Gender and religion
There are things we see but don’t pay attention to. We can never bring about lasting change until we really pay attention.
Some highlights from a recent study of gender gap in world religions…
Standard lists of history’s most influential religious leaders tend to be predominantly, if not exclusively, male. Yet it often appears that the ranks of the faithful are dominated by women. Why?
On all the standard measures of religious commitment examined in the study, Christian women are more religious than Christian men.
For example, in the United States women are more likely than men to say:
- religion is “very important” in their lives
- they pray daily and attend religious services at least once a week 1
According to media accounts, women so outnumber men in the pews of many U.S. churches that some clergy have changed decor, music, and worship styles to try to bring more men into their congregations.
How and why men and women differ in religious commitment has been a topic of scholarly debate for decades.
Women in the early church
One of the best-kept secrets in Christianity is the enormous role that women played in the early church.
Matthew, Mark, and Luke all record that a significant group of women had followed Jesus in his Galilean ministry. Luke’s gospel in particular is often referred to as the Gospel of Women since it has so many references.
It is clear that they were present at his execution—when the male disciples were conspicuously absent. We know women were major witnesses to his resurrection.
The letters of Paul
Paul, writing before the Gospels were written, tells of women who were the leaders of “house churches” (Apphia in Philemon 2; Prisca in I Corinthians 16:19). Women held offices and played significant roles in group worship. Paul, for example, greets a deacon named Phoebe (Romans 16:1) and assumes that women are praying and prophesying during worship (I Corinthians 11).
The book of Acts
Luke’s follow-up to his gospel is peppered with stories of women – tradeswomen, business leaders, intellectuals, household servants– and they’re essential to the church’s understanding of itself in any era or culture.
Two quick examples:
Lydia of Thyatira Acts 16:14 If there had been a Forbes index of top female CEOs in the empire, Lydia would’ve ranked high on the list. Once she was converted to Christ, she placed her home and considerable resources at the disposal of Paul and his ministry team, even after they had been released from prison. In doing so, she provided a bridgehead for the apostle’s mission as it moved down into Greece and eventually across Europe.
Researchers indicate that Damaris the Areopagite Acts 17:34 Damaris was apparently well known in the rarefied air of Greek academia and high culture.
These two women, leading lights of Greco-Roman society, showed that the Gospel reached beyond the poor and disenfranchised to everyone, regardless of gender or social class. Moreover, they would have been able to speak truth and minister in avenues that were off-limits to most believers of their time.
Priscilla Acts 18:1-28 Compared to Damaris or Lydia, Priscilla occupied a relatively modest niche in 1st-century Roman society.
However, Priscilla and Aquila are always mentioned together, suggesting they were equal partners in life, business and ministry. She took an active role in training Apollos, preparing him to be a powerful advocate for the Gospel in Ephesus, Achaia, and beyond.
How much of this history were you conscious of?
Question for today
- Why aren’t we more conscious of the role these women played in the early church?
- Do you (personally) know any women whose stories should be receiving greater attention today?
[An adaptation of a post that originally appeared on Vincentian Mindwalk.]