Oppressive or liberating?

Jesus accorded women dignity and opportunity. The church hasn’t always followed suit.





Jesus accorded women dignity and opportunity. The church hasn’t always followed suit.


JOHN DICKSON: Much has been said about the women in Jesus’ life. Some even speculate he married Mary Magdalene – Mary of Magdala. There’s no evidence for that, but there is evidence that he held the women he met in the highest regard.

It would be wrong to cast Jesus as some kind of early feminist. His was a very male culture and his story reflects that. But all scholars agree: women had an unusually high profile in Jesus’ life and work.

JOHN G. STACKHOUSE JR: Jesus’ treatment of women is really interesting because he treats women in a way that scandalises even his own disciples. He speaks to them. He takes them seriously. Women show up in the story as being really powerfully loyal disciples, brave disciples, when the men are all heading for the hills around the time of his crucifixion. So, Jesus is an intriguing case, as he’s presented to us in the New Testament as both being very much for women, and undermining sexism, without actually confronting it.

JOHN DICKSON: Despite the failures of the church through history to realise the equality of the sexes, it can’t be doubted that women originally found something compelling and even liberating about the movement Jesus founded.

RODNEY STARK: In some ways, it’s surprising that every woman in the Roman Empire didn’t become a Christian overnight, because the advantages were so great. Roman girls typically got married at 12 or 13 to men who were in their 30s and 40s. Christian girls tended to get married at 18, and to have some say in who they married, and to not easily be divorced, with the expectation that their husbands would be faithful. It was a brutal world and Christianity provided a very secure haven of humanity for people, and it’s not really surprising that that was attractive.

JUSTINE TOH: But there’s another story. Through its history the church frequently failed to live up to these convictions.

SARAH COAKLEY: In its inception Christianity set before women a true possibility of complete transformation on equal terms alongside men. But at the same time it very quickly accommodated itself into existing religious and cultural mores. And you could say that that tension has been played out since then.

JUSTINE TOH: This book was first published in 1487, and the author gathers together a bunch of “wisdom” on women from previous centuries.

On Eve, who in the biblical story was created from one of Adam’s ribs, he writes: “Since through this defect woman is an imperfect animal, she always deceives”. Don’t take my word for it!

Or take this little gem: “What else is woman but a foe to friendship, an unescapable punishment, a necessary evil, a natural temptation, a desirable calamity, a domestic danger, a delectable detriment, an evil of nature, painted with fair colours?”

JUDITH LIEU: Christianity doesn’t necessarily have a good story to tell over the centuries in its treatment of women as in other things. And we do get emerging within some early Christian rhetoric the idea that women represent danger and they represent instability, therefore one needs to control women because it’s a way of controlling their sexuality and keeping men safe.

JUSTINE TOH: This book is called “The Hammer of She-Witches”, and it was a bestseller for about 200 years. It became a kind of instruction manual for one of the most notorious episodes of the church’s treatment of women: the early modern witch hunts.

Heinrich Kramer, the author of this scholarly, and not at all fear-mongering volume, was a German inquisitor. Not all accused witches were women, but he was convinced that they were by far the more likely culprits. He writes: “Since they are feebler both in body and mind, it is not surprising that they should come more under the spell of witchcraft”.

CHRISTINE CALDWELL AMES: In witchcraft documents, inquisitors who are talking about witchcraft, say in the late 15th century, we have a great fear of women’s power through witchcraft, and there’s a very long process in the medieval church, in the mentality of the medieval church, whereby heresy and witchcraft come to be associated. And we do have, it’s fair to say, a great deal of anxiety from late medieval inquisitors about this power which is something that they associate with women particularly.

CATHERINE BREKUS: People often ask me whether Christianity should be understood as oppressive for women or as liberating for women. The answer is always both because Christianity is multiple. I think we have to speak about Christianities in the plural rather than Christianity in the singular. Having said that, it is clear to me that Christianity has been a major force for women’s activism, Christianity has been the way that women have voiced their opposition to oppression, and that Christian women have argued again and again that God wants men and women to be equal. And they make that claim on the grounds of the highest authority possible for them, and that’s the authority of God.