Fresco of literate first century woman, Pompeii

It is helpful to have some insight into the values and customs of the first Christians, and some appreciation of how they organised their meetings and ministries, if we are to have a better understanding of the setting, context, and meaning of the New Testament letters. In this article, I provide a brief overview of church life in the first century, and I highlight the participation of women.

House Churches in the First Century

For the first two hundred years of the Christian movement, most meetings were held in homes. This custom of meeting in homes is well attested in the New Testament. Wayne Meeks observes that “In four places in the Pauline letters[1] specific congregations are designated by the phrase hē kat’ oikon (+ possessive pronoun) ekklēsia, which we may tentatively translate ‘the assembly at N’s household’.”[2] Women were involved in each of these four house churches.[3] Prisca, with Aquila, hosted and led a house church in Ephesus (1 Cor. 16:19), and later in Rome (Rom. 16:3-5). Apphia was a prominent member of a house church in Colossae, and is one of three people greeted individually in Philemon 1:1-2. Nympha hosted a church in her home in Laodicea and is greeted in Colossians 4:15.

In house churches, the public sphere (the traditional domain of men) and the more private, domestic sphere (the traditional domain of women) overlapped, and women—especially the wealthy women who hosted churches in their own homes—had equal opportunities to minister.[4]

Deborah Gill and Barbara Cavaness write:

. . . in ancient Mediterranean society, among both Jews and non-Jews, women often played quite powerful social and political leadership roles. Such roles were rooted in these women’s authority at the household level. Much business and commerce centered around households of the wealthy. These households could be sizable domestic communities including immediate family, extended family members, servants/slaves, and employees. In the ancient world, both men and women could be householders and patrons. Women’s experience as managers of these households, their “social authority, economic power, and political influence”, established their leadership in other domains in Greco-Roman society and even synagogue leadership in Jewish society.[5]

“The kat’ oikon ekklēsia was “’the “basic cell’ of the Christian movement, and its nucleus was often an existing household.”[6] At first, almost all the Christian assemblies were small, some consisting of only one or two extended households.[7] In large cities such as Rome, Corinth, and Ephesus there were several house churches with some kind of network which connected the house churches within each city together. Paul probably used the expression kat’ oikon to distinguish the individual house churches “from ‘the whole church’ (holē hē ekklēsia) which could assemble on occasion (1 Cor. 14:23; Rom. 16:23; cf. 1 Cor. 11:20).”[8] By the end of the first century each network of churches was overseen by a minister traditionally referred to as a bishop (episkopos).

Congregations would gather in homes for weekly communion suppers.[9] During these meetings there would be a time for recitations or readings from memorised or written Old Testament scripture, or readings from letters sent from other churches or prominent Christians such as apostles or bishops. Plus there would be some kind of exhortation, the expression of worship, and the exercise of charismatic ministries.[10] How these house churches were led or organised, however, is not known with certainty, and there seems to have been variety in how ministries were exercised. Different congregations, guided by different leaders and teachers, determined their own practices and boundaries.[11]

Some house churches may have borrowed elements from synagogues services. All of the first Christians were Jewish and it is likely that in some synagogues all the members converted to Christianity. These communities would have continued with their familiar practices but modified them to encourage the Christian faith and the worship of Jesus Christ. Other assemblies may have functioned more like the many voluntary associations and trade guilds that flourished in the first century.[12]

Leadership in the First Century Church

Church life in the apostolic age was “dynamic and fluid”.[13] Churches responded to the pressures from within and without the community, and adapted to arising needs and other changing situations. From the beginning, some people stood out as leaders. The householder would naturally assume prominence and patronage of the assembly that met in his or her home. Other members with leadership ability, ministry skills, and certain charismata, might also function in some leadership capacity. If the examples of the churches founded by Paul are indicative of church life in general, all members could participate in the meetings, however, not just the leaders (e.g., 1 Cor. 14:26).

People sometimes ministered on their own initiative. Stephanas of Corinth is an example of this. He devoted himself and his household to ministry (1 Cor. 16:15ff). He probably had seen a need and had the means to meet that need. Titus is said to have ministered of his own initiative. Or, as Paul put it, God put the concern in the heart of Titus (2 Cor. 8:16-17). Paul began ministering after being commissioned by Jesus, but without official approval from apostles or elders—something he seems to be proud of (Gal. 1:11-12, 17-20; 2:1-2, 6-7). In the primitive church, people did not need to go through some sort of official channel in order to begin ministering. However, at other times people were commissioned by their church for ministry (e.g. Acts 6:3; 13:2-3).

Jesus had warned against a ruling kind of leadership, and he exemplified ministering as a servant. Jesus urged his disciples to follow his example and told them:

But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. Matthew 23:8-11 (NRSV)

Kevin Giles comments on this passage and writes, “These words clearly exclude any kind of hierarchy or authoritarian-type leadership within the church.”[14] In the Pauline communities, hierarchies and distinctions of ethnicity, gender, and social status were minimised, and a sense of family and equality was encouraged. In fostering this dynamic of equality, Paul avoided the use of leadership titles and descriptions that might suggest a hierarchy among believers. In Paul’s earliest letters he addresses certain people whom he recognises as leaders, but gives them no title at all (e.g., 1 Thess. 5:12-13; 1 Cor. 16:15-18).[15] However, as the church grew and governing principles became formalised, leaders were given official titles such as “bishop” or “priest” which carried both clout and prestige. These titles were typically not given to women.

Women Ministers in the First Century Church

Wayne Meeks observes that the number of women ministers in the Pauline movement is “nearly equal to that of men.”[16] In Romans chapter 16, twenty-nine people are mentioned; at least ten of these are women. Moreover, two women—Phoebe and Prisca—head the list. Of the five named Christians in the church at Philippi, a church founded by Paul, three are women, and two are men.[17] Considering what the New Testament shows us about Pauline churches, it seems that, as a general statement, Meeks is correct: Women were actively involved in churches and ventures associated with the apostle Paul in numbers that were “nearly equal to that of men”.

Many women ministers are mentioned in the New Testament and feature in most of Paul’s letters. In the post-apostolic writings, however, women ministers are mentioned much less frequently and they almost disappear. Furthermore, in some of the post-apostolic writings, women are rarely addressed directly and seem excluded from even general instructions. Clement of Rome, one of the five Apostolic Fathers, wrote a letter to the Corinthians (known as First Clement) around 95-97 which seems to be primarily written to a male audience who are addressed several times as andres adelphoi. Women are “others”. On the other hand, the anonymous epistle of Barnabas, possibly written around the same time, is addressed to both “sons and daughters” (huioi kai thugateres) (Barn. 1:1). In Second Clement, a pseudonymous letter written in around 140-160, men and women are also addressed together. Towards the end of Second Clement this becomes explicit as both “brothers and sisters” (adelphoi kai adelphai) are implored to heed the same instructions (2 Clem. 19:1; 20:2).

Chapter 12 of Second Clement contains a profound message of gender equality and indicates that gender discrimination has no place in the body of Christ. First Clement, the Didache, and other post-apostolic writings, however, indicate that only men could be leaders in the church. The Didache (a church manual dating from the late first or early second century) speaks of leaders as priests, high priests in fact, in a “priesthood” that is restricted to men. This new priestly dynamic, that was absent in the first Christian churches, caused a growing distinction and separation between church leaders and other church members, as well as between men and women in the church.[18]

Church life in the first century was quite unlike church life today. We need to remember this when we read the New Testament letters and be careful to not read back into the text our modern understandings of ministry and Sunday services. There is one thing we share in common with the early Christians, though: their views on women in ministry, as in today’s church, were not uniform. Tragically, in the following centuries, the attitudes towards women in ministry became unjustly restrictive, and these attitudes were turned into church rules. In some churches today these unwarranted restrictions continue.


Endnotes

Several scholars have investigated the patterns of fellowship, worship, ministry, and leadership in first-century churches. Here is a small sample of these investigations: Valeriy Alexandrovich Alikin, The Earliest History of the Christian Gathering: Origin, Development and Content of the Christian Gathering in the First to Third Centuries (Leiden 2009); Robert Banks, Paul’s Idea of Community: The Early House Churches in their Cultural Setting (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1994);  Andrew D. Clark, Serve the Community of the Church: Christians as Leaders and Ministers (Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2000); Kevin Giles, Patterns of Ministry Among the First Christians (Sydney: Collins Dove Publishers, 1989); Philip Harland, Associations, Synagogues and Congregations: Claiming a Place in Ancient Mediterranean Society (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Press, 2003); Wayne Meeks, The First Urban Christians: The Social World of the Apostle Paul (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003); James Tunstead Burtchaell, From Synagogue to Church: Public Service and Offices in the Earliest Communities (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992).

[1] Romans 16:4-5, 1 Corinthians 16:19, Philemon 1:1-2, and Colossians 4:15.

[2] Wayne Meeks, The First Urban Christians: The Social World of the Apostle Paul (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003) 75.

[3] Other New Testament women who hosted church meetings in their homes include Mary of Jerusalem (Acts 12:12), Lydia (Acts 16:40), the Chosen Lady (2 John 1), and possibly Chloe of Corinth (1 Cor. 1:11).

[4] Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, “Missionaries, Apostles, Coworkers: Romans 16 and the Reconstruction of Women’s Early Christian History”, Word & World 6.4 (1986) 432. Kate Cooper argues, however, “The notion of a ‘private’ sphere divested of ‘public’ significance would have seemed impossible (and undesirable) to the ancient mind. The domus [home], along with its aspects of family, and dynasty, was the primary unit of cultural identity, political significance, and economic production.” The Virgin and the Bride: Idealized Womanhood in Late Antiquity (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1966), 14.

[5] Deborah M. Gill and Barbara Cavaness, God’s Women—Then and Now (Springfield, MO: Grace & Truth, 2004, 2009) (Kindle Locations 862-870)

[6] Meeks, First Urban Christians, 75.

[7] The house church was the basic cell of the church, but Christians did meet in other places. The first Christians in Jerusalem met daily in the Temple courts (e.g. Luke 24:53; Acts 2:46a) as well as in homes (Acts 2:46b cf. Acts 12:12). According to the accounts in Acts, Paul taught in synagogues wherever he went in the course of his missionary travels. When he was in Ephesus for the first time, Paul spoke in the synagogue every Sabbath for three months (Acts 19:8); but then, for two years, he spoke daily in the School of Tyrannus (Acts 19:9-10). Paul also spoke to Christian assemblies in homes, such as Lydia’s home (Acts 16:40) The Acts of Paul 11.1 mentions a rented warehouse, and Celsus 3.55 mentions rented buildings. However, Christians would continue to meet mainly in homes during the second century.

[8] Meeks, First Urban Christians, 75.

[9] Paul and Mark refer to one eucharistic tradition; John and the Didache refer to a different eucharistic tradition. More on this here.

[10] Writing in around 155–157, Justin Martyr described what happened in Sunday meetings in the second century:

And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying Amen; and there is a distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given, and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons.
First Apology, chapter 67, translated by Marcus Dods and George Reith. From Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1. Edited by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. <http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0126.htm>

[11] Christine Trevett, Christian Women and the Time of the Apostolic Fathers (AD c. 80-160): Corinth, Rome and Asia Minor (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2006), 9.

[12] Andrew D. Clarke writes that leadership in these groups was not just the province of the elite.

The voluntary associations, professional guilds and trade unions were highly popular in the early [Roman] empire.  For the most part they had highly developed constitutions with an established pattern of selecting and appointing leading officials. Many of these groups included non-citizens or slave members who earned positions of leadership within this limited context. The Roman family or household was a further context in which leadership was exercised or experienced by both rich and poor, citizen and non-citizen, slave and free.
Serve the Community of the Church: Christians as Leaders and Ministers (Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2000), 4

The “rich and poor, citizen and non-citizen, slave and free” may not have included women, however, as there is no clear evidence of women holding leadership positions in voluntary associations.

[13] Kevin Giles, Patterns of Ministry Among the First Christians (Sydney: Collins Dove Publishers, 1989), 8.

[14] Giles, Patterns of Ministry, 53.

[15] Giles, Patterns of Ministry, 9.

[16] Meeks, First Urban Christians, 81.

[17] The three women are Lydia (Acts 16:14-15, 40), Euodia, and Syntyche (Phil. 4:2-3). The two men are Clement (Phil. 4:3) and Epaphroditus (Phil. 3:25).

[18] It seems that in the second and third centuries only a few groups of Christians continued to relate to each other as family members without a social hierarchy or clear distinctions between so-called clergy and laity. Tertullian spoke out strongly against the blurring of distinctions between ministry roles and positions and about allowing women to minister. He saw these displays of egalitarianism as symptoms of heresy:

“The very women of these heretics, how wanton they are! For they are bold enough to teach, to dispute, to enact exorcisms, to undertake cures— it may be even to baptize. . . [Furthermore] today one man is their bishop (episkopi), tomorrow another; today he is a deacon (diaconi) who tomorrow is a reader (lectores); today he is an elder (presbyteri) who tomorrow is a layman. For even on laymen do they impose the functions of priesthood.”
Tertullian “The Prescription against Heretics”, chapter 41, Translated by Peter Holmes. From Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume 3. Edited by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. <http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0311.htm>

Epiphanius of Salamis, in Panarion 49.2.5 (c. 375), spoke disparagingly about the Montanists, a late second century heterodox Christian group, and wrote: “They have women bishops, presbyters, and the rest; they say that none of this makes any difference because ‘In Christ there is neither male nor female’ (Gal. 3:28).” Quoted by Patricia Cox Miller (ed.), Women in Early Christianity: Translations from the Greek Texts (Washington: The Catholic University of America Press, 2005), 40.

This article is adapted from chapter one of a forthcoming paper entitled “The Roles of Diakonoi, Male and Female, in the Apostolic and Post-Apostolic Church (c. 40-120) with Special Reference to Phoebe of Cenchrea”.  More posts from this paper can be found here.

The First Century Church and the Ministry of Women

This image is an extract of a mural of a first-century family in Pompeii having a feast. The image is taken from Theodore H. Feder’s book, Great Treasures of Pompeii and Herculaneum (Abbeville, 1978), 24-25 (Source) Some first-century church meetings may have looked like this. Compare the image of the Pompeian family with “Fractio Panis” here.


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