A Brief History of Women and Patriarchy in the Christian Church

The book of Genesis reveals that the human race—both male and female—was originally created on absolute equal par with one another (egalitarian). We understand this from the command given to the first couple to dominate the earth, together. 

The Christian Church—which is intrinsically a living organism as opposed to an organization with no inherent life of its own (man-made) also began as entirely egalitarian. In the New Testament, we read of Priscilla, a teacher of the Apostle himself, and of Phoebe, a Deacon, and of Junia, an apostle. 

First century writings confirm early church ordination of deaconesses (Charles Foster Kent, Ph.D., Litt.D., in The Work and Teachings of the Apostles, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, Chicago, Boston, 1916). But misogyny wasted no time in rearing its ugly head in extinguishing female autonomy and leadership.

C.S. Cowles, author of,  A Woman's Place? Leadership in the Church, 1993, wrote: “The emancipation and elevation of women that began in the ministry of Jesus and flowered in the earliest Church was, unfortunately, soon compromised and then finally lost. The rapidly growing and expanding Church, flooded by recent converts from Judaism and paganism, began to revert to the prevailing cultural estimate of women's inferiority until, by the middle of the second century A.D. Tertullian, the influential Church father and theologian, spelled out this rule as one of the precepts of ecclesiastical discipline concerning women: ‘It is not permitted for woman to speak in the church, nor is it permitted for her to teach, nor to baptize, nor to offer [the Eucharist], nor claim for herself a share in any masculine function…’”

History is littered with examples of Christian leaders acting with the utmost urgency in maintaining the status quo of male supremacy, such as the "Pastoral Letter of the General Association of Massachusetts, in 1837," forbidding churches to open their doors to the Grimke sisters who were traveling and publicly speaking out against the sin of slavery. 

It was scandalous, at that time, for women to venture outside of the "parlor" and into public realms, heretofore reserved for males only. For pastors to allow the Grimke sisters to use their pulpits in advocating for the good cause of freedom for slaves was beyond the Pale, so a letter to pastors--the Pastoral Letter--was quickly issued threatening to put out of the Church any pastors who allowed Sarah and Angelina Grimke to use their church facilities to address the public. This effectively put an end to the most widely available platform of the day in educating the public on any issue. Never mind that millions of slaves continued to suffer and die as a result. Keeping woman in her place was considered the most urgent matter.

19th Century feminist, Angelina Grimke was a Christian who was married to abolitionist leader, Theodore Weld--who also happened to be both a Christian minister and a feminist. Weld was outspoken, in both the spoken and the written word, on the evils of the male dominated society they lived in. Angelina was the first American woman to publicly address a legislative body. Her topic was the abolition of slavery. Her fellow abolitionist, and sister, Sarah Grimke was also a Christian feminist and the first American woman to write, and have published (in 1837), a fully developed theological treatise on the equality of the sexes.

In the 20th Century, medical doctor, missionary, Hebrew and Greek scholar, and Christian feminist, Katherine Bushnell, began her work entitled, God's Word to Women (1908). Bushnell's amazing work confronted the misogyny that, throughout history, had permeated the Jewish and Christian faiths. In her work, Bushnell contends that the Hebrew and Greek scriptures do not consign women to subordinate positions in the home, church, or society. She also contends that later edited manuscripts (that underlie modern translations) do so, and are faulty. She aptly points out where and why she believes this to be true. 

Bushnell points out that the failure to educate women and include them on Bible translation teams has resulted in mistranslation and misunderstanding of the Holy Scriptures in areas regarding women. 

In 1920, Helen Barrett Montgomery, was elected the first woman president of an American denomination, the Northern Baptist Convention. She dedicated her life to the work of the gospel and to advocating for women. Her work, The Centenary Translation of the New Testament (1924),  was the first New Testament translation by a woman scholar.

Later in the 20th Century, as women began to gain more autonomy in the home and work places due to Civil Rights, misogyny within Christian leadership again reared its ugly head in the issuance of  the Danvers Statement (1987)--which essentially created a new theology of mwn and women which layed out strict rules for male and female "roles" within the home and church. 

The framers of the Danvers Statement quickly organized and within one year the "Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood" (CBMW also referred to in this article as "The Council") was formed. 

They called their new doctrine "complementarian."

With fantastic financial backing, The Council was able to flood the evangelical world with their male supremacist "complementarian" message. En-mass, most already male dominated Christian denominations embraced CBMW's irresistible message of female subordination to male authority.

Christians for Biblical Equality was the first organization to form in direct opposition to the anti-woman measures contained in the Danvers Statement. It launched in 1988 with author and women's advocate, Catherine Clark Kroeger, serving as its first president.
The Baptist denomination was hit hard, with the Southern Baptist Faith and Message 2000 officially putting women under the authority of husbands (and men in general) and out of leadership positions many had previously held.  
The American Baptist, "Baptist Women in Ministry," had already been advocating for women preachers since 1976, and the 1987 issuance of the Danvers Statement, followed by the Baptist Faith and Message 2000, was a serious set back for Baptist women

As time went on, Christian women and men began experiencing (or noticing) the oppression of women caused by the complementarian shackles of CBMW. After her husband pointed out to her that, "The Baptist aren't treating women right," lifelong Baptist, Shirley Taylor, took a good look around at what was happening and realized he was right. She launched "Baptist Women for Equality" in 2009. 

She has since authored several books, including, Dethroning Male Headship, which provides rich insight into the history, the far reaching tentacles, and shocking inter-connections of "The Council." Taylor continues to be a strong Advocate for women, calling herself a Street Evangelist for Women

In 2010, at the Seneca Falls 2 Christian Women's Rights Conference, Organized by Jocelyn Andersen and held in Orlando, FL, a network was formed called the "Freedom for Christian Women Coalition" (FreeCWC). From the conference, FreeCWC issued a demand for apology to CBMW for the anti-woman teaching contained in the Danver's Statement. The Apology Demand was drafted, signed by conference attendees--including males--and sent by FedEx to CBMW leaders at their offices on the campus of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.

Voices in support of female autonomy and ordination to leadership positions within Christian churches continue to rise--male voices as well as female--in every denomination.


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