Women in Christian Traditions: a review

A few years ago, a few local churches had a night of worship together to celebrate our unity in Christ. Each church had musicians as well as shared testimonies. One of our local churches had a young woman share a bit about a missions trip she was on and what God had done in her life. Everyone was in good spirits until she opened her Bible and read Scripture. Our host was a Southern Baptist church that is Complementarian, which believes that Eve (a woman) in Genesis was created to be a helper of Adam (a man) and that there is a creative order which means the man is above the woman. They took passages from Paul’s epistles very literally and did not let women teach men the Bible (or, in their case, even read it out loud in a microphone). While the storm didn’t erupt then, this one church made it very clear to the other that what had happened was not acceptable. While I knew of people who have had this sort of view, I had never heard of this extreme of a stance. Though I grew up in a theologically egalitarian tradition, it didn’t continuously operate like it and often ignored its rich history of female leaders and pastors. I have to admit that I had a bias toward male leaders that, as I grew through my twenties, thankfully shifted to where my wife sometimes refers to me as a feminist.

As my theological position has shifted through my study of Scripture, my knowledge of women throughout Christendom was limited. So, as I have gone back to do graduate work at Acadia Divinity College, I was excited to see that I had the option of choosing a piece of my choice to review for Church History. That is why when I saw that I could select Rebecca Moore’s Women in Christian Traditions. I was excited. This well-written book is easy to read, concise, and accessible, requiring minimal prior knowledge. 

While laying out the importance women have played throughout time within the church, Moore begins by laying theological precedence for female leadership by exploring the first three chapters of Genesis and various feminist critics such as Elizabeth Stanton, Phyllis Trible, and Pamela Norris. She notes that :

“Genesis 1 illustrates what is called sex equality or gender equality, in which men and women exist together in a nonhierarchical affiliation.” While some have “argued that Genesis 2 appears to show sex complementarity” (23).

The latter view props up the picture of the negative light often shaded onto Eve as the bringer of sin, which we read about in Gen. 3. While Moore’s first chapter was enlightening, I do have to say that I felt as though it lacked a theological kick in the pants. I was waiting for a rousing argument that just as it was prophesied in Joel, the death of Christ had reconciled all believers. That the endowment of the Holy Spirit negated any “curse” and that there was total equality across gender, race, ethnicity, or social-economic class. However, I realize this is a history book and not a sermon.

As Moore worked her way through history, she began by laying out the theological historiography of female leadership. From the woman of Jesus (31-35) to Mary, mother of Jesus and Mary Magdala, these women have been celebrated and victimized through the patriarchal leadership of the last two-thousand years. Not to be outdone, the women of the Roman Empire take center stage with Pheobe, Prisca, Lydia, Tabitha, and Junia. Moore demonstrates that if there was a problem with women in church leadership roles, Paul seems to be oblivious to it despite some of the more problematic texts in his letters, which Moore masterfully addresses.

Weaving throughout various periods, Moore exposes some of the trouble with works like this as there was/is suppression of women’s works, histories, and the women themselves. Yet, despite the adversity, women such as Empress Helena, Irene of Athens and Theodora, Maria, Marcina, Hilda, Walburga, and Leoba all made lasting contributions to the Christiandom we know. However, it was also the work behind the scenes where

“[w]omen religious also sewed, elaborately embroidering altar cloths, vestments for priests, and coverings for sacred objects” (75).

While I wish the highlights on each woman weren’t mere snapshots, each one exemplifies that no matter how hard humanity tries to suppress what God is doing, glimpses of light pierce through the veil. It could be their visions, which aided in the humanization of Jesus or the support of their husbands like Katherine von Bora and Katherine Schütz Zell. The historic church has demonstrated that the Spirit of God is active and moving, inching the church forward. Women have played a vital role, from Marguerite of Navarre protecting reformers to Jeanne d’Albert leading in the Protestant church, to Anne Hutchinson and Mary Dyer’s prophecies.

The section that I was most excited about was the 19th Century, where we see an undeniable outpouring of the Holy Spirit. As a Pentecostal pastor, this is a critical time in my movement, and women played an essential role. Moore starts the chapter with brief exposés on Kateri Tekakwitha, a Mohawk who became the first Native American saint. We see the pain the church has caused as

“[m]issionaries wanted so-called heathens to conform to Western ideas of civilization, which—either tacitly or explicitly stated—required the destruction of Indian civilization” (110).

Next, there is the story of the mother of the great Wesley boys, Susanna Wesley, who, though she died in the 1700s, influenced her son to let women such as Sarah Crosby and a slew that would follow preach. The person to which I was most intrigued and would like to do more reading on is Maria Fearing. Talk about perseverance, Fearing, growing up as an enslaved person and not having formal education followed her calling to go on the mission field. Though she was denied going, the aging woman showed tenacity in following God selling her house, paying her own way, learning the language of the Congolese she served, and creating a home for orphaned and kidnapped girls. 

Bringing us back around to my Pentecostal roots, while describing various “denominations,” Moore places Shakers, Mormons, Christian Science, Seventh Day Adventist, and Pentecostals in a section together. As the old children’s song goes, one of these things is not like the other. Whether intentional or not, Moore’s clumping of Pentecostals with the “Cults” is problematic and may have to do with brief mentions of only Lucy Farrow and Aimee Semple McPherson. While Moore readily admits,

“[t]he sight of white men kneeling in church before black women in order to receive the Holy Spirit shattered all sorts of cultural fault lines in the early twentieth century, and Pentecostalism today reflects the economic, racial, and ethnic diversity with which it started” (126).

There was an opportunity to highlight the prominent role of women that enabled the Pentecostal movement to become the second-largest Christian movement behind Catholicism in less than 100 years. This brings us to the second missed opportunity. Though she was a little crazy (although, aren’t we all), Aimee Semple McPherson moved the needle. A missionary, megachurch pastor, preaching to thousands, you might say she was the original celebrity pastor. Her creative messages changed how we preach, and she started the Four Square denomination. Yet there is barely a paragraph.

While ending on the most recent past, Moore draws our eyes to semi-current revolutionaries demonstrating that God is using women to establish the kingdom of God across this world. Whether Religious institutions will recognize them or not, women like Corrie ten Boom, Leymah Gbowee, and Victoria Way DeLee have made differences in people’s lives on a global and local scale.

Though the world and the church within it are far from perfect, Moore helps us see the light that pierces through the canvas we shroud the remarkable women of time with. She gives us hope that what God has done in the past will continue in the future, slowly inching us forward to the ideal God designed for us in Genesis 1. I encourage you to give Moore’s book a gander and allow it to challenge and inform.

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