Gender Ontology and Women in Ministry in the Early Church -- By: Carrie L. Bates

Journal: Priscilla Papers
Volume: PP 25:2 (Spring 2011)
Article: Gender Ontology and Women in Ministry in the Early Church
Author: Carrie L. Bates


Gender Ontology and Women in Ministry in the Early Church

Carrie L. Bates

Carriel L. Bates lives and works in northern New York and is currently a master’s candidate at the State University of New York at Potsdam.

Two gender ontologies

One’s ontology of gender underlies both hermeneutic precedence and exegetical considerations. Is human nature divided into two kinds, male and female, or is it a single nature, shared by males and females? The answers to this question drive hierarchist and egalitarian hermeneutics and exegesis.

Deborah F. Sawyer, in her history of women and religion in the first Christian centuries, believes that Christianity prescribes distinct gender roles founded on essentialist notions of gender: Men and women are constituted differently and thus function differently. She sees these notions, along with similar ones in Judaism, developing from dialogue with classical Greek philosophical ideas, in particular, with Aristotle’s notion of essential gender identity.1 Sawyer notes that Aristotle did not remain unchallenged even in his own day. The persistence of the Amazon myth, the historical examples of Spartan women, and the popularity of the writer Sappho demonstrate pluralistic Hellenistic attitudes toward women.2 This pluralism militates against arguing from universal experience to universal precepts, because, even within ancient Greek culture, there was no universal construction of gender roles.3

Gender teachings of the post-apostolic writers

Sawyer sees early Christianity—the Jesus movement—as a Jewish renewal movement with apocalyptic overtones that radically challenged conventional notions of society in general, including family relationships and gender roles.4 Historian Karen Jo Torjesen concurs, noting that the earliest stages of Christianity lacked the buildings, officials, and large congregations that marked its later stages. It is best understood as a social movement, informal, often countercultural, and adaptable. It was “marked by a fluidity and flexibility that allowed women, slaves, and artisans to assume leadership roles.”5 However, as Christianity developed, it moved away from Jesus’ egalitarian vision and adopted the prevailing Aristotelian notions of gender.

A third historian, Elaine Pagels, tracks the development of Christian notions of gender, sin, and freedom. Unlike Sawyer and Torjesen, Pagels does not find a monolithic adherence to Aristotelian notions of gender in post-apostol...

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