Monday, October 27th, 2014
“Did I just wander into the 17th century?” reddit user “Zrk2” asked in response to a discussion thread on the subreddit /r/TrueChristian (1) entitled: “Christian woman culture thoughts?” [sic] The poster, “SpecialU,” wanted to know what fellow, anonymous users of /r/TrueChristian—an online message board for “Bible-believing Christians” to discuss their religion and to answer questions from non-believers—thought about female Christian preachers like Joyce Meyer and women’s retreats, and if these pro-women messages didn’t constitute or lead to idolatry. In response to “Zrk2’s” 17th century comment, user “PetevonPete” wanted to push their ignorance even further into the past, saying, “Worse. /r/TrueChristian, more like 2nd century. BC. Don’t ask how that’s possible, they found a way.” Though writing in jest, I think “PetevonPete” was on to something.
The concerns raised in response to this question about heresy and women’s Bible study were interesting in that they were so predictable. One reddit user said that women lapse more easily into heresy because they aren’t as theologically educated as men. Some suggested that this was a result of institutional sexism, while others cited the oft repeated paraphrase of 1 Timothy 2:13-14, “Eve was deceived, not Adam.” This kind of verbal shrug points to an essentialist understanding of the spiritual capabilities and limitations faced by Christian women—at least according to the Pastoral Epistles. But, as “PetevonPete” so wisely suggested, this idea—that women are naturally more prone to wild excesses, to making poor decisions, to being fooled, to creating chaos when challenging their natural role as submissive to men—does not start nor end with Christianity.
Suspicion of women and women’s religion is scattered throughout the annals of classical Greek and Latin literature, with the fingerprints of these cultural attitudes being found later in early Christian writings. Euripides’ play Bacchae (405 BCE), to take but one example, warns of the deadly and unnatural consequences of letting women run free in the wild, worshipping the god Dionysus (aka, Bacchus). In the play, the worship of Dionysus was troubling because it was new, and it encouraged women of all ages and social stations to leave behind their responsibilities to their families and city in order to head into the woods and hills to engage in women’s-only worship of this new god. The play’s anxiety around women-only worship is not unlike the one voiced by reddit user “injoy,” who suggested that women-only church groups can foster an attitude in which it is permissible and even exciting to “ditch” ones husband and children to have a ladies night, which she deems idolatrous behavior. At the root of both the play and many of the comments on the reddit thread is a fear of instability, of the disruption of the standard order as having been put in place by (the) god(s). In the case of the Bacchae, traditional Greek religion helped to maintain a well-order polis (city-state), one in which good women and wives stayed at home, tending to the loom (which represented more than mere weaving, as being at or leaving the loom are topoi in Greek literature that can signal order and disorder, respectively). The arrival of the god Dionysus and his brand of worship to the city of Thebes immediately causes this traditional order of life to become disrupted, with the Theban women having been driven from their homes in a craze.
Reddit users in the /r/TrueChristian thread displayed skepticism of “you-go-girl” theologies, led by break-out female ministers and expressed concern over the creation of a “church within a church” for the same reasons—these are subversive messages that are contrary to the order that God has already laid out. But the behavior of women is of special concern because women are believed to be (naturally) more prone to being deceived, misled, or corrupted than men. Euripides pointed to the unnatural sway that Dionysus exerted over women. In the Wisdom of Ben Sira (2), the author warns that fathers should not let their daughters spend time with married women “for from garments comes the moth, and from a woman comes woman’s wickedness” (Ben Sira 42:13). “Paul,” writing in the 1st century CE, pointed to the example of Eve’s being fooled by the serpent in the Garden of Eden in 1 Timothy as explanation for why women cannot teach men. Celsus, a 2nd century CE “pagan” (3), argued that the early success of Christianity was a result of their converting “the silly, and the mean, and the stupid, with women and children,” whereas men of sound-mind were not so easy to win-over (Origen, Cels. 3.44).
Users commenting on this thread about women’s heresy weren’t merely harkening back to the 17th century, as “Zrk2”suggested, or even the 2nd century BCE, as “PetevonPete” suggested. Rather, those expressing concern over women-only religious groups and calling for (male) leadership to provide oversight are engaged in a much older, much wider-ranging anxiety over the disruption of familial and social order believed to have been put into place by god(s) and enforced by male leaders and other female followers, an order naturalized by its sense of timelessness.
Jennifer Collins-Elliott is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Religion at Florida State University. Her research interests include the body, gender, and sexuality, as well as martyrdom and violence in late Antique Christianity. She is currently working on her dissertation, which focuses on rape in early Christian literature and is tentatively titled, ““Bespattered with the Mud of Another’s Lust”: Rape and Physical Embodiment in Christian Literature of the 4th-6th Centuries CE.” She is on Twitter @JCollinsElliott.
(1) reddit is, according their faqs, “ a source for what’s new and popular on the web.” It is a free, user-driven website, in that individuals who have reddit accounts can submit content (links from other sites or original content, like text, images, and videos) and other users vote (either up or down) on those posts. Material that is highly “up-voted” is more visible on the site. reddit itself is actually composed of thousands of “subreddits”—discussion boards centered around specific topics or interests. For this post I’m drawing from two subreddits, /r/SubredditDrama and /r/TrueChristian. /r/SubredditDrama is a meta-reddit, meaning that it is a board in which people link to other posts on reddit in which there is “drama” unfolding. These are sometimes silly disputes between users, other times they are heated debates about racism or sexism. I discovered the /r/TrueChristian discussion covered in this post via /r/SubredditDrama, which is where the comments from users “Zrk2” and “PetevonPete” come from. /r/TrueChristian, which currently has 5,916 subscribers, is a relatively new subreddit. Its creation was driven by users who were unhappy with what /r/Christianity, with 88,540 current subscribers, had to offer. /r/Christianity is a larger, less ideologically driven community than /r/TrueChristian, which is more conservative and whose stated goal is to create a “safe-haven” for Bible-believing Christians to discuss their faith. While /r/TrueChristian doesn’t describe itself as being in direct competition with /r/Christianity, they are making a claim to authority over what it means to be Christian in their title. Moreover, this is in the face of other denominationally differentiated Christian subreddits, such as /r/Catholicism or /r/Anglicanism, while /r/TrueChristian is more ecumenical in its membership.
(2) Ben Sira (aka, Sirach) is a 2nd century BCE book of Jewish wisdom literature that is canonical for Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians, but not Protestants.
(3) Celsus’ writings come to us only indirectly, as portions of his work were perserved by Origen (185-232 CE) in Contra Celsum