The phrase “women disciples of the Lord” is enough of a commonplace in Orthodox hymnography that it moves past the modern ear with little notice. It seems simply obvious at even a surface reading of the gospels that Christ had a number of followers, and that some of them were women. Contained within this brief phrase, and in the use of the word disciple, however, is a massive transformation in the way in which women were viewed in the ancient world, and their perceived role within the Christian community. As in a previous post, in the person of Jesus Christ, priesthood is reunited with masculinity as a calling, so too in the revelation of Jesus Christ attested by the New Testament, there is a restoration of womanhood taking place.
In the surrounding pagan world, women were looked upon in dismal terms. Aristotle, for example, argues that all human developing in the womb attempt to become males, that males represent the fullness of human nature. Some fail and are born as women. For Aristotle and those following him, womanhood is for all intents and purposes a birth defect. In his Symposium, Plato provides the philosophical underpinnings of the widespread pederasty and, in rarer cases, adult male homosexuality. While for Socrates in the Symposium, women, like Socrates’ own wife, are necessary to produce male heirs, a man can only experience true love with an equal, another male. These pagan conceptions lived on in paganized Christianity, namely Gnosticism. The final logion of the Gospel of Thomas, for example, states that women are not worthy of life, but that Christ will teach women how to become male.
The perception of women in the Jewish communities of the first century was not significantly better. Despite the seeming clarity in the creation stories that both male and female human persons are created in the image of God (Gen 1:27), despite the clarity in the story of the fall that male domination of women was a product of sin (Gen 3:16), women were still looked upon as a derivative, if not inferior, form of humanity that existed to service men. The Jewish view of women might be best summed up in Sirach 25:16-26. As v. 24 says, “Sin began with woman, and because of her, we all die.” Sirach’s proposed solution to this problem in v. 26 is, “If she will not go according to your direction, separate her from your flesh.” For Sirach, and for most other Jewish writers in this period, Eve is the last word on womanhood, and so women represent a danger, a temptation, a means by which sin and misery can enter into a man’s life. While they were open to the possibility of a good woman or a good wife, at whatever point a woman showed herself to be otherwise in the mind of her husband, the sages advise divorce. It is likely this view that lies behind the question posed to Christ in Matt 19:3, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any reason (lit. all causes)?” Though there was no such place in the Tabernacle as laid out by God himself (cf. Ex 38:8), the Jerusalem temple had a ‘court of women’, which was as close as women were allowed to draw to the center of worship, one step inward from the court of the Gentiles.
A fundamental shift has taken place by the time the New Testament documents are written. In 1 Timothy 2:13-14, St. Paul seems to be on a similar trajectory to that of Sirach, pointing out that he does not allow women to exercise authority over men in the church because Adam was created before Eve, and Eve sinned before Adam. However, in v. 15, the change in the state of affairs is signaled by a change in subject, as St. Paul says, “but she will be saved by childbearing if they continue in faith and love and holiness with wisdom.” The subject of the first verb, ‘to be saved’ is singular, and can only be referring back to Eve in the previous two verses. The remainder of v. 15 then shifts to ‘they’ as the subject. St. Paul here states that Eve, that woman, will be saved, in the future tense, through the bearing of a child. As this is not in the past tense, it cannot be referring to Eve herself giving birth. It thus becomes very clear that St. Paul is here referring to the birth of Christ, born of a woman (Gal 4:4), as the seed of Gen 3:15. A new word has been spoken regarding womanhood, a better word than that of Eve, by the Theotokos. Women are now therefore called to emulate not their first mother who sinned, but the mother of Christ, by following her in a life of faith, love, and holiness with wisdom. St. Paul is here laying out the pattern of discipleship as it is fulfilled in women, just as in men. All of the barriers which stood between Gentiles, women, and men and God are now abolished not by the physical destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, but in Christ (Gal 3:26-28).
Discipleship was not possible for women outside of Christianity at this point in history. The tiny handful of women who were admitted to philosophical study stand out precisely as exceptions, and even four centuries later it was an exceptional woman who could receive educated stature in the pagan world. Women were considered to be incapable of advanced learning. Yet we see Christ embracing and endorsing Mary’s sitting at his feet, an idiom for discipleship, and listening to him rather than being about ‘women’s work’ (Luke 10:38-42). Similarly, St. Paul’s words in 1 Cor 14:34-35 are often taken out of their original historical context. Because women were viewed as unable to be fully educated, they were largely ignored in the synagogue context, while men were those who heard the word of the Lord and received instruction in the things of God from teachers. That the silence St. Paul wishes to impose on women is aimed at their receiving teaching is made clear by v. 35, in which St. Paul says that if there are things which they wish to learn, from the same root as discipleship, they ought to ask their husband in the home. St. Paul here makes it a responsibility of a husband, who in that historical context had far more opportunities for education, the gaining of knowledge, and discipleship, to pass on that knowledge to his wife, who lacks those opportunities. Further, he encourages women to actively seek to learn, to be disciples, and to grow in their own faith and understanding. From the very beginning of the Church’s history, women martyrs and holy mothers have been praised for their virtue in Christ in the same way in which male martyrs and holy fathers are.
In the Old Covenant, men were circumcised, women had no similar symbol of membership in the community. In the New Covenant, as St. Paul points out (Gal 3:26-28), both men and women are baptized into Christ. Both men and women, created in his image, are being conformed to his likeness. This in no way, however, abolishes the distinction between men and women. St. Paul urges older women in the community to teach younger women (Tit 2:3-5) not because this is a task which is beneath male leaders, but because women are able to minister to other women in a way which men cannot. We see this reflected at the very earliest stage of the life of the Church, in Acts 1:12-14, as the named figures among the 120 followers of Christ are the 11 apostles, who exercise leadership in the community, and Mary, the mother of Jesus, who is exercising a leadership of spiritual motherhood among the women disciples. It is for this reason that female monastic communities are led not by hieromonks, but by abbesses, by spiritual mothers. These holy mothers have never been made priests, because spiritual fatherhood, priesthood, and spiritual motherhood are different in type. This was the basis of the order of deaconesses, which was a unique office, not merely an admission of women to the male diaconate, consisting of women ministering to other women.
Contra the Gospel of Thomas, women do not find salvation by becoming men. They do not lead in the Christian community by attempting to mimic spiritual fatherhood, or fill a role to which men are called. Far greater than this, women disciples offer a unique ministry, a unique form of leadership in spiritual motherhood, and a different set of gifts grounded in their womanhood. In his creating work, God blessed both man and woman, and called both man and woman very good. As men find their fulfillment in spiritual fatherhood, in priesthood, women find their fulfillment in spiritual motherhood. And so, manhood and womanhood, rather than being done away with in Christ, are both made beautiful and glorified in him.