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Early Christianity a 'feminist movement'?: Catholic nun says it's time for true 'herstory' to be told

Nuns Rob Bank
REUTERS/Jim Young

Was the feminism fight central to the first century church? 

That’s the question a Catholic nun takes on in a piece for the Global Sisters Report, a self-described “independent, nonprofit source of news and information about Catholic sisters and the critical issues facing the people they serve."

Asserting that the Bible “shows how the early church was a feminist movement” and that it’s time for the true “herstory” of female discipleship to be told, the piece celebrates the news that Pope Francis opened the door to expand senior roles for women in the Catholic Church, citing scriptural reasons behind such a move.

The nun who wrote the piece is Nameeta Renu, a member of the Order of Consecrated Virgins in Bombay in Mumbai, India. She compared the church to Mary and Martha, two women who were followers of Jesus.

Renu, whose bio states that she has a doctorate in theology on spiritual guidance and integral formation, writes that while Martha embodied the “relatively conservative” early church views on women’s roles, which pointed toward more “traditional roles,” Mary “represents the feminist church as envisioned by Jesus.”

In questioning these two archetypes, Renu then suggests both Martha and Mary “represent the church at different points on the wide spectrum of feminism” and cites “Martha from the Margins: The Authority of Martha in Early Christian Tradition,” a paper co-edited by agnostic atheist Bart Ehrman.

After asserting that God “wants both men and women to be liberated from patriarchy,” Renu says this can only happen “when victims are freed from domination, and when oppressors are converted and liberated from sin.”

She goes on to call Mary Magdalene the “Apostle to the Apostles,” and suggests that such a claim to apostleship holds as much weight as the Apostle Paul.

“Mary Magdalene has a very important role in following Jesus, but she is excluded from the Twelve Apostles while Paul boldly calls himself an apostle to the Gentiles even though he is not a disciple of Jesus before his death and resurrection,” Renu writes.

Christian blogger Erica Lee, whose blog “Unfiltered & Free” looks at gender and other topics through a biblical lens, told The Christian Post that filtering Scripture through feminism will only fuel further division.

"The feminist movement is nothing more than another societal ploy to divide the population against themselves," Lee said. "Satan is the master deceiver and he is hard at work.

"All social justice movements pit us against each other when we are all one Body in Christ. Christ's sacrifice on Calvary was the great equalizer."

Lee also said characterizing Mary Magdalene as a type of “13th apostle” is without scriptural basis.

“It appears to me that the author is simply uplifting an already significant female from the Bible to an elevated status as to remove perceived victimization,” said Lee. “Such twisting and manipulating of Scripture is dangerous.”

Renu's piece also pushes back against the traditional interpretation of Acts 6:3, which says the apostles told the disciples, “Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty” of distributing to widows in the church.

According to Renu, there is little documentation about the identities of “the seven” who were chosen and that church fathers often used gendered language “to represent all the baptized,” even in the Nicene Creed of 325 A.D.

Renu suggests the seven might have been either men, women, or a combination of both.

She also argues that because the head of a family traditionally receives the blessing for all family members, “some of the seven names could indirectly refer to their daughters, sisters, mothers or other relatives.”

“They could even refer to couples or all the members of their families being selected for the service,” she added.

Lee told CP that such hermeneutical teaching is “a direct reflection of the modern church” and cited a recent study that found just 37% of pastors hold to a biblical worldview.

“That is a heartbreaking indictment on the church,” said Lee. “Therefore, as a result, we see articles such as this.”

Renu's piece appears to have been written in response to news out of the Vatican that would allow women to serve alongside all-male clergy in senior management of the Catholic Church.

Published in March, the new constitution calls “for the involvement of laywomen and laymen, even in roles of government and responsibility.”

The document, however, did not alter the role for women as it pertains to worship in the Catholic Church.

In most countries, women were already serving as lectors and catechists in the Catholic Church. However, with the official ordination, more conservative bishops will be unable to prevent women in their dioceses from taking on those roles. Francis changed the laws of the Roman Catholic church in January 2021 to formally allow women to give readings from the Bible during Mass, act as altar servers and distribute communion.

Throughout his papacy, Francis has called for women to have more formal roles in the church, but has remained firm on forbidding women to become deacons or priests. Catholic doctrine prohibits the ordination of women as priests, as those roles are reserved for men.

In April 2020, the pope established a commission to study whether women should be granted the right to become ordained deacons. In this role, women would be permitted to preach and baptize, but not to conduct Mass.

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