  Summa remains required reading for many seminary students in the Catholic Church, the Orthodox Church, and most Protestant denominations. For this reason, it remains highly influential.

The following are excerpts from his writings:

“As regards the individual nature, woman is defective and misbegotten, for the active force in the male seed tends to the production of a perfect likeness in the masculine sex; while the production of woman comes from defect in the active force or from some material indisposition, or even from some external influence; such as that of a south wind, which is moist, as the Philosopher observes (De Gener. Animal. iv, 2). On the other hand, as regards human nature in general, woman is not misbegotten, but is included in nature’s intention as directed to the work of generation. Now the general intention of nature depends on God, Who is the universal Author of nature. Therefore, in producing nature, God formed not only the male but also the female.” Summa Theologica, Q. 92, Art. 1, Ad. 1

The Philosopher mentioned in the excerpt immediately above is Aristotle! Aquinas was referencing what Aristotle wrote in Generation of Animals. The objection he was answering here also referenced Generation of Animals: “Objection 1. It would seem that the woman should not have been made in the first production of things. For the Philosopher says (De Gener. ii, 3), that ‘the female is a misbegotten male.’ But nothing misbegotten or defective should have been in the first production of things. Therefore woman should not have been made at that first production.”

“Subjection is twofold. One is servile, by virtue of which a superior makes use of a subject for his own benefit; and this kind of subjection began after sin. There is another kind of subjection which is called economic or civil, whereby the superior makes use of his subjects for their own benefit and good; and this kind of subjection existed even before sin. For good order would have been wanting in the human family if some were not governed by others wiser than themselves. So by such a kind of subjection woman is naturally subject to man, because in man the discretion of reason predominates.” Summa Theologica, Q. 92, Art. 1, Ad. 2

Aquinas’s reasoning here varies from Chrysostom’s. He argued that subjection was not a result of sin but because “in man the discretion of reason predominates.” This was a subjective argument based on his own assessment that men were ruled by reason while women were not. This still was not an argument that subjection, or hierarchy, was based on God’s created order. If anything, he simply concluded that, based on his own observation and estimation, God had designed men better.

“the father and mother are loved as principles of our natural origin. Now the father is principle in a more excellent way than the mother, because he is the active principle, while the mother is a passive and material principle. Consequently, strictly speaking, the father is to be loved more.” Summa Theologica, Q. 26, Art. 10

Here again is an idea that was explicitly presented in Aristotle’s Generation of Animals that I quoted in my previous section, The Philosophical Milieu of the Greco-Roman World.

“Therefore, if there were no other natural influence at work tending toward the conception of female offspring, such conception would be wholly outside the design of nature, as is the case with what we call ‘monstrous’ births.” De Veritate Q. 5, Art. IX, Diff. 9





Where Do We Go From Here?

It’s helpful to see clearly that things like human hierarchy, slavery, and gender inequality based on beliefs about female inferiority were not problematic constructs for either ancient Greek philosophers or the majority of people in the Greco-Roman world. To them, it was simply the way things were. Slavery was thought of as the natural condition of certain ethnic groups. And women were second-class citizens conceived as biologically defective males. In light of the dominant thinking of the ancient world, we can appreciate how radically counter-cultural the apostle Paul’s declaration in Galatians 3:23-29 was—that in Christ and under his rule, the established ethnic, gender, and economic human hierarchies of the time— not God-given differences, as some misunderstand this passage to mean—no longer defined human identities or the way his people are to relate to one another.

23 Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. 24 Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. 25 But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, 26 for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. 27 As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. (NRSV)

I’m willing to bet that even the most enthusiastic fans of Augustine and Aquinas would never put any of their woman-denigrating quotes up on a slide during a Sunday school lesson. But we might, say, construct denominational and congregational position papers on the roles of men and women in the church without having adequately assessed all of the interpretive influences we’ve inherited. It’s problematic if we arrive at certain positions based on biblical interpretations that bear the fingerprints of a worldly culture saturated by assumptions about the inferiority of women. One of the things causing a great deal of cognitive dissonance in parts of the church today is the juxtaposition of the belief that men and women are equal in value and dignity and equally made in the image of God, with the belief that women must be subordinate to men in the church because that subordination is anchored “in the created order.” Not only has our tour through ancient Greek philosophy demonstrated that ideas about “the created order” have a long history of problematic and unbiblical associations, but this particular position is actually less logically consistent than the one that the early church fathers held.

The early church fathers believed that female subordination/subjection was anchored in female inferiority (as evidenced by their use of words like “defective,” “unreasoning,” “fickle,” and “of small intelligence” to describe women) and/or the belief that the guilt of the first woman, Eve, as the cause of all sin, rests on all women (and subordination is a post-fall punishment for it). It’s arguable that the traditional complementarian view attempts to adhere to the traditions set forth by the early church fathers in terms of female subordination while divorcing subordination from the presuppositions it was originally based on (because they reject those presuppositions).

If we approach the Scriptures without the presupposition of female inferiority but with the presupposition given to us in Galatians 3:28, we’ll exegete Genesis 1-3; 1 Corinthians 7, 11, and 14; Galatians 3; Ephesians 5; and 1 Timothy 2 quite differently. The whole context of the Bible, particularly the Gospels and the full corpus of Paul’s letters, will carry more proportionate weight than they do when we import assumptions about female inferiority or automatically apply hand-me-down interpretations that do. We’ll ask questions of the texts we wouldn’t otherwise ask and wonder about things we wouldn’t otherwise wonder about. Seasoned exegetes understand that the answers we arrive at are only as good as the questions we ask. This is the case whether we’re applying the literal-grammatical-historical hermeneutic or an allegorizing hermeneutic or the historical-critical hermeneutic. It’s beyond the scope of this essay to demonstrate this claim, but many scholarly works have already done this. I’ll refer my readers to a few of my favorites:

  1. Sarah Sumner, Ph.D. Men and Women in the Church. Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2003
  2. Cynthia Long Westfall. Paul and Gender: Reclaiming the Apostle’s Vision for Men and Women in Christ. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2016.
  3. Michelle Lee-Barnewall. Neither Complementarian nor Egalitarian: A Kingdom Corrective to the Evangelical Gender Debate. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2016.

If readers think it would be beneficial for me to provide a summary in my little corner of the internet, though, I’ll work to get something up here. 


Notes and References

[1] When Alexander the Great was 13 years old, his father, King Philip II of Macedon, hired Aristotle to tutor him. This arrangement ended when Alexander was 16.

[2] Bonnard, Jean-Baptiste. “Male and Female Bodies According to Ancient Greek Physicians.” Clio: Women, Gender, History, 37, 2013. https://journals.openedition.org/cliowgh/339, accessed on February 11, 2020.

[3] Barker, K.H., 2014, The perception of women in late antiquity and the impact it had on female asceticism, Unpublished thesis, University of Wales Trinity Saint David. https://repository.uwtsd.ac.uk/348/1/Katherine%20Barker.pdf , accessed February 12, 2020, as cited in Wood, Hannelie. “Feminists and their perspectives on the church fathers’ beliefs regarding women: an inquiry.” Verbum et Ecclesia (Online), Vol. 38, No. 1. Pretoria, 2017. http://www.scielo.org.za/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S2074-77052017000100005

[4] Aristotle quoted Epimenides here. The apostle Paul did as well in Acts 17:28 (when addressing a crowd of people in Athens that included Stoics and Epicureans – go back and read from verse 16), 1 Corinthians 15:33 (letter to believers in Corinth, the provincial capital of Greece during Roman rule), and Titus 1:12 (letter to Titus, who was ministering in Crete, the birth place of Epimenides), demonstrating that people of the time were well versed in these philosophies.  

[5] Ambrose, On Paradise, p. 301, quoted by Sarah Sumner, Ph.D., Men and Women in the Church. (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2003), p. 43 from Elizabeth A. Clark, Women in the Early Church, ed. Thomas Halton, Message of the Fathers of the Church I3 (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1983), p.30.

[6] Augustine, “Literal Commentary on Genesis,” quoted by Sarah Sumner, Ph.D., Men and Women in the Church. (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press), 2003, p. 43 from Women in the Early Church, pp.28-29.



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2 replies

  1. Thank you for sharing your thorough research. It is extremely important for people to understand where their views come from. I’ve shared this post on my wall and linked to it in my continually-updated open letter.

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