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Sandra Glahn on the Decline of Women in Public Ministry

I’ve started reading Sandra Glahn’s new book Nobody’s Mother: Artemis of the Ephesians in Antiquity and the New Testament (IVP Academic: 2023). I’ve only read the introduction and chapter one, and so far, I’m enjoying it. Dr Glahn shares many interesting thoughts and insightful observations that have come from her own life experience but mostly from her research.

Glahn covers a few topics in chapter one, most of which are related to the historical record concerning women and the church. On page 21, she makes the point that “the practice of women serving in public leadership did not originate with feminists” of the 20th century. It even “began before the American and French Revolutions, with their calls for freedom and individual rights.”

Glahn provides the example of Margaret Fell’s pamphlet with the lengthy title, “Women’s Speaking Justified, Proved, and Allowed of by the Scriptures, All such as speak by the Spirit and Power of the Lord Jesus.” Fell wrote the pamphlet in 1666 while in prison. However, Glahn traces the “impulse” for women in public ministry back to Pentecost.

Elsewhere on my blog, I’ve written about early church women who served as recognised ministers, some of whom had the title of deacon or elder. (See links below.) But in this blog post, I want to share four reasons given by Glahn for why there was a decline of women in public ministry in the centuries following Pentecost.

The following comes from the section entitled “What Led to the Decline?” on pages 24-25 of Nobody’s Mother.

1. Redefining priesthood: A shift away from emphasizing the priesthood of all believers (1 Pet 2:9) led to an all-male priesthood in the pattern of the Old Testament. The church looked to the past rather than the future kingdom in its view of the telos of men and women.

2. Shift toward infant baptism: The major shift away from adult baptism toward infant baptism eliminated the need for women’s “assistance at the baptism of women for reason of decency.” [Gryson, The Ministry of Women, 113.]

3. Law/Temple: The church tended to return to ceremonial aspects of the law with accompanying temple practices—especially after Constantine. With physical church buildings came an increasing clergy-laity divide that treated worship structures as temples.[1] With a shift from the believer’s body to a physical structure as the temple of God came a return to some physical-temple regulations that affected females, such as barring menstruating women from worship. Madigan and Osiek, in Ordained Women in the Early Church, write, “The motif of blood as uncleanliness unworthy of the purity of the altar … was one of the most common reasons given for the exclusion of women from altar service, once the celebration of the Eucharist acquired the connections with cultic purity that accompanied the understanding that it replaced Temple sacrifice.” [Madigan and Osiek, Ordained Women in the Early Church, 139.]

4. Anthropology: Greek views of women’s nature influenced Christian leaders, who concluded that women were weak, fickle, lightheaded, of mediocre intelligence, and a “chosen instrument of the devil.”[2] The considerations “which supported the traditional argument in the ancient writers often reflect an anthropology which could not be unanimously admitted today.” [Gryson, The Ministry of Women, 112.]

Each of these four factors can be challenged with Scripture.

The historical record includes unbiblical practices rooted in misinformation about women. The record also demonstrates precedent for women holding public office in the church. Thus, fresh looks at the textual and background information are in order.

I look forward to reading more of Nobody’s Mother. And I’ll probably be posting short quotations from Sandra Glahn’s book on my Facebook page.

Nobody’s Mother can be purchased on the IVP website, on Amazon and from other booksellers.

(My) Footnotes

[1] James D.G. Dunn remarked on the different experience of church life among the first generation of Christians than that of later generations when Christianity became institutionalized and a distinction between clergy and laity developed.

Increasing institutionalism is the clearest mark of early Catholicism—when church becomes increasingly identified with institution, when authority becomes increasingly coterminous with office, when a basic distinction between clergy and laity becomes increasingly self-evident, when grace becomes increasingly narrowed to well-defined ritual acts. … Such features were absent from first generation Christianity, though in the second generation the picture was beginning to change.
Dunn, Unity & Diversity in the New Testament: An Inquiry into the Character of Earliest Christianity (Westminster Press, 1977), 351.

[2] On pages 19-22, Glahn provides a sample of quotations of what church leaders have said about the nature of women. She quotes Chrysostom, Augustine, Bonaventure, Aquinas, Erasmus, Martin Luther, and John Knox. I have more of these kinds of quotations, here.

Image Credit

Photograph of Dr Sandra Glahn from the website of Dallas Theological Seminary. Used with permission.

Explore more

I’ve included many more links than usual in case this blog post raises questions that can be answered by these articles.

The First Century Church and the Ministry of Women
Sandra Glahn Debunks Myths About Artemis
The Regalia of Artemis Ephesia
The Prominence of Women in the Cults of Ephesus
A Female Teacher and Deacon in Antioch (AD 360s)
Olympias: Deaconess and Chrysostom’s Friend

I have more articles on deacons, here.
Articles about women in the early church are here.
Articles that address the question, Can women be pastors?
Articles that address Paul’s Theology of Ministry
Old Testament Priests and New Covenant Ministers

Were there women elders in New Testament churches?
Part 1: Women Elders in Heterodox Churches and Ancient Church Canons
Part 2: Women Elders in Ancient Church Manuals 
Part 3: Women Elders in Inscriptions and Atto of Vercelli

Rachel Speght Replies to a Misogynist in 1617
Aemilia Lanyer: A 17th-century Christian Feminist
Count Zinzendorf and an Egalitarian Revival
Misogynistic Quotations from Church Fathers and Reformers 

13 thoughts on “Sandra Glahn on the Decline of Women in Public Ministry

  1. Thanks, I hope to read that book soon!

    Justo Gonzalez thinks that gnostics had women in ministry because they weren’t beholden to misguided views of women’s bodies. He also theorizes that the restriction of women in the universal church was an overreaction to gnostics. Kind of like not eating avocado on toast because Liberals do it.

    “One point is certain: In many Gnostic circles women had a prominence they did not have in society at large. Part of the reason for this was that, since it is the spirit and not the body that is important, the shape of one’s body has little to do with eternal realities. Also, in many of the genealogies of eons with which Gnostics explained the origin of the world, there were female as well as male eons. It is quite possible that it was partly in response to this feature in Gnosticism that orthodox Christianity began restricting the role of women in the church, for it is clear that in first-century Christianity women had roles in the church that the second century began to deny them.”

    (The story of Christianity vol 1, chapter 8)

    1. Hello Hashim, I’d like to know what these ideas are based on. Which ancient texts does Justo Gonzalez cite?

      Gnostic schools of thought held to a dualism that can be simplistically summarised as, ‘body bad, spirit good.’ So I can’t imagine their views of women’s or men’s bodies were healthy.

      And who were the women leaders or prominent women in Gnosticism? What did these women leaders do?

      There were male-female pairs of aeons, but this doesn’t suggest that women were highly respected among the gnostics. By way of example, half of the twelve Olympians, the major deities of the Greek pantheon, were goddesses, but the Greeks had a low view of the nature of women.

      1. Gonzalez’s footnote for the entire section is “Giovanni Filoramo’s “A History of Gnosticism”. Unfortunately Google Books doesn’t have a scan, and archive/.org won’t let me borrow it.
        Not claiming Gonzalez is (in)correct, just that I can’t verify because I don’t have access to the book he cites

        1. Filoramo’s book was published in the early 90s. Since then there’s been a lot more research into ancient Gnosticism.
          I don’t know of a single reference to women leaders among the Gnostics of the second and third centuries. So I’d love to know if there were. I know of women leaders in Christian groups that were considered heretical by proto-orthodox writers, but not necessarily among Gnostics.

          I looked for some info on Filoramo and his book. If he regards Gnosticism as originating with Simon Magus, an idea that few scholars hold today, then his consort Helena could be regarded as a woman leader or prominent woman.

  2. Thanks, Marg for mentioning Glahn’s book. I had not even heard of it. My wife and I just got back from ETS and SBL, but went through the book exhibits so quickly that I didn’t linger very long at the InterVarsity Press booth. After reading your post, I retrieved the ETS program, found Glahn’s book, and ordered a copy with the discount that’s still good. Also ordered a copy of Tell Her Story that I missed getting last year.

    1. I hope you enjoy the books, Craig!

  3. Really interesting post! Appreciate the call attention to Glahn’s book. Our church is setting up our book group topics for the new year. This one would be an interesting choice I think. Providing a challenge to perhaps common misperceptions of women’s roles in the church. Thanks!

  4. I’ve just finished ‘Nobody’s Mother’ and found it very stimulating. I have some quibbles here and there (e.g. the treatment of ‘authentein’ could be sharper) and appreciated the contextual approach. I believe the less than subtle allusions to the Artemis cult in 1 and 2 Timothy are hard to deny, but specifics are hard to nail down (certainly’ suggestive’, if not definitive).

    I’d be interested in your thoughts on Glahn’s argument for ‘wives/wife’ over ‘women/woman’ – it’s a stronger case than I’ve heard before, and see has another take on the slide from the singular to plural in 2:15. I’ll need to reflect on that… I await your thoughts with interest!

    1. I’m still reading the book but did skim-read ahead. I found Dr Glahn’s “local saying” idea, which can explain the slide from singular to plural in 2:15, very interesting too. I need to keep it in mind.

      I’m pretty convinced 2:11-15 is about a wife and husband, or a few married couples in Ephesus. The wife-husband idea can also explain the slide from singular to plural in 2:15: “She (a wife) will be saved if they (wife and husband) continue in …” (I mention this, here.)

      I appreciate that Glahn sees 1 Timothy 2:8-15 as being about issues in Ephesus, but I have doubts about Artemis being behind 2:15. I have bigger doubts that the story of the Amazons influenced daily life in first-century Ephesus or life in any of the other cities that claimed to have been founded by Amazons, or an Amazon. (I mention the Amazons, and quote Mary Beard on the Amazon myth in a footnote, here.)

      I especially appreciate the corrections Glahn gives on pages 78-79 to what Artemis was, and what she was not, according to ancient literary sources. There’s a lot of misinformation circulating among Christians about the nature of Artemis. Though, I found the quotations from Homer, and from some of the more ancient sources, a bit confusing.

      The Ephesian Artemis and the Greek Artemis were distinct even if the Ephesian Artemis, at some point in her history, took on some of the mythology of Greek Artemis. Glahn makes a similar observation, but sometimes I can’t tell which Artemis she is referring to, especially when quoting from some of the older sources. But this may be my problem and not the fault of Glahn’s writing.

  5. Your fourth point begins with “Greek views of women’s nature influenced Christian leaders, who…” But the footnote only mentions Christian church fathers; I was hoping you talk about the Greek views instead. I been reading through some of Plato’s Republic and in Book V Socrates seems to have a more modern view of the role of women including that they only lack education and should be taught including subjects like the ‘the art of war.” Like men they may succeed of fail in their pursuits, could be members of the guardians, and also hold public office as follows: “And the proper officers, whether male or female or both, for offices are to be held by women as well as by men—Yes—The proper officers will take the offspring of the good parents to the pen or fold, and there they will deposit them with certain nurses who dwell in a separate quarter.” (Interestingly Socrates also seems to purposing day care.) Now forgive me if you already posted on this—I have a feeling that you may have—but I am more curious about the role of women in Greek culture and if there is a quick reference.

    1. Hi Roger, The footnote mentions the church leaders whose ideas, seemingly, have been influenced by Greek thinkers. Talking about Plato’s and Socrates’ views on women is way beyond the scope of this article, and I don’t discuss it much on my website.

      I refer to Plato’s Laws 7.804a–805, which perhaps has a more “modern view,” here:
      (It has some similar ideas as in Republic book 5, beginning at 451c and continuing for several pages.)
      I quote his Symposium 189a-189b, about a primaeval androgyne, in a postscript here:
      I quote a seconday source that touches on Plato’s view of male superiority in procreation here:
      And I cite Plato’s writings elsewhere.

      Plato theorizing about women being involved in the same pursuits as men had no bearing on the lived experience of Greek women in his time.

      I mention other Greek philosophers in other articles too. For example, I quote the Stoic Musonius Rufus a few times on my blog, including in this article where he says positive things about the capabilities of women:

      1. So ironic that so many of the religious men who have discounted the intelligence and wisdom of women also traditionally entrust women with the spiritual training of their sons

  6. I think one can figure out that communion (AKA Eucharist) should not be associated with the temple is that both were practiced between 33 and 70 CE, so the idea fails immediately.

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