The first place we would expect to see evidence for a patriarchal structure in the church would be in the manual for administering the church used in the 2nd century, The Didache. This book written about 100 CE was early enough and authoritative enough that it almost made it into the bible, and in fact the Ethiopian Orthodox Church even accepts it as canonical (EOC canon).
We find that female submission is mentioned 0 times. On sections dealing with commanding other Christians what we find is that wives aren't even mentioned, "You shall not command your bondservant or your handmaid who trust in the same God as yourself when you are in a bitter mood, for fear that by chance they might cease to fear the God who is over both of you" Every time children are mentioned it is "children" or "sons and daughters". All commands are directed at both husbands and wives.
As a side note the book is also not oriented towards authority but rather values discussion and consensus building, "You shall not make a schism, but you shall pacify them that contend". Authority comes from the congregation, "Appoint for yourselves therefore bishops and deacons worthy of the Lord, men who are meek and do not love of money, and who are true and approved".
It could be argued that male dominance was so clear accepted into the society that there was no need to mention it nor any need to explain to recent converts specific Christian rules governing it. That is, the typical counter argument to an argument from silence. We counter this with our next selection.
Moving forward a generation our pickings become much richer. At this point we could choose any number of Christian authors however we pick an extreme to prove our point and go with Valentinus (See also Wikipedia). Valentinus (100-160) was during his life viewed as an important Christian leader and major Christian philosopher (only Justin Martyr had similar influence). He was almost made pope and came in second to Pope Pius I. His claim to be a student of Theudas (who himself was a student of Paul) in uncontested by early authors. Even his theological enemies Irenaeus and later Tertullian never questioned his genius, his eloquence, his importance or the extent of his following (he had a huge following which grew for over a century after his death and which splintered off into a variety of non catholic Christian and quasi-Christian religions). A direct book of his (The Gospel of Truth) survives and the Pistis Sophia is a classic of the school he founded.
He is interesting for out study because Valentinus is even by modern definitions an egalitarian:
1) He utterly rejected the notion that God was a "father" in the sense of maleness (see Against the Valentinians, Tertullian ) and he even went so far as to popularize a female counterpart of Jesus.
2) He enforced equality within the church between men and woman, Among the Valentinians, women were considered to be equal, or at least nearly equal to men. There were female prophets, teachers, healers, evangelists and even priests. (Pagels The Gnostic Gospels, p 60) (see also Relationship with the Church).
3) He (and his followers) specifically addressed the patriarchal proof texts (for example 1Cor 11) and rules and taught that Paul's use of gender here was purely symbolic. In Valentinus' view the references to female and male were being used as analogies for Pneumatic (higher spiritual) vs. Psychic (lower spiritual) Christianity (i.e. esoteric vs. exoteric). The idea that Paul actually meant that wearing a hat would effect redemption or salvation was rejected out of hand. (Pagels's, Gnostic Exegesis of the Pauline Letters is the classic on this topic)
4) He rejects the notion of male headship entirely. The existence of two sexes is a degeneration of the splitting to syzygy into "male" and "female" parts (they will cleave together and become one flesh). Valentinus would (to use modern language for purposes of exposition) argue that gender is a construct, and would go so far as argue that biological maleness and femaleness are constructs which we will throw off through salvation.
5) He considers Mary Magdalene the greatest of the apostles and and creates a dichotomy between Peter (exoteric Christianity) and Mary (esoteric Christianity).
6) His writing are strongly anti authoritarian: suspicion of tradition, distrust of authority, dislike for dogma and objective statements of faith, and the pitting of the individual against the institution characterize this thinking.
etc... Now, there is no question that within 2 generations the "one God, one Bishop" school of Irenaeus is successful in driving the Valentinians out of the church by the mid 3rd century these ideas are completely rejected by Christianity. However by Irenaeus' own admission the majority of Christians were unable to discern the distinction between the Valentinians and the Orthodox Christians. There is no debate that Valentinians and Orthodox Christians worshipped right beside one another during Irenaeus's day. It is simply impossible that the Orthodox could have been authoritarian, male dominated, family church of the Doug Phillips variety and at the same time the Christians of the day were unable to distinguish them from Valentinian churches. Either Irenaeus is wrong about the types of churches he is attending or Phillips, et al. are wrong about the types of churches that existed.
We now move forward one more generation to 160, and choose a theme which will develop into the core of part 3. A very popular story among Christian woman of the time is the Acts of Paul and Thecla which tells the story of Saint Thecla of Iconium. With a century of her death she spawns the cult of St. Thecla, which spread over East and West, and made her the most famous of virgin martyrs. This book was originally part of the larger Acts of Paul, but this section was much more widely distributed and influential than the original larger work. Acts of Paul and Thecla have been known throughout all of Christian history, while the Acts of Paul were lost till approximately 1901.
The book is so important since it again presents a theology entirely inconsistent with the patriarchal theology. And this book unlike Valentinus above is "mainstream" Christian literature for centuries.
- The story sees marriage as taking one away from salvation. In fact the book essentially asserts salvation through virginity (and thus contains strongly anti family views)
- Specifically praises Thecla for disobeying her family and abandoning her Betrothed to follow Paul (again strongly anti family themes)
- Specifically presents Thecla as an independent Christian teacher / preacher sent out on her mission by Paul (pro woman teaching)
- Blessed are they who keep their flesh undefiled, for they shall be
the temple of God.
- Blessed are they that abandon their secular enjoyments, for they
shall be accepted of God.
- Blessed are they who have wives, as though they had them not, for
they shall be made angels of God.
- Blessed are they, who for the love of Christ abandon the glories of
the world, for they shall judge angels, and be placed at the right
hand of Christ, and shall not suffer the bitterness of the last
- Blessed are the bodies and souls of virgins, for they are acceptable
to God and shall not lose the reward of their virginity, for the
word of their Father shall prove effectual to their salvation in the
day of his Son, and they shall enjoy rest forevermore.
But the woman of pertness, who has usurped the power to teach, will of course not give birth for herself likewise to a right of baptizing, unless some new beast shall arise like the former; so that, just as the one abolished baptism, so some other should in her own right confer it! But if the writings which wrongly go under Paul's name, claim Thecla's example as a licence for women's teaching and baptizing, (Tertullian, On Baptism)This is key because it establishes important aspects of our case (for more detail):
- There were catholic churches where woman were both teaching and baptizing
- The legend of Saint Thecla was understood specifically as authorizing these
Woman's Christian asceticism continued to develop and spread. John of Ephesus was the 6th centuryleader of the Monophysite Syriac-speaking Church, and author of Lives of the Eastern Saints. He traces the Thecla cult directly to the woman's ascetic movement of his day, which is the predecessor of the convent system of the middle ages. This convent system has survived relatively intact even in the modern world. Far from the cult of female virginity being non normative one can make a far better case that Protestantism's abandonment of chastity and virginity being held as an ideal is what is historically non normative for Christianity. 1Cor 7:1-9 hints that it is also non biblical.
And that is the theme we will explore in our next section. A supporter of patriarchy could examine this evidence and argue we looked too early. The world we were examining is before there was a single unified catholic church, before there was a single unified canon of scripture, before there were clear boundaries of ideology and heresy. They might argue the church and Christianity we are speaking about isn't really Christian but more like a proto-Christian church. When they speak of "normative" they meant the Catholic and later Protestant churches. So in the next section we fast forward almost 300 years to end of the Roman Empire when Christianity is a religion with a single hierarchy, a single canon, and a single unified faith and see if we discover Phillips's model of rule by fathers there.