Women and Christianity

Published 26 Jun 2017

Literature does not provide sufficient information about the role women played in Early Christian Communities. According to Fisher, the age of Early Christianity was marked with the increasing role of women as missionaries. There are no specific details as for the way women were spreading Gospel across Israel, but one thing is known for sure: women’s homes were used as the first Christian platforms to pray and worship (Fisher, 2007, 195). Jewish tradition always positioned a woman and her home as a sacred social territory. A woman was traditionally considered the central element of that social territory. This is why in Early Christian Israel women played a central role in Christian worship. In its turn, the Greco-Roman world offered even more religious opportunities to women: due to financial and social independence, women could sponsor worship and religious meetings at their homes (Fisher, 2007, 195). The discussed economic independence had turned Hellenistic women into real leaders of religions other than Christian (Fisher, 2007, 195); this is why Greco-Roman women were able to transfer their leadership qualities to other Christian domains.

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With time, the roles of women in religion have been substantially limited. Fisher is very objective when she refers to the gradual process of women losing their leading positions in religion as “subsequent subordination of women”. For several long centuries, the church had been weighing the pros and cons of female religious leadership and participation. Finally, Paul has undertaken the decisive step to limit the egalitarian practices in church (Fisher, 2007, 196). The institutionalization of Christian church has become the turning point in depriving women of their religious powers. The institutionalization has strengthened the dominance of cultural norms in religion. Those norms required continuous and never-changing subordination of women in all social domains.

Paul’s letters shed the light onto the process in which women were moved to other, less meaningful positions in Christianity. Marriage and religious behavior in church were the central topics of religious and social debate at that time. Although Paul was not against marriage, he voted against female sexuality manifestation beyond marriage (Fisher, 2007, 196). According to Bible, a woman was the last to be created by God, and those Biblical provisions were re-interpreted to bring women further down the religious ladder (Fisher, 2007, 197). A woman had to take a position submissive to men without any right to congregate in church (Fisher, 2007, 197). The continuous institutionalization has brought church officials to power; they have undertaken the leadership and teaching roles, and took the major religious decisions. As a result of that religious restructuring, women were given a chance to serve as deaconesses, but their religious functions were severely limited and controlled (Fisher, 2007, 199).

Surprisingly or not, but the subsequent subordination did not stop women from worshipping. The early Christian years and the middle Ages were marked by constant appearance of new religious female leaders and female Christian teachers. In her article, Fisher (2007) emphasizes the three major roles which religious women were seeking to fulfill in Christianity – martyrs, saints, and ascetics (200). Although church was trying to make women religiously powerless, further institutionalization has proved female courage and strong leadership under the pressure of the changing religious standards. Martyrs were not rare at that time; for a woman to die for faith meant to reach heaven and prove unchangeable loyalty to God. Ascetics were no less important than martyrs. Ascetic women devoted themselves to prayer and gave away everything they had to church (Fisher, 2007, 202). In distinction from men, women were searching more active social roles in promoting Christianity: they tended to re-interpret the main religious provisions, and to expand them beyond traditional theoretical approaches. They were later called “mystics”; many of them were also beatified (Fisher, 2007, 202). Mystics have given rise to a new form of non-conventional religious worship. Female mystics formed economically independent small religious communities, without being involved into permanent vows, but still practicing celibacy and religious loyalty (Fisher, 2007, 203).

Here, one logical question arises. It is not clear, on what grounds the church granted women with beatification. Taking into account the subsequent subordination of women about which Fisher writes, it is still an enigma how women could earn official recognition and gratification from church. Another question arises in connection with the fact that the church has “quietly given the rise to some female as well as male saints” (Fisher, 2007, 209). Does that mean that patriarchal pillars on which Christianity rests are not as strong as church tries to present them? The answer to this question is yet unknown. Simultaneously, as more and more women prove their loyalty to church through self-sacrifice, the range of their institutional roles gradually broadens, changing the image of church as predominantly male domain.


  • Fisher, Mary Pat. “Women in Early Christian Communities.” In Women in Religion, edited by M.P. Fisher, 195. Pearson / Longman, 2007.
  • Fisher, Mary Pat. “Subsequent Subordination of Women.” In Women in Religion, edited by M.P. Fisher, 197-200. Pearson / Longman, 2007.
  • Fisher, Mary Pat. “Martyrs, Saints, and Ascetics.” In Women in Religion, edited by M.P. Fisher, 200-209. Pearson / Longman, 2007.
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