The Maidservants Of The Lord

From “Disputed Questions:
On Being a Christian”
by Rosemary Radford Ruether, b.1936

Whether defined as inferior or simply as “different,“ theological and anthropological justifications of women’s exclusion from religious learning and leadership can he found in every period of Jewish and Christian thought. Sometimes this exclusion of women is regarded as a matter of divine law, as in Old Testament legislation. Christian theologians tend to regard it as a reflection of "natural law," or the “order of nature,” which, ultimately, is also a reflection of divine intent. In addition, women's exclusion is regarded as an expression of a woman's greater proneness to sin or corruption. Thus, as in the teaching of Timothy. women are seen as second in creation but first in sin (I Tim. 2:13-14).

The male bias of Jewish and Christian theology not only affects the teaching about woman's person, nature and role but also generates a symbolic universe based on the patriarchal hierarchy of male over female. The subordination of woman to man is replicated in the symbolic universe in the imagery of divine-human relations. God is imaged as a great patriarch over against the earth or creation imaged in female terms. Likewise, Christ is related to the church as a bridegroom to the bride. Divine-human relations in the macrocosm are also reflected in the microcosm of the human being. Mind over body, reason over the passions, are also seen as images of the hierarchy of the masculine over the feminine. Thus everywhere the Christian and Jew are surrounded by religious symbols that ratify male domination and female subordination as the normative way of understanding the world and God. This ratification of male domination runs through every aspect of the tradition, from Old to New Testament, Talmud, church fathers and canon law, Reformation enlightenment and modern theology. It is not marginal, but an integral part of what has been received as mainstream, normative traditions.

However, as one digs deeper one discovers that this exclusion of women from leadership and education is not the whole story. There is much ambiguity and plurality in the views toward women and the roles women have actually managed to play at different periods. Evidence is growing that women in first-century Judaism were not uniformly excluded from study. Some synagogues included them, particularly in the Hellenistic world. One thinks, for example, of Philo‘s strange description of the Therapeutae, an idealised account of a contemplative Jewish sect that spent its life in the study of Torah. This community consisted of a double monastery of men and women. Philo assumed that the female community spent its life equally in the contemplative study of the scriptures. Where were Philo’s precedents for such an assumption? In this light. the rabbinic dicta against women studying Torah become, not the statement of a consensus, but rather the assertion of one side of an argument against another practice and viewpoint among other jews. Similarly, the teachings of Timothy about women keeping silence now appear, not as the uniform practice of the New Testament church, but as a reaction against the widespread participation of women in leadership, teaching and ministry in first generation Christianity. This participation of women in the early church was not an irregular accident, but rather the expression of an alternative world-view. Women were seen equally as the image of God. The equality of women and men at the original creation was understood as restored through Christ. The gifts of the Spirit of the messianic advent were understood (in fulfilment of the prophet Joel) and poured out on the ”menservants" and “maidservants” of the Lord alike (Acts 2:17-21). Baptism overcomes the sinful divisions that divide men from women, jew from Greek, slave from free and makes us one in Christ (Gal.3:28). The inclusion of women in early Christianity expressed a theology in direct contradiction to the theology of patriarchal subordination of women. In this way, the New Testament must be read, not as a consensus about women’s place, but rather as a conflict of understandings of male-female relations in the church.

This alternative theology of equality, of women as equal in the image of God, as restored to equality in Christ and as commissioned to preach and minister by the Spirit, did not just disappear with the reassertion of patriarchal norms in 1 Timothy; it can be seen surfacing again and again in different periods of Christian history. The strong role played by women in ascetic and monastic life in late antiquity and the early Middle Ages reflects a definite appropriation by women of a theology of equality in Christ that was understood as particularly applicable to the monastic life. Celibacy was seen as abolishing sex-role differences and restoring men and women to their original equivalence in the image of God. When the male church deserted this theology, female monastics continued to cling to it and understood their own vocation out of it. The history of female monasticism in the late Middle Ages and the Counter-Reformation is one of the gradual success of the male church in suppressing this latent feminism of women's communities. Perhaps then it is not accidental that women in renewed female religious orders in Roman Catholicism today have become militant feminists, to the consternation of the male hierarchy.

In left-wing Puritanism of the English Civil War, the latent egalitarianism of Christian theology again surfaces to vindicate women’s right to personal inspiration, community power and public teaching. The reclericalisation of the Puritan congregation can be seen as a defeat for this renewed feminism of the Reformation. The Quakers were the one Civil War sect that retained the vision of women’s equality and carried it down into the beginnings of nineteenth-century feminism.

Finally. the nineteenth century becomes a veritable hotbed of new types of female participation in religion, ranging from the evangelical holiness preacher, Phoebe Palmer, to Mother Ann Lee, understood by her followers as the female messiah. New theologies that attempt to vindicate androgyny in humanity and God express a sense of the inadequacy of the masculine tradition of symbolism.

Feminists engaged in recovering alternative histories for women in religion recognise that they are not just supplementing the present male tradition. They are, implicitly, attempting to construct a new norm for the interpretation of the tradition. The male justification of women‘s subordination in scripture and tradition is no longer regarded as normative for the gospel. Rather, it is judged as a failure to apply the gospel norms of equality in creation and redemption authentically. This is judged a failure in much the same way that political corruption of the church, the persecution of Jews, heretics or witches and the acceptance of slavery have been so judged. Not that the “bad" history is to be suppressed or forgotten: it would also be an ideological history that tried to “save” the moral and doctrinal reputation of the church by forgetting what we no longer like. We need to remember this history but as examples of our fallibility, not as norms of truth.

The equality of women as one of the touchstones for understanding our faithfulness to the vision is now set forth as one of the norms for criticising the tradition and discovering its best expressions. This will create a radical reappraisal of Jewish and Christian traditions, since much that has been regarded as marginal, and even heretical, must now be seen as an effort to hold onto an authentic tradition of women's equality. Much of the tradition regarded as mainstream must be seen as deficient in this regard. We underestimate the radical intent of women’s studies in religion if we do not recognise that it aims at nothing less than a radical reconstruction of the normative tradition.

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