Not a great deal of specific information is known about gender relationships in the earliest Jesus gatherings,1 during the period following the death of Jesus (around 30CE+/-) until about 50 CE. The little that is known comes at the end of that period primarily from the letters of one man (Paul) and what he inadvertently reveals in his letters about these social gatherings. One would assume that in part the earliest gatherings would generally reflect the culture of the cities in which the gatherings took place. In part that appears generally to be true,2 but the New Testament reflects a mixed record when it comes to gender relationships. Among the writers of New Testament texts one finds attitudes reflective of a hostile misogyny, while in others one encounters attitudes suggesting a liberal, gender equality.
Let's begin with the lower road. The lowest point in the New Testament with respect to gender equality is reached by a later disciple of Paul. The passage in which this is found is First Timothy 2:8-15 (RSV). Some of the more recent translations may deliberately soften the harshness of the text.3 1 Tim 2:11-12 (RSV): "Let a woman learn in silence with all submissiveness. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over men; she is to keep silent." This disciple of Paul (many scholars call him the "pastor" because of his interest in church governance issues) justifies his statement by referring to Scripture: 1 Tim 2:13-15 (RSV): "For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor [see Genesis 2:15-23; 3:1-7]. Yet woman will be saved through bearing children, if she continues in faith and love and holiness with modesty." In other words, women are subordinate to males in all respects. Even their personal salvation requires that they bear children, yet they will be saved but only if they continue in faith and holiness with modesty (compare 1 Tim 2:8-10). First Timothy 2:8-15 deserves the charge of being misogynistic (hatred of women)!
The highest point in gender relationships in the Bible is achieved in the letters of Paul; nevertheless Paul is not without his blind spots. Galatians 3:28 (RSV) signals the high water mark in gender relationships: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus." In other words all ethnic, social, and gender distinctions are obliterated in the gatherings of Jesus followers—for "you are all one in Christ Jesus." Hence neither gender has a claim to priority in the ekklesia, for Paul believed God selected leaders through the Spirit (1 Cor12:4-11, 28). Paul uses one part of this slogan in his argument in Romans 10:12 and two parts of the slogan in 1 Cor 12:13. A sense of gender equality corresponding to Gal 3:28 emerges in First Corinthians chapter seven. To cite two: both partners in the marriage relationship have equal conjugal rights (1 Cor 7:1-5); and the wife has the right to separate from her husband (1 Cor 10-11), but apparently not the right to divorce him. Paul's view is that in view of the immediate ending of the world (1 Cor 7:29) everyone should stay in the state they were currently in when they became followers of Christ (1 Cor 7:20), but Paul was realistic and quite willing to break his own rules (1 Cor 7:20-24).
Perhaps it was this willingness to adjust his values in view of the situation that led him to argue for the subordination of women to men in 1 Cor 11:2-16, thus violating the idea of gender equality he stated in Gal 3:28. And he violates it again in 1 Cor 14:33b-35.
Paul's equivocation was not necessarily shared by other Jesus gatherings, however. In a letter written to the gathering at Rome Paul takes note of and commends a number of women who had achieved outstanding success in leadership roles in the Jesus gatherings. He commends to the gathering at Rome "our sister Phoebe" who was a deacon in the gathering at Cenchrea,4 and asks that she be received by the gathering as "befits the saints." Paul commends her for her work in helping himself as well as others.5
He asks that they greet Prisca and Aquila, a husband and wife team leading with the wife's name first. They were "fellow workers" of Paul and had risked their necks for Paul's life. He notes that all the gentile gatherings gave thanks for the ministry of this husband and wife team. He calls upon the Roman community to send his greetings to the gathering in their house—Prisca apparently had a major leadership role in the gathering (1 Cor 16:3-5).6
He asks the Jesus gathering at Rome to greet Mary for him for she had worked hard among the followers of Jesus at Rome—personally, I doubt that she just baked cookies.
He mentions a certain Junia (a feminine name); she was a kinswoman of Paul as well as having served prison time along with him. But the most notable thing about her and Andronicus was that they both were "outstanding among the apostles"—apparently they were both "apostles" (Rom 16:7).7 A woman apostle! Think of that.
He asks to be remembered to two particular women, whom he refers to as those "workers in the Lord," Tryphanea and Tryphosa (Rom 16:12).
That is essentially the gender situation among the earliest followers of Jesus. The sad truth is that the Bible as a whole does not encourage gender equality, but that does not appear to have been completely true of all the early Jesus gatherings. Unfortunately, however, women today should not expect to be treated with equality in the church if they are members of conservative religious institutions, which have chosen the lower way in gender equality.
Charles W. Hedrick
Missouri State University
1Translating ekklesia as "church" is anachronistic. The word church is derived from late Greek kyriakon (of the Lord) and is short for kyriakon dōma (house of the Lord); it describes a modern organization. The Scottish kirk is still in use. These assemblies should be thought of as loose social gatherings of like minded people.
2See Hedrick, Wisdom of Jesus, 42-43 (household codes).
3See the note to 1 Tim 2:15 in the New Living Translation, for example.
4The name Phoebe is feminine while the word deacon is masculine, suggesting that Phoebe was not a deaconess, but worked among the male deacons.
5Note that one of the spirit-endowed positions that "God appointed" in the gatherings was that of "helper," 1 Cor 14:28.
6This husband-wife team is mentioned several other times in the New Testament: Acts 18:2, 18, 26; 1 Cor 16:19; 2 Tim 4:19.
7See Eldon Epp, Junia the First Woman Apostle (Augsburg/Fortress, 2005).