I am taking an History of Christianity class this term and am thoroughly enjoying it! It helps that I'm an enthusiastic debater and the professor requires us to respond to one another's writings! Ha! Tonight, one guy posted a question that went pretty much like this:
The ministry of Jesus was about inclusiveness, peace, and love. His main group consisted of men but many of his followers were women and he did not discriminate against anyone.
Women of less reputable status, such as Mary Magdalene, are mentioned as well as his mother. After his death, the new church became an "exclusively male dominated one and women were denigrated to a subservient role. So my question becomes why did the followers of Jesus, who must have seen their leaders treatment of women decide to place them in this role? Why has it remained to be this way in many denominations of Christianity?"
Here was my response:
I think the question that needs to be asked is: are we interpreting the entire historical past based on the "rights" women think they have been entitled to in just the last 80 years or so? Just because a group of feminists that are only as old as Grandma say that women should have absolutely equal status with men in all things doesn't make it true, nor does it make it what God intends for us.
It is my assumption that women were placed under the leadership of men within the church because that is also the way it was in society. Jesus treated women the way He did because He was setting an example of how people should be treated---not because He was trying to abolish the headship of the men in family, church and other situations. If Jesus had wanted women to take places of leadership over men, He likely would have modeled this by taking on some women in His core group of disciples or placed a woman in charge of his mother just before he died (rather than John---see John 19:26-27). It is only lately that women have got the impression that they are somehow being cheated by the church. Since the beginning of time, I am of the understanding that most Godly women were content to serve as faithful helpers and wise counselors to their fathers and husbands. Proverbs 31 spells out the characteristics of the "virtuous woman" and this used to be the standard for a woman to strive to achieve. It is not against Jesus' message of "inclusiveness, love and peace" for women to serve under the authority of their husbands or fathers.
There are several examples in the New Testament of women being recognized by the newborn Church. Lydia, a founding mother of the Christian church in Europe, lived in Philippi and opened her home as a "home church". When Paul and his group showed up, they were offered a place to stay---a risky and brave act on her part. (Act 16) Acts 18 speaks of Priscilla, the wife of Aquila, who ministered alongside her husband and opened her home with an attitude of Godly hospitality. The Old Testament is full of women who changed history with their faithfulness to God and their husbands: Hannah, Rachel, Rahab... The only Godly woman in the Bible that I can think of who took a leadership role over a man was Deborah and she said so herself that it would be accounted to him as shame. (Judges 4:9)
God's desire for men and women to walk out specific roles is all throughout the Bible. Even at the very beginning of the Bible, God makes their roles evident by putting curses on the specific things that they were "in charge of". Today's society sees these roles as a man domineering over his "subservient" wife. In fact, this is rarely the case. Men are given the responsibility of taking care of their wives and women are given the protection of their husbands. If this is not the way society is functioning then it's because society has chosen to walk off of God's path. If these roles have survived to this day in any denominations of Christianity, it's because people realize that it's a peaceful way to live and it's the way the Bible says God designed it. When lived the way God intended---with a wife respecting her husband and a husband loving his wife (see Ephesians 5)---this can be a very peaceful and fulfilling life for the whole family.
Also, this doesn't really apply to your question but it applies to my answer: I would encourage anyone who's interested to really read about Mary Magdalene before assuming she was a woman of "less reputable status". There is no basis at all in Scripture for her being a former prostitute as many have implied throughout history. The only mention of her former sinful nature is in Luke 8:2, "Mary called Magdalene, out of whom had come seven demons." Many link her up with the prostitute in John 8 whom Jesus "rescues" from stoning. It makes for good romance that Jesus would rescue her and then invite her along for the journey. In fact, He sends that woman off to "go and sin no more". Just because Mary Magdalene was healed of demon possession doesn't mean she was a prostitute. I can think of seven demons in my own life right now---gluttony, fear, coveting, worry, unforgiveness, laziness, judgmental attitude---and I'm as straight-laced as they come! I am mentioning this because it shows something we are all guilty of.
The point that I was trying to make to this guy is that if we bring to this class all our preconceived ideas and thoughts of what so-and-so said, it could block us from learning what history really does tell us about Christianity. We wouldn't form assumptions about science or math---we would search for the most accurate answers. Studying God's word should be a challenge to ourselves to find out what it really has to say---even if we don't like what we find out!
All Scripture taken from:
New King James Version . Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2001.