Women in the Early Church

This topic came up the other day with a friend who was visiting. I don’t remember exactly how we got to it, but something to do with the early church’s leadership structure. The essential question at hand: what role (if any) did women have in the early church? You definitely do not need the “if any” in there, because there was significant female leadership, starting at about 50-50 in the first generation, mostly shrinking through the next couple, but not completely gone until about 300. These three early generations are well represented within the writings of the three different authors writing in the name of the apostle Paul.

The Three Pauls

This is a standard scholarly position that there are 3 people whose writings were attributed to Paul in the New Testament. Before some readers might cause an uproar over this, this wasn’t plagiarism the way we think of it now – it was common for people to write in the name of a teacher who they thought their own teaching lined up with, as a sign of respect. Some, like Bart Ehrman, argue that they actually did it maliciously to deceive people but from what I’ve encountered that is a minority position. End digression. Strictly speaking, we should simply call these 3 Pauls: Paul, Deutero-Paul, Trito-Paul (1st, 2nd, 3rd). This is partly because it would be less biased, but it also would more account for the various other differences between the 3 as well. For the purposes of this conversation, though, I’ll borrow the categorizations from somebody else I’ve read recently (John Dominic Crossan, maybe) of Radical Paul, Liberal Paul, and Conservative Paul. I’ve also heard the same point made using Liberal, Conservative, and Reactionary, but I felt like the first was more accurate.

The first Paul was very radical. Among the letters of Radical Paul are Romans, which includes a giant list of female leaders that he thanks for their work, and Galatians, which includes the statement that “there are no longer male or female” (3:28). The second Paul, Liberal Paul, stepped back a bit and are things that we in today’s world would consider regressive but were still progressive for 1st Century. Among the writings of Liberal Paul are things like Ephesians and Colossians which say things like “women, submit to your husbands” and “husbands, love your wives”. It’s still a pretty radical command for the man to love his wife as Christ loved the church, but there’s also some concession that the man is still the head in Christian households just as dictated by the rest of the culture. Finally, Conservative Paul is responsible for the pastoral epistles of Timothy and Titus which outright say things like: “I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.”

Why Am I Talking About Paul?

I said I was going to talk about the role of women in the early church, and I’ve talked about Paul’s teaching but not what was actually happening. Well, this trend in the 3 Pauls is essentially the same trend as the church in general. Most scholars think that the early church was apocalyptic – that Jesus would return soon. Therefore it didn’t really matter that, being free in Christ, they did not fit in with societal norms of gender roles. As time went on, the church realized that if this movement was going to last, they would need to make some concessions as they institutionalized in order to be able to survive the society. Radical Paul was less concerned with longer-term solutions than what he saw as the freedom granted in Christ, which includes gender equality both of position and worth. A bit later, Liberal Paul saw that this wasn’t working to create a sustainable institution, so he focused on getting husbands to love their wives as Christ loved the church – a much bigger challenge than submitting. If you’ve encountered arguments for complementarianism, they usually line up with Liberal Paul with their line of “equal in worth, just not in position.” Finally, after that, Conservative Paul decided that still wasn’t enough so didn’t permit women to speak at all. Whether Liberal or Conservative believed as with Radical Paul that women should have equal position as well as value and just didn’t think it was worth the cultural fight or whether they really thought that way as a rule for all time is obviously impossible to say.

So after the first generation of leaders which was about half women began to die out, they realized they needed to think more long-term within 1st-Century Roman Empire which meant surrendering a lot of their radicalism. Female leadership shrank within the next couple of generations, but there were still some up until the legalization in the early 4th century. Over time it just became assumed that like the rest of the world around them, men led. You can debate who to first credit for re-introducing female leadership. You could say that medieval Catholicism did because women were given very important roles, but they still weren’t (and still can’t today) be priests. Those are great, and for those who stick to their theological guns that women shouldn’t lead explicitly, at least find ways to have them fully involved in the decisions of the church, which is something that Catholics often do very well. You could credit the Quakers who have and had egalitarian leadership of the entire congregation since their beginnings, but strictly speaking that is because all are equals – so you could say that nobody is a leader or that everyone (including women) is. In the most official way, you could credit the Pentecostal movement which was multi-racial and both genders leadership long before anybody else, in the early 1900’s, although like the early church they lost some of the radical nature to cultural conformity before it became a big conversation for everybody post-WWII.

What About Now?

One thing I find incredibly ironic is that one of the main reasons why early Christians were killed was because they undermined family values. One of the ways they did that was female leadership. Now, our culture embraces women as leaders – at least mostly – and we have a portion of our churches who maintain that they shouldn’t in the name of traditional values. At some point our churches shifted from being the progressive force, even radical to the point of risking their own existence, to trying to stifle any progression. It’s strange to consider that the first generation of the church actually had a significantly more equal church leadership than we do today.

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.