A Woman’s Place: House Churches in Earliest Christianity

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by Margaret Y. MacDonald and Carolyn Osiek, with Janet Tulloch
Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Press, 2006
352 pp, $25.00.

Reviewed by Reta Halteman Finger

A Woman’s PlaceImagine yourself as a young mother living in a one-room fourth floor tenement flat in a first-century Roman city trying to keep your new baby clean and healthy while the closest source of water is at the other end of the block.  Or imagine yourself as a slave forced into a sexual relationship with your owner. Will you be allowed to keep your children conceived by this means? Or imagine yourself as a recently bereaved and destitute widow invited by a wealthier Christian relative to live with her (see 1 Tim. 5:16). Will you accept? If you are a wealthier woman head-of-household, how much patronage will you extend to the church that meets in your house in the form of food for the agape meals?

Now think of those daily or weekly meals surrounded by the ritual of the Lord’s Supper and followed by study and worship. Who cooks? Who serves? Who officiates? How do you handle the children and toys underfoot? The nursing babies? Or the woman who has recently lost a child to illness? Rather than viewing these gatherings as solemn occasions, the authors of this book see them as noisy and bustling with energy and the earthy details of (extended) family life.

A Woman’s Place continues the research undertaken in two previous books into the lives of early Christian women and their families, edited by David L. Balch and Carolyn Osiek, Early Christian Families in Context (2003; reviewed here in Fall 2004), and the 1997 Families in the New Testament World: Households and House Churches.  This volume, co-written by Osiek and Margaret MacDonald, both pioneers in this field of study, focuses specifically on women and girls in these house churches.

A complicated history

Every academic discipline and sub-discipline moves from simple to more and more complex, as new information is integrated and new methods are developed to analyze and systematize. At the same time, a field of study matures as it becomes inter-disciplinary, drawing on related bodies of knowledge. Scholarship on women in the early church has grown exponentially from the 1970s when women in “second wave feminism” began to challenge the traditional assumptions of wifely subordination and restrictions on female leadership in current church life. This recent contribution to what we can and cannot know about women in the earliest churches is the most comprehensive and nuanced account I have yet read.

The first three centuries CE have produced some Christian literature about women but very little primary material by women themselves, and almost nothing about girls. Various methods are then used to reconstruct their lives in their cultural context using clues from Christian male writers, their pagan opponents, and from classical studies of the Roman family. Combine all that with insights from the social sciences and, in the hands of experienced scholars like Osiek and MacDonald, you have a well-balanced portrait of women living and working in the house churches of earliest Christianity.

Three over-simplified polarities

The authors first break apart three polarities often used to understand women in the early church. First is “patriarchy versus the discipleship of equals” (p. 1). Rather than viewing pagan and Jewish society as patriarchal while Christians lived in egalitarian bliss, they affirm the position that sees “greater social freedom for women that was happening already in Roman society and in which Christianity partially participated” (p. 2). For example, in contrast to past Greek culture, some Roman women were legally able to own property and run businesses. Upper-class women had begun to recline with their husbands at public banquets. Thus, it is not surprising to find figures in Paul’s letters like Phoebe or Chloe or Lydia who serve as household heads, patrons, or managers.

The second polarity is public versus private, in which men worked outdoors and participated in the public, civic sphere of life, while women managed the private sphere in their homes. Using this paradigm, feminists deduced that the reason Paul had women co-workers was because churches met in homes. But these authors suggest that “rather than thinking of the house church as a private haven, we should probably think of it as the crossroads between public and private,” in the same liminal space that Jewish synagogues occupied (p. 4).  Even by the time of 1 Timothy 3:4-5, the overseer of the church community also had to be able to govern his own household well.

The third polarity is ascetic versus domestic lifestyles.  MacDonald and Osiek challenge scholarship that imagines a large gap between ordinary married women’s domestic lives and those of ascetic, celibate groups of widows or virgins who took spiritual leadership. They point to married evangelists such as Prisca and Junia (Romans 16) and Mary mother of John Mark (Acts 12:12), to name only a few (p. 5).

Instead, the authors carefully propose that “women participated in all the activities of the house church in the first generations of the Christian era and that the house church was the center for worship, hospitality, patronage, education, communication, social services, evangelization, and mission” (p. 9). That’s quite a mouthful, but isn’t the devil—or the Spirit—always in the details? The following nine chapters, then, take up various issues that would have concerned these women in their various house church settings. Due to space limitations, I will comment only on selected chapter topics and a few details or conclusions that may be unfamiliar to readers.

Family Life in House Churches: Marriage Relationships

Chapter 2 is devoted to “Dutiful and Less than Dutiful Wives.”  Beyond Paul’s letters and Acts, “we have virtually no evidence of specific, married couples being presented positively as making contributions to house-church communities” (p. 48). Perhaps later couples co-led house churches like

Prisc(ill)a and Aquila (Romans 16:3-5) but were simply taken for granted. Nevertheless, marriage issues concerned the church at large a great deal: could one forgive an adulterous partner? Is remarriage acceptable? What sexual relations can be accepted or forbidden between slaveowners and their slaves or freed slaves?

Family Life in House Churches:  Issues of Reproduction

Chapter 3 focuses on Giving Birth, Labor, Nursing, and the Care of Infants in House-Church Communities.” Jesus’ birth stories, both canonical and extra-canonical, are mined for information on how women dealt with reproduction and childcare. In The Martyrom of Perpetua and Felicitas, both women, though imprisoned for their faith, have just given birth. Though tales of martyrdom always depict faithfulness to Christ, the text does dwell upon Felicitas’ labor and the hard choice between freedom to raise one’s child or give it up and die for a higher cause.

The authors also deal with material from Roman literature on abortion, infanticide, exposure and adoption of infants, nursing and wet-nursing, labor and delivery, and the legal and social complexity of slaves giving birth. They conclude that house churches must have constantly coped with women in all stages of birth, nursing, and childcare. As a mother myself, I was touched by their image of a woman groaning in labor in an adjacent space while worship continued in the dining room (see Rom. 8:22-23).

“Don’t forget the girls!”

Chapter 4, “Growing up in House Church Communities,” continues on the theme of children and their education. “Don’t forget the girls!” the authors caution as they examine every possible reference to children’s education in Roman society, concluding that some girls would have been tutored at home or gone to secondary school like their brothers. This chapter also discusses women as childcare providers.

Female slaves

The chapter titled “Female Slaves: Twice Vulnerable” was published earlier, but it remains the most troubling one for me. The authors rightly depict slavery in the ancient world as every bit as oppressive as our American legacy of black slavery. I’d like to think that slaveowners who became Christians began to view their slaves as human beings with human rights, but this chapter does not depict a radical difference between slavery in house churches and slavery in the pagan world. Does the command to slaves to obey their masters also include forced sex? If not, why don’t New Testament household codes spell that out?

Marital politics in Ephesians 5

In MacDonald’s chapter on “Ephesians 5 and the Politics of Marriage,” she agrees that Ephesians contains traditional marriage teaching in the household codes of 5:21-6:9. Yet seeing this entire letter as resisting Roman imperial ideology seriously challenges contemporary traditional interpretations. The ideal Christian marriage of Ephesians 5 starkly contrasts with most ordinary marriages which involved early Christians, not the least those women married to pagan men.

Interpreting Visual Art

Art historian Janet H. Tulloch also adds a chapter to this volume. She examines a set of late 3rd/early 4th century frescos in a Roman catacomb. These wall paintings were created for the burial chambers of wealthy Roman Christians and include female figures raising cups. What does this tell us about women’s roles in the early church? Tulloch cautiously concludes that, even though churches had moved away from homes by that time, “some households, and therefore some family celebrations, continued to be led by women” (p. 192). But was this also true in homes of poorer Christians, who comprised the majority in the churches?

Three other chapters are generally encouraging in terms of early Christian women’s leadership: “Women Leaders of Household and Christian Assemblies,” “Women Patrons in the Life of House Churches,” and Women as Agents of Expansion.” Here the authors find pagan opponents like the 2nd century Celsus useful, since they often criticize the Christians as a movement of ignorant women and children, thus exposing what Christian apologists may want to downplay—the predominance of women in furthering the gospel through their neighborhood connections, hospitality, and works of mercy.

Osiek and MacDonald conclude their book by acknowledging the complexity of the situation of women in early house church communities. I wish I had been able to use this resource when working on my book, Of Widows and Meals: Communal Meals in the Book of Acts (published in June 2007). Christians today need an awareness of the intimate involvement of women in the early Christian movement, especially as it began in house churches. Too many assume women’s roles in church leadership only began during the feminist movement of the last 30 or 40 years. But we were there from the beginning!

 

© 2008 Evangelical & Ecumenical Women’s Caucus volume 31 number 4 Winter (January-March) 2008

 

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Reta Halteman Finger
Reta Halteman Finger is a long-time member of EEWC-CFT and is a past Southeast representative on the EEWC-CFT Council. She holds a Ph.D. in theology and religion from Northwestern University, masters of theological studies from Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary and Northern Baptist University, and a master of education from Boston University. Reta retired in 2009 from teaching Bible (mostly New Testament) at Messiah College in Grantham, PA. She lives in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and since her retirement from Messiah College has been devoting her time to writing and speaking projects, as well as some part-time teaching at Eastern Mennonite Seminary. For fifteen years, Reta edited the Christian feminist magazine, Daughters of Sarah (no longer published), and is a frequent writer and reviewer for Christian Feminism Today. Using the search box on the homepage of our EEWC-Christian Feminism Today website, you’ll be led to many of her online articles.

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