Immediately after the crucifixion and burial of Jesus, his followers locked themselves away out of fear that they would be the next to be arrested and killed. Only the women among them had the courage to venture outside to care for the body of their Lord, and so they were the ones who were the first to declare the Resurrection. He had always treated them as equals during his ministry: teaching them, talking to them, accepting their help, just as he did with his male disciples. This was a new thing: women were not treated so in Judaism. Within days, the men were all outside again, unsure and still frightened by what they had experienced. But the Resurrection had changed things completely, and they were now sure of who Jesus was, although not so sure about what they were to do next. So some of them went fishing.
But, just a month or so later, they were out in the streets of Jerusalem, loudly and boldly preaching that Jesus was Lord, was risen, and was the promised Messiah. It was not the Resurrection alone that brought about this transformation, though without it, there would have been nothing at all. Jesus had told them to wait in Jerusalem until “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” [Acts 1.8] Then came Pentecost.
That was the turning point for these men and women, one that would revolutionise their lives and the lives of those who came after them. At Pentecost, the Spirit fell on all 120, men and women alike, as Joel had predicted:
“I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy.” [Acts 2-17-18]
This was also the fulfilment of the prophesy of Jeremiah, who foretold a new era, a very different relationship which came about between God and his people:
“This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time,” declares the Lord. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will they teach their neighbour, or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the Lord. [Jeremiah 31.33-34]
From that day on, throughout the early decades of the Christian community, men and women played an equal part in the life of the people. This may seem surprising, considering how the role of women changed radically in later centuries, but reading Luke’s history of those early days, as well as the letters written by Paul, Peter, and the rest, it is hard to grasp how radical a difference had taken place.
In his letter to the Christians in Rome, Paul particularly praises Junia, a woman and an Apostle, who, along with Andronicus, “have been in prison with me. They are outstanding among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was”. [Romans 16.7]. He also mentions Phoebe, a Deacon who “has been the benefactor of many people, including me”. [Romans 16.2]
There were many other women active in this way in the early church, including Priscilla and the church that meets in her house. The same is said about “Nympha and the church in her house” [Colossians 4.15]. Note that these women are named, not any male partner. They were the leading figures in the churches that met in their houses. This was revolutionary: women were in every way equal with men in the early church. Paul, who had been raised as a Pharisee and was deeply ingrained with traditional attitudes towards women, would have prayed that daily prayer thanking God he had not made him a slave, a Gentile, or a woman. The extent of the revolution that Jesus made in the hearts and lives of his people is seen in Paul’s very explicit statement in Galatians:
“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” [Galatians 3.28] For Paul, as for the early Christians, this was a revolution in their thinking and in their lives, one authorised and confirmed by the Holy Spirit.
But this freedom, this revolution, was largely lost once Christianity was adopted as a state religion by the Roman Empire under Constantine. A great deal of what was later enforced on women was not part of the early church, which was heavily influenced by more traditional attitudes of the status of women in society. There will be those [men] who will dispute this and cite various statements by Paul, or even going back to Genesis, to support their position. It is important that we look at these objections so that we don’t perpetuate the situation which has lost to the Christian Church the contribution of women for so long.