Living in Paradox: Female Identity in Early and Medieval Christianity

[1] Gender and sexuality present two of the most basic and intimate forms of difference, differences that inescapably pervade familial and social relationships. For this reason, how people conceive of differences between male and female affects their fundamental perception of the world and their place in it. In the history of Christianity, women generally have been understood-and understood themselves-in paradoxical ways: identical to men in spiritual and baptismal dignity, but different from men in their capacities, virtues, vices, and social roles. Such difference was often seen as a sign of inferiority, meaning that Christian women in their femaleness held a self-definition of simultaneous likeness to and distance from the spiritual ideal: being re-formed into the image and likeness of God.

[2] In this essay I will briefly sketch the basic elements constituting the paradoxical definition of femaleness that developed in early and medieval Christianity. My question concerns how Christians have theologically interpreted the meaning of femaleness and applied this to the lives of actual women, often with serious disparity between their assessment of the female as an abstract symbol and of the woman as a real, complex human being. I am not examining the Bible per se or its contemporary application; I am interested in how early (ca. 100-800 C.E.) and medieval (800-1500 C.E.) Christians created exegetical trajectories for later generations.

Sameness: Women’s and Men’s Identical Spiritual Dignity
[3] Theologians have been in virtual universal agreement that women and men alike are created in the image and likeness of God (Gen. 1:26-27).[1] While this image has been variously understood to mean human sovereignty over creation, rationality, or relationality, the theological consensus has affirmed that the single most defining human characteristic, that which distinguishes human beings from animals, is shared by women and men.[2] Thus the imago Dei grounds belief that God created women and men with the same fundamental spiritual capacity.

[4] Related to but distinct from the imago Dei, the new baptismal identity of all Christians grounds arguments for the equal spiritual dignity of all members of the community, regardless of sex, ethnicity, or social class. The early baptismal formula quoted by Paul in Galatians 3:28, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus,” presents a radical claim that the dominant categories of identity are eradicated when Christians are clothed with Christ and made children of God through faith (Gal. 3:26-27). The Galatians passage reveals the new ideal for the community of Christians who are being re-created to God’s image (cf. Rom. 8:29, 2 Cor. 3:18, Col. 3:10), no longer divided by the effects of sin. In early Christianity people interpreted the formula differently: did it abolish biological sex differences entirely, create a radically egalitarian community, reinforce the spiritual dignity of the imago Dei damaged by sin but restored by grace, or affirm the primacy of celibacy over marriage?[3] Whatever the interpretation, early Christians recognized the verse as critical for the identity of the newly baptized, and therefore for the identity of the whole community participating in Christ’s redemptive grace.

Difference: Women’s Abilities and Social Roles
[5] Historically, this consensus on the spiritual dignity of women and men typically did not challenge the assessment of women’s roles within the church or in society. Augustine of Hippo acknowledged that women like men are made in the image of God, but he also asserted that “the difference…of sex, indeed already removed in the unity of faith, remains in this mortal life” and further that Christians must keep the social order governing men’s and women’s roles as part of their duty to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s.[4] For such a line of interpretation, spiritual dignity refers to one’s worth before God; in human community women in their femaleness were thought to have different abilities and weaknesses that suited them to or kept them from specific offices. The most striking areas of historical views of feminine difference lie in how Christians conceived of the propriety of women’s ministries, the abilities of women, and the symbolic meaning of the feminine.

[6] The development of Christian ministries shows a trajectory of limiting women’s participation, usually due to judgments of propriety and suitability for leadership roles. The earliest Christian ministries of the first and second centuries indicate active participation of women as deacons, apostles, hosts of house churches, and prophets.[5] However, restrictions on these ministries grew in the second to fourth centuries as diverse Christian communities sought to enter mainstream Roman public life and to define orthodoxy and heresy on a range of theological issues. Women’s leadership in worship became to the “orthodox” a hallmark of marginal groups like the Montanists, a rigorous and ecstatic group in North Africa that was founded by the male prophet Montanus and two female prophets, Priscilla and Maximilla. In the larger theological context, fluidity of gender roles became a symbol of theological error-how were such groups to be trusted to teach correctly about God when they could not even control their women?[6] In these cases, group disorder (egalitarian and fluid gender roles) symbolized disordered belief. Generally, the more marginal an early Christian group, the more likely it was to allow women to participate in teaching, prophecy, and leadership. Conversely, the more a Christian group was a part of mainstream Greco-Roman society, the more hierarchical its order and the more women held private, subordinate roles within the community.[7]

[7] Considering one example, the ministry of the diaconate evolved from one inclusive of both male and female deacons (diakonos used as a title for both) into a separate ministry of deaconesses (diakonissa). Both the New Testament and second-century Christian sources refer to women diakonoi.[8] However, by the fourth century a separate ordained ministry developed for deaconesses to assist in the baptism of women (who were baptized nude), teach them, and visit them in their homes, all necessary ministries that brought male deacons into improper proximity with women.[9] Thus a female diaconate emerged as a private and separate female ministry, although it waned with the decline of adult baptisms, especially in the West.

[8] In these cases the restrictions on women’s ministries derived from cultural ideas about propriety and order. In ancient Greco-Roman culture, women belonged in the private realm of the household, in which they had varied but considerable roles and authority.[10] A woman’s central virtue was her modesty (sophrosyne), which had to be protected by her father or husband for the sake of her own social and economic well-being.[11] Christian ministries that encouraged a woman’s public activity without male oversight thus threatened the gendered social values of the broader culture, and they were curtailed as Christian communities gained more public prominence.

[9] Yet culturally-informed ideas about gender and propriety only partly explain how women’s roles in Christianity have been conceived differently from those of men. Women’s abilities have also been assessed differently. Positively, women’s primary activities as wives and mothers led them to understand their activity, and at times the nature of God, in terms of nurturing, caregiving, and faithfulness.[12] Even women who rejected the marriages their parents arranged for them, opting instead for a vow of consecrated virginity, typically conceived of their commitment and ministries in terms of a wedded vow, giving birth, and caregiving towards the sick and hungry.[13] While their emphasis on maternity is hardly surprising, its deepened and expanded positive meaning for women celibates is noteworthy, indicating how women used their ideas of femininity to interpret their distinctive forms of discipleship, even as they chose roles that departed from social and familial expectations for marriage and motherhood.

[10] Negatively, women were thought to lack certain abilities that men had, namely authoritative and commanding leadership abilities. Medieval male theologians debated whether Christ could have become incarnate as a woman, answering “yes” as to its possibility but “no” as to its suitability.[14 Their debate reveals how they conceived of women as different from men: biologically inferior and less perfect according to Aristotle; less fit (conveniens) for preaching and teaching according to biblical arguments. Similarly, medieval scholastic theologians also debated whether women could teach theology publicly; their answer (“no”) reveals their concept of woman as weak-minded, weak-bodied, and weak-voiced.[15] Thus women’s abilities were thought to be well-suited to nurturing and private roles but ill-suited to public leadership, whether that of clergy or of the medieval theologian.

[11] This historical assessment of women is complicated by the symbolism ascribed to gender. Certainly the Bible is full of gendered references to Israel as the bride of YHWH and to Christ as a bridegroom, suggesting that the human person’s relationship to God is characterized by fidelity and feminine submission. This scriptural gendered symbolism was compounded in early Christianity by pagan philosophical symbolism, in which the male represented strength, rationality, and spirit, while the female represented weakness, emotion, and body. In this symbolic system, all people have masculine and feminine capacities, and their goal is to cultivate the masculine and subordinate the feminine. Thus exemplary early Christian women were praised for acting manly, for rising above their female nature, for being a “female man of God.”[16]

[12] This symbolism, understood to describe the behavior and capacities of women and men alike, allowed theologians to distinguish masculine and feminine virtues and vices and even masculine and feminine parts of the rational faculty.[17] In such a distinction, the theologian operates on two levels, the symbolic gender and the actual engendered person. The pervasiveness of the symbolism meant that a negative assessment of the feminine-opposed to the more intellectual and spiritual masculine ideal- permeated early and medieval thought about women. Were women by their very nature temptresses and whores, carnal and insatiable, weak and irrational? Or were they spirituality dignified and equally capable of being conformed to the image of Christ? The binary gendered symbol system suggests an inherently conflicting self-understanding for the woman who is by nature in the image of God and yet in her femininity more unlike God than the male.

[13] The symbol system also allowed for a disproportionate share of sin and sexuality to be associated with women. Daughters of Eve, the gateway for the devil,[18] and more susceptible to being seduced by the devil,[19] women represented to men sexual desires and susceptibility to sin. Certainly much medieval suspicion of women as temptresses can be interpreted as a projection of male fear of male sexuality onto women.[20] Yet, a deeper problem remains that while theologians thought they could operate on two distinct and separate levels of gender, the symbolic and the actual, for most people the reality of embodied men and women expressing their masculinity and femininity was much more concrete. Associating the feminine symbol with sin, weakness, and sexuality sooner or later meant associating real women with sin, weakness, and sexuality.

Paradox: Creative or Destructive Tension?
[14] Emerging from this history is a contradictory view of sexual difference: women are like and unlike men, who are like God. Such a paradox can be destructive or creative, depending upon whether women’s fundamental baptismal identity is upheld. The paradox clearly became destructive when difference and inferiority became the most important characteristic of women’s identity. For example, in the witch crazes of late medieval and early modern Europe, ideas of women’s natural weakness and difference dominated.[21] In this case, the paradox lost its tension and became a flat decree of female inferiority. Conversely, the paradox was a source of new forms of discipleship for women in the fourth century as they embraced consecrated virginity and gained ecclesiastical recognition of their right to decide for themselves how to live and how to use their resources. Yet whether creative or destructive, the paradox at the heart of Christian women’s historical self-definition is by nature tensile and therefore established for women a norm of thinking of themselves as identical and other.

End Notes

[1] One notable exception is the fourth century theologian Ambrosiaster, who asserted woman is not made in the image of God due to her derivative nature. David Hunter argues that Ambrosiaster’s interpretation was motivated by his desire to counter the ascetic interpretations of Genesis that promoted the equality of women and men, thus affirming the hierarchy of the church and submission to the bishop. See his article “The Paradise of Patriarchy: Ambrosiaster on Woman as (Not) God’s Image,” Journal of Theological Studies 43 (1992), 447-469.

[2] For example, see Gregory of Nyssa, On the Making of Humanity 5; Augustine, On the Trinity 12.3.11; Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 3.1 , ed. G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1958) 191-195.

[3] For a study of these different strands of early Christian interpretation, see my essay “In Christ There Is Neither Male nor Female: Patristic Interpretation of Galatians 3:28,” Studia Patristica 39 (2006), 239-244.

[4] Augustine, Commentary on Galatians 28.2, tr. Eric Plumer (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003).

[5] See Ordained Women in the Early Church: A Documentary History, ed. and trans. Kevin Madigan and Carolyn Osiek (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins, 2005); Karen Jo Torjesen, When Women Were Priests (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1993); Jean Laporte, The Role of Women in Early Christianity (New York: Edwin Mellen, 1982); Roger Gryson, The Ministry of Women in the Early Church, trans. Jean Laporte and Mary Louise Hall (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1976).

[6] Tertullian, Prescription against the Heretics 4l; Hippolytus, Refutation of All Heresies 8.12, 10.21.

[7] Here Troeltsch’s distinction between churches and sects applies: sects like the rigorous Montanists who guarded their group purity had distinctively different gender roles from the larger society, while the “mainstream” forms of Christianity in the fourth century became increasingly hierarchical and restrictive in women’s roles, mirroring the social organization of Roman society; cf. Torjesen, 37.

[8] Madigan and Osiek present the primary source evidence, both epigraphical and literary, in Ordained Women in the Early Church: A Documentary History. Most of the book deals with evidence for female deacons and deaconesses, particularly in the East, with one chapter on evidence for women presbyters.

[9] The ministry of deaconesses is described in the Didascalia and the Apostlic Constitutions, manuals of church order. The 451 Council of Chalcedon regulates the ordination of deaconesses in canon 15.

[10] Torjesen, see especially chapters 2 and 3.

[11] Torjesen, chapters 4 and 5.

[12] For example, see Julian of Norwich’s Showings for a vivid description of Jesus as a caregiving mother.

[13] Cf. Gregory of Nyssa’s Life of Macrina and Raymond of Capua’s Life of Catherine of Siena. Caroline Walker Bynum’s outstanding study of medieval women’s spirituality, Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987) argues that in contrast to men’s tendency to dramatic reversals (especially of wealth and power), women’s religious devotion shows a deepening of feminine symbols such as birth, lactation, suffering, and preparing and distributing food (p. 6).

[14] This question arises in several medieval commentaries on Peter Lombard’s Sentences: Albert the Great III Sent. d. 12 a.10; Bonaventure, III Sent. d. 12, a. 3, q. 1; Thomas Aquinas III Sent. d. 12, q. 3, a. 1, qc. 2; Peter of Tarantaise, Commentaria in Tertium Librum Sententiarum III Sent. d. 12, q. 1 (unica), a. 4; Gandulph of Bologna, Sententiarum Libri Quatuor III 14; Roland of Cremona, Summae Magistri Rolandi Cremonensis III q. 14. See also the analysis of this debate by Joan Gibson in “Could Christ Have Been Born a Woman? A Medieval Debate,” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 8 (1992): 65-82.

[15] For example, Henry of Ghent argues that women are prohibited from the public office of teaching because they are easily seduced, frail, ought to be under men’s authority according to Genesis 3, and do not have sufficient “vivacity of speech” to mortify people of their sins. See his Summae Quaestionum Ordinarium Theologi, a. 11, q. 2, I.

[16] Cf. Life of Macrina; Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicity 10; Gillian Cloke, This Female Man of God (London and New York: Routledge, 1995); Kerstin Bjerre-Aspegren, The Male Woman: A Feminine Ideal in the Early Church, ed. Rene Kieffer (Uppsala: Academia Ubsaliensis, 1990).

[17] Gregory of Nyssa distinguishes allegorically male virtuous and female passionate forms of birth, urging his readers to choose the masculine for themselves, in Life of Moses II. 2-3; Augustine exhorts women to develop their virile qualities and subdue feminine vices in On True Religion 41.78; in On the Trinity 12.3.12 Augustine interprets 1 Cor. 11.7 (“man is the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man”) as symbolic of feminine practical reason and masculine contemplative reason, asserting that God uses such gendered symbolism to encourage men and women to seek how these two faculties are found in every human being (12.3.19).

[18] Tertullian, On the Apparel of Women 1.1.

[19] Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger, The Hammer of Witches 1.6.

[20] Bynum, 15.

[21] Lyndal Roper, Witch Craze (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2006).