The Role of Women in the Early Church
Ever since that most unhappy moment in the history of mankind when Eve forsook her role as a "help meet"1 for man and disregarded God's Word by eating of the forbidden fruit, her position has been subject to various degrees of inferiority and degradation. Throughout the history of the world her position has ranged from enslavement and subjugation to tolerance and respect. Christ's coming into the world and the spread of Christianity shed new light on her position, for New Testament Christianity placed males and females on an equal footing in Christ, by stating that in "Him there is neither male nor female."2 How this equality in Christ was to be effected in the life of church and society has not always been unanimously agreed upon.
Conditions in the Early Church (the first five centuries, beginning with the Apostolic age) already forced the church to pay attention to the position of women. I believe that a study of the history of the Early Church and the writings of that period are most instructive in providing a historical perspective whereby to judge the woman's rights movement of today. The role that women played in the early days of Christianity until it became firmly established in Europe can help provide direction to the church of today in deciding the course to pursue in the present controversy.
1. Prominence of Women
What immediately draws attention is the prominence of women in the records of the Early Church and the considerable attention given by the writings of the Church Fathers to define her proper role. This should not surprise us, since the New Testament records give evidence of the important part played by women in the founding of Christianity. Immediately after Christ's ascension we read of women being gathered with the apostles and other disciples in the upper room in Jerusalem. 3 After Pentecost the ingathering of converts consisted of "multitudes both of men and women,"4 and there is significant evidence that women played a prominent part in the progress of the Gospel.5
Because of its high ethical and moral standards Judaism had already prepared the way, for by the "dispersion of the Jews the seeds of the knowledge of the true God and the Messianic hope were sown in the field of the idolatrous world."6 Many of these proselytes and God-fearers formed the nucleus of the first Christian churches.7
2. Conditions of the Society into which Christianity Entered
The low ebb of the culture into which the Gospel came with its saving power and high ethical standards is described by Paul in his Roman Epistle.8In such a society "Christianity proposed a new order for a demoralized world, and it is clear that ... it had a strong appeal to women who entered the new faith on the same basis as men."9 The state was all-important and marriages were contracted to serve political ends. Especially in Greece women were the mere tools of men. Women received no education and had no rights and were considered to be no better than chattels. Their lives were mainly passed in their domestic quarters and girls merely passed from the home of their father to that of their husbands. Monogamy was the rule both in Greek and Roman society, but this did not exclude illegitimate connections. Extra marital relationships were reserved for men only, however, and the wife had no legal or societal protection against the unfaithfulness of her husband.10 Stranger women called "hetaerae" provided males with extra marital companionship and intellectual stimulation. These "hetaerae" were intelligent, educated courtesans, some of whom exerted intellectual and political influence upon the men. 11 But because of the sharp social class stratification these women were forbidden to marry citizens. In Corinth these "hetaerae" were attached to the temple of Aphrodite, where more than a thousand of them were employed as temple prostitutes. 12 Sexual immorality of the most lewd nature was not considered shameful. How could it be when the Greek gods were themselves engaged in shameful acts?
In Roman society women enjoyed a somewhat better standing than in Greek culture. Although a woman had no legal rights to sign a contract or will and could not act as a witness at court, she did share more in her husband's life and was honored with the title "domina," or "matron".13 Roman women were also far better educated and Seneca (AD 3-66) reveals the existence of homes where women wielded powerful influences over their husbands. 14 Because of slavery women had ample leisure time to spend in keeping up with the latest fashions in clothing, hairstyles and cosmetics, and spent afternoons at the baths. 15Yet, in spite of the comparative luxury and freedom she enjoyed, the Roman woman was the living property of a husband who could lend her out at will, as Cato lent his wife to his friend Hortensius, and as Augustus took Livia from Tiberias Nero. 16This was the society into which Christianity was emerging, supplanting the immorality and the vices connected with the exploitation of women. Christianity elevated their position to one of honor and dignity.
3. The Writings of the Early Church Fathers on the Role of Women
Christianity established the sanctity of the entire family, making the marriage relationship a pattern of the mystical union of Christ with His Church. 17 No longer was the woman the slave of man and the tool of lust. The writings of the early Church reflect the New Testament's teaching in regard to women's role. Polycarp (AD 69-155), one of the Apostolic Fathers, who ended his life as a martyr, mentions the duties of wives, admonishing them to walk "in the faith given to them, and in purity tenderly loving their own husbands in all truth ... and to train up their children in the knowledge and fear of God." 18Ignatius (died c. AD 107) reminds "husbands, love your wives, as fellow-servants of God, as your own body, as the partners of life, and your co-adjutors in the procreation of children."19The Shepherd of Hermas deals with infidelity and divorce and says to men that "if you always remember your own wife, you will never sin."20 Titian (AD 110-172) in his "Address to the Greeks" compares heathen and Christian women and writes: "all our women are chaste, and the maidens at their distaffs sing of divine things."21 The famous Apologist Athenagorus writes in AD 177, in defense of Christianity in "A Plea for the Christians," about the high morality of Christians. "We are so far from practising promiscuous intercourse, that it is not lawful among us to indulge even a lustful look."22Clement of Alexandria (AD 153-217) devotes a lot of attention to define the proper role of women, giving many instructions pertaining to her duties and conduct. 23 Tertullian (AD 150-220), another Apologist, in a book dedicated to his wife writes: "How can I paint the happiness of a marriage which the church ratifies."24
4. The Influence of Women
1. As Wives and Mothers
It is significant how important the influences of godly women were in instilling the Christian faith in members of their family. Many of the Church Fathers attribute their faith to the influences of godly mothers. Theodoret (b. AD 300) had "an honorable and pious mother." 25
Basil the Great (b. AD 329) had both a God-fearing mother, St. Emmalia, and a God-fearing grandmother, St. Macrina, 26who also had great influence on her brother Gregory of Nyssa.27 Nona, the mother of Gregory Nazianzen (b. AD 330), was one of the noblest Christian women of antiquity and by her patience in prayer wrought the conversion of both her husband and son. 28 The mother of Chrysostom (b. AD 347), Anthusa, early planted in him the seed of piety.29 Probably the most well-known mother of the Early Church is Monica, the mother of St. Augustine (b. AD 354) to whom he paid tribute in his Confessions and Letters.30
2. As Martyrs
There is no doubt that the faith and courage displayed by women as martyrs of the Church helped build their esteem and influence. Clement of Alexandria devotes a whole chapter in "The Stromata" to the fact that women as well as men are candidates for the martyr's crown.31 The history of the Early Church is full of names of women who gave the supreme sacrifice of their lives. History records the names of Agnes, "a maiden of thirteen years," who steadfastly confessed and was "put to the sword."32 There is Caecilia, the legendary virgin and martyr who witnessed under Marcus Aurelius, 33 and Blandina a Gallic slave who showed super-human strength under torture and was thrown to wild beasts.34 We read of Biblias of Lyon who first recanted, but later confessed. Agathonice of Pergamos rushed into the flames from the side of her young son.35 Irene, Casia, Philippia, Eutychia and Soter were noblewomen who died under the Diocletian persecution (AD 303-313). Herais, Marcella and Potamiana from Alexandria and Chionia and Agape from Thessalonica are mentioned. Quinta was stoned and Appolonia was burned during the reign of Valerius (AD 257-261). Ammonarion, Mercuria and Dionysia died in chains. Fortunata, Credula, Hereda and Julia died in prison of starvation under the persecution of Decius (AD 250-260). Collecta, Emerita, Calpurnia, Maria and her sisters Januaria, Dativa, and Donata are honored by the Church Father Cyprian, and Quartillosia, Tertullas and Antonia died with him in AD 258. Donata, Secunda, Hestia, Januaria and Generosa are named among the twelve martyrs who died in Numidia. In AD 304 eighteen women died. Also Chrispina, Maxima, Donatilla and Secundia wore the martyr's crown. In Persia under the reign of Sapor II, Tabula and numerous other young women died a martyr's death. Other names are Domnia, Theonilla, Eulalia and Juletta. Vibia Perpetua (AD 203), only twenty-two years old and member of a leading family, meets a martyr's death in Carthage in spite of the entreaties of her heathen father and being the mother of an infant. Her slave and fellow martyr, Felicitas, gave birth to a child in prison. Both of them were gored to death by a wild cow.36 The church historian Eusebius writes that emperor Licinius forbade women to worship together with men, visit places of worship and be taught by bishops!37 Did he realize that much power of Christianity was with its women?
3. In Society and the State
That women were influential in bringing others to faith cannot be doubted. Even in the highest classes of society, at the emperor's court, there were women who were Christians and had great influence. Pomponia Graecina, wife of consul Augustus Plautinus (AD 58), the conqueror of Britain, was the first high-ranking woman to be accused of the Christian faith. Two cousins of emperor Domitian (AD 81-96), Flavius Clemens and his wife Flavia Domitilla, were accused of "atheism," that is, of Christianity. The husband was condemned to death and the wife to exile. Excavations in the catacomb of Domitilla establish that an entire branch of the Flavian family had embraced Christianity.38 During the rule of Commodus (AD 180-192) there were many Christians at the palace, including Marcia who did many favors for Christians. During the reign of Septimus Severus (AD 193-211) Christian women were prominent at the court. Even Prisca, the wife of Diocletian (AD 303-311), under whom the Christians were most severely persecuted, is reported to have been a Christian, or at least favorable to Christianity. So was Diocletian's daughter Valeria and many others at the palace! 39 Some historians believe that because of the influence of Aquila Severa upon her husband Callistus (AD 217-222) marriage laws were revised to favor women.40
The beneficial effects of Christianity upon the status of women and the family received its fullest expression under the emperor Constantine, whose conversion gave Christianity official sanction. In AD 321 he granted women the same rights as men to control their property, with the exception of landed estates. Rape of virgins and widows became punishable by death. Marriage laws making divorce more difficult and penalizing concubinage and adultery were passed. In AD 390 Theodosius I allowed the mother a certain right of guardianship formerly exclusively entrusted to men. Thus we see that the result of a wide acceptance of Christianity had influence upon the society and the state, resulting in the legal protection of the Christian values of the family and thereby elevating the position of the woman. No doubt, it was the witness of women exhibiting the teaching of Christianity which effected these changes, because even the "heathen Libanus, the enthusiastic eulogist of old Grecian culture, pronounced an involuntary eulogy on Christianity, when he exclaimed, ... 'What women the Christians have!'"
5. Women's Role in the Church
In spite of the prominence of women in the history of the Early Church "the texts from the Fathers are without exception, quite univocal on the question of whether a woman may be a priest. A woman may not be a priest."41 This is said by an author who contends that the Church Fathers were mistaken because the context of Paul's exhortations regarding women supposedly indicate he is addressing heretical views. It seems hardly true when we examine the context of Scripture. For instance, the First Epistle to Timothy clearly indicates that Paul is setting forth rules for the church to follow when he says: "I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man."42That the Early Church understood this literally is quite evident from the writings of the Church Fathers. In fact, it was often because they were reacting against certain teachings and practices which contradicted the teachings and practices of the Catholic church that they set forth rules pertaining to the position of women in the church.
Among the first official pronouncements of the church were those addressed to the regulation and function of deaconesses. Works of charity had been the special task of women since the Apostolic age. The sick, widows and orphans were the objects of their care. In imitation of the New Testament, widows were given special honor, 43 as were virgins, women who followed Paul's teaching regarding abstinence from marriage.44When a special order of deaconesses emerged in the church is difficult to pinpoint. The earliest references which appear are by Pliny who calls two female slaves who were tortured, "deacons," and by Lucian who gives an account of "widows" who ministered to the wants of Christians held in jail. 45 The ministry of these widows developed to a point where they are recognized as a separate order in certain third-century documents called Church Orders. One of these, the "Didascalia," gives reasons for their ministry: "For there are houses whither thou canst not send a deacon to the women, on account of the heathen, but mayest send a deaconess. Also because in many other matters the office of a woman deacon is required."46 It appears that their work was required because of the strict separation of the sexes in ancient times and their "duties were not liturgical but consisted of helping at baptisms and visiting the sick."47The "Didascalia" forbids women to baptize and teach.
That a woman should baptize, or that one should be baptized by a woman ... is a transgression of the commandment ... It is neither right nor necessary ... that women should be teachers ... For you have not been appointed to this, O women.48
There is no evidence these women were ordained, although a special service of consecration is indicated by a prayer of consecration for deaconesses in the Apostolic Constitution, and reference to their work is made by the Council of Chalcedon (AD 451).49 In the Western church the order disappears with the rise of the celibacy of the clergy and monasticism.50
The Christianization of society led to the decay of purity and discipline in the church. Asceticism was sought as the answer for moral perfection and purity. In the fourth century monasticism appears to provide a place for escape from the vanities of the world. Soon we find women enthusiastically involved. The solitary hermit life was unsuitable for females, but monasticism was practicable for women, and cloisters of nuns appear at the same time as those of men. "The sister of Pachomius followed his example and founded the first known Christian monastery."51 These convents took many forms. There is a record of an order, patterned on the heretical Tecla, where "the deaconess Marthana ruled over the cells of both men and women ascetics who settled around the memorial of Saint Tecla of Seleucia in fourth century Asia Minor." 52 The development of monasticism leads into the Medieval period of church history, but it is certain that "besides marriage there was no other honorable career but that of a nun; it was a career that could be widened to include activities that a wife and mother could not touch."53Although it provided a sphere for women to spend their energies, the negative side of monasticism is that it led to a depreciation of women and domestic life. It "comes into conflict with love of kindred, and with the relation of parents to children."54 And it was the role of women in their families which the church had emphasized.
It was as wives and mothers that the Church Fathers had especially honored women. They reckoned women who usurped authority in the church as heretics and it was in the heretical movement which troubled the Early Church that women were taking on authority and leadership positions.
Gnosticism, a heresy which took many forms, stressed a secret "gnosis" or knowledge as supreme authority. "Sophia" or Wisdom was seen as a feminine virtue and the judge of the souls was portrayed as the Virgin of Lights attended by seven handmaids. Introduced into the church by Valentinus (AD 135-165), its emphasis on the female character of "gnosis" led his followers to entice beautiful and wealthy Christian women by seduction and the practice of magical arts.55 Epiphanes, a Gnostic teacher of Alexandria, advocated free love. 56On the opposite end was Marcion, the most radical of the Christian Gnostics, who was an ascetic and admitted married persons to baptism only on a vow of abstinence from all sexual intercourse. 57
Another heresy, Montanism, which originated during the mid second century, placed women in positions of authority. With its emphasis on the endowment of the spirit as qualification for office and the stress on the universal priesthood of all believers it led women to engage in activities confined to the clergy. Appealing to the Biblical examples of Miriam, Deborah and the daughters of Philip, Montanus, the founder of this sect, was assisted by two prophetesses, Priscilla and Maximilla. These women left their husbands to proclaim the imminent return of Christ.58 It is known that in Spain Montanists recognized women as priests. 59
About AD 200 a document attributed to the apostle Paul, Acts of Paul, was circulating in the church. Tertullian mentions that these "writings falsely ascribed to Paul do defend the right of a woman to teach and baptize."60 In these writings Paul is associated with the legendary origin of the martyr Tecla, who probably was an historical figure. A cult of Tecla developed and these followers used her as a precedent for advocating that women could teach in the church and baptize. Reacting to this, Tertullian writes:
The heretical women, how bold and indecorous they are! They dare to teach, to argue, to undertake exorcism, to promise healings, perhaps also even baptize.61
It was in the heretical movements that women figured prominently as leading figures. In the Donatist controversy a woman, Lucilla, was prominent.62The Monarchians were accused of perverting the Biblical sanctions of sex by Augustine. "Though you do not forbid sexual intercourse, you ... forbid marriage in the proper sense."63 Athanasius (died AD 373), the great defender of orthodoxy, accused the Arians of violating women and persecuting widows. 64Jerome (c. AD 340-419), commenting on women's forwardness in the heretical movements, exclaims: "What do these wretched sin-laden hussies want! Marcion sent on to Rome before him a woman to infatuate the people for him. Apelles had Philomena as a companion for his teaching. Montanus, the proclaimer of the spirit of impurity, first used Prisca and Maximilla, noble and rich women, to seduce many communities by gold, and then disgraced them with heresy."65Yet Jerome was no woman-hater, for he honors them with a book on the life of women of his day, calling them "the wonder of ages" and mentions with respect Vidua, a woman famous for Hebrew scholarship and Paula who wrote a commentary on Ezekiel.66
6. The Ecumenical Councils on Woman's Role
It is highly significant that the great ecumenical councils which formulated such important doctrines during the third and fourth century to settle theological disputes, also include "Canones" dealing with disciplinary statements concerning women's role in the church. Conditions in the church apparently necessitated this action because of the prominent role of women in the life of the Early Church. This appears even in the fact that women tried to influence the decisions made in settling the theological disputes. The wife of Emperor Constantius, Eusebia, was a zealous Arian who tried to exert her influence by obtaining appointments for Arian bishops. 67The empress Eudokia and the emperor's sister Pulcheria were enlisted by Cyril of Alexandria to oppose Nestorianism.68 Both Pelagius and Augustine corresponded with Demetrias, a leading nun, during the Pelagian controversy.69 Of such general interest were the theological controversies of the age, that "in Constantinople, during the Arian controversy, all classes, even ... market women and runaway slaves took a lively part in the questions of Homousion and subordination."70
In dealing with the role of women, Canon XIX of the Council of Nicea (AD 325) refers to deaconesses, and states that since they did not share in ordination, they were reckoned among the laity. 71The Council of Laodicea (AD 343-381) states in Canon XI, "Presbyteds, as they are called, or female presidents are not to be appointed in the Church." 72
A comment by Balsamon says:
For a woman to teach in a Catholic Church where a multitude of men is gathered together, and women of different opinions, is, in the highest degree, indecorous and pernicious. 73
The Council of Nimes (AD 394) convened to oppose Priscillianists (a Manichaean-like sect which counted many women followers). It pronounced that "in opposition to apostolic order and although it has been unknown until our time, certain people have suggested that women ... are seen performing priestly service; obviously church order does not permit this, because it is indecent; and such an illegal ordination should be annulled."74
The overwhelming evidence is that the Early Church, conforming to New Testament teaching, did not allow women to be ordained to any church office, even though they were involved in the work of the church to a high degree. In fact, it was predominantly in the heretical movements that women performed functions reserved for the ordained leaders of the church. It is highly significant that it was during the period when the Church made such momentous decisions in settling theological issues to define such cardinal doctrines as the Trinity and Christology, which are still accepted by orthodox Christianity, that women were prohibited from ordination.
Furthermore, it is noteworthy that laws applying to the family and marriage which protect the woman's position, were enacted when Christianity's influence had become strong enough to receive the official sanction of the state. The implication is that any government which does not legally protect the Christian values of the family and marriage, is opening the door for all kinds of perversions of woman's role in marriage and the home. 75
A further observation which can be made from a study of the history of women's role in the Early Church is that lack of ordination was no hindrance for women to exercise their gifts in a proper and useful way. They exercised their gifts in the home, in the church and in society. They publicly witnessed to the transforming power of Christianity by choosing the supreme sacrifice rather than denying their faith. Christian women today are still called to be witnesses and sacrifice for their faith. They do so by holding to the sure word of prophecy, which says:
Be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.76
Finally, the history of the Early Church indicates that heresy has always been with us. The church will always be under doctrinal attack. This attack began with Eve in Paradise when she listened to Satan who asked: "Has God said?"77Therefore it is not so strange, that advocates for women's ordination also question the clear teachings of God's Word. Someone said it well:
Doctrinal distortion is a rationalization of our behavioral self-will.78
- Bruce, F. F. The Spreading Flame. Grand Rapids 3, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1958.
- Carrington, Philip. The Early Christian Church, Vol. I: The First Christian Century; Vol. II: The Second Century. Cambridge: University Press, 1957.
- Encyclopaedia Brittannica. 1977 ed. S.v. "Women, Status of," pp. 906-916.
- Gerlings, C. De Vrouw in het Oud-Christelijke Gemeenteleven. Amsterdam: A. H. Kruyt, n.d.
- Hadad, Moses. Imperial Rome. Great Ages of Man Series. New York: Time Incorporated, 1965.
- Jackson, Jeremy C. No Other Foundation. Westchester, Illinois: Cornerstone Books, 1980.
- Morris, Joan. Against God and Nature. London: Mowbrays, 1973.
- Roberts, Alexander and Donaldson, James, ed. The Ante-Nicene Fathers, 10 vols. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1867; reprint ed. 1977.
- Ryrie, Charles Caldwell. The Role of Women in the Church. Chicago: Moody Press, 1958.
- Schaff, Philip. History of the Christian Church. Vols. I, II, III. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1910; reprint ed. 1978, and Wace, Henry, ed. The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers. First Series, 14 vols. Grand Rapids, Michigan:
- The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, 14 vols. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1952.
- Smith, Page. Daughters of the Promised Land. Boston and Toronto: Little, Brown and Company, 1970.
- Van der Meer, Haye. Women Priests in the Catholic Church? Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1973.
- White, E. M. Woman in the World History. London SW1: Herbert Jenkins Limited, 1924.