Jesus' Teaching on Gender Equality
While the Hebrew scriptures or Old Testament and New Testament both assert that God and humans are separate, some of the Gnostic scriptures proclaimed that the Self and the Divine are the same, a truth that can be discovered through gnosis. In Gnostic Christian circles, such as one that Mary Magdalene may have led, women were prophets and leaders. The Apostle Paul in his New Testament letters greeted women and referred to them as coworkers. He even called one a deacon, although the feminine form would be deaconess, and praised another — Junia and her husband Andronicus, who were “my kinsmen, and my fellow-prisoners, who are of note among the apostles, who also were in Christ before me” (Romans 16:7). According to the Acts of the Apostles, in some cases women owned the houses where early Christians met. So among the many sects of Christians that emerged following Jesus' death, women were full participants in religious activities.
By the early second century, the patriarchal leaders had pushed women from their roles as prophets and priests and bishops and forced them back into patriarchal subjugation, as can be seen from reading 1 Timothy, chapter 2. The patristic leaders established rules and a hierarchy that limited women's roles or excluded them completely (such as serving as bishops and priests). They enforced their rules through their teachings, sermons, and writings, and, later, councils. Some scholars have noted that the contributions of women were eliminated from the official texts of the church. Not until the fourth century would women again be able to become deaconesses (just below the level of a priest), though they were still barred from entering the priesthood.
Leaders in the early Christian churches were called episkopos (bishop, overseer), presbyteros (elder), and diakonos (deacon). Qualifications for bishops are listed in the New Testament (1 Timothy 3:1–7): a man must be blameless, be husband of one wife, have good moral values, rule well over his house, be in control of his family, be spiritually mature, and be held in high esteem by nonbelievers.
It's difficult to imagine how the Christian church might have evolved if women's roles had not diminished, if the divine feminine aspect of God had not been eliminated, and if women's contributions had not been devalued or discarded. Gnostics believed in enlightenment but also ignorance. While the orthodox Christians labeled the Gnostics heretics, the Gnostics claimed that the orthodox were ignorant. Valentinus, in particular, believed that ignorance was the root of the material world and without it the world would cease to be. For Valentinus and his followers, the physical or material world was what kept the soul trapped from returning to the realm of Light.