Women in the Early Church

About: this paper was delivered to Dr. Richard Johnson at Fuller Theological Seminary during my second year for a class on the Early Church.

 

What was women’s role in the early church? How did their function in the church compare to the women in the rest of the Roman Empire? By considering women leaders in the New Testament, religions from around the Roman Empire, and in the early church, we will see the involvement of women in the church, both in practice and in thought, and we will see that the church followed suit with the religions of the Roman Empire—women served as leaders in both—up until around the third century. We will look at the background of the New Testament and early church before we consider how women functioned in the beginning of Christianity as a religion.

Women in the Religions of the Roman Empire

Judaism

Historically women did serve their communities as leaders in Judaism.1 Women were expected to function in the private, not public, realm of society, but outside of Palestine Jewish women had more opportunities to serve as leaders.2 There are “synagogue records, burial markers, inscriptions, and works of art” that show a noteworthy number of Jewish women who had a significant role in their congregations.3 During the late first century women began seeing less of a role in the public sphere.4 It was during that time that their societal and religious roles became more limited.5 It is quite difficult to find any Jewish texts that forbade women to teach during the first century.6 For Judaism around the late first century (the social-historical context for the beginning of the early church) women were becoming limited to the private sphere, but it was not actually prohibited for women to teach or have authority. In fact, women were technically “qualified to function in virtually every way men functioned.”7 However, being qualified does not mean they were encouraged.8 Even though they were able opinions were expressed stating that women should not be permitted to publicly read Scripture.9

Yet, women in Judaism functioned in leadership roles. Women were financial donors of local synagogues.10 Records demonstrate that women who supported the synagogues rose to significant status in their communities.11 Women could also be heads of synagogues and even elders in Judaism.12 It was a distinct privilege to be named the head of a synagogue, which was the equivalent to being third in command next to scholars and “great ones of the congregation,” respectively.13 However, since the responsibilities of the synagogue ruler included the upkeep of the synagogue building, the donors and the synagogue ruler were frequently connected.14 To be a donor was to be an authority at least alongside of the synagogue ruler. The synagogue ruler was also in charge of planning and leading the worship service.15 If a woman were a synagogue ruler, then she would have had the charge of directing the worship service in the synagogue. The synagogue ruler was also responsible for, it seems, “keeping the congregation faithful to the law” according to Luke 13:10-17.16

Women could lead as elders. There are seven tomb inscriptions that identify women as elders.17 The word, elder, refers to a particular ruling group that had specific leadership roles, which included ruling on legal matters of the welfare for the community and functioning as the town council.18 The elders’ primary function was community leadership in Judaism.19

Women functioned as priestesses.20 Precisely what this means is unclear, but we do know that women could serve priestly functions without ever being given the title of priestess in the Old Testament, so it is possible that women were given the title of priestess to note their liturgical contributions.21 If a woman came from a priestly lineage, it is possible that she would have been given the opportunity to read Scripture for the worship service in synagogues out of respect.22

Women functioned as mothers of the synagogue as well.23 It is unclear what the mothers (and fathers) of the synagogue did as leaders, but the father of the synagogue did have a higher rank than a “high-ranking official of the local Jewish ruling council.”24 Other than that, we know very little about how this father or mother of the synagogue leadership role functioned. Although it was not to the same degree as men, Jewish women were capable of functioning as leaders, and historically speaking we do find that women served as leaders in Judaism.

Greek and Roman Religions

In Greek and Roman society women were expected to be actively involved in the local and religious communities.25 The distinction between the public and privates spheres was not as well-defined in Greek and Roman society; therefore, through the persuasion of wealthy women, women gained a growing popularity on par with men in religion.26

Women served as priestesses in the cults throughout the Roman Empire. They were, alongside priests, responsible for the sanctuary rituals and ceremonies, its maintenance, and its protection.27 Liturgically, priestesses were also responsible for ritual sacrifices, pronouncing the prayers, and presiding at the festivals of the deity.28 In some cases, women were identified as high priestesses, which is particularly important since the leadership role of high priest was only given to one male leader in a single city.29 Resorting to modern categories, we can say that women served as administrators, benefactors and ministers throughout the pagan cults of the Roman Empire.30 Wealth and office were tied together for women.31

Women were able to hold positions of power. It was expected for the top priestly offices to have the financial resources to cover civic and religious events.32 Women served in the social, political, and financial services of the Roman Empire alongside of their male counterparts.33 Therefore, women were in a position to be in power in the Roman Empire.34 Keeping this information in mind alongside of the role of women in the cult of Isis in which they were equal to men, we must realize that in the first century women were not as religiously limited as we sometimes think.35 In other words, “[I]n the first century A.D. the religious cults led the way in modeling male and female parity.”36

When we consider women from the first century we typically think that they were severely limited in their religious involvement as leaders. However, women functioned as leaders of varying kinds in Jewish, Greek and Roman religions. Yet, the ideal was for women to remain in the private sphere.37

Women in the New Testament

What roles, if any, did women have in the New Testament? We have seen that women in Judaism could be synagogue rulers, elders, financial supporters, mothers of the synagogues, and perhaps even priestesses. We have also seen that women could be priestesses, administrators, donors, and ministers in Greek and Roman religions. In the New Testament women were patrons, apostles, prophets, teachers, evangelists, deacons, worship leaders and widows.

Women functioned as patrons—financial supporters—of the house churches.38 It is likely that in their role as patrons they provided a meeting place, their homes, for the church to assemble, which follows suit with the patronage practices of the Roman Empire.39 There are six accounts of patrons in the New Testament—five of which are women or at least couples, which are Acts 12:12; 16:14-15; Rom. 16:3-5; 1 Cor. 16:19; Col. 4:15; and Philem. 2.40 When patrons opened their homes for the group to assemble, they were charged with the leadership of that group, including their legal liability.41 Noteworthy in the New Testament is the first two verses in Philemon: “Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, to Philemon our dear friend and fellow-worker, to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow-soldier and to the church that meets in your home” (Philemon 1-2). Apphia is listed as one of the recipients of this letter, which means that she was a leader of the church at Colossae.42 Paul addressed the “church in your home.” Your is plural, indicating that the three recipients mentioned are the leaders of that church.43 Women were also apostles, at least in the sense of possessors of the gift of apostleship and church planters.44

Women were prophets.45 As women prophets, they would have served to convict sin, to instruct, to exhort, to encourage, and to guide in the decision-making process.46 The gift of prophecy was “a recognized leadership role in the church” since it was tied with revelation.47 It is significant that Paul places the prophetic role of women on par with the prophetic role of men so that “[w]omen functioned in a highly visible leadership capacity.”48

Women served as teachers.49 Teaching in the New Testament was not an authoritative role and it was not referenced in terms of public and private spheres.50 In fact, the entire congregation of the church in Colossae was exhorted to teach each other (Col. 3:16).51 The author of Hebrews expected that his recipients should have all been teachers in the faith (Heb. 5:12).52 However, teaching for women was limited by culture. Female teachers were rare.53 Yet, no female or male is specifically given the title of teacher in the New Testament.54 Furthermore, teaching was associated with the prophets, but women were prophets in the same way that men were except for their attire.55

Women were also evangelists or missionaries.56 The role of evangelists was at least a leadership role in Philippi where Euodia and Syntyche are identified as the leaders of the church and are called evangelists.57 Women also served as deacons.58 To be a deacon was to possess the gift of service or serving, and women, such as Phoebe, functioned as deacons for the church.59 Women were also worship leaders as people of prayer in cooperation with the community of which they were a part.60 They were also ministering widows that functioned to support various needs in the church.61 Women were sometimes multi-gifted and were able to fill multiple leadership roles in the church, like Priscilla who was a teacher, patron, evangelist and perhaps also an overseer.62

Women served leadership functions in the times of the New Testament. In terms of religion we can say that women had a significant leadership role in the church during the first century. Likewise, women had a significant role in religions throughout the Roman Empire during the first century. Therefore, religiously speaking women could serve in leadership positions in the first century.

Women in the Early Church

After the New Testament, women continued to be a part of the leadership of the church. However, around the third century, women were strongly opposed and were no longer allowed to lead in the church. The leadership roles that they did have were few and restricted, but these were stripped away when the church became a structured religion.

What roles did women have in the early church (the first five to six hundred years following the New Testament)? Women functioned in several ways, either positively or negatively, as teachers, prophets, deaconesses and widows.

Public teaching by women was not permitted in the early church, and women who attempted to take such positions were labeled as heretics.63 In Against Heresies Irenaeus looked down upon Marcellina–a woman teacher whom he claimed to have “caused the downfall of many.”64 Marcellina apparently taught a form of Christianity that upheld equality among men and women along with some other ideas that went against conventional standards.65 It is from this backdrop that Irenaeus made his negative remark. Marcellina and Irenaeus were from the second century. Although women were not permitted to teach publicly in the early church, they did establish and teach monastic communities for women. Melania the Younger and her husband Pinian built monasteries on the Mount of Olives, and she was a noted teacher around the time of the fifth century.66 In the fourth century Macrina founded a monastery for women and was noted for her teaching.67. Gregory of Nyssa, one of the Cappadocian called Macrina (his sister), his teacher.68

Women functioned as prophets in two movements during the second century.69 With the disciples of Marcus, a man who was identified and condemned as “gnostic” by his opponents, women prophesied or at least they thought they were prophesying.70 With the Montanists, several oracles of the women prophets were recorded by their opponents Eusebius and Epiphanius. Eusebius recorded an oracle given by a woman, Maximilla.71 Epiphanius records oracles from Maximilla and Priscilla or Quintilla.72 Hippolytus indicated that the Montanists perceived Priscilla and Maximilla to be prophetesses.73

Women held the office of deaconess by the third century.74 Women were appointed as deaconesses–the honorary office of female helpers for the bishop–to serve other women.75 They had a specific function to teach and instruct the newly baptized women.76

Women held the office of widows.77 By the time the third century came, this office had specific qualifications and particular duties.78 Widows were to fast frequently and pray.79 Some of their other functions and qualifications included, but was not limited to, the following: they were to be of a particular age; they were to assist the younger women; they were to be meek, quiet and gentle; they were not to teach or gossip; and they were to be disciplined.80

Women were not permitted to perform many of the ecclesiastical duties.81 They could not baptize, since, it was argued, Jesus was not baptized by a woman.82 Epiphanius said that women could not even offer the gospel throughout the world because this task was given to the apostles and bishops who were all males, and no woman could ever take the episcopate or presbyterate offices since no woman was ever appointed as one in the New Testament.83 They were not permitted to teach in public, although they did teach in monasteries in the early church, mostly because of the negative view the church fathers had regarding women.

The earliest church fathers had a favorable view of women. Perhaps this favorable side is related to the role of women in the New Testament, so that there was a positive view to begin with in the early church. Clement of Rome thought that women were capable of running a household, which was a leadership role.84 In addition to Clement of Rome, Polycarp and Ignatius had favorable views of women.85 Their admiration for women came out with the most force when speaking of those women who were martyred. Martyrdom was not merely dying, but it was also testifying.86 Irenaeus’ Against Heresies contrasts Eve with Mary.87 This contrast is made during the late second century. It is important to note that at the late second century there was not a virulent disposition regarding women in leadership. Irenaeus shows no contempt or disregard for women in general in this passage. In fact, he concludes that what Eve brought upon humanity Mary has loosed.88 Although a woman has entered all of humanity into sin, Irenaeus argues that it was another woman who reversed its effects. Even though Irenaeus looked down upon the aforementioned woman heretic, he still had a positive view of women in general.

The majority of the church fathers had negative views of women in terms of leadership roles. In their view, it was the woman who was tempted by Satan and was the first to sin, and as such she had no place talking about theology (Tucker, 26). Unlike Irenaeus, Augustine (Literal Commentary on Genesis, XI, 42, 40-1), Chrysostom (Homily 26 on 1 Corinthians, 2, 42) and Ambrose (On Paradise, IV, 24, 29-30) only see as far as the failure of Eve and utilize that fact to teach the submission of women in the church. John Chrysostom, who taught around the late fourth and early fifth centuries, wrote in his discourse on Genesis that Eve wrongfully used her authority and so was punished to a state of subordination (Discourse 4 on Genesis, 30). He looked to Paul’s words in 1 Tim. 2:11 (“Let the woman learn in silence, in all subjection”), asking, “Do you see how he, too, submits the woman to the man?” (Ibid., 30). He said that Paul instructed women not to teach a man because Eve taught Adam poorly once and for all (Ibid., 30). Therefore, he thought Paul taught that women should be “in silence” because of their inability to properly teach as was evident in Genesis 3 (Ibid., 30). The Didascalia apostolorum, a third century document, speaks against women as teachers, ending the argument with these words: “For if it were required that women should teach, our Master himself would have commanded these to give instruction with us” (3.6, 31). In the third century Origen quoted 1 Cor. 14:35 (“It is shameful for a woman to speak in church”), saying that anything and everything she might say is shameful–even if what she says is good–“because it comes from the mouth of a woman” (Commentary on 1 Corinthians, fragment 74, 29). Women as teachers for the church fathers was generally looked down upon because of the perception of women as being the deceived ones and the initial ones to commit sin, and also because Jesus never commanded for women to teach. The trend against women is linked with the heresies from the time of the early church. Heresies had large involvements of women influence. It was under women leaders that many believers were led astray (Clark, 160). Since women were known for leading Christians astray, the church fathers oppressed women leadership in general.

These documents indicate that women did take leadership roles during the time of the early church, but when they did they were usually involved as heretics, or they were looked down upon. The early church fathers’ general view was for women to be silent, and if they were to serve they were only to serve other women.

How did the church go from women serving as leaders in the New Testament to women not serving in the ending stages of the early church? It is largely due to the influence of Tertullian around the beginning of the third century.

For the first two hundred years of the church, Christianity belonged to the private sphere (Torjesen, 37). Christians did not assemble in large congregations, but rather, in house churches. It is important to understand that “Christianity was essentially a religion of the private sphere, practiced in the private space of the household rather than the public space of a temple. Its concerns were the domestic life of its community rather than the political life of the city” (Torjesen, 37). Since it belonged to the private sphere, it makes sense that women would have had a prominent role as leaders throughout the church up to the middle of the third century, which was when the church took the form of a public religion (Torjesen, 37). Church leadership was modeled after household management, which “required experience in the management of people as well as of goods” (Torjesen, 76-7). As church leadership was modeled after the familiar role of the household manager, there was no problem for women to be church leaders, which would have been perceived as natural (Torjesen, 32). Women’s skills and experiences as household managers enabled them to carry out “the duties of teaching, disciplining, nurturing, and administrating material resources” (Torjesen, 32).

But as the church began entering the public sphere, women leaders were forced into “the same subjugation of women in the churches as prevailed in Greco-Roman society at large” (Torjesen, 38). As the church became more of a public arena, the models for leadership were drawn from public life, which caused women’s leadership to become controversial (Torjesen, 157). Because the public sphere limited women’s involvement, the leaders of the church became uncomfortable with women leadership (Torjesen, 157).

Tertullian was quite hostile against women leadership in the church, but through his writings we find that the church communities he was familiar with had women who taught, baptized, exorcised and healed (Torjesen, 158). Indeed, Tertullian was the first to argue Christianity in judicial or political terms when he articulated his understanding of Christianity through the language, metaphors and paradigms from the public sphere of the Roman Empire (Torjesen, 160). His rejection of women’s leadership in the church was a reflection of Roman society’s values that women belong to the private sphere (Torjesen, 160).

It was with Tertullian that the church became a legal entity that was unified by a common law and a common discipline (Torjesen, 162-3). It was Tertullian who modeled clergy after the ruling senatorial class, so that the honor and authority of the church was represented by the clergy, which in turn made it imperative for the clergy to exemplify the moral discipline of the church (Torjesen, 163). By being clergy, members of that office held particular rights according to Tertullian, such as the right to baptize, teach, offer the Eucharist, and restore to fellowship after penance, so that what had originally been a ministry had now become legal rights and privileges (Torjesen, 163). Since Tertullian said that women cannot baptize, we know he forbade women to be in the clergy and even the laity, which was a leadership group of the church that was subject to the clergy and had fewer rights and privileges (Torjesen, 164). The argument that around the third century the church ceased functioning in the private sphere and started functioning in the public sphere is evident in Tertullian’s argument in On the Veiling of Virgins. Tertullian argues that since women veil themselves while out on the streets, they should also veil themselves while in the church (On the Veiling of Virgins, 13, 165). He argues further that the church was now no different from the marketplace as part of the public sphere, and the time of the church in the private sphere was over (Torjesen, 166).

Through the influence and arguments of Tertullian at the beginning of the third century the church shifted from the private to the public sphere, which resulted in women no longer being allowed to function as leaders in the church. The negative comments, arguments and opinions regarding women leadership come from the third century or after, such as from Augustine, John Chrysostom, Ambrose and Origen. The link between the entrance of the church into the public sphere and the dominant view of the church fathers from the third century onward is striking and unavoidable.

Conclusion

Women functioned as religious leaders throughout the Roman Empire. In Greek and Roman religions women were in a position to participate as leaders, and even in Judaism women functioned as leaders. Similarly, women served as leaders in the New Testament. The first two hundred years of the early church had a positive view of women. The social norm was for women to participate in the private sphere. In the religions of the Roman Empire, we do see exceptions to this rule. However, the church was a religion that functioned in the private sphere. Christians did not assemble in public, but in houses, which were the domain of the private sphere. As such, there was no cultural problem for women to be leaders in the church. Given the early positive view of women and while the church remained in the private sphere, women served as leaders. However, largely due to the influence of Tertullian and perhaps also due to the involvement of many women in the leadership of various heresies, women were eventually kept from taking leadership positions, especially when the church moved from the private sphere into the public sphere. After that, the general view regarding women became very negative, and women were no longer permitted to participate in leadership roles that they had in the New Testament.

 

 

Bibliography

Didascalia apostolorum. 2.26; 3.12. In Women In Early Christianity: Translations from Greek Texts. Patricia Miller, ed. Washington: The Catholic University of America Press, 2000. 62.

 

Didascalia apostolorum. 3.1-11; 4.5-8. In Women In Early Christianity: Translations from Greek Texts. Patricia Miller, ed. Washington: The Catholic University of America Press, 2000. 51-61.

 

Didascalia apostolorum. 3.9. In Women In Early Christianity: Translations from Greek Texts. Patricia Miller, ed. Washington: The Catholic University of America Press, 2000. 65.

 

 

Epiphanius. Ecclesiastical History. 5.16.17. In Women In Early Christianity: Translations from Greek Texts. Patricia Miller, ed. Washington: The Catholic University of America Press, 2000. 34.

 

Epiphanius. Panarion. 48.2.4; 48.12.4; 48.13.1; 49.1. In Women In Early Christianity: Translations from Greek Texts. Patricia Miller, ed. Washington: The Catholic University of America Press, 2000. 34-5.

Epiphanius. Panarion. 79.2,3-4,1. In Women In Early Christianity: Translations from Greek Texts. Patricia Miller, ed. Washington: The Catholic University of America Press, 2000. 67.

 

 

Hippolytus. Refutation of All Heresies. 8.19. In Women In Early Christianity: Translations from Greek Texts. Patricia Miller, ed. Washington: The Catholic University of America Press, 2000. 35.

 

Hippolytus. The Apostolic Tradition. 11; 25; 27. In Women In Early Christianity: Translations from Greek Texts. Patricia Miller, ed. Washington: The Catholic University of America Press, 2000. 51.

 

 

Irenaeus. Against Heresies. 1.25.6. In Women In Early Christianity: Translations from Greek Texts. Patricia Miller, ed. Washington: The Catholic University of America Press, 2000. 17.

 

 

Irenaeus. Against Heresies. 1.13.1-3. In Women In Early Christianity: Translations from Greek Texts. Patricia Miller, ed. Washington: The Catholic University of America Press, 2000. 32-3.

 

Irenaeus. Against Heresies. III, 22, 4. In Women in the Early Church, by Elizabeth Clark. Message of the Fathers of the Church. Vol. 13. Thomas Halton, ed. Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1983. 38.

 

 

 

 

 

1 Linda Belleville, Women Leaders and the Church: Three crucial questions (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2000), 20.

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid., 20-1.

4 Ibid., 21.

5 Ibid.

6 Ibid.

7 Ibid., 22.

8 Ibid.

9 Ibid.

10 Ibid., 23.

11 Ibid., 23-4.

12 Ibid., 24-5.

13 Ibid.

14 Ibid., 25.

15 Ibid.

16 Ibid.

17 Ibid.

18 Ibid., 25-6.

19 Ibid., 26.

20 Ibid., 27.

21 Ibid.

22 Ibid., 28.

23 Ibid.

24 Ibid., 29.

25 Ibid., 31.

26 Ibid.

27 Ibid., 33.

28 Ibid.

29 Ibid.

30 Ibid., 34.

31 Ibid.

32 Ibid.

33 Ibid., 35.

34 Ibid.

35 Ibid., 37.

36 Ibid., 38.

37 Ibid., 47.

38 Ibid., 50.

39 Ibid., 52.

40 Ibid.

41 Ibid.

42 Ibid., 53.

43 Ibid.

44 Ibid., 54.

45 Ibid., 56.

46 Ibid.

47 Ibid., 57.

48 Ibid.

49 Ibid., 58.

50 Ibid.

51 Ibid.

52 Ibid.

53 Ibid.

54 Ibid., 59.

55 Ibid.

56 Ibid.

57 Ibid., 60.

58 Ibid., 61.

59 Ibid.

60 Ibid., 64-5.

61 Ibid., 65-7.

62 Ibid., 68.

63 Patricia Miller, ed., Women in Early Christianity: Translations from Greek Texts (Washington: The Catholic University of America Press, 2005), 17.

64 1.25.6 in Miller, Women in Early Christianity, 17.

65 Miller, Women in Early Christianity, 17.

66 Ibid., 19.

67 Ibid., 22-3.

68 Cf. On the Soul and the Resurrection, “Dialogue about grief and death,” on page 23 in Miller’s Women in Early Christianity, for example.

69 Miller, Women in Early Christianity, 31.

70 Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 1.13.1-3 in Miller, Women in Early Christianity, 32-3.

71 Ecclesiastical History, 5.16.17, in Miller, Women in Early Christianity, 34.

72 Panarion, 48.2.4; 48.12.4; 48.13.1; 49.1, in Miller, Women in Early Christianity, 34-5.

73 Refutation of All Heresies, 8.19, in Miller, Women in Early Christianity, 35.

74 Miller, Women in Early Christianity, 62.

75 Didascalia apostolorum, 2.26; 3.12, in Miller, Women in Early Christianity, .

76 Ibid.

77 Miller, Women in Early Christianity, 49.

78 Ibid., 50-1.

79 Hippolytus, The Apostolic Tradition, 11; 25; 27.

80 Didascalia apostolorum, 3.1-11; 4.5-8.

81 Miller, Women in Early Christianity, 65.

82 Didascalia apostolorum, 3.9.

83 Panarion, 79.2,3-4,1.

84 Walter Liefeld and Ruth Tucker, Daughter’s of the Church: Women and Ministry from New Testament Times to the Present (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1987), 92.

85 Ibid., 92-3.

86 Ibid., 93.

87 III, 22, 4

88 Ibid.

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