Gender and Sexuality
Written by: Beth Davies-Stofka
Both men and women were allowed to choose a monastic life of celibacy, but women were still under the rule of men, whether the local bishop, the patriarch, or the pope. During the Middle Ages, women in Christian communities had few rights and did not receive a formal education. Many women fought their oppression, but they risked being denounced or burned as witches. Nonetheless, women such as Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), Catherine of Siena (1347-1380), and Teresa of Avila (1515-1582) earned a positive reputation for wisdom, mystical experience, piety, and charity to the poor and the suffering.
In both Christian churches and Christian societies, the reassessment of women's roles is a very recent development. Contemporary biblical scholars and theologians, both women and men, both liberal and conservative, have read the scriptures with a fresh eye, focusing on scripture passages that affirm a new vision of women as the equals of men. In Genesis, they read that women were created in God's image: "male and female God created them" (Genesis 1:27). In the Gospels, they find evidence that Jesus had profound trust in the capabilities of women (e.g., Luke 7:37-50). They consider Paul's strong arguments for equality to be decisive: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor freeperson, there is neither male nor female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians 3:28). And they note that the Acts of the Apostles contain stories of women who were early Church leaders.
The activities of strong, capable women have broken many barriers to the full participation of women in the life of the Church, and women now serve as influential leaders, ministers, theologians, and even bishops in some communities. Theologians explore women's history and experience to discover fresh resources for meeting the challenges of the contemporary world. In liturgy, sermons, and doctrines, Church leaders emphasize the nurturing, sustaining, and parenting aspects of God, qualities traditionally viewed as feminine. Paradigms of mutual responsibility and relationship in community are replacing the old paradigms of hierarchy and authority. In some church bodies, ideas of equality for women and leadership by women still stir up controversy. In other churches, these ideas spark fresh gospel interpretations.
Less debated in most of Christian history has been the status of homosexuality. Today, however, a growing acceptance, or at least tolerance, of homosexuality in secular society has fostered debate among Christians regarding the role of homosexuals within the congregation. Some churches have recently suffered the painful separation of schism over the ordination of gay men and women.