Friday, June 19, 2009


Much has been written on the role of women in the earliest times of the Christian Church, both from the conservative side and the feminist angle. On the one hand, the conservatives, mainly Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox divines, argue that women played a very small "yet important" (which is often added in a condescending manner) part in the life of the Church, but certainly not in any ordained capacity. On the other hand, feminist scholars have sought to prove that women did play a great part in the shaping of the Christian Church, even as ordained ministers.

Not to side with either side in particular, it would, however, be impossible not to give credit to the feminist camp and to their analysis of the situation; the New Testament record alone supports their premise. Women were, from the inception of the Christian movement, actively involved in its welfare. For example,
1 - Some of Jesus' followers were women, and what is more, prominent and wealthy women (see for example Mark 15: 40-41 and Luke 8: 1-3).
2 - The Book of Acts, which deals with the development of the Christian movement in Jerusalem and with the missions of Peter and Paul, also speaks of influential women, both of Jewish and Pagan roots. For example, we hear of a certain Mary, the mother of John Mark (possibly the author of the Gospel of Mark) who ran a house church in Jerusalem (Acts 12: 12). We also hear of the conversion of Lydia, a prominent business woman in Philippi, who upon hearing the message of Paul was baptized, as well as the rest of her family, and supported the Christian effort.
The Book of Acts, as well as many of the Pauline Epistles mention the particular offices held by women in the earliest Christian Church. Acts 21: 9 notes that Philip (the evangelist) had 4 unmarried daughters who were prophets.
3 - Paul in Romans 16: 1 calls to our attention Phoebe the deacon, one of the three holy orders, along with presbyter (priest) and overseer (bishop). Paul, on several occasions (Romans 16: 3, 1 Corinthians 16:19, even Acts 18: 2), mentions Prisca (or Priscilla) and her husband Aquila, traveling preachers and fellow tent-makers like Paul.

More examples can be found without leaving the Canon of Scripture, pointing to the reality of a female presence in the life of the early Church, from running house churches (since the Church with its many edifices was not yet established) to serving as deacons to prophesying. However, other more tangible records of the role of women are not as readily available as scholars would like.

Yet in his essay On the Veiling of Virgins (written circa AD 204), the early Church father Tertullian wrote:
It is not permitted to a woman to speak in the church; but neither (is it permitted her) to teach, nor to baptize, nor to offer, nor to claim to herself a lot in any manly function, not to say (in any) sacerdotal office. (Chapter IX)

By letting his audience know what is not permitted of a woman to do in church, Tertullian is shedding some light on the very role of women. By addressing these issues, he is confessing that these forbidden actions occurred. Women did baptize, teach, preach and said the office. In other words, women functioned as deacons, priests and bishops. And that was perceived as a great problem by Tetullian.

This quote is very revealing. It points us to a particular direction in our assessment of the formal part played by women in the early Christian Church. However, scholars must continue to dig for more tangible information. Where exactly did women function as ordained ministers? Under what conditions? When did they cease to perform these functions?

The debate has only begun.

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