By Miguel De La Torre
When women choose to break out of the restricted social space designated for them, men typically dismiss their contributions by questioning their reputations. When “uppity” women refuse to stay in their place, men attempt to shame them into silence.
The shaming of women into silence is as old as the biblical text. For example, what was Mary of Magdala’s profession prior to following Jesus? Chances are you said she was a prostitute. Yet nowhere in the Bible does it say she was a prostitute, but this is the commonly held belief.
All three synoptic gospels (Matt. 27:55-56; Mark 15:40-41; Luke 24:10) mention Mary of Magdala first among Jesus’ female disciples. Her role, along with other women, must have been important enough to be included as equal to the 12 male apostles (Luke 8:1-3).
Contrary to tradition, which credits Peter as being the first witness of the resurrection (1 Cor. 15:4-6), Mary of Magdala was the first person to whom the risen Lord appeared and the first person to proclaim the good news of the resurrection (Mark 16:9-10).
No doubt, the biblical text and the early writings of the first church testify to the leadership position she held. Nonetheless, as the early Christian church reverted to patriarchal structures, the need arose to discredit Mary of Magdala in order to disqualify her position of authority within the church.
Hence, church tradition constructed by men protecting male privilege named her a prostitute. She became the unnamed “sinful woman” of Luke 7:38 who washed Jesus’ feet with her hair (identified as Mary, the sister of Lazarus and Martha in John 12:3).
Mary of Magdala is not the only woman discredited to protect a patriarchal church. John 4 tells the story of the Samaritan woman at the well. This woman has also been traditionally labeled a prostitute, because she had five husbands and was not married to the man she was with at that time.
It was not her who left these men, however, because she did not have the legal right. Instead they left her. In a patriarchal society, she was in dire need of a man to provide for her basic survival needs.
Although her situation was the result of the actions of these men, and nowhere does the text state that she was a prostitute, we have been historically taught to characterize her as a harlot.
Could it be because this is the first person to whom Jesus claimed his messiahship, leading her to become the first city-wide evangelist? Hence, she too was discredited, lest other women in the church use her as a model in claiming their spiritual calling to lead.
After all, if the woman at the well or Mary of Magdala are sluts and whores (interesting that men are never given these titles), how could they serve as paragons to emulate or have anything virtuous to contribute to the conversation?
Ironically, the early church didn’t think being a woman was an obstacle to serving the Lord. According to Peter, one of the signs of the believing church was when “your sons and daughters prophesy” (Acts 2:17). Recognizing that the word “prophesy” has little to do with predicting future events, to prophesy is to proclaim God’s words to God’s people, what we today call preaching.
The pouring out of God’s Spirit is marked by both men and women preaching God’s word. Women throughout the New Testament occupied leadership positions. Some began churches, as did Lydia of Philippi (Acts 16:14-15). Others were teachers of men, like Priscilla, one of Apollos’ instructors (Acts 18:24-28). Several were preachers, such as the four daughters of Phillip (Acts 21:8-9). Various were church elders — for example, the elect lady in 2 John 1-5.
Paul sends his greetings and encouragement to women who served as deacons (Phoebe, Romans 16:1), as apostles (Junia, Romans 16:7) and as pastors (Priscilla along with her husband, Aquila, in either Ephesus or Rome [Romans 16:3-5], Chloe in either Corinth or Ephesus [1 Cor. 1:11], Nympha in Laodicea [Col. 4:15] and Apphia in Colossae [Philemon 1-2]).
By the third and fourth century of the Christian church, opponents of women clergy succeeded in imposing the prevalent sexism of the secular culture upon the church’s structures, thus bringing to an end the mark of the pouring out of the Spirit, the preaching of their “sons and daughters.”
The early church provided equality to women for church leadership, only to have, within a short time, the gospel message distorted to justify women’s subordination to men and their social structures.
After the Roman Emperor Constantine’s acceptance of Christianity as a state religion, there was a shift in worship practices from private house churches — the domain of women — to public basilicas, the domain of men. As the church moved out of the private sphere, new converts refused to accept women leadership in public life.
Theologians like Augustine began to proclaim women priests as a heresy. By 360, during the Council of Laodicea, women were denied ordination — implying that before this time women were indeed ordained.
As Christianity developed, women were silenced. And when they refused to stay in their place, they were shamed into submission — a pattern that, unfortunately, is too familiar today.