Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity Without Hierarchy. A Book Discussion. (Index here)
Part I: Setting the Stage (The Historical Back Drop)
Chapter 1 – The Changing Roles of Women in Ministry: The Early Church Through the 18th Century. By Ruth Tucker
The first three chapters of the book set a historical context for the rest of the discussion. In this first chapter, Dr. Tucker walks us very briefly through the period after the New Testament church up through the eighteenth century.
As a preface, Dr. Tucker observes “On the one hand, women’s contributions have been magnified beyond their actual significance; and on the other hand, the story of women has become the story of male discrimination and dominance.” (23) She writes, “In actuality, the story of women in the Christian Church is no different from the story of humankind that began at the Garden – a story that promises incredible potential but is severely limited by sin, failure and fallenness.” (24) Because the life experiences of women are largely absent from the historical record relative to men's experiences, and because what we know about women usually comes from men who often were conflicted about women, it is hard to make a definitive assessment.
Tucker begins by pointing to martyrs in the early centuries of the Church, highlighting people like Perpetua, Quinta and Apollonia as some of the earliest mentions of women in the Church. They became models for women of faith. Another type of model woman emerged with mothers of great men like Monica who raised Augustine or much later Susannah Wesley, the mother of John and Charles Wesley. Still, as Tucker points out, the pervasive take by the Church over the centuries was that women are inferior.
The Woman, so the argument ran, was the one tempted by Satan and the first to fall into sin. She was more easily deceived than the man and thus would have been a menacing presence in the ivory towers of theological discussion and decision-making forums. (26)
The primary means to stature for women was through humanitarian service. However, Tucker points out that there were women who distinguished themselves because of their intellectual capabilities like Marcella who assisted Jerome in the translation of the Latin Vulgate. When he was absent from Rome, Jerome directed people who sought his counsel to her .
Women’s monasticism began in the fourth and fifth centuries. Tucker demonstrates the ebb and flow of influence that some abbesses had on some bishops and popes. Mystics such as Hildegard of Bingen, Gertrude of Helfa and Catherine of Siena, had major influence on the Church through their instruction.
With the Reformation, the emphasis turned to the biblical text. Mysticism, as well as the cloistered life, was largely discredited. Even so, during the Reformation their were women like Argula von Stauffer, who Tucker describes as one of Luther’s most outspoken defenders, who defended her views in a debate before the diet of the Empire Nurnberg. (33) Tucker also lifts up 16th century Katherine Zell who, upon the death of her preacher husband Matthew Zell, continued his work and wrote for more than thirty years. Tucker also mentions Teresa of Avila who brought renewal to the Carmelite convents and the broader church in the 16th Century.
Tucker proceeds from here to present a number of Anglo-American women like Anne Hutchinson, Mary Dyer and Margaret Fell Fox. Fox was the widow of Quaker leader George Fox and for a time the de facto leader of the movement in the lat 17th Century. She was “…an outspoken advocate of equality for women in society and among the Quakers.” (36-37)
Tucker closes out the essay with mention of some notable Methodist women in the 18th Century. Of Susanna Wesley, John Wesley’s mother, she writes:
A strong and spirited woman, she challenged her husband’s efforts to control her political views, and when he later abandoned her and the children, she preached sermons to Anglican parishioners. Indeed, she preached so well that there was standing room only for those who came to hear her expound the Scripture. (37)
Tucker also notes that women like Margaret Davidson, Sarah Crosby, Sarah Miller and others preached to large crowds. Mary Bosanquet Fletcher began preaching at eighteen (1757) and as late as the age of seventy was still preaching six meetings a week.
I know from other reading that Tucker has just skimmed the surface in this short essay. I think the most significant contribution of Tucker’s article is that it illustrates the ambivalence toward women in the life of the Church over the centuries. Women are seen as inferior corrupting influences and at the same time they are sought for counsel and guidance. This article shows that the debate over the place of women in the life of the Church is not just something that emerged with modern feminism but has been an ongoing tension throughout the past two millennia.
Ruth A. Tucker – Ruth A. Tucker received her M.A. from Baylor University and her Ph.D. from Northern Illinois University. She is associate professor of missiology at Calvin Theological Seminary. Before coming to CTS, she taught for seventeen years a Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. She was raised in northern Wicsonsin in a Christian and Missionary Alliance Church and is now a member of LaGrave Avenue Christian Reformed Church. She is the author of fourteen books including Private Lives of Pastors’ Wives; Walking Away from Faith: Unraveling the Mystery of Belief and Unbelief; and the Gold Medallion award-winning From Jerusalem to Iranian Jaya. She is the coauthor (with Walter L. Liefield) of Daughters of the Church. (Note: Dr. Tucker left CTS in the summer of 2006.)
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