Women in Christianity by Hans Küng (Continuum, 2005) presents a panoramic view of women in the faith, from its inception in the time and ministry of Jesus to the modern era. The bright promise of the down-to-earth yet mystical faith of Jesus, with its radical inclusiveness, proved challenging to later generations of Christians. The central role of women in the community of the faithful was like a flame that was in danger of extinction as Christianity grew throughout time and transitioned from a rural setting to the great cities of the Roman empire.
In the early church participation of women in teaching, proclamation, administration, and outreach, took root and flourished. This is well attested by Paul’s inclusive stance and cannot be denied or uprooted.
In a wrong turn, some early church leaders used portions of the New Testament to overshadow and gradually obliterate the leadership of women so well-attested in the biblical documents. Misogynist comments by influential church writers seeped into religious consciousness and began to harm women in every phase of their existence.
Augustine, as well as Thomas Aquinas, marred their own legacies by expressing a negative view of sexual activity that implicated and blamed women as accessories. Females were viewed as existentially inferior to men—physically, intellectually, and spiritually.
Not all developments were negative for women. In the Middle Ages religious orders were an attractive option for women outside of marriage, offering education and a sphere of influence.
Hans Küng traces the effect of the Reformation, especially as it affirmed marriage as an option for the clergy, and the spiritual, if not social, equality of the sexes.
A sad and sorrowful aspect of Christian history is the witch-hunt craze of the 15th to the 18th centuries. Ignorance and misinformation fueled the flames in which perhaps 100,000 victims perished. This phenomenon was an offshoot of xenophobia that victimized Jews as well.
It was ultimately the Enlightenment, a secular development, that ended the trials and burning of “witches.” In other words, the power of the church was offset and contained by limits imposed by the secular government.
Finally, Küng outlines what the church must do to keep pace with the new social consciousness. Women in leadership roles at all levels of church governance should be supported and the insights of “feminist theology” be universally known. In taking these steps, the church will come full circle to the radical egalitarianism of the incipient church of the gospels and the Spirit-filled, dauntless church of the New Testament era.
In pondering the history of women in Christianity I am struck by the revolutionary nature of their role in the nascent church, and how Jesus, a rural preacher and healer, and Paul, an urban intellectual, facilitated their leadership. Geographically, culturally, personally, and temperamentally, the two men could not have been more different. In a mighty work of the Holy Spirit, they both engaged women as full partners in proclamation of the Kingdom of God. Küng does not minimize or excuse the misogyny that marred the history of Christianity and impeded the intention of God. This readable, concise, 135-page book includes 24 pages of notes and sources that will invite you to read further.