Women and the Churches: Part IV

By: Dale M. Coulter
Friday, June 25th, 2010

If one examines the evidence from the second century, women continue to play prominent roles within Christian communities. At the close of the second century, a change begins to occur slowly in various Christian communities. The movement to consolidate a solid leadership structure in order to deal with the threat of heresy was the beginning of the end for women as office holders. By the end of the third century, they had been effectively removed from offices of bishop and presbyter although in Syria female orders of deacons continued. This was primarily because baptism involved the removal of clothes and women were needed to baptize women.

At the same time, a new opportunity emerged through the rise of monasticism at the end of the third century. Monastic orders allowed women to continue to have leadership roles outside of the structure of offices. From the fourth century through the Protestant Reformation, virtually all of the significant female voices come from women who belonged to a monastic order. It is significant that women never ceased to prophesy, have visions, or perform miracles in the name of Christ. There is a vast array of literature from medieval women, in particular, who wrote down their visions as a way of providing charismatic leadership for their fellow Christians.

My contention is that the role of women and the charismatic dimension of Christianity go together. Even though women were excluded from church offices like presbyter (priest/elder) and bishop by the end of the third century, they continued to function in the charismatic and thus remained teachers and leaders. If the history of Christianity guides the interpretation of scripture at all, then it suggests that the Spirit’s continued calling of women through the charismatic gifts may be God’s way of trying to say something about his daughters. They are the “handmaids of the living God,” whom God has gifted to occupy all offices.

To understand Christianity in the first and second centuries, one must be mindful of geographical differences and itineracy. Without attention to the former, one can mistakenly think that a quotation from a Christian (like Ignatius) in one region means that this is what all Christians thought. Remember that Christianity remained primarily a house-church movement until at least the 230s, which meant not only regional differences (think denominational differences), but sometimes differences between house churches even in the same city. For example, we know that Paul and Timothy were involved in house churches in Ephesus and that the three letters of John stem from house churches in Ephesus, but there is no indication that these two distinct forms of Christianity influenced or encountered one another.

Without attention to itineracy in which Christians (like Paul and Barnabas) traveled around proclaiming the Christian message, we cannot account for how geographical differences were finally overcome through the development of a common faith.

In the second century, we have evidence that orders of widows became prominent in Asia Minor (modern Turkey) and Rome. We first encounter an order of widows in 1 Timothy 5:3-16, which means at Ephesus. In The Shepherd, a prophecy composed by Hermas at Rome in the 90s or early second century, Grapte is mentioned as providing instruction to the widows and orphans (8.3). Ignatius of Antioch greets “the virgins who are called widows” when he writes a letter to the church at Smyrna (13.1). Given that most women were married as teenagers (not before 12 yrs old) and that life expectancy for most (the wealthy lived longer) was not beyond the 30s, a woman could become a widow at quite a young age.

In addition to orders of widows, women continued to function as prophets. Papias, who was bishop of Hierapolis in the 130s, indicates that he heard from Philip’s daughters, who were prophetesses, about the raising of a dead man and other miracles. Eusebius quotes an anonymous source as referring to Ammia of Philadelphia, along with Quadratu,s as possessing the gift of prophecy under the new covenant and thus successor to the apostles (EH 3.37; 5.16-17). The Acts of Paul, written in Asia Minor in the late second century, speaks of women prophets and even has Paul say to Thecla that she should go and teach. This is after Thecla had baptized herself in water and had been twice “overshadowed” by a cloud, which is most likely a reference to Luke 1:35 and the cloud at Jesus’ transfiguration. Irenaeus, a bishop of Lyons in the 180s, endorses female prophecy (AH 3.11.12). We have a gravestone from Asia Minor to Nana the prophet, which identifies a female prophet operating in local house churches. Finally, the New Prophecy or Montanism that arose in the 160s had Priscilla and Maximilla as its leaders, and made the argument that women should hold offices.

There is also evidence from gravestones of women presbyters and bishops in addition to women deacons. The Roman prefect for Pontus near the Black Sea, Pliny referred to slave girls who were deacons in a letter written to the Roman emperor Trajan.

So what happened? In short, female prophets were both part of Gnosticism, which itself had a charismatic dimension that appealed to revelations, and Montanism. Both of those groups were rejected for different reasons. It was because of these challenges that the three-fold office of bishop, presbyter, and deacon became established.

I would also submit that the reactions to these two movements also contributed significantly to the restriction of women’s roles. In an anonymous dialogue between an orthodox and a Montanist, written in the fourth century, a discussion occurs on the role of women. The orthodox does not deny that women can and should prophesy, but, in strong allusions to 1 Cor. 14:34-35 and 1 Tim. 2:12, says that women should not teach. This has been something of the position of the churches since then. Women can teach in the sense of prophesy, have visions, and perform miracles, but they cannot occupy the offices of presbyter and bishop. In an important sense, then, status of women is bound up with the question of the relationship between the charismatic and structural dimensions of Christianity. Since all forms of Christianity hold that the Spirit bestows gifts upon those who occupy offices, if the Spirit bestows those gifts upon women, then why should they not occupy the offices?

Tags: , , , , , , ,

Dale M. Coulter
This entry was posted by on Friday, June 25th, 2010 at 6:58 am and is filed under Christian Leadership, Church History, Leadership, Renewal Studies, Spiritual Formation, Theology. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

2 Responses to “Women and the Churches: Part IV”

  1. Nicole says:

    What a great commentary.

    I was hoping you could help me with some internal discords I have regarding mainstream Christianity today?

    One of your strongest arguments is from the Apocrypha (i.e. Thecla).

    What do you think about the situation we are in regarding mainstream Christianity’s general attitude toward the Apocrypha? Without siting the the Acts of Paul, it’s hard to explain the concept of women in this rule to a modern Christian (I find). And let’s face it, a long history lesson is simply not practical to mainstream thought when we always teach solo scriptura.

    Which books do we choose to incorporate from outside texts? Do we simply let our heart guide us? Is that good apologetics?

    My spirit agrees with everything you wrote, but how do we translate this into mainstream Christian thought in a credible manner?

    Do we need to re-do the Bible?

    Thanks for listening! I get so disheartened over how women are treated in society today and I see why young girls end up making some of the stupid decisions they make. Role models and directions are completely lacking.

    • Nicole,

      These are all great questions. As to apocryphal writings, well, it depends upon which you’re talking about. With reference to the Apocryphal Acts I treat them as genuine documents illustrating important features of the history of Christianity, which is what they are. So, for me, the fact that these Acts all have important roles for women and most of them stem from Asia Minor in the latter half of the second century indicates that women were playing a prominent role in the Asia Minor churches. This does not surprise me given the corresponding evidence of Montanism in Asia Minor during this time and the gravestones we have from the region with women listed as presbyters, deacons, and even a bishop or two. So, my argument from the Apocryphal Acts is really an argument about what late second-century Christianity was like in Asia Minor, and I have other evidence to support my claim. That is how I would use those texts–in the most obvious sense they are historical documents.

      As to the which books to choose, I would say that you choose books related to the period you’re trying to understand. There is a history of women in Christianity that is being told by scholars and it needs to be told to more popular audiences. Scholars are finding more and more primary sources that speak of the significant role women played. As a historian, I select sources because of the window they give me on a particular period in Christianity.

      The final two questions are tougher. First, I don’t think we need to re-do the Bible, just become better interpreters. I have suggested in this last post that one of the ways to be a better interpreter of the Bible is to allow the history of Christianity to serve as a lens of interpretation. Most Christians do believe that the Holy Spirit continued to lead the church well beyond the first century. A natural question, then, is, how did the Spirit lead the church? One might look at historical events as a way of answering the question. If there is something of a consensus behind these historical events, as seems to be the case with women, then it’s more likely the Spirit was leading the church by continuing to raise up women. That’s my argument in a nut shell.

      Keep the faith Nicole! We all need to continue to work to allow women to serve Christ in all roles.