How would you rate the most influential people in history?
This question is behind an ongoing study run by MIT’s Media Lab. A while back the folks at MIT reported that the most influential person in history was the Greek philosopher Aristotle. In second place was Plato, third was Jesus, and fourth was Socrates. Alexander the Great ranked fifth.
Why does this matter?
It matters because four of the five most influential people in history believed that women are inferior to men. And those four men had a profound influence on the way the church views women.
An incubator for sexual discrimination
The city of Athens gave us the most influential philosophers of western civilization. Men like Socrates, Xenophon, Plato and Aristotle laid the foundations for much of what we believe about women.
Which is a crying shame.
Socrates was relatively progressive in his beliefs that women should be educated, but he also said that women were inferior to men. In his Republic he opined that “all the pursuits of men are the pursuits of women also, but in all of them a woman is inferior to a man.”
Plato and his student Aristotle both taught that women were inferior to men. It takes a special kind of intellect to say that women are substandard humans and defective by design, yet Athens was blessed to have two such minds.
The worst place to be a woman
Plato and Aristotle may have been intellectual giants, but when it came to women, they were Tweedledum and Tweedledummer. Of the two, Aristotle was worse. While Plato believed women could be made useful through education, Aristotle held no such hope. He said women were like animals who needed men to tame them.
With men like these running the show, ancient Greece was no place to be a woman. The young girls of Athens essentially had three career paths: they could become mothers, household servants, or high-class hookers called hetairai.
If they chose the first and least objectionable option, they would be married off in their early teens and spend the rest of their uneducated lives cloistered away in their husband’s homes. They would not participate in civic life and their names would rarely be mentioned in public.
Alexander the Hellenizer
To live in Athens was a demeaning existence for women, but Alexander the Great thought the city was the pinnacle of civilization. Having been tutored by Aristotle, Alexander exported the Athenian model around the world in a process known as Hellenization.
If you’ve ever wondered why the New Testament was written in Greek, you can thank the energetic Alexander. Israel, along with much of the Roman Empire, had been Hellenized. Educated Jews spoke Greek as a second language. And like the Greeks, the Jews treated their women little better than slaves.
And this is what makes Jesus so radical
In a Greek-speaking world where women were seen and not heard, Jesus gave women a voice. He encouraged them to speak and to lead. It was a new day for womankind.
For a hundred years or so after Jesus, Christian women enjoyed unprecedented equality with men. Women preached and pastored and got imprisoned and basically did whatever the men did. Courageous Christian women like Phoebe, Photini, and Junia carried the gospel all over the known world.
However, within a few generations of the original apostles, a new breed of men emerged to reassert male primacy and to lead the church back to patriarchy. These men are known to us as the Church Fathers.
Who were the Church Fathers? They were ecclesiastical influencers who had been educated in a Hellenistic culture. They read the words of Jesus and the apostles through an Aristotelian lens, and they introduced the teachings of Athens to a Christian audience.
Men like Tertullian and Augustine taught that women were inferior to men and good for little more than making babies. Later theologians, like John Calvin and Thomas Aquinas, who said women were “defective and misbegotten,” perpetuated this sexist claptrap.
Even the great Martin Luther fell under the Athenian spell. Luther believed in the priesthood of all believers, but only if they were men. Women have weaker minds and were “chiefly created to bear children, and be the pleasure, joy, and solace of their husbands.”
Jesus and the apostles were fearless revolutionaries who defied longstanding prejudices by fighting for the emancipation of women. In contrast, some of those who came after were mealy-mouthed conformists who merely parroted what they had learned in school.
A church built on Athenian sand
Like some men today, the Church Fathers saw themselves as God’s men preaching God’s word, but their beliefs about women came straight out of Greece.
Xenophon, a student of Socrates, told his fifteen-year-old wife, “God has assigned women the indoor tasks,” and the Church Fathers said a hearty “Amen!”
Hesiod the Greek poet said women were tricksters out to ruin men, while Augustine said they were temptresses in the mold of Eve.
Aristotle said bad men would be resurrected as women, and Thomas Aquinas added that good women would be raised as men.
If you have ever wondered why the church treats women like second-class citizens, you can thank the Church Fathers and the Athenians who inspired them. It was Aristotle who said women must remain silent and on the sidelines, not Jesus.
Something passing for progress
Happily, the world is changing. In many societies, women can now study, vote, and fly airplanes. They still get paid less for doing more, and they are more likely to get passed over, assaulted, and aborted. But the underlying trend is good.
Even the church is starting to shrug off some of its inherited prejudices. A century ago, there were no women senior pastors. Now there is a tiny minority. (Less than 9 per cent according to a National Congregations Study finding released in late 2020.) I guess that’s called progress. But we have a long way to go if we are to roll back the damage inflicted by our ecclesiastical forebears.
Many churches still subscribe to the Athenian (and thoroughly unbiblical) view that women must be silent and subservient. I’ve encountered plenty of leaders who say women are equal, but they don’t treat them equally. They speak a good line but deny women the opportunities to exercise their God-given talents. The world is infinitely poorer for it.
For the sake of our wives, our daughters and ourselves, we need to confront our Athenian heritage. We need to stop conforming the ways of the world, renew our minds, and become a church without division.
In short, we need to treat women the way Jesus did.
For sources and extended quotes for this article, check out The Silent Queen: Why the Church Needs Women to Find their Voice.