What’s happened to the strong roles for women in the early church?
Quick! Name three women leaders of the early Christian church. Any come to mind? Someone or even a few named Mary, perhaps? Maybe Dorcas or Priscilla? In the ancient world, women were rarely referenced by name in writing. This means we often know fewer of these women, even though their stories are all through the New Testament and the writings of the church. But in its first two centuries, Christianity was widely considered to be a religion that gave women options, valued their contributions and disturbed cultural norms for women of all classes. Our inability even to name women who were significant to the early church has undermined our ability to normalise the full participation of men and women in building the kingdom of God.
Women were among the disciples of Jesus, following Him from town to town and financially supporting His ministry. The gospels even name some of them: Joanna, Susanna and Mary Magdelene (see Luke 8:1-3). Jesus’ work with Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha, demonstrates His support of women who wanted to “sit at His feet” and become disciples. In the Greco-Roman context, the phrase, “sit at His feet,” described people who were formally establishing a discipleship relationship with a teacher. Mary chose that, and Jesus affirmed her along with the other women who followed Him.
The importance of women in the New Testament era is demonstrated by the dependence on their witness to the resurrection of Jesus. The Greco-Roman world did not take seriously the testimony of women yet the gospel writers matter-of-factly cite women as honoured by God in this way. The first century church clearly saw their witness as authoritative, which makes it likely their on-going role as ministers was well-known in the decades after the resurrection. Again, in the fashion of the time, not all of them are named, but it is clear they had significant relationships with Jesus and the other disciples and it is their testimony that comes down through the historical record to the fundamental miracle of the Christian church: the Resurrection.
The church eventually gave in to pagan opinion about the correct roles for women. Earning acceptance from the communities in which it ministered became more important than allowing all believers to flourish with the gifts of the Spirit.Dr Lisa Clark Diller, Professor of History, Southern Adventist UniversityThroughout the New Testament era, women helped sponsor the apostles, led churches in their cities, mentored and discipled the next generation of Christians, interceded for Christians with political leaders and constituted a high proportion of the members of the church. The list of women leaders in the church to which Paul casually refers reveals the common assumption they were active founders and sustainers of the church, as well as making up more than half its members: Junia, the apostle (Romans 16:7); Pheobe, minister of the church in Cenchrea, outside Corinth (Romans 16:1-2); Priscilla, whose leadership meant she preceded her husband, which would have been surprising in Greco-Roman culture (Romans 16:3); Philip’s daughters who were prophets and are mentioned by the historian Eusebius as “mighty luminaries” of the church (Acts 21:9); along with other house church ministers and social leaders (1 Corinthians 1:11, 2 John 1, 2 John 13, Acts 16:40).
We can see through Paul’s writing that the position of women changed radically with Christianity. In Greco-Roman culture, women needed to be under the care of their husbands—their role in procreation and extending the citizenship of the community was vital. But early Christians suggested women could and even should remain unmarried, doing the work of the church (1 Corinthians 7). For this, many prominent pagan writers criticised Christians. The classical culture is similar to our culture: the public sphere (for men) remained separate from but had more value than the private domestic sphere (for men and women in families). Christianity, with its emphasis on house churches, its formation of a new community not bound by the biological family, and its radical egalitarianism, was a threat to the separation of public from private.
Early pagan writers were scandalised. Christian women were publicly speaking, “gadding” about tending to poor or sick members of their churches—and even going to the public jails to bring food and other supplies to imprisoned Christians. The work of the church put women in these difficult and disparaged positions. The second century critic of the church, Celsus, thoroughly attacked the women around Jesus, arguing the use of women in the ministry of Jesus meant His movement was disreputable. Other Roman authors of the second century, Marcus Cornelius Fronto, Lucius Apuleius and Lucian of Samosata, focused their disapproval on the ways Christian women violated norms moving about in public, worshipping with men in the house churches and remaining celibate and unmarried. The example of women Christian martyrs, from slave girls to aristocratic women, became a source of pride for the church and of condemnation for the Romans.
What happened? How did these stories get lost and these strong roles for women erased or replaced? It appears the church eventually gave in to pagan opinion about the correct roles for women. Earning acceptance from the communities in which it ministered became more important than allowing all believers to flourish with the gifts of the Spirit given them by God. The Constantine era consolidated this. The state sponsored the church and churches were more public places, like pagan temples, with separate places for men and women. Christians began to act out the separation between public and private and to believe the domestic sphere was both less important than the public and the place where women were to stay.
This is a far cry from the radical role Jesus modelled for women, when He hugged Mary Magdelene in the garden and bid her, “Go and tell.” She became, as one second-century Christian called it, the “apostle to the apostles.” We need many more such women (and men!) with the spiritual gift of apostleship, and we need to reawaken the stories of these early Christian mothers who can be mentors to young men as well as women. “Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those [last] days, and they will prophesy” (Acts 2:18, NIV). Mary of Bethany and the daughters of Philip would be so pleased to see this prophecy fulfilled.
Mary Magdalen by Andrea Solario. This work has been released into the public domain by its author, Walters Art Museum.