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What was the role of women in the lst to 4th century church? Were they allowed to be deacons or bishops and did they take on duties of preaching and teaching?

Dec 28th, 2014

Thank you for your GREAT question!
I will use this question for a new page on the CH101 web site.
My answer here will not be full and complete, but I welcome readers to respond with comments, additional questions, etc.

The Role of Women in the Early Church
There is no doubt that early Christianity, following in the path of Judaism, did not view women as equals. Really most, if not all ancient cultures were patriarchical, ie. male-oriented in power and authority roles. As you will see, it is my opinion that Jesus, the primitive church and the apostle Paul held women very differently from the ancient Roman or Jewish cultures.

I. The New Testament Gospels
There are several passages that show Jesus being kind and open with women. He allows a woman to touch him, pouring oil on him and kissing his feet. This is highly unusual. His friendship with Mary and Martha is interesting.

The most telling aspect of Jesus and women is that each gospel has women being the first Christians to "see" the risen Jesus. Many scholars believe this points to an early tradition of women having a special place with Jesus and in the primitive movement.

II. The Apostle Paul
Some scholars in liberal circles attack Paul as sexist. Others see Paul as having a liberal view of women especially in the context of the ancient world:

1. Both Acts and Paul's letters seem to indicate that Priscilla had an important role in the Pauline circle.

2. Paul speaks of other women in some kind of leadership role (Chloe, 1 Cor 1; Phoebe, Romans 16:1; possibly others).

3. In 1 Cor 7 Paul speaks of how BOTH the woman and the man must fulfill each other's sexual needs, saying that the body of the woman was belonged to her husband (common view) and that the body of the man belonged to his wife (not a common view).

4. Gal 3:26ff Paul lays down his overall principle: neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male nor female. The implication is we are all equal.

5. Gordon Fee has argued in his commentary of 1 Corinthians that the apparent anti-women text of 1 Cor 14:34-36 was likely NOT in the original Pauline writing, but was added by a later scribe/editor:

34 Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. 35 If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.

Because of this, Fee also questions the parallel text in 1 Timothy 2:11,12. Whatever you think about the author of the Pastoral epistles, you must take Fee's study of 1 Cor 14 seriously.

There are, however, good arguments against Fee. Apparently, there are NO manuscripts that leave the text out completely. In addition, there are no notations in the margins indicating doubts about the text - this IS found in other questionable texts.
Thus, we have a conundrum.
What the manuscripts DO indicate is this was considered an unusual text from the earliest times and the 1 Timothy text must be considered along with this one.

Early on it does seem like we see this positive view of women (and something of an equality concept) fade away, but we do have glimpses.
[I will amplify on these soon...but please do not hesitate to ask questions]
1. The vision of the beautiful woman speaking to Hermas in "The Shepherd of Hermas."
2. Second and third century female martyrs that were held up in high esteem.
3. The two female prophetesses that served with Montanus in the second century.
4. Women known to live the celibate life in the dessert along with the Desert Fathers.
5. Macrina, sister of Basil and Gregory of Nyssa, held up as a highly spiritual woman.

But these are the exception rather than the rule. The ancient world was male-dominated and the church seems to have taken on this view of things as well.

Some of this was culture and we should be careful not to judge the early Christians using our modern perspective. In almost every culture in the ancient world women were not able to attend school and become educated. This naturally hindered women from becoming important leaders.

Most of the leaders we know about were able to read and write. This alone made them unusual and above-average in an era when only 5% of the population was literate.

I hope this helps - I look forward to fielding specific questions and reading comments.

Al Baker, Ph.D.

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