Research: Women’s Leadership Roles in the Early Christian Church

This was a paper I wrote for a “History of Christianity” course at the University of Washington Tacoma.  Just stumbled across it in my computer files and decided to cut-and-paste in case anyone’s interested.  🙂

~Debi


Women’s Leadership Roles in the Early Christian Church

by Deborah Taylor-Hough

The leadership roles women play within Christianity today vary greatly depending upon which branch of the Christian family tree is being examined.   Women can be ordained as pastors or priests in some denominations but not in others.  So the question remains: what was the role of women in the Christian church during the first century?  The modern Feminist perspective has brought an influx of study on the topic of women in the historical church, but not without experiencing negative criticism from those who view such studies as “an anachronistic and unrealistic application” of historical scholarship.[1]  Even without taking into account Feminist reconstructions of the early church, it is clear from Biblical and historical sources that a number of women held active leadership roles during the time of Jesus and also in the early days of Christianity.

Historical and Cultural Context for Women in Leadership

Christianity was born within Jewish traditions and began as a small Jewish sect, more of a Jewish “renewal movement” than a new religion per se.[2]  This new sect followed an itinerant preacher, Jesus of Nazareth.   After the death and resurrection of Jesus, the new faith was not fully recognized as a separate religion by the Roman officials for a number of years, not really until the end of the first century, even though the Church has been historically considered to start on the day of Pentecost when Peter preached to the crowds gathered in Jerusalem for the holiday.[3]  Jewish religion and culture during the time of Jesus did not allow women to be involved in leadership in the synagogues or prayer meetings. Priesthood was restricted only to men, and although women were allowed to participate in religious worship, they had restrictions put on them by ritual purity laws related to menstruation and child-bearing.  During much of their lives, women were considered ritually “unclean.”  Men were also cautious about speaking to women in public and women were not allowed to study with rabbis.[4]  Consequently, the fact that Jesus traveled with women would have been shocking to his contemporaries[5] because “unchaperoned women sharing the preaching tours of a celibate male teacher is discontinuous with … the Judaism of the time.”[6]

Women Who Followed Jesus

During Jesus’ earthly ministry as he traveled throughout Galilee, Jesus was surrounded by a group of disciples (learners).  This group was not only “The Twelve” who comprised his inner circle, but other followers of the “Way,” many of whom were women.[7]   Three are mentioned by name in Luke’s Gospel—Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Suzanna[8]—and all four of the Synoptic Gospels record “the presence of women who either followed (akolouthe) Jesus or journeyed (di deu) with him in Galilee.”[9]  Mary of Bethany is even described as an exemplary disciple as she sits at Jesus’ feet and listens to his teaching.[10]  Jesus obviously approved of a woman’s interest in spiritual topics and had no qualms about teaching a woman, himself.

Now the question is, were these women who travelled with Jesus actually disciples in the same sense as his male followers?  According to Carla Ricci, Jesus’ disciples shared common traits including being called by Jesus to follow him, travelling with Jesus and on his behalf, separation from family, leaving behind their regular activities and employment, service, receiving special teaching from Jesus, receiving a call to proclaim the Good News, witnessing to others about their faith, and sharing Jesus’ life.[11]  Other than the explicit call to follow him which cannot be proven from the Biblical text, the women who were followers of Jesus fit all of the other criteria for discipleship.  Additionally, the fact that these women were actively following Jesus shows that he allowed them to be there even if he did not call them directly. Not all of Jesus’ male disciples received a specific call directly from him that is recorded in scripture, so it is impossible to say for sure that even all of the men received a call of that sort.  It is interesting to note, that in Matthew 12:49, the author states that Jesus stretched forth his hand “toward his disciples and said, ‘Here are my mother and brothers.’”  Jesus used both masculine and feminine descriptions for his disciples, indicating both men and women were present in this group which he considered to be like family members.[12]  The women who followed Jesus during his itinerant ministry were true disciples.

Other than the female disciples, some women were also benefactors to the apostles.  Luke identifies Mary, Suzanna, and Joanna as women “who provided for Jesus and the twelve out of [their] own possessions (huparchonta).”[13]  These women had enough means to allow them to not only support Jesus and his disciples, but enough to allow the women freedom to travel with the disciples, as well.  Other women of note in the early church were a disciple named Tabitha[14], a leader of a home church named Lydia[15], a deacon named Phoebe who was traveling as an official church representative[16] from the church at Corinth to the church in Rome[17], and after Jesus’ resurrection, it was Mary Magdalene who brought word to the other disciples about the event[18], thus earning her the title of “the apostle to the apostles”[19] because an apostle was one who was sent to bear witness to the gospel.[20]

Women’s Role in the Early Churches

Rather than holding large public gatherings, the early Christian churches met in the homes of a believers to share the Lord’s Supper and hear the gospel preached,[21] and in the New Testament, several women are cited as offering their houses for meetings.  Some of these hostesses included Lydia[22], the mother of Mark[23], and Prisca[24]. As the early Christians gathered to share their communal meals, the home was the logical place to hold these banquets, and the “house church, by virtue of its location, provided equal opportunities for women, because traditionally the house was considered women’s proper sphere, and women were not excluded from activities in it.”[25]  Closely associated with the early House Church movement was the position of prophet, a leadership role frequently held by women.  The Apostle Paul apparently assumes in 1 Corinthians 11 “that women are praying and prophesying during worship.”[26]  The role of prophet would have included preaching, teaching, and leading prayer.[27]  Prophets were not normally associated with only one local congregation, but traveled about to many different locations.[28]

Although the Apostle Paul sometimes has a reputation of being anti-woman, during Paul’s missionary journeys he worked closely with a number of female leaders.  For example, Paul wrote several times of Aquila and Priscilla (Prisca), a husband and wife team of tentmakers who also had a church meeting in their home.  McCarty states that “in four of the six scriptural references to the couple, Aquila’s name follows his wife’s name. It is interesting to note that it is in those citations referencing their house church[29] that Paul carefully appears to mention Prisca before naming her husband.”[30]  Although this could signify a higher social or financial standing than her husband, the fact that she and Aquila were both employed as tentmakers may rule out that possibly, and it is more likely a reference to Prisca’s high level of involvement in the growing church.[31]

As the early Church began instituting structures based on Roman political municipalities,[32] building a more centralized governing body for the Church, women lost power in the churches mainly due to Roman cultural standards for women in municipal leadership roles.[33]  Because of mounting persecution, the early Christians may have decided to call little attention to themselves by adopting culturally traditional views of women’s roles, “and in so doing, effectively stifled female leadership in the churches.”[34]

Women Deacons and Presbyters

The role of women as deacons in the New Testament church is less clear than that of their male counterparts.  By the end of the first century, male deacons cared for the needy, helped prepare catechumens for baptism, read Scriptures during worship, and helped to distribute the Eucharist.[35]  According to Barbara J. MacHaffie, when the Apostle Paul describes Phoebe as a “deaconess,”[36] he uses two words that when used in other contexts, refer to congregational preaching leaders (diakonos) and a leader or president (prostasis).[37]  Whether or not Phoebe functioned as a presbyter in her church, she was highly respected by Paul and he strongly commended her to the Roman church.  Her role as a deaconess may have been the same as the male deacons of the time, but the Scriptural evidence is not clear.  By the third century, women were granted clerical status and ordained as deaconesses, essentially providing ministry to other women.   The ordained deaconess could assist at baptisms of women, provide pastoral care for women, visit sick women, lead liturgical prayer for women, distribute charity to poor women, and give religious instruction to other women.  Deaconesses were also known for being pilgrims, monastic superiors, and supervisors of pilgrimage sites.[38]

Although there were deaconesses in the first centuries of Christianity, there is less evidence in the early Church that women were functioning as presbyters.  There is some indication, however, that this was happening in certain times and places, often in groups which proved later to be heretical, such as the Montanists.[39]  On the other hand, in the early tenth century, Atto, the Bishop of Vercelli wrote to Ambrose the Priest stating that he understood Paul to be saying in Scripture that “not only men but also women presided over churches” and that there were women in orthodox early churches who had been ordained to the role of female presbyters.[40]  The New Testament does not refer to women acting as presbyters during the Apostolic Age, but it does show women holding leadership positions in the early churches, especially while the Church still consisted of mainly house churches.

Conclusion

Even without the lens of modern Feminist reconstructions, the Bible and other documents show that in the earliest manifestations of Christianity, a number of women held leadership roles in first century house churches and beyond.  Women traveled extensively with Jesus and his disciples during his lifetime, and may have held apostolic roles during the foundational days of the fledgling Church.  Eventually women came to be ordained in official clerical positions as deaconesses, and although the role of women leaders in the Christian church has ebbed and flowed throughout two thousand years of Church history, it is clear that the early followers of Jesus included women in roles of leadership.

Footnotes:

[1] Deborah F. Sawyer, Women and religion in the first Christian centuries, (New York, NY: Routledge, 1996), 45.
[2] Ibid, 42.
[3] Acts 2.
[4] Barbara J. MacHaffie, Her Story: Women in Christian Tradition, (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1986): 8.
[5] Leonard Swidler and Arlene Swidler, Women Priests: A Catholic commentary on the Vatican declaration, (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1977): 348-346.
[6] John P Meier, A Marginal Jew; Rethinking the Historical Jesus (Book 3), (Cumberland, RI: Yale University Press, 2001): 76.
[7] Jacqueline Lloyd, “The Women Who Followed Jesus: Part 1,” Stimulus: The New Zealand Journal of Christian Thought & Practice, Vol. 20, no. 2 (2013): 5.
[8] Luke 8:1–3.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Luke 10, 38-42.
[11] Carla Ricci, Mary Magdalene and Many Others: Women who followed Jesus. (Minneapolis, Minn: Fortress, 1994): 179.
[12] Lloyd, 10.
[13] Lloyd, 7.  Luke 8:2–3.
[14] Acts 9:36.
[15] Acts 16:15.
[16] Kevin Madigan and Carolyn Osiek, Ordained Women in the Early Church: A Documentary History, (Baltimore, MD: The John Hopkins University Press, 2005): 12.
[17] Rom. 16:1.
[18] Mark 16:7.
[19] “History of Women in Catholicism,” Newsweek, April 12, 2010: 39-41.
[20] MacHaffie, 18.
[21] MacHaffie, 24.
[22] Acts 16:14-15.
[23] Acts 12:12.
[24] Romans 16:5.
[25] V. K. McCarty, “Prisca – Fellow Tent-maker and Fellow Missionary of Paul,” International Congregational Journal, 11, no. 2 (Winter 2012): 55.
[26] Karen L. King, “Women in Ancient Christianity: The New Discoveries,” Frontline, April 1998, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/religion/first/women.html (accessed November 2, 2013).
[27] Ibid.
[28] Barbara J. MacHaffie, Her Story: Women in Christian Tradition, (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1986): 30.
[29] Romans 16.3; Acts 18.18, 26; 2 Timothy 4.19.
[30] Ibid, 49.
[31] Ibid.
[32] MacHaffie, 29.
[33] Matthew O’Leary, “First Century Christianity,” History of Christianity, University of Washington Tacoma, Tacoma, WA. 3 Oct. 2013. Class lecture.
[34] MacHaffie, 27.
[35] Ibid, 30.
[36] Romans 16.
[37] MacHaffie, 25.
[38] Madigan, 6.
[39] Ibid, 8.
[40] Ibid, 192.


Bibliography

Clark, Elizabeth A. Women in the early church. Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1983.
“History of Women in Catholicism.” Newsweek, April 12, 2010, pp. 39-41.
King, Karen L. “Women in Ancient Christianity: The New Discoveries.” Frontline, April 1998. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/religion/first/women.html (accessed November 2, 2013).
Lloyd, Jacqueline. “The Women Who Followed Jesus: Part 1.” Stimulus: The New Zealand Journal of Christian Thought & Practice. Vol. 20, No. 2 (2013): 4-12.
MacHaffie, Barbara J. Her Story: Women in Christian Tradition. Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1986.
Madigan, Kevin, and Carolyn Osiek. Ordained Women in the Early Church: A Documentary History. Baltimore, MD: The John Hopkins University Press, 2005.
McCarty, V. K. “Prisca – Fellow Tent-maker and Fellow Missionary of Paul.” International Congregational Journal. Vol. 11, No. 2 (Winter 2012): 45-60.
Meier, John P. A Marginal Jew; Rethinking the Historical Jesus (Book 3). Cumberland, RI: Yale University Press, 2001.
O’Leary, Matthew. “First Century Christianity.” History of Christianity. University of Washington Tacoma. Tacoma, WA. 3 Oct. 2013. Class lecture.
Ricci, Carla. Mary Magdalene and Many Others: Women who followed Jesus. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1994.
Sawyer, Deborah F. Women and religion in the first Christian centuries. New York, NY: Routledge, 1996.
Schüssler Fiorenza, Elisabeth. In Memory of Her; A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origin. New York, NY: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1994.
Swidler, Leonard, and Arlene Swidler. Women Priests: A Catholic commentary on the Vatican declaration. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1977.

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