Women & Church History: The Bad Reformation & the Good News {pt.3}

Silencing-Women-duct-tapeThis is a post in an on-going series on Women in the Church.

The past couple of days, we’ve been talking about the historical development of this whole “Women in Church Leadership” idea. in the first post, we talked about why this is so important, and in the second post, we discussed where this change in ideas concerning ordained female leadership happened. Today, let’s talk Reformation and concluding thoughts.

Reforming Everything….Except Women in Ministry

For the majority of Church History, convents were the primary place that females studied, taught, and became theological powerhouses. This is where women were equipped with doctrine and skills such that they (like they still do) challenged a lot of the ideas of the priests and bishops, critiqued the power structure that dominated the male leadership, and continually re-oriented the Church towards Mercy and Justice. Priests and Bishops consulted with nuns throughout history for biblical interpretation and pastoral advice.

Ironically, it was the Reformation that ended this for women and set the stage for the situation we have today.

Luther famously shut down and “liberated” the convents, sending women out of their places of education and into the home. In fact, the phrase “a woman’s place is in the home” has its origin in Luther (as far as I could find). Destroying the convents destroyed one of the only places from which it was okay for women to exert significant presence in the institution of the Church.

With the Reformation, men took over the final bastions of leadership in the Church, and haven’t given it back since. They applied to this topic their belief in their own personal, authoritative interpretations of new vernacular translations and made it into dogma.

It’s ironic that even the “big bad repressive Catholic Church” has maintained a place for women to challenge its assumptions. In the past few election cycles, nuns have found themselves in vocal, prominent opposition to the bishops in various political issues. And yet, in those traditions that came out of the Reformation, they not only restrict female influence in the Church, but have no institutional place for them at all!

In a way, Catrholic female leaders are continuing their prophetic mantle to help the Church keep her course straight. Even if they are not ordained by men, they are (in my opinion) ordained by the Spirit of God.

And the Spirit will have his way.

The Good News for Women in Our History

I mentioned this in one of my earlier posts beginning this series but the real answer to the question “Where have all the female church leaders been in Church History?” is this: Everywhere.

God loves his daughters in the Church and much of the magazine issue from which much of my research came consists in story after story of faithful women who led in the Church, even when the institution wouldn’t recognize their authority and gifting.

Just as I believe that the Holy Spirit has still been exercising his gifts in the Church, even when people don’t recognize them as such, I believe the Holy Spirit has ordained and used women throughout our history in spite of the structures that restrict them.

Any of us that have grown up in the Christian Church can probably point to those women that more or less served as functional elders and deacons. There have been women throughout Church History that have spoken into lives, led, and inspired fidelity to the Gospel in both men and women.

Jerome would refer priests and bishops to women to help them with hermeneutical problems. Augustine said that “any old Christian woman” was smarter and more able than most philosophers of his day. Catherine of Alexandria is the patron saint of scholars and philosophers (a woman!), and was killed for having debated 50 pagan philosophers at once and won them all to Christ.

The first Christian writing by a woman that we have is the journal of an imprisoned 22-year old named Perpetua who is about to be martyred for her faith. On the night before she faces her death, she has a dream where she is thrust into an auditorium and told by the angels at the Gate of Heaven to fight an enemy. This is what she says:

We drew close to one another and began to let our fists fly. My opponent tried to get hold of my feet, but I kept striking him in the face with the heels of my feet. Then I was raised up into the air and I began to pummel him without as it were touching the ground. Then when I noticed there was a lull, I put my two hands together linking the fingers of one hand with those of the other and thus I got hold of his head. He fell flat on his face and I stepped on his head.

The crowd began to shout and my assistants started to sing psalms…. I began to walk in triumph towards the Gate of Life. Then I awoke. I realized that it was not with wild animals that I would fight but with the Devil, but I knew that I would win the victory.

And we wouldn’t ordain any of these women? You wouldn’t want to hear a sermon by Perpetua?

Regardless, women have been a powerful presence in the and life of the Church.


So what do we make of all of this? This is still difficult for us moderns on a number of levels. Nowadays, radical, widespread ideological shifts can happen in a matter of a few election cycles. We’re not use to ideas that shift for temporary cultural reasons, and then just stay that way for thousands of years–even if they’re wrong.

This is definitely one way that technology has shaped and changed us. Just 150 years ago, the last battle of the Civil War happened in Texas weeks after the final treaties were signed, because they hadn’t received word yet that the war was over. In the full scope of history, news, ideas, and change have traveled and trickled into the world quite slowly.

Like I said in the first part of this “mini-series”, this whole idea that biblically faithful men and women could have been so wrong for so long, is a human issue, not a “conservative” or “liberal” one.

Ideas about genocide, slavery, racism, and sexism– ideas that the contemporary world finds abhorrent– have been the major parts of the human story for a lot longer than women have been restricted from church leadership. Ironically, it’s the conservative Christians that beat the drum against moral and cultural relativity, and would say that those old human views were objectively wrong, no matter how many people held those views and for how long. And yet, when it comes to the possibility there might be some vestiges of that in our own modern, “enlightened” selves, they don’t give it a thought.

Maybe the real question I want to raise in these posts, then, is not so much “has the church been wrong on women?”, but rather “do we even think it’s possible for the Church to have read anything so wrongly for so long and so widely?”

If I’m fighting for these posts to accomplish anything, I guess it’s not to try and convince people of the whole “women in ministry” thing so much as to instill a “reasonable doubt” and critical realism to how we understand the historical development of this issue. If we can accomplish that, then maybe we can actually approach the discussion and the biblical text with some level of measured humility.

And then maybe I can start to convince them.

5 thoughts on “Women & Church History: The Bad Reformation & the Good News {pt.3}

  1. Pingback: Women & Church History: The Bad Reformation & the Good News {pt.3} | the long way home | Prodigal Paul

  2. Great post, thanks! Always good to hear support for a ministry that doesn’t exclude half of its workers. However, we’d be wrong to forget the role of many strong women in the Reformation, such as Marguerite of Navarre (sister of Francis the 1st), Jeanne of Albret (mother of Henri the IVth of France) and of course Elizabeth the 1st, who fought for the cause of the Reformation.


  3. Pingback: I have found the Holy Grail against women in leadership, and I am ruined | the long way home | Prodigal Paul

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