Can the Church Reconcile with it’s Own Victims? (Part 1)

Like almost every human endeavor, the approximately 2000 years of Christianity have periodically been marred by brutal and violent events, and have been fraught with human failures.  Historically, the church[1] has been both oppressed by the prevailing society within which it existed and oppressive during the many times when it represented the dominant culture. Its checkered and sometimes sordid history has led to the propagation of an amazing number of denominations, with competing factions within them, which have varying levels of difficulty co-existing due to dogma, doctrine and/or practice. Within this history the church has perpetrated social violence, in the name of God, that has had lasting and debilitating consequences for the victims  – many times, if not all, in concert with the dominant political powers of the various cultures within which it has functioned. Can the church truly reconcile with the victims of its past, aiding in the healing of centuries of violence? The goal of this paper is to examine the possibilities that may exist for reconciliation.

An examination of the significance history has played in bringing the church to its present state is clearly necessary. This history, because of the subject, will concentrate heavily on negative events, leaving some no doubt feeling that it may be biased. Some of the more positive aspects of church history will be discussed as potential solutions to the problems that have faced the church. Violence is also a concept that needs revisited.

In addition to the classic understanding of violence as “physical force exerted for the purpose of violating, damaging, or abusing” it can be comprehended as “abuse or injury to meaning, content, or intent.”[2] While this latter definition is usually used in connection with literature or art, it can be used to describe a more heinous nature of oppression in which memory, identity and meaning are manipulated to falsify the record or history of whole populations or groups of people. This includes cultural genocide as well as physical; gender denigration as well as rape and murder; deliberate proliferation of misinformation and harmful stereotypes as well as individual acts of retaliation.

Violence, then, is not simply a physical act, but also the intent behind actions when seeking to marginalize groups or eradicate cultural memory and identity. Within these caveats, and for the purpose of using examples to examine the behavior of the church, its history will be discussed with respect to two primary groups – women and non-Europeans – as well as a brief excursion into theological development.

The exact beginning of the church is difficult to define, but many consider it to be at the Jewish festival of Pentecost, circa 33 C.E, as described in Acts 2:1-13. Initially being a sect or sects within Judaism, it is impossible to categorize the myriad styles found in the early church into one reproducible characteristic.  Despite the variety of beliefs and practices, however, the church was, in many respects, radically different from its surrounding cultures, whether Greco-Roman, Egyptian, or Persian.  It actively engaged in a social ethic of servant care for the poor, orphaned, oppressed and widowed that stood in stark contrast to its environment.

However, the Gospel of Matthew, which includes polemics against the outsider groups of Jews and Gentiles, attests that the early Judeo-Christian communities had already become embroiled in insider-outsider politics before the end of the first century.[3] These divisions were largely based on “right” observance of Torah and ritual, but not on other characteristics such as race. More generally, many considered early saints and church leaders came from various ethnic and geographic backgrounds. Christian communities developed around the Mediterranean from Northern Africa all the way to Spain. Some of the most famous early Christian theologians included Augustine, from what is now modern Algeria, Athanasius from Alexandria in Egypt, and Polycarp from Asia Minor, now Turkey.

This same indifference to differences of ethnicity cannot be claimed when it comes to gender, however. Within the first three hundred years of Christian history, attitudes developed that severely, if not totally, denied the participation of women in the church. As will be shown, to a very large extent this required an intentional sanitation of history that still continues to this day. Feminist theologians, since the middle of the last century, have shown that there was actually no absence of female leadership in the Christian communities, but simply what appeared to be deliberate modification or erasure of the record.

Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza’s article about Romans Chapter 16 forcefully argued against the perennially accepted model of the early Christian church as having exclusively male leadership.[4] In short, Paul used grammatically masculine language, as was the norm. While male nouns and pronouns used in the Bible, “man” and “he” for example, have long been interpreted as inclusive when used in a plural sense, these same words are interpreted as masculine specific in the singular, especially when used in regard to leadership, ministry or mission.[5] 

This linguistic norm begs the question of whether the message of male domination results from original intent or subsequent interpretation. In relation to Paul’s writing about church leaders in Romans 16, Fiorenza demonstrated that Paul’s remarks concerning Phoebe were made using the same language and gender that he used for male church leaders, indicating in profound detail that she was actually a deacon, and not just a helper.[6] In the same article, Fiorenza also showed that Prisca (Priscilla used diminutively in Acts) was among the “brothers” – leaders of the church – who wrote the letter of recommendation for Apollos in Acts 18:27.

Now, if these attitudes were not present in the early church, at what point did they develop? Consider some of the recorded sentiments of the church fathers with regard to women:

“St. Clement of Alexandria (150-215 CE) … ‘the consciousness of [women’s] own nature must evoke feelings of shame.’ Tertullian (160-225 CE) … called women ‘the devil’s gateway’. Origen (185-254 CE) is well known for his hatred of sex and women … he castrated himself in his quest to achieve Christian perfection … [he] weaved together the Christian hatred for women and abhorrence for the sexual act into one system … St. Ambrose (339-397 CE)… ‘Remember that God took the rib out of Adam’s body, not a part of his soul, to make her. She was not made in the image of God, like man.’ Jerome (342-420 CE) called women the ‘root of all evil’. The list goes on and on and includes other ‘fathers’ like John Chrystostom and Augustine of Hippo. … one has to wonder at the psychological profiles of these individuals who, had it not been that their aberrant views were comfortable to men because they reinforced some long-standing cultural biases, would have been considered insane in any other age or context. To say that these individuals simply embellished lessons of scripture … lessens the impact these men had on theological thought. These misogynist men … found places of power and importance in Christian culture and have been considered primary interpreters and commentators of Christian faith for the church through the ages, despite having raped the scriptures by interpretation through the lenses of their own bias and hatred.”[7]

Besides exposing an obvious misogynist tendency, the all-male tradition appears to have developed in order to have the Christian communities more closely resemble dominant culture and, therefore, be less conspicuous to authorities. Caroline Osiek believes there may be a subtle message in the ordering of the Haustafeln (Eph 5:21-6:9) that still maintained some difference with the predominantly Hellenistic society[8]. It is conceivable that pressures mounted to move Christian communities back towards more traditional organization, requiring mitigating Jesus’, and Paul’s subsequent but less palpable, moves towards egalitarianism.

Some early Christian leaders, by opportunistically taking advantage of this development, may have sought to preserve the fledgling Christian institution, garner political clout and provide for their own safety and well-being – in short, to gain personal advantage. Additionally, Karen L. King, Professor of New Testament Studies and the History of Ancient Christianity at Harvard University in the Divinity School, revealed the range of newly uncovered material that reflect a deliberate attempt to obliterate women from the history of theological and ecclesiastical development.[9] She cites myriad examples of women being edited out of Biblical significance through their depiction as women of ill repute, key women in the early church being labeled heretics, and even strong willed, independent women in later centuries being convicted and burned as witches.

This tendency to make women’s contributions to theology invisible continued into the 20th century. Jurgen Moltmann described how Karl Barth, the famous theologian, after having written dialogue and disagreements with Henriette Visser ‘T Hooft throughout the 1930’s over women’s roles in church, used Visser ‘T Hooft’s arguments without scholarly citation in his Doctrine of Creation (Church Dogmatics III/4).[10]

Women’s voices, roles and very lives have been historically sacrificed for the benefit of male dominance in church history and theology. Even today, the norm in many protestant churches is that women serve primarily on Christian education and auxiliary committees, while having little to no representation on the governing and financial committees of local churches despite making up the majority of churchgoers. Further, in many denominations, women are yet excluded from ministry and elder positions.

Within seminaries, United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities is considered to be one of the most progressive and “woman-friendly”. With the vast majority of its students and faculty being women, however, the seminary had in recent history still maintained a two-thirds male majority on the Board of Trustees and male dominated upper management. This has recently been changing.

In approximately 312 CE a change occurred that drastically altered the role of the church in the world; Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire due to Constantine’s conversion. The transformation from being an organization in contrast with the dominant culture to being one participating in and, to some extent, defining and controlling the political environment was virtually complete. Loren B. Mead calls this transition the birthing of the “Christendom Paradigm” which entailed a gradual shift from the persecuted church at the time of Constantine’s conversion until the point at which church and Empire became one.[11]  As a result, the church, during the fourth century C.E., became an entity that shifted much of its focus to maintaining its own existence and moved away from its identity as communities or collections of people.

Heretofore the diversity of beliefs that flourished under the general heading of Christianity had tenuous relationships with each other because a truly central ‘ruling’ body had not existed, but this new found power bestowed the authority to unify belief and control aberrant thought and/or behavior.[12] Councils defined orthodox beliefs, which were dynamic depending on who held the seat(s) of power, and devised various methods to ensure adherence to the doctrines. Bargaining, coercion, exile and even death (methods that had previously been used by secular powers against Christians) became acceptable ways of maintaining order within the church.

Equally significant in this time period is the geographic and ethnic rearranging of Christianity. The seats of power moved into the northern half of the Mediterranean area initially, and finally congealed into both Rome and Constantinople. By the time of the crusades, both branches of the church were intertwined politically and militarily with most of the world’s governments and heavily involved in, if not directing, public affairs. The church, which had long ago begun to amass wealth, was heavily vested in the continuation of political hegemony and the economic oppression of the masses. Non-Christian became synonymous with evil, and even subhuman, as not only Muslims, but Sephardic and Azhkenazi Jews, fell prey to the tortures, executions and expulsions of the Inquisition.[13]

By the time of Columbus, the church was significantly entrenched in all trade, including that of slaves. Consider the underlying meanings of this edict from Pope Alexander VI in 1493, following announcements Columbus’ “discovery” of the Americas:

“Among all the works offered to the divine Majesty & most desired by our hearts, without doubt the most preferable is the exaltation of the Catholic faith & Christian religion which…seek the salvation of souls, the dismantling of barbarian nations & the subjugation of the same to our faith.”[14]

Of course, within this charter was given the rights and privileges to own, and do commerce with, the resources and populations of the conquered indigenous nations in the name of the monarchy of Spain. Above all else, however, it officially sets a policy in which European Christians were considered superior to, and dominant over, all other ethnic and religious groups. If it had been unclear before, the church had now become unabashedly racist.

To be continued:


[1] For consistency within this paper, “church” will be used to denote the generic, universal Christian church, while “Church” will be used for specific ecclesiastical bodies, such as the Roman Catholic Church, Presbyterian Church, etc.

[2] The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition, Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000. 

[3] J. Andrew Overman, Church and Community in Crisis, (Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press International), 1996, 8-12.

[4] Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza,. “Missionaries, Apostles, Co-workers: Romans 16 and the Reconstruction of Women’s Early Christian History”, Word & World Vol. 6/4, (St. Paul, MN: Luther Seminary), 1986. To fully appreciate the Fiorenza’s rationale a reading of her article in Word & World is highly recommended. It is available online at [http://www.luthersem.edu/word&world/Archives/


[5] Ibid, 422.

[6] Ibid, 426. dia,konon generally interpreted as “deacon” (missionary, preacher, prophet, apostle, etc), whereas it has been commonly translated as “deaconess” (New Jerusalem) or “servant” (KJV, NIV) with regard to Phoebe. Likewise prosta,tij , has been translated as “succourer” (KJV), “helper” (NIV, New Jerusalem) or “benefactor” (NRSV) in Phoebe’s case, but actually means leader, patron or other positions of ministerial authority. See also Elizabeth Castelli, “Romans”, Searching the Scriptures Vol. II – a Feminist Commentary. Fiorenza, Elizabeth Schussler, Editor., (London: SCM Press) 1994, 277-278 & Beverly Roberts Gaventa, “Romans”, The Women’s Bible Commentary,  Newsom, Carol A. & Ringe, Sharon H. Ringe, Editors, (London: SPCK & Louisville, Ky: Westminster/John Knox Press), 1992, 320.

[7] Andrew J. Little, “Women’s Leadership and Contributions to Early Christianity Can Only Become Historically Visible When We Abandon Our Outdated Patriarchal-Androcentric Model of Early Christian Beginnings”, unpublished paper delivered and defended at Westminster College, Cambridge University, England, May 17, 2004, 8-9.

[8] Caroline Osiek, “The Bride of Christ : a problematic wedding – Ephesians 5:22-33”, Biblical Theology BulletinInternational Quarterly Journal of Biblical Theology Vol 32:1 Spring 2002. (South Orange, NJ: Seton Hall University). Online version [http://articles.findarticles. com/p/articles/mi_m0LAL/is_1_32/ai_94331936].1. Osiek describes the manner in which households were conducted in Hellenistic times although the traditional dyads of husbands/wives, fathers/slaves and masters/servants, but these are reversed to wives/husbands, etc, resulting in the male not being the center of the social order. 

[9] Karen L. King, “Women in Ancient Christianity: The New Discoveries”, The First Christians: From Jesus to Christ webpages, PBS Frontline website, <http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/religion/first/women.html&gt;, accessed December 05, 2004.

[10] Jurgen Moltman, “Henriette Visser ‘T Hooft and Karl Barth.” Theology Today V.55 #4 – January, 1999, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Theological Seminary), 524.

[11] Loren B. Mead, Once and Future Church – Reinventing the Congregation for a New Mission Frontier (Washington, DC: The Alban Institute, 1991), 14.

[12] Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, Volumes 1& 2, (New York, HarperCollins), 1984 & 1985 respectively, V1. 63.

[13] Gonzalez, V1. 383.

[14] Pope Alexander VI, The Bull Inter Caetera, May 4, 1493, “Resources for Indigenous Cultures around the World”, Native Web homepage, <http://www.nativeweb.org/pages/legal/indig-inter-caetera.html&gt;, accessed 12/5/03.

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That's too bad - I'm so sorry. Oh, well, just try to make the best of it. What you'll find here is a variety of essays and ramblings to do with things theological, social, whimsical and, sometimes, all three. I don't write to get famous - trust me, I've been told how futile that would be - but to express myself. I love to communicate and browbeat - ummm, I mean dialogue - about the things I find intriguing. Since you're here, and the door's locked, why don't you stay a while. There's a page bar under the header with links to information about us - I mean me. Don't forget to tell me what you think - in a nice way, I mean.

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