Women in Christianity

KungTheologian Hans Küng

(1)  Whatever happened to the women?

Women have been part of Christianity from the very beginning, but through the centuries most women’s lives were lived in silence, and their stories are still hidden from our view.

In the 1980s, renowned Catholic theologian Hans Küng worked for five years to compile a history of women in Christianity, from the very early church through the 20th century. Küng’s report was released in 1987, but was ignored by the Catholic Church. And so in 2001 Küng published Women in Christianity, concluding, “Since 1987, much has changed, as far as individuals, married couples, communities and theological faculties have been able to change it. But much for which the hierarchy is responsible has not changed.”

How does the church need to change?

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Women in Early Christian History

shoulders again

Some of the first disciples

Mary of Nazareth, prophet and Theotokos,  (‘God-bearer’)
Luke 1:46-55, John 19:25, Acts 1:14
Mary of Magdala, disciple and apostle,
Luke 8:1-3, John 20:1-18; The Gospel of Mary (apocrypha, 2nd c)
Martha of Bethany, disciple and house church leader,
John 11:1-27
The Samaritan Woman, evangelist,
John 4:4-42
The Canaanite Woman, intercessor,
Mark 7:24-30
The woman who anointed Jesus, prophet,
Mark 14:3-9

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Scripture and Tradition



If women’s presence and leadership/ministries are so difficult to find in the New Testament, why should we read Scripture today?

Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza writes, The Christian gospel cannot be proclaimed if the women disciples and what they have done are not remembered… The Bible is not just a historical collection of writings but also Holy Scripture, gospel, for Christians today… Yet as long as the stories and history of women in the beginnings of early Christianity are not theologically conceptualized as an integral part of the proclamation of the gospel, biblical texts and traditions formulated and codified by men will remain oppressive to women. (from In Memory of Her, p. xiv-xv)

From our discussion: Christian ‘scripture’ and ‘tradition’ are not two separate influences on the Christian faith, but intimately connected. Before our Bible became ‘scripture’ (Latin scriptura, ‘writing’) – it was oral history – that is, it was passed along orally (Latin traditio, ‘handed over’) from one story-teller to another. Eventually, Christian traditions about Jesus and his community were written down (and became the Gospels); later, four of those Gospels were adopted as part of the ‘canon’ (recognized as ‘Scripture’).

What do you think? What is ‘Scripture’ and what is its role in your life today?

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Early Christian Women: Writers

Perpetua mosaic Ravenna

Perpetua of Carthage, martyr, d. 203

She wrote Perpetua’s Diary,  the powerful record of her conversion to Christianity and her subsequent death in the arena. Perpetua’s Diary is the oldest extant document we know was written by a woman.  Her story was so popular that it was told throughout the Mediterranean world in the 3rd through 6th centuries.  Later Christian writers (for instance, St. Augustine) would ask, “Why was this woman’s story told when there were also male martyrs in Carthage?”  (This mosaic was created in Ravenna, c 494)

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Women in the Medieval Church

Julian icon
       Julian of Norwich, 1342-1416

By the 6th century, the church had developed a theology of human sexuality, a world-view based on classical understandings of human biology (the differences between men and women) and Christian convictions about the necessity of virginity (male and female) for ministry.

From the medieval church we have inherited traditional ideas about women:

• women are weaker than men, physically and intellectually
• women are more emotional than men
• women are deliberately seductive, in competition with God for men’s souls
• women should be confined to the home and child-raising
• women’s blood pollution (menstruation and childbirth) prevents contact with the Holy
• and thus women were forbidden to minister in the church.

How close is this traditional teaching to what you absorbed growing up female?

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Women on the Margins


We agreed that growing up we absorbed some (or all) of the Church’s traditional teachings about women:

• Women are weaker than men, physically and intellectually.
• Women are more emotional and less rational than men.
• Women’s lives should be private, confined to the home and child-raising,
• Women’s ministries should not be used in the public arena of the Church.

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Three Medieval Mystics

Three women mystics of 13th-14th century Europe recorded their spiritual experiences.  All were women on the margins of society and church (two were Beguines and one was an anchoress). All reflected on the movements of the Holy Spirit (in the world and in their own lives). All wrote about the love and compassion of God (rather than focusing on God’s judgment). All wrote in their native languages (rather than in Latin) which made their works accessible to ordinary readers. Mechtild of Magdeburg wrote Flowing Light of the Godhead in an early German dialect; Marguerite Porete wrote the Mirror of Simple Souls in early French; and Julian of Norwich wrote Revelations of Divine Love in middle English.

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The Witches

witch againA witch escapes after tormenting a family

How can we understand the medieval fear of ‘witchcraft’?  Between the 12th and 17th centuries there were at least 100,000 executions of witches – with the exception of the Jews, the greatest mass killings in Europe outside of war. Two-thirds of those identified as witches were women. Burning of those identified as witches began in the 12th century, and continued throughout the 17th century.

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