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What early Christians knew that modern Christians don’t: Women make great leaders

Marginalizing women ignores rich church history going back to the life of Jesus.

(Alex Wong/Getty Images)
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The Southern Baptist Convention is having a reckoning with the #MeToo movement this week. More than 2,000 Southern Baptist women signed an open letter Sunday condemning comments made by Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary President Paige Patterson, in which he described a young man’s lewd comments toward a teenage girl as “biblical,” and said the proper response to abuse within marriage “depends on the level of abuse to some degree.”

The letter comes just after Southern Baptist speaker and author Beth Moore wrote a viral blog post about misogyny she’s experienced during her years in the ministry. “I’ve been in team meetings where I was either ignored or made fun of, the latter of which I was expected to understand was all in good fun,” Moore writes, calling herself “the elephant in the room with a skirt on.”

Patterson’s domineering attitude does not stem from his Christian roots, but rather from a lack of rootedness: Christianity’s past is replete with heroic women, as well as with calls to protect the vulnerable, the oppressed and the unjustly treated. The dismissal of Moore, the teaching that a woman’s physical abuse is not actionable, and the sidelining of women that happens in some churches should not be credited to Christianity, but rather to a meager and shallow understanding of the faith’s rich history.

In American evangelicalism, traditionalism uncoupled from a robust understanding of church history has been bad for women. For all the conservatism of their beliefs, Southern Baptists (along with most within American evangelicalism) have done a poor job conserving or appreciating their ecclesiastical past, and have not always passed on the rich tradition of female leadership and protection of the abused that has existed throughout church history. Few evangelical leaders seem willing to plumb the depths of pre-Reformation church history — and thus, they can cut themselves and their fellow Christians off from some truly incredible examples of feminine faith and leadership in Christianity’s past.

To some degree, this hesitancy stems from a dangerous assumption within the evangelical church that we cannot or should not glean wisdom from high church history. Anyone with a “saint” in front of their name is suspect, as they are presumed to belong in some way to Catholic or Orthodox believers, and not to Protestants. The oft-mystic faith of those within the early church, as well as their kinship to high church traditions or modes of thought, makes them unsuitable exemplars for our modern sensibilities.

What’s more, the Reformation’s emphasis on “sola scriptura,” while a boon in many ways, has encouraged a skepticism of church tradition and precedent that can be detrimental as we seek to learn from church history. This isn’t to discount the many examples of female heroism within the Bible. Deborah was an Israelite judge who led her people into battle. Esther stood up to a king and saved her people from genocide. The Virgin Mary was chosen to birth and raise the Son of God. Mary, Martha, Susanna and Mary Magdalene were just a few women who followed Jesus, helped fund his ministry and preached the Gospel. Priscilla, Lydia, Phoebe and Dorcas served as important leaders in the early church. I wish more churches focused on these (and many other) biblical heroines.

But women’s role in the early church did not stop with Acts and the epistles. Women continued to play a huge role in spreading the Gospel, serving the church and writing important theological works. According to Bishop Cyprian of Carthage, the early church was dominated by women, many of whom studied Hebrew and Greek Bible texts and served as deaconesses. Lydia, Chloe and Priscilla are just a few of the women Paul mentions throughout his letters who were house church leaders. In Romans 16, he refers to Junia — a “kinsman and fellow prisoner” — as being “of note among the apostles.” Scholars are unsure whether he meant that Junia was an apostle, or just that she was highly revered by the apostles, but her ministry to the church was obviously esteemed by many. Saint Fabiola (who, according to biographical documents, divorced a horribly abusive husband) was an early Christian who started a hospital in Rome and dedicated her life to the care of the sick and needy. Although women’s teaching roles in the early church are uncertain and open to much contentious debate, it is obvious and irrefutable that — in funding, housing and serving the church — their involvement was massive, and highly respected.

Although most American Christians are aware of the life and work of St. Augustine, fewer of us know of or have studied the life of his mother, Monica of Hippo — even though St. Augustine credits her for his salvation and ministry. Monica was renowned as a peacemaker and minister to teachers and pastors in the early church, and 19th century biographer Émile Bougaud suggested that she possessed “the most beautiful love that perhaps ever existed.” Monica dedicated her life to prayers for the salvation of her family, especially her disreputable and licentious son, Augustine. Peter Brown writes that Augustine’s “Confessions, written after he became a Christian, is “dominated by one figure — his mother, Monica.”

Hildegard von Bingen was a 12th-century saint and polymath who wrote treatises on medicine and natural history, composed musical works and poetry, experienced visions, and wrote her own language. In 2012, Pope Benedict XVI declared her to be both a saint and doctor of the church — one of only four women to receive that title.

Teresa of Avila was a mystic and church reformer who wrote theological works on prayer and contemplation and founded several monasteries. She defied her parents in joining the church — as did Catherine of Siena, a 14th-century saint who helped broker peace for the pope, and worked as a church ambassador to princes and cardinals throughout Europe.

Many of these early church saints, which Catholic and Orthodox churches continue to revere, are neither known nor appreciated in America’s Protestant churches. Whether because of our suspicions of mysticism and sainthood, or because of our allegiance to “Scripture alone,” we’ve edited their legacy and influence out of our church histories. We may talk occasionally about Thomas Aquinas or Francis of Assisi, but rarely do evangelical Christians discuss St. Therese of Lisieux, Julian of Norwich or Catherine of Alexandria — despite the fact that these women wrote books of theology, inspired church leaders, preached the Gospel and even gave their lives for their faith.

In disassociating ourselves with this broader church history, we’ve cut ourselves off from timeless wisdom, inspiration and truth. But our ignorance is also a disservice to women like Beth Moore, seeking to serve the modern church. We’ve cut them off from examples throughout church history who might inspire them (and inspire respect in the men around them). It’s hard to imagine Moore being treated with this sort of derision by church leaders who had a deeper understanding of the pivotal role women like her have played in churches throughout Christianity’s history.

It’s also hard to imagine Patterson making the comments he did about abuse and harassment if he had in view the early church’s ministry, which prioritized care for the most vulnerable. The early church focused its ministry on widows and orphans (James called this ministry “pure and undefiled religion”), cared for victims of the plague when no one else would, and took in infants abandoned by their families, a common Roman custom at the time. Many of those infants were unwanted baby girls.

As the #MeToo movement spreads awareness regarding abuse and inappropriate behavior, the church will not be immune to criticism. But church leaders who are seeking to address the errors and injustices of the past should also ponder how best to prevent such wrongs in the future. Imparting the riches of our Christian legacy could help American evangelicals inspire greater respect for the women who are serving in their congregations, and help those women understand that they are not just loved — they are, and always will be, needed.