On women in (and out) of the church

David Bentley Hart surveys what Christianity did for relations between the sexes.



David Bentley Hart surveys what Christianity did for relations between the sexes.


The early church and women? It was definitely an improvement over the prior realities of Late Antique culture. You have to make a distinction between East and West here in imperial culture. The East was … if we’re talking about the highest level of society, women – pagan women and Christian women – enjoyed far greater liberality in terms of social expectations. There were women scholars, women theologians, women scientists. Not obviously in anything like the numbers of the men – it was still an ancient society.
The West, less so. The Latin-speaking West, their learning in general was beginning to decline at an earlier point. But at the lowest level of society, that’s where the real difference shows up, because women lived disadvantages unknown to men. As I said, a widow had no means – a woman couldn’t go out and work a day job and get a career. Provision for widows – I mean the early church, we find lists of goods collected for distribution to the poor. You know, 75 percent of it are goods for women, women’s clothing, because they were the ones for whom there were no social shelters.

I mean without exaggerating the degree to which ancient culture – and any culture – suddenly changes its view of the relations between the sexes, nonetheless, from Paul onward (despite some dissonant passages in the pseudo-Pauline epistles, and one questionable passage in First Corinthians), Paul had this remarkable egalitarianism, almost to the point that it’s almost historically inconceivable. And this had its effect.

You can also point to, say, a Christian figure like Macrina – the elder sister of Gregory of Nyssa and sister of Basil the Great – and see the degree of learning that she possessed and the degree of reverence with which her brothers treated her. There you get a picture of the Eastern Empire at its most cosmopolitan. But what’s more interesting is that she prevailed on her mother to free the slaves, and the women slaves in particular – they created a community where they could live together in mutual support.

The condition of women at the levels of society that were not patrician, that did not have wealth, that’s where, again, Christian culture made its most extraordinary advances over the ancient culture it displaced. And it’s even true up through the High Middle Ages – the position of women in Christian culture, if we’re going to be comparative about this, is more enviable than that of the women in most cultures throughout the world at that time. That does not mean that there wasn’t quite a lot lacking in this set-up. But that’s just the reality of cultural and material conditions.