Dispatches from the First Church
This week, I’m challenging Tertullian at Fuller Seminary in Pasadena.
And I mean that literally.
Today, in class, we were talking about the implications of Tertullian’s commitment to demonstrate that Christianity dovetailed nicely with the highest Roman moral standards. All of a sudden, up on the powerpoint popped this question:
“If you were a missionary meeting Tertullian today, what would you say to him?”
I laughed out loud.
At which point, I had to explain to my classmates that I would indeed have a few things to say to Mr. Tertullian, and that none of them would have anything to do with ancient Roman moral standards. Which ultimately resulted in me quoting Tertullian’s despicable description of women as “the Devil’s gateway.”
Tertullian, consider yourself challenged.
And, also, consider yourself wrong. Because the evidence is that the first church thought and acted differently than Mr. Tertullian. According to Bevans and Schroeder in their book Constants in Context, in the first church women were valued more highly than ever before. They write:
“In the first place, more women than men converted to the Christian faith, including a significant number of high-status women. Recognizing that there were a number of factors, most writers recognize ‘that Christianity was unusually appealing [to women] because within the Christian subculture women enjoyed far higher status than did women in the Greco-Roman world at large.’ Important aspects of this improved status and human dignity are reflected in the Christian condemnation of infanticide (which was most often female infanticide), divorce, incest, marital infidelity and polygamy–common practices that victimized women in particular. Christians respected and cared for widows instead of applying great pressure on them to remarry. In contrast to the general situation in which women were frequently forced into pre-pubertal, consummated marriages, Christian women ‘were married at a substantially older age and had more choice about whom they married.’ Underlying this Christian appreciation of the human dignity of women is the basic belief that all people are equally children of God.”
Not only were women more highly regarded by the first church, there is evidence that the pre-Constantinian faith community put them to work in ministry as well. That happened in more “official” church offices such as apostles, prophets, co-workers and laborers. But it also happened in two other critical ministerial contexts of the day, as house church leaders and as martyrs. Bevans and Schroeder write:
“From this perspective we see that women were very much involved in the predominant model of mission, especially within the household, the house churches and the group of martyrs. This is all the more significant given the subordinate role of women in the general society.”
So, let’s review. Women in the first church were given more dignity than ever before and were deployed as leaders both in more formal and informal contexts, up to and including making the ultimate witness to Christ as martyrs.
Seems to me like Tertullian needs to rethink his own moral standards.