Women in the early church

Woman and man—created equally in the image of God? There is no shortage of evidence supporting that women were active participants in the early church. The question, however, is what these facts have to say about the role of women in the church.

The position of women in Roman-Hellenistic antiquity was defined by the alleged superiority of men. This was even more strongly pronounced in the Greek culture than in the Roman. From this it follows that the role of women was not a prominent subject of reflection, not even in the writings of Christian authors such as Paul, although he does comment on them. He is a child of his time and consequently defines the relationship between man and woman as a relationship of subordination. The reality in the congregations was much more diverse, however.

Women in the Imperial Roman period

At the time of the early church, women in the Roman Empire enjoyed many more rights than their counterparts in all other cultures. In the imperial era, women became legally competent, and were allowed to manage their own assets. According to Roman law, they could not be forced into marriage, and they also had the option to divorce a man. Women in the upper classes had access to education. In the first century there was a veritable emancipation of women in this class.

Women in early Christendom

The fact that many were mentioned by name in New Testament Scripture indicates that women played an important role in the early church. Phoebe, Prisca, Nympha, and Chloe led house churches and took on leadership tasks in the church. In the epistle to the Romans, Paul even emphasises the name of Junia as being “of note among the Apostles, who also [was] in Christ before me”.

In his church history, Eusebius of Caesarea makes reference to women leaders of house churches, prophetesses in the tradition of the daughters of Philip, Christian female missionaries, and numerous female martyrs, although women often tend to remain anonymous.

Another defining feature of the early church was that spirituality and the spiritual authority that came with it was not yet linked to ministry. For example, the Roman senator Pliny the Younger did not have the (male) rulers, but two women arrested and summoned for interrogation, as they were considered to be the spiritual authorities in the congregation.

The ideal of virginity

The notion of turning away from the earthly world, the ideal of renunciation, the striving for higher, spiritual things, and the expectation of an imminent end to the world not only inspired Christians, but also had a formative impact on many cults and sects. The early Christian esteem for virginity also fits into this picture. Their abdication from the traditional roles of wife and mother allowed numerous women—especially those who were affluent—to devote themselves completely to charitable tasks in the church and to develop their spiritual gifts.

Abstinence was regarded as a special ethical quality and valued as an expression of a life in the Spirit, a life of moral perfection. Owing to the great esteem it enjoyed in the congregation, the ideal of virginity was considered extremely desirable for young women. In the eastern part of the empire, virgins were even counted among the clergy.

Like widows and deaconesses, virgins formed their own class in the church, and they were even able to assume leading positions in congregations. In some congregations of the early church, virgins ranked higher in the hierarchy than ordained Deacons. With the rise of monasticism, however, these virgin groups began to disappear from church life. The only option remaining to them thereafter was a monastic existence.

The service of the Deaconesses

In addition to providing charitable services in the congregation, Deaconesses were primarily responsible for the religious instruction of baptismal candidates, in some cases even the male candidates. Deaconesses were selected and appointed by the congregation.

In fourth-century Egypt, the question of whether Deaconesses could participate in the dispensation of bread and wine was discussed. Although they were indeed allowed to bring the Lord’s Supper to the sick, their participation in the Eucharist was ruled out.

A number of Franconian Bishops were still ordaining Deaconesses as late as the sixth century. However, this practice was not long condoned by the church, as the Council of Orleans forbade women from exercising any function within the church. There is little reliable information about the reasons for this.

From the records of church ordinances it can be concluded that the development of the liturgy was a contributing factor in the decline of the importance of the diaconate. The emergence of a strong hierarchy of ecclesiastical offices left no room for the more egalitarian ethos of the early Christian congregations.

Conclusions about the early church

In the early church of the first century, women played a more prominent role in the congregations and in the spread of Christianity than they ever did in later history. The fall of the Roman Empire and the turmoil of the Great Migration of Peoples put an end to this progress. Political developments led to the emergence of a strongly hierarchical male clergy, and the role of women was increasingly restricted to charitable services.

This article borrows from a much longer commentary about the leading role of women in the early church, which originally appeared in issue 02/2018 of spirit magazine. The next article in this series will outline further developments in society in general.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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Andreas Vöhringer