Were the 1st century ecclesias egalitarian?

The Claim

Revisionist scholars such as Elizabeth Schüssler-Fiorenza claim the early Christian ecclesias were egalitarian. [1]

The Facts

The scholarly consensus is that the early ecclesias (though affirming of women), were not egalitarian in the modern sense:

‘The evidence surveyed above concerning the Corinthian community in its early years also presents a sharp challenge to socio-historical studies which describe the earliest Christian communities as radical or egalitarian communities in sharp contrast to their societal context, or which characterize the movement as a ‘discipleship of equals’, into which patriarchalisation and social ordering gradually crept.’[2]

David Horrell

Historian David Horrell acknowledges that women did hold certain positions of responsibility. [3] However, Horrell points out that the 1st century ecclesial ‘Haustafeln’ (‘household code’), placed males at the head:

‘The Colossian and Ephesian Haustafeln address the same social groups in the same order: wives, husbands, children, fathers, slaves, masters (Col 3: 18-4: 1; Eph 5: 22-6:9). Women, children, and slaves are instructed to be submissive, the husbands, fathers, and masters are urged to be loving and just in their actions towards those under their care.’[4]

‘The ethos of the instruction may indeed be appropriately labelled “love-patriarchalism,” not merely patriarchalism (Theissen 1982: 107; MacDonald 1988: 102-22).’[5]

As Campbell has argued, here (and in 1 Peter) the “elders” seem to comprise a group of men who are senior in faith and prominent in social position (1 Peter 5: 5; Campbell 1994: 210-16; cf., Maier 1991: 93, 100).

The prominent (male) heads of households have their responsibility qua leaders of the community. This is most clear in the Pastoral Epistles, especially 1 Timothy, where the main duties mentioned for the bishop and the deacon are their responsibilities for respectable citizenship and good household management (1 Tim 3: 1-13; Titus 1: 5-9). This is where the instruction to the socially prominent men of the community is found.

The corollary of these requirements is the instructions in the Pastorals that women and slaves must be submissive and appropriately obedient. Women are forbidden to teach or be in authority over men; they must learn in silent submission (1 Tim 2: 11-15).

The church community is shaped according to the household model; indeed, it is described as the “household of God” (1 Tim 3: 15), and so the ecclesiastical hierarchy mirrors the domestic and social hierarchy. “The role of leaders as relatively well-to-do householders who act as masters of their wives, children, and slaves is inseparably linked with their authority in the church” (MacDonald 1988: 214).’[6]

‘However, it seems clear that the “false” forms of the faith allow women to take leading roles, or at least, that women regard themselves as legitimate teachers and propagators of this faith. Why else would the author of 1 Timothy need to make the stern declaration: “I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent” (1 Tim 2: 12), a declaration which is then undergirded with legitimation drawn from the Genesis creation narratives (2: 13-14)?’[7]

Alaistair Campbell

Campbell acknowledges the possibility of women as leaders of ecclesial meetings held in their households, but believes it is futile to argue the egalitarian case on this basis:

‘Rather than striving to show that women played a more prominent part than our evidence suggests, or that the prohibitions of the Pastorals do not mean what they appear to say, it would be more honest to admit the facts and then, if so minded, set them aside.’[8]

John Elliott

Egalitarian historian Elliott recognizes that women had some leadership positions, but rejects the typical egalitarian claims:

‘The claim that the Jesus movement was egalitarian involves flawed reasoning and an anachronistic, ethnocentric, and ideologically-driven reading of the New Testament. Feminist scholars including Mary Rose D’Angelo (1992), Amy-Jill Levine (1994), and Kathleen E. Corley (1998), are likewise rejecting the egalitarian theory, objecting, inter alia, to its lack of historical support and its isolation of Jesus from his Israelite matrix.’[9]

‘That women were prophets is no indication of an egalitarian revolution (against Schüssler Fiorenza 1983:235), since women prophets existed in the patriarchal world prior to the Jesus movement (Luke 2:36-38). That women assumed leadership roles in the Jesus movement likewise can be attributed to their prior social status rather than to the egalitarian revolution imagined by Schüssler Fiorenza (1983: 235).’[10]

With every fibre of my egalitarian being I wish it were demonstrable that the Jesus movement had been egalitarian, at least at some point in its early history. This surely would make it easier for today’s advocates of equality, among whom I count myself, to appeal to our past as a source of inspiration and moral guidance for the present.

But, as the historical and ideological critic in all of us insists, wishing and politically correct ideology cannot not make it so. Ultimately, this well-intentioned theory is an unhappy example of anachronism and idealist thinking that must be challenged not just because it is indemonstrable or an example of flawed interpretation but also because it is so seductive.’[11]

‘By imputing to the biblical authors a modern concept of equality that is not found in the Bible and the ancient world and by allowing this imputed concept to determine their interpretation of the New Testament, they have produced an interpretation that distorts and obscures the actual content and thrust of these texts.’[12]

Dale Martin

Martin is another egalitarian who rejecting the claim that the early Christians were egalitarian:

Contesting that Paul was an egalitarian with regard to gender, Dale Martin (1995:199) aptly notes that “in fact his writings confirm the Greco-Roman gender hierarchy.” Despite assigning women larger roles and more respect in his churches, “he never makes the claim that the female is equal to, much less superior to, the male” (1995:199). “Neither Paul’s androgynouse statement in Gal. 3:28 nor his admission of women to important positions within his churches demonstrates that he was a gender egalitarian” (1995: 232).’[13]

William Webb

Webb observes that Paul’s instructions to husbands and wives contradict an egalitarian interpretation, and that some Christian interpreters attempt to diminish this fact:

‘In Paul’s “household codes” he instructs women to “submit to” their husbands (Eph 5:22; Col 3:18). Some Christian interpreters water down the idea of submission in an attempt to make it more palatable today.’[14]

[1] ‘Her argument follows a theory of decline: in the beginning the early church was an egalitarian community with no patriarchal elements in it.’, Sandnes, ‘Equality Within Patriarchal Structures’, in Moxnes, ‘Constructing early Christian families: family as social reality and metaphor’, p. 150 (1997).

[2] Horrell, ‘The social ethos of the Corinthians correspondence: interests and ideology’, p. 124 (1996).

[3] ‘Phoebe, for example, a diakonos of the church at Cenchreae, is described as a patron of many (Rom 16: 1-2)’, Horrell, ‘Leadership Patterns and the Development of Ideology in Early Christianity’, Sociology of Religion, p. 326 (58.4.97).

[4] Ibid., p. 334.

[5] Ibid., p. 334.

[6] Ibid., p. 335.

[7] Ibid., p. 331.

[8] Campbell, ‘The elders: Seniority within earliest Christianity’, p. 275 (2004).

[9] Elliott, ‘Jesus Was Not an Egalitarian. A Critique of an Anachronistic and Idealist Theory’, Biblical Theology Bulletin: A Journal of Bible and Theology, p. 90 (32.88.2002).

[10] Elliott, ‘The Jesus Movement Was Not Egalitarian But Family-Oriented’, p. 184, Biblical Interpretation (11.2.2003).

[11] Ibid., pp. 205-206.

[12] Elliott, ‘Jesus Was Not an Egalitarian. A Critique of an Anachronistic and Idealist Theory’, Biblical Theology Bulletin: A Journal of Bible and Theology, p. 90 (32.88.2002).

[13] Martin, in Elliott, ‘The Jesus Movement Was Not Egalitarian But Family-Oriented’, p. 184, Biblical Interpretation (11.2.2003).

[14] Webb (egalitarian), ‘A Redemptive-Movement Hermeneutic; The Slavery Analogy’, in Pierce & Groothius (eds.), ‘Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity without hierarchy’, p. 397 (2nd ed. 2005)

  1. Rach
    April 30, 2011 at 6:23 am

    Alistair Campbell’s argument leads to the ‘cultural’ argument – where people say that hierarchical view is definitely Biblical, but that it doesn’t apply now because of current culture and thought.

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