Exploring the biblical theology of Christian egalitarianism

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Introduction

Our knowledge of how churches operated and organised themselves in the first few centuries is sketchy. The authors of the New Testament don’t spell out what happened in church meetings. The information from surviving second-century documents is also unclear on what happened when churches gathered, apart from one account from Justin Martyr.[1] Nevertheless, we can get some idea of the participation of women in the churches in these two centuries and beyond.

In this article, I briefly highlight some of the many women who were recognised as ministers in the first few centuries of the church and who have been recorded in historical documents and literature.

Women in the Church in Jerusalem, Joppa and Caesarea Maritima in Acts

When we read the book of Acts, we might get the sense that the church in Jerusalem was led mainly by men. We hear, for instance, about Peter and John and about the seven men who ministered to the Greek-speaking widows. I have little doubt, however, that women, such as Jesus’s mother and Mary Magdalene, also ministered in Jerusalem after Pentecost (cf. Acts 1:14). But it is another Mary who is mentioned in Acts 12:12 as being a ministry provider there.

Despite the threat of deadly persecution, this Mary held a prayer meeting in her home. She probably held church meetings regularly, and was known for caring for church members, as it’s to her home Peter chose to go as soon as he was miraculously released from prison (Acts 12:1-19).

Many congregations in the first three centuries used the home of a relatively wealthy church member as their base. “Perhaps the most important service that a first-century believer could provide for a church group was to offer a house for meetings.”[2]

Being a Christian could be dangerous, even deadly, in the first few centuries of the common era, and a wealthy person, because of their social standing, connections, and material resources, could provide protection for church members and care for their welfare. We know of more than a few women who hosted, cared for, and managed churches. Several such women are mentioned in the New Testament.[3]

The author of Acts also tells us about Tabitha, a highly valued member of the church at Joppa who cared for widows (Acts 9:36-42). “Widows” may refer to a church order of single, celibate women already at this stage of the church’s development.[4]

And he mentions Philip’s four daughters who lived in Caesarea Maritima (Acts 21:9). Eusebius the church historian tells us that the four daughters were famous prophets.[5]

But it’s as we move north and west from Jerusalem, and also from Syrian Antioch, to the Roman provinces of Asia, Macedonia, Achaia, and to Rome itself, that more women’s names pop up in the New Testament. Most of these women were associated with the apostle Paul.

Women in the Church in Philippi and Ephesus in Acts

Lydia was the founding member of the church at Philippi in Macedonia. Lydia hosted Paul and his missionary colleagues, and she most likely cared for the church after Paul left Philippi. No other Philippian is mentioned as much as she is in the New Testament (Acts 16:13-15, 40).[6]

In Acts 18 we meet Paul’s friends Priscilla and Aquila who corrected the doctrine of Apollos who was ministering in Ephesus as a teacher. The couple functioned as elders or overseers when they, and no one else, corrected Apollos and looked after him. Moreover, they appear to have founded the church in Ephesus.[7]

But it’s in Paul’s letters that we can read his theology of ministry and see more of the women who he regarded as ministry colleagues.

Paul’s Theology of Ministry

Paul encouraged gifted people to participate in vocal ministry as long as it wasn’t done in a selfish, disorderly, or unedifying manner. And spirit-led ministry was not restricted to wealthy people. It was open to all gifted people regardless of their sex, ethnicity, or social standing.

To the church in Corinth, Paul wrote,

Whenever you come together, each one has a hymn, a teaching, a revelation, another tongue, or an interpretation. Everything is to be done for building up.
1 Corinthians 14:26 (CSB)

And we know that some Corinthian women prayed and prophesied in assemblies (1 Cor. 11:5).

Paul says something similar to the church at Colossae (Col 3:16 cf. Rom 12:6-8; 1 Cor. 12:1ff; Eph 4:11).

Let the word of Christ dwell richly among you, in all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another through psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. Colossians 3:16 (CSB)

And Nympha, a woman, hosted a church there (Col. 4:12).[8]

Women as well as men participated in ministry in many of the churches Paul founded or took an active interest in. This is especially clear in the last chapter of Romans.

After writing a couple of lines about Phoebe, a minister in the church in Cenchrea, Paul lists 28 Christians based in Rome, at least 9 of these 28 are women and Priscilla heads the list.[9] That Priscilla is mentioned first of 28 Christians is a strong indication of the prominence and regard of her ministry.[10]

Late First and Second Century Women Ministers

Paul used the same ministry terms for his male and female ministry colleagues, words such “coworker” or diakonos which means minister or deacon. (He didn’t refer to his ministry buddies as elders, overseers, or pastors.) Other writers seem to have been reluctant to use ministry terms for women, except for the term “prophet.”

There was a recognised place for female prophets in the first and second-century church. As well as Phillip’s daughters, Ammia of Philadelphia was another famous female prophet.  (Eusebius, Church History 5.17.3)[11]

A different Priscilla and a woman named Maximilla were prophetesses in Phrygia. Some regard the Montanist movement that Priscilla and Maximilla were involved in as unorthodox, but their theology was sound. Whatever the case, these two women were well-known in the second century and are mentioned in various texts.

Ignatius, in letters written around AD 100-110, names several male and female ministers. He mentions Alke and Gavia who were prominent women in Smyrna.[12] They may have ministered like Tabitha and Nympha.

In a letter to the emperor Trajan, Pliny the Younger writes about two unnamed women who he interrogated and tortured to try and find out about what the Christians were doing in meetings. Pliny tells Trajan that the women were called “ministers” or perhaps “deacons” (quae ministrae dicebantur).[13]

The Apocryphal Acts, some of which were written in the second century, mention several women who were courageous ministers who were evangelists, teachers, and healers. Thecla is a stand-out.[14] These Apocryphal Acts are mostly works of fiction but they do mention some real people, even if their stories are greatly embellished.

Women Elders, Deacons, and Teachers in the First to Fourth Centuries

In documents from Syria, we learn that some women in the order of “widows” were called elders or presbyteresses.[15] And there’s lots of evidence, from various places in the Roman Empire, of women called deacons or deaconesses. Lots!

However, female elders and female deacons in the third century, and later, were typically restricted in their roles in some way, whereas male elders and male deacons ministered to the broader church and could have prominent liturgical roles that were not offered to women.

Grapte was a notable woman teacher in Rome in the early second century, but her ministry was confined to women and children. (“Vision 2.4.2-3” in the Shepherd of Hermas 8:2-3)[16]

In the fourth century, there were many highly influential women. Some of these women had titles, such as deacon, but others did not.

Marcella (325-410), taught both women and men but not in “Sunday services.” Her friend Paula (347-404), helped Jerome translate the Bible into Latin. Both these women were involved in other leadership ministries also.[17]

In the mid to late 300s, female choirs led by female teachers played an important role in promoting orthodox beliefs in Syria. There’s a great story about Publia and her female choir defying Emperor Julian the Apostate.[18]

Nino is famous for bringing the Good News of Jesus to Georgia and converting the king and queen.[19]

Other notable women include Melania the Elder (350-410), Melania the Younger, Macrina (327-379), Theosebia (died c. 380),[20] Olympias (368-408),[21] and Marthana (active 370s-380s).[22]

More Evidence of Women Ministers

In early art and artefacts, there are hints that women were involved in some ministries involving the sacraments, but interpreting art and artefacts can be subjective.

Theosebia and Gregory of Nyssa

This pyx, which dates from the 500s, shows three women standing in the prayer pose and two women swinging censers as they approach an altar.[23] In the fifth century, women in southern Italy served at the altar, but not everyone was happy about this. Cerula and Bitalia may have been two such women.[24]

Perhaps the biggest clue that a few churches (and not necessarily heterodox churches) had women elders is found in the Council of Laodicea. In a misguided move, this council banned the formal ordination of women who were elders, or priests, and who were serving their church as leaders.

It is not allowed for those women who are called ‘elders/ presbyters/ priests’ (presbytides) or ‘women presidents’ (prokathēmenai) to be ordained (kathistasthai) in the churches.
Canon 11 of the Council of Laodicea (circa 360)

This canon acknowledges that in the fourth century, there were women called elders and that some presided in congregations.[25] Other councils and canons also placed restrictions and bans on women elders and priests.

The Decline of Women in “Public” Ministry

Women were front and centre in some first-century churches such as the churches in Corinth, Ephesus, Philippi, and Rome. But opportunities for women to minister began to shrink already by the end of the first century. Why were women increasingly excluded and banned from ministries that were open to men?[26]

In her 2023 book “Nobodies Mother,” Sandra Glahn has given a useful summary of what happened. The following is adapted from her book.[27]

The “priesthood” was redefined.
There was a shift away from emphasizing the priesthood of all believers and a move towards an all-male priesthood in the pattern of the Old Testament.

There was a shift away from adult baptism.
There was shift away from adult baptism towards infant baptism which meant that women were no longer needed, for the sake of modesty, to baptise other women.

Temple-like practices were adopted.
The church adopted ceremonial temple-like practices. And when physical church buildings became a thing in the 300s, the buildings were treated as temples and they had altars, and there was an increasing distinction between priest-like clergy and the rest of the congregation. And menstruating women were barred from altars and from a sacramental approach to worship which does not correlate with New Testament beliefs and practices about worship.

A Greek anthropology of women influenced male church leaders.
Greek views of women’s nature influenced Christian leaders who believed that women were inferior to men and a “chosen instrument of the devil.” It’s truly shocking what many church fathers have said about the general nature of women.[28]

Sandra Glahn notes, however, that “Each of these four factors can be challenged with Scripture.” This includes the scripture of Paul’s letters. Paul valued his female coworkers. He never silenced or restricted women from delivering sound ministry of any kind. His overall theology of ministry was, You have a gift; use it to build up others in the Lord.

Women make up half of the church. They have always played important roles in the mission of the church and they are a part of our history. Let’s not be like this Bible College (seminary) in Australia, that my friend is studying with, who has made women, and their contributions to the church, invisible!

 


Footnotes

Because of time restrictions, I was unable to mention female martyrs who played an influential role in the early church. I’ve written about female martyrs here, and there’s more here. And I would have liked to mention some women in the Gospels too.

[1] Writing in around 155–157, Justin Martyr described what happened in Sunday meetings in the mid-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>

[2] Margaret Y. MacDonald, Colossians and Ephesians (Sacra Pagina; Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2008), 188.

[3] Prisca, with Aquila, hosted and led a house church in Ephesus (1 Cor. 16:19), and later in Rome (Rom. 16:3–5). Nympha hosted a church in her home in Laodicea and is greeted in Colossians 4:15. Mary of Jerusalem (Acts 12:12), Lydia (Acts 16:40), the Chosen Lady and Chosen Sister (2 John), probably Phoebe of Cenchrea, and perhaps Chloe of Corinth (1 Cor. 1:11), also hosted and cared for house churches. More on the role of house church leaders here.

[4] I have more on Tabitha here.

[5] More on Philip’s daughters here.

[6] More on Lydia here.

[7] More on Priscilla here.

[8] More on Nympha here.

[9] The nine women based in Rome are Priscilla, Junia, Mary of Rome, Tryphaena, Tryphosa, Persis, Julia, Rufus’s mother and Nereus’s sister (Rom. 16:3-16).

[10] More on the people mentioned in Romans 16:1-16 here.

[11] Lyn Kidson has written about Ammia of Philadelphia here.

[12] I have more on Alke and Gavia here: https://margmowczko.com/tag/smyrna/

[13] I’ve written about this letter here.

[14] More on Thecla here.

[15] More on these Syrian documents here.

[16] More on Grapte here.

[17] More on Marcella, with a brief mention of Paula, here.

[18] More about the deaconess Publia and Syrian female choirs here.

[19] More on Nino here.

[20] More on Theosebia here.

More on Melania the elder here.

[21] More on Olympias here.

[22] Christine Schenk has written brief sketches on these fourth-century “mothers of the church,” including Marthana, here. Marthana was the leader of a large group of recluse male monks and female virgins. She is mentioned in the travel diary of Egeria. Egeria, a woman, recorded her pilgrimage to the Holy Land and other places of religious significance in the early 380s. You can read Egeria’s travel diary on Internet Archive.
Dr Schenk’s excellent 2017 book, Crispina and Her Sisters: Women in Authority in Early Christianity, is also on Internet Archive.

[23] This pyx is a container in which the consecrated bread of the Eucharist was kept. It is held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (Open Access) More information here.

[24] More on Cerula and Bitalia here.

[25] Atto, bishop of Vercelli in the 900s, commented on this canon. See here.

[26] Michael Wiltshire states succinctly, “As the Church acquired legal status in Roman society, it became increasingly subject to the patriarchal ideology of the dominant culture.” Michael briefly discusses the martyrs Perpetua and Felicitas who were killed in Carthage in AD 202 or 203, the author Proba (AD 352–384) and her 694-line theological poem “Cento,” and Egeria whose travel diary “offers invaluable information on early church practices, architecture, and the condition of biblical sites …” (Source: The Junia Project)

[27] See also my blog post entitled “Sandra Glahn on the Decline of Women in Public Ministry”:

[28] I list some comments from several church fathers here.

© Margaret Mowczko 2024
All Rights Reserved

This article is based on a short talk I gave at a consultation with 70+ Christian women from across the globe. It was held near Amsterdam in March 2024. A short report on the consultation is here.

Thank you to those who help me to write and speak on topics related to our mutuality and interdependence in Christ. You can support my work for as little as $3 USD a month at Patreon.
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Explore More

The First Century Church & the Ministry of Women
Paul and Women in a Nutshell
Several articles on Paul’s Theology of Ministry
Several articles on Women in the Early Church
Sandra Glahn on the Decline of Women in Public Ministry

Influential Women in Early Church History by Dr Jackie Roese

Perpetua: A Woman of Faith and Courage Who Defied Cultural Expectations
The Inspiring Legacy of Thecla: A Modest Apostle and Martyr
Melania the Elder’s Powerful Influence on Early Christianity
Marcella of Rome: A Patron of Faith and Scholarship in Early Christianity
Mary, the Mother of Jesus and a First-Century Leader in the Church

Professor Morwenna Ludlow has given an excellent lecture on “Women Leaders in the Early Church” where she compares the speaking ministries of Thecla and Macrina. You can watch it on the Greshem College website, here.

9 thoughts on “An Overview of Women Ministers in the Early Church

  1. If the Lydia you mentioned is the seller of purple, to me as an artist that has a deeper layer of meaning other than she just sold a certain color.

    Purple came from little sea snails and it took a lot of them to make a little bit of purple. The purple industry was highly regulated and usually only the Ceasers and other leaders could wear purple colored garments. It was perhaps more valuable than gold – it is the color we associate with royalty.
    .
    Therefore Lydia made a lot of money and was the CEO of her day, powerful and respected in the ancient world. She basically ran with the big boys.

    I note that Pal never told her to give up her business to her husband or another male and have her tend the church kitchen or be a stay at home mom and homemaker.

    1. Yes, the Lydia I’ve mentioned in the article sold purple. I’ve written about Lydia, her occupation, and the sea snails, etc, here: https://margmowczko.com/lydia-of-thyatira-philippi/
      First-century Roman law meant that only the emperor could wear a completely purple toga. High-ranking senators had a purple “stripe” on their white togas.

  2. In the Creation Stories, ‘it was good’ is repeated 6 times, and rounded off after humankind is made, with a 7th, summarising ‘good’: “Then God saw everything that He had made, and indeed it was very good.”
    BUT: before the 7th ‘good’, God says something else: “it is NOT good” – “that man should be alone; I will make him a helper comparable to him.”
    The Hebrew word for ‘helper’ is ‘Ezer’ and used 16 times as a quality of God Himself. And the verb, -the action- is consistently used of military allies. So that is the kind of helper Woman is! This is a far cry from merely having the dinner ready in time. (And what kind of idiot goes to war with or undermines their own ally?)
    And the Task she is to support him in is not the Man’s whim and fancy, but God’s assignment: ‘Then the LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to tend and keep it’ and ‘Be fruitful and multiply’. So Woman’s role is to help their joint assignment, not to help the Man through thick and thin even when he’s wrong.
    MOREOVER: Only once Womankind has been created does God pronounce for the 7th time His Creation ‘Very Good’, in other words – Perfect!
    Ergo: Creating Womankind was the crowning finishing touch. It made all Creation perfect!

    1. Beautiful observation, Richard! No matter how many times a complementarian says, “different roles, equal value,” it just doesn’t make sense. I have been there and spent many years believing and (teaching!) that, as a “helpmeet suitable,” my highest calling was to help my husband in whatever his calling was. I have a great husband, and I wasn’t in an environment where the outworkings of the teaching were excessive, but It never resonated with me in my inner being and always made me feel “less than.” I couldn’t understand why God created me with gifts and longings and desires that I was only allowed to use in limited contexts–why my entire identity was absorbed into his when before, as a single woman, I was very independent and seeking to follow God’s call on my life without thinking of my gender having anything to do with that. My longing to be a wife and mother and the sincere desire to take care of my home and love my husband also contributed to making that message seem true to me at the time, but I always felt like an “add-on” to the greater creation of the male. Add to that the fact that I highly esteem God’s word and want to please him, and that the very systematic “plain meaning” of the complementarian argument was constantly and strongly espoused without presenting other views in a charitable light. I finally started to crawl out of the hole on my own (often with fear and trepidation) by studying and reading, but it has been a hard won battle internally, but I feel the Lord has been constantly by my side!

    2. Thanks, Richard.

      I’ve written about ezer kenegdo a few times. It’s a wonderful description of the woman in Eden.
      https://margmowczko.com/tag/a-suitable-helper/

  3. A number of years ago I read a book called “Crispina and Her Sisters,” which includes many inscriptions; crypt, sarcophagus, and catacomb art, and the increasingly hostile and strident commands of early Christian writers concerning barring women from ministry. The author traced the history of decline in female leadership in the early centuries of the church, which, read backwards, is hard evidence (literally, in some cases, etched in stone) of women ministers, deacons, and elders.

    After reading your article today, I realized I have to read “Nobody’s Mother,” a book I’ve been meaning to get and now have.

    Thank you for your work, I quote you regularly. Grace and peace

    1. I love “Crispina and her Sisters”! I mention the author Christine Schenk in a footnote in this article. I mention Dr Schenk’s work a few times on my website. https://margmowczko.com/?s=Schenk

      Thanks, Joanne!

  4. […] An Overview of Women Ministers in the Early Church […]

  5. […] An Overview of Women Ministers in the Early Church […]

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