Talking about a revolution: what happened?

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The revolution which changed the lives of so many people from so many different backgrounds in the early days of Christianity is clearly seen in the pages of the New Testament. The amazing statement by Paul in his letter to the 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], may not seem like a major issue to us, but it certainly was in his day. And, to be honest, it really should be a major issue today also, given the way in which the role of women in the Church has been degraded since then.

What happened? The Acts and Paul’s letters show a community in which women were equal members of the Body of Christ. Some are referred to as Apostles, others are leading fellowships in their homes. The status of women reflected the manner in which they had been treated by Jesus during his ministry, so why did that change?

The early Church was not without conflict and issues which threatened to divide. The first Christians were all Jews by birth, and the acceptance of non-Jews – Gentiles – was not an easy process. When Peter was instructed by the Holy Spirit to go to the house of Cornelius and share the Gospel with them, he was astonished when the Spirit fell on these Gentiles and said: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism”. [Acts 10.34]. He had to explain himself to the other Apostles as to why he had agreed to baptise Gentiles:

“So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him and said, ‘You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them’…’As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit came on them as he had come on us at the beginning. Then I remembered what the Lord had said: ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ So if God gave them the same gift he gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could stand in God’s way?’ When they heard this, they had no further objections and praised God, saying, ‘So then, even to Gentiles God has granted repentance that leads to life.’ [Acts 11.3, 15-18]

But this was not universally accepted by Jewish believers. They found it hard to leave behind the ceremonies and traditions of the Old Testament in return for the comparatively plain and simple fellowship in the Holy Spirit. Paul’s letters are very often written to encourage believers not to return to the old ways, and the letter to the Hebrews is based entirely on this issue. One of the aspects of the new Way was the emergence of women as equal parties in the Body of Christ. This battle went on for some decades and it may be said that the winners of that conflict were the traditionalists. Women gradually lost their status in the Body, especially after the Roman Empire adopted Christianity as the state religion. At that point, the faithful believers withdrew into separate fellowships, while the “official” church took on all the trappings of the old Roman religious rituals.

The rationale for removing women from their revolutionary role in ministry had to be found, and a number of scriptural references came to be favoured by the counter-revolution. This introduced some serious debates about the authority of Scripture itself: how inspired was it when it came to translations and interpretations? The Christians who believed in that authority, and who looked to documents like Acts and the letters of the New Testament were countered by those who put tradition on at least an equal footing with Scripture, or who cited Old Testament verses to support their position.

Christians need to examine what exactly was said in Scripture on this issue: not on justifications and rationalisations for changes made to the way the Holy Spirit led in the years after Pentecost. There should never be discrimination between believers based on race, ethnicity, age, or anything else, including gender. All things need to be in accordance with the way the Lord laid down in his own ministry, and in the days when his people were free from traditional bonds and social conventions. To do that, we need to look to the Word and understand the world in which those early Christians lived, as well as the one we live in today. We need to counter the counter-revolution that has handicapped us for too long.

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