Religion’s Egalitarianism Impulse

Most cultures have been patriarchal, and the world’s religions have for the most part sanctified patriarchy, legitimating it in their teaching and practice. I illustrate with Christianity, the religion I know best.

In most Christian cultures, women:
* Have been taught to be subordinate to their husbands.
* Have been blamed for the presence of sin in the world.
* As late as the 19th century,  could not inherit or own property, or initiate divorce.
* Until very recently, could not be ordained as clergy.
* Were sometimes persecuted with the blessing of the church (estimates of the number of women executed as “witches” vary widely, though clearly it happened a lot).

The exceptions: In the formative periods of some of the world’s religions, especially those that began with a founding figure, the status of women was more egalitarian. I have been told that the status of women in very early Buddhist communities was higher than in later Buddhist cultures. So also, some Muslim scholars affirm that Prophet Muhammad assigned to women a more egalitarian role than what developed later in many traditional Muslim cultures.

Such seems to be the case in early Christianity as well, for Jesus and Paul. Though there was a reaction to this in some documents of the New Testament itself, early Christianity for the first few centuries offered a status and opportunity to women quite different from surrounding cultures.

Why did this change? In a sentence: because of the “drag” of culture, of civilization. As these new religious movements grew and involved more and more of the population, traditional cultural conventions crept back into the religions.

Recent developments are to be commended, even as we need to recognize that they were long overdue. It was only about forty years ago that many mainline Christian denominations began to ordain women. But we now have a woman Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church. The full and equal status of women is not only one of the fruits of modernity, but consistent with the originative impulse of Christianity.

Originally posted on the Washington Post website.



  1. Robert J. Chuck

    I see men’s prejudice of women starting because of the misperception of the Garden of Eden. The Garden–as most commonly understood–established the experience of shame as an indicator of a violation of God’s will. Simply, to experience shame meant that one had sinned. This perception was further ingrained under law where shame was experienced whenever the law was violated. But obedience to the law could not destroy the experience of shame no matter how hard they tried. The experience actually happens when we try to satisfy the Primary Interpersonal Need in this which is seen. The Personal Relationship component toward the satifaction of the PIN was not provided until Christ came–and went.
    But the Old Testament Israelites attributed the occurrence of shame to sin. But the experience of shame is relative to each individual self. It was the consensus of the men–that whatever was causing them shame was therefore considered sinful. Basically it was from the view point of whoever was more heirarchically endowed that then got to determine what was sinful. e.g. kings/subjects, parents/children, husbands/wives

  2. The concept of the egalitarian impulse of early religions is consistent with my study of women and religion. I find Chuck’s insight interesting. If I understand him correctly, men have inadvertently blamed women for the shame they felt upon sinning, sin being an evidence of the disobedience to God’s law. Men have done this since they have been dominant in society.
    Religion begins with a message of empowerment but then is usurped by those in power in the society as a culture interprets the religion through its particular paradigm. Since the Church, through Constantine, became a dominating force, women in the religion became dominated. As the gospel of Jesus Christ continues to be liberated from those in power, women and others who have been marginalized thoughout the centuries, will continue to be empowered.

  3. I think the understanding of the purpose of social roles for men and women has been forgotten. In pre-historic hunter-gatherer societies the woman’s place was in camp, caring for the children not because they were the weaker but because they were the only ones who could care for the children. Men were the hunters and warriors not only because they were bigger and stronger but because they were expendable. This is terribly simplistic, I know, but I think as we evolved the purpose of those traditional roles became less important but have never the less remained and reasons needed to be, shall we say, invented?

  4. Men and women’s roles are always being challenged in the church. For one, when God made family, man was head under God, then women, then the children. I see my role as a woman from what I read in the Bible and being second in command of my home and whatever business my husband is in, unless he decides otherwise. But we are both partners when it comes to rearing the children and supporting one another. Two halves making a whole, we compliment each other. We both know how far to go when it comes to submission. There are a great number of women who did not ask to take on a leadership role, but God knew what he was doing when he made us. He knew that if we had to, we would take on the role of leader until such is said differently if he allows us or has us married (unless widowed) at such a time.

    Women are not animals nor slaves. God sees women as precious because we are the doors of life. We birth the kings and queens of this world. So we should have some type of leadership role and some say as to how and what we feel. Not overtaking the man’s role, but to also be recognized and included in decisions being made regarding the house and whatever business the man has the woman included in. Women are not to be treated like children.

    So the sexist commentary of some of the churches of today can be wrong in interpreting the woman’s role. We were domesticated because of sin. We were not domesticated before sin. We have pain in child bearing because of sin. We did not suffer before sin. We were made equal with the man before sin. Not after. So we suffer because of sin but yet God gives us grace and mercy to get it right before him and to do things right.

    Proverbs chapter 31:10-31 speaks of a virtuous woman. One that every man would desire their spouse to be – we as women strive to be this way, at least some of us. But she really is running things if you really take the time to understand this chapter. She is paying his bills for him, handling his finances for him. Basically she runs her house where the man totally trust her. A woman’s role usually is misinterpreted.

  5. The question of the oppression of women by men has generated little rational discussion. I must agree that organized religion has contributed to the problem more than it has help, and that the early church was quite egalitarian and that a combination of cultural influences and response to persecution mitigated that impulse, but did not quite destroy it. The emphasis on the holiness of virginity, for example, was scandalous to the pagans because it left men out of the equation and threatened the stability of the world order. In a word, celibacy was revolutionary, even subversive, in the first centuries (the Middle Ages were a different matter). And celibacy could still be revolutionary in our day for different reasons.
    There is much misguided opposition to the equality of women within the church, but there are also many misguided concepts of what equality of women and men would mean. The chief error of our time seems to be to try to make women like men rather than making both men and women like Christ. We have all taken our eyes off the goal; if we hadn’t, the question of the equality of women, of the roles for men and women, would never have existed. We should all have been aiming at the same thing.

  6. Hi Marcus,

    Not only is sexism a problem in most of the evangelical Christian world (the sector that I come from) but sometimes racism and classism is impled in the theological statements that I have observed in such churches.

    We don’t hold to slavery any more but complementariansim prevails over egalitarianism in most of these churches and, in my view, the hermenuetical strategies adopted by complementarians seems awfully similar to the kinds of hermeneutical strategies adopted by those that supported slavery.

    I am of the view that there are different points of view on almost any topic in the bible, but if I see the story as a story with direction whose central story is the story of Jesus, then I think that this central story provides some basis for egalitarianism, if I apply critical techniques and only accept as coming from Jesus that which has multiple attestation of coheres with it.

    I know I may be mistaken on this as I am just an ordinary Christian, but I cannot support an evangelicalism that denies egalitarianism. To get peace of mind, I resigned my membership in a conservative Baptist church, a few years back. Nice to find your blog, yesterday.

    May God continue to inspire, uplift and encourage you in your service to others.

    John Arthur