A Feminist Utopia in the Early Christian Church?

Could Christianity contain the dormant seeds of the postgender utopia described by radical feminists in the 1970s, uncoupling women from reproduction and the domestic sphere?

I havsainte been working on the idea that Christianity transmitted patriarchal notions of gender differentiation as it spread globally from its origins in the Middle East.  Embedded within its salvific message is the naturalisation of the complementarity of the sexes and the divinely ordained ordering of the feminine and masculine, defining how we have come to see the roles of men and women.  I argue that women have fared badly from the cultural influence of Christianity over the centuries and even now in some of its forms there remains ambivalence towards the spiritual equality of women.

Theologians have argued over the New Testament statements that, to modern sensibilities, appear highly misogynist.  How can a woman read these texts and not feel that Christianity is immutably masculine and oppressive? Or feel that her meaning and function are expressed through reproduction and her identity as ‘mother’?

A woman should learn in quietness and full submission.  I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent.  For Adam was formed first, then Eve.  And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner.  But women will be saved through childbearing – if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety  1 Timothy 2:11-15

I realise there are theologians who work to contextualise, contain and ameliorate the effects of these Biblical statements [1] attempting to dull the sexist edge.  In stark contrast, however, is the other New Testament theme; that in Christ there is neither male nor female (for example, Galatians 3:28) – a tantalising vision of androgyny that ought to have swept away oppressive gender differentiation.  Yet androgyny was ignored as a basis for human relations.

Rosemary Radford Ruether [2], a feminist theologian, suggests a radical understanding of how these two opposing paradigms could have been expressed in the early Christian Church, with the subsuming of the liberating de-emphasis of gender in favour of more powerful patriarchal social arrangements as Christianity transitioned from sect to accepted religion.  Her argument suggests that two forms of Christianity developed in its infancy.  The first was centred round the belief in the imminent appearance of the cosmic Christ, who would establish a new heaven and earth, sweeping away old oppressive systems, leading some to eschew the world and prepare for the eschaton – the end times and the beginning of a new order.  These eschatologically-minded Christians, argues Radford Ruether, saw gender as irrelevant, transcended sex and marriage and thus liberated women from the expectations around their reproductive and domestic function.

Since it [was] assumed that the patriarchal hierarchy of family, religion and state was inherent in ‘this world’, early Christians could only imagine a new humanity in which women were included as equals as one where the reproductive role of women was abolished.                                                                                                                 Rosemary Radford Ruether [3]

This idea that early Christians may have sought a postgender earthly pre-eschaton existence, where women were not saved by childbirth at all, that they were not to be considered as other, is an entirely different Christianity to the one that promotes gender complementarity, the ideal of motherhood and the otherness of women.  This is the second Christian paradigm and it won ascendency as time ticked by and there was no sign of imminent cosmic revolution.  Christianity assimilated into the patriarchal culture in which it had been conceived and began the process of embedding this patriarchy into theology and doctrine.  The genderless vision died.

During the 1970s feminist authors explored utopias where gender did not define women’s (or men’s) position, character and ‘natural’ traits.  Shulamith Firestone perhaps provided the best known touchstone for this postgender ideal [4] where, to free women and children from the ‘slavery’ of the patriarchal nuclear family, technology replaces the use of women’s bodies for reproduction and communal parenting dissolves the domestic sphere.  Marge Piercy put the imaginative heartbeat into this vision of a genderless future in her novel ‘Woman on the Edge of Time’.  Babies born in vitro and men sharing the breastfeeding breaks the monopoly that women have over reproduction, but also, for these writers, it is the key to their liberation.  As with eschatological Christian thought suggested by Radford Ruether, women’s equal status is bound up with transcending sexuality and reproduction.

For me, this is only the beginning of asking a question and there will not be agreement amongst feminists about the desirability of androgyny and postgenderism, with or without religious symbols.  Certainly many women derive deep meaning from childbirth and childrearing and would not see the loss of this as any kind of utopia.  What is interesting though, is the process of obscuring the genderless nature of life ‘in Christ’ in favour of rigid differentiation softened only by social progress and the work of theologians who wish to mitigate the worst of the patriarchal statements in Biblical text.  Given that Christianity with its embedded patriarchal notions has influenced western culture so significantly, perhaps an interesting question to ask is: What would that culture look like had the paradigm that did not emphasise gender – in Christ there is neither male nor female – been dominant?

[1] John Temple Bristow (1988).  What Paul Really Said About Women.  (Accessible and short account of the common pro-woman Biblical apologetics)

[2] Radford Ruether (1990) The Liberation of Christology from Patriarchy.  In A. Loades (ed.) Feminist Theology:  A Reader, pp. 138-148

[3] Ibid, p. 143

[4] Shulamith Firestone (1970) The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution




2 thoughts on “A Feminist Utopia in the Early Christian Church?

    1. Sharon Jagger Post author

      Thanks Benjamin! I’m still looking into this but couldn’t wait to get some thoughts down. I’m sure there must be more written about this so I’m on the search!


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