Saturday, June 18, 2011

History of Womens Role in the Church

So to give some background about why this was written. It was for my Church History class, which is a random class for the subject of womens roles to come up. But during one of his lectures, my teacher mentioned almost as an afterthought that women were leaders in the early church. I felt the need to object and let the class know that my teacher was off. And, in response, I chose to do my oral presentation and end of the class term paper on The History of Womens Roles in the Church. Let me know what ya think!

Tim Wellings
The History of Womens roles within the Church

For the past two thousand years, the Church has been almost unanimous on this issue. There have always been people questioning the practice, but the Church has stood firm. It has only been in the last century or so that the Church has overturned her practice and gone against the word of God. I am talking of course of womens' roles within the Church. Before I get into it, I do want to stress that this is not a salvation issue, but one of sanctification. Yet while it is not a foundational doctrine, it is very important who God wants teaching His very word and His ways, and who He wants shepherding His people.

This is not my favorite topic. It really isn't. There are soo many more interesting issues out there than that of the role of women within the corporate1 church. But it just won't go away. I have been confronted with women as leaders/teachers more this semester then the rest of my time as a Christian put together2. So alas, a response has become necessary.

Having done a lot of research into the issue, and having talked to a few different teachers around Pacific Rim, I have come to a better understanding of the arguments on each side. The biggest reason for debate centers around 1 Timothy 2:12-14, which I assure you, I will cover soon. The second biggest reason has to do with how the church has interpreted this issue throughout her history. Both sides agree that the orthodox church has historically always denied women the office of leader/teacher within the corporate church. What is being contested is the practice of the church during the period from Jesus' death and the start of the Church to when the Church was “institutionalized” – around the end of the third century. My goal is to take a closer look at this period of the very early, some call it primitive, church – and see what exactly was happening.

So to start things out, lets take a look at the teachings of the New Testament3 on the roles within the church. The first text we will examine is 1 Timothy 2:12-14. To give a little context, Paul is adressing the right conduct and right doctrine of the church of the living God4:

I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.56

Pretty harsh to our ears huh? Here we have Paul clearly saying he does not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man. He then gives two reasons why this is the case. Number one – Adam was formed first, then Eve. And number two – It was Eve who was deceived and became a transgressor, not Adam7. Without getting too much into specifics, there is one characteristic of both reasons that is vital in understanding this passage. Can you see it? Paul's two reasons both go back to creation, before the fall. He takes us back to Gods original design in creating Adam first, and back to the first sin. This alone should prove that his command is universal. Yet many are willing to almost blind themselves, and twist the words so that somehow, they interpret it as being binding only to the church in Ephesus8. Here is a great example:

2:9-15 To understand these verses, we must understand the situation in which Paul and Timothy worked...Paul did not want the women to teach because they didn't yet have enough knowledge or experience. The Ephesian church had a particular problem with false teachers. Evidently, the women were especially susceptible to the false teachings (2 Timothy 3:1-9), because they did not yet have enough Biblical knowledge to discern truth. In addition, some of the women were apparently flaunting their newfound Christian freedom by wearing inappropiate clothing (2:9). Paul was telling Timothy not to put anyone (in this case, women) into a position of leadership who was not yet mature in the faith (see 5:22). The same principle applies to churches today (see the note on 3:6).9

Really? And this is from my very own bible (yeah, the Life Application Study Bible ain't always so great). See, this is the problem so many have today. They want to invent reasons and evidences that just do not exist. Why don't we just let Paul speak for Paul, and then decide whether to take it or leave it. They are quite creative though :).

Another argument asserts that the reason Paul was outlawing women leaders/teachers was because the culture was not ready to have women do so. The thing is, women were already serving as priestesses, especially in Ephesus where Diana (Artemis) was worshipped10. And the very god that was worshipped was female! Ephesus would have been just finehaving women serving as priestesses, as would the rest of the pagan world, for Diana worship was common, as was worship of other godesses.

The next few texts to come under the microscope are found in First Corinthians.

But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a woman is her husband, and the head of Christ is God11. Any man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head, but any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled dishonors her head--it is the same as if her head were shaven.12

Again, in context, this passage is referring to the public worship within the church. I am not going to get into headcoverings, though that is the main subject of these verses. I just want to point out that there are indeed different roles within the Church. Paul gives the illustration in verse three, then writes that men are to have their heads uncovered, while women are to have them covered. Obviously, there are different rules for each gender. Take note that this is now the Corinthian Church that Paul is a adressing.

Later in Paul's epistle, we find this scandalous teaching:

For God is not a God of confusion but of peace. As in all the churches of the saints, the women should keep silence in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as even the law says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.13

This should really clear it up. Notice the phrase I bolded. As in all the churches of the saints. All. Not some. All. Lets repeat this together now – All14. So in all the churches of the saints, women should keep silent in the churches so that they are subordinate, as even the law says. What I find very interesting is how Paul seemed to know the reaction he had coming:

What! Did the word of God originate with you, or are you the only ones it has reached? If any one thinks that he is a prophet, or spiritual, he should acknowledge that what I am writing to you is a command of the Lord. If any one does not recognize this, he is not recognized. So, my brethren, earnestly desire to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues; but all things should be done decently and in order.15

From verses 26 to 40 Paul addresses the proper way to prophesy and speak in tongues within the church, along with the order of men and women. Here, he is showing the seriousness of these practices. They are direct commands of God Almighty. The verse I bolded shows why God cares so much about the way the Church is run. He is a God of order, and expects everything we do to reflect Him and His order16. God established the order of men and women at creation. Who are we to reverse this? And I would highly advise everyone to heed the statement of verse thirty-eight.

For further understaing, I would highly advise the reader to also study Clement17 of Rome's first (and more than likely, only) epistle to the Corinthians, the very same church that Paul wrote to. Scholars believe this letter was written 95-97 AD, about the same time that Revelation was penned by John. The Corinthian church had committed sedition and thrown out good and honest men from the leadership. Among many things pertaining to the incident, Clement wrote about the beautiful order of God18, found in His creation, and also His church.

The big question I always ask is why?! Why must there be such rigid control and order? Why so many boundries? Aren't we to be more flexible and “allow the Spirit to work”? Clement gives an interesting answer:

Where and by whom He desires these things [God's order and rules] to be done, He Himself has fixed by His own supreme will, in order that all things being piously done according to His good pleasure, may be acceptable unto Him.(2) Those, therefore, who present their offerings at the appointed times, are accepted and blessed; for inasmuch as they follow the laws of the Lord, they sin not. For his own peculiar services are assigned to the high priest, and their own proper place is prescribed to the priests, and their own special ministrations devolve on the Levites. The layman is bound by the laws that pertain to laymen.Let every one of you, brethren, give thanks to God in his own order, living in all good conscience, with becoming gravity, and not going beyond the rule of the ministry prescribed to him...Those, therefore, who do anything beyond that which is agreeable to His will, are punished with death. Ye see,(3) brethren, that the greater the knowledge that has been vouchsafed to us, the greater also is the danger to which we are exposed.1920

Here, Clement uses the example or the Jewish sacraficial system to show us the order God has set, and the importance of following it. The text speaks for itself.

I write all of this to show that there are indeed different roles within the church. Women are to be in subjection. Some of the ways Paul gives are having a symbol of authority on their heads and being quiet 21(the correct interpretation of silent). Paul also writes that this applies to the church universally. We are not to take this likely. The Church is suppose to be a reflection of God. Since God is a God of order, the Church must reflect His order as well.

So, if I am wrong and Paul did in fact allow women to lead/teach, how would the mesh with women being subject in church? How is a woman to preach when she is commanded by God to be in a state of quietness? Sure, women prophesied and prayed, but this is occasional and allowed by God. But a leader and teacher of the church would regularly be talking and leading. Do you see the problems?

Add in the fact that there has not been one female ordained to the priesthood in the entire Old Testament (Deborah was a prophetess and a judge, not a priestess), nor has there been any female church leader mentioned in the New Testament, and you will come up with quite an argument. Just think about this for a little bit. Not one female church leader mentioned in the bible. That alone should seal the deal.

What of Phoebe, and Junia the supposed apostle you might ask? What of Priscilla, and even Lydia? Chill out dear reader and listen to this. I will introduce this fascinating subject with a quote from Clement of Alexandria, who lived from 150-215 AD:

But the latter [the apostles], in accordance with their ministry, devoted themselves to preaching without any distraction, and took women with them, not as wives, but as sisters, that they might be their co-ministers in dealing with women in their homes. It was through them that the Lord’s teaching penetrated also the women’s quarters without any scandal being aroused22.”

I had not heard of this until I started researching the issue during this semester. It is pretty awesome if you ask me. The apostles would take with them women, as sisters, to help them in their ministry. These apostolic sisters would be a huge help when an apostle would preach to women. It's just much easier to relate to someone of the same gender. Plus, the sisters were able to go places the men could not. The women's quarters, mentioned at the end of this quote, refers to the pagan virgins quarters. Just like in Christianity, the pagans had women that devoted themselves completely23 to their god. They lived together just as nuns lived together in covenants. So the best way to get Christ into their quarters without suspicion arising was to send in the apostolic sisters.

This would explain all of the references to women in the New Testement. They were working just as hard as the men. To look at it closer, we have Junia in Romans 16:7:

Greet Androni'cus and Ju'nias, my kinsmen and my fellow prisoners; they are men of note among the apostles, and they were in Christ before me.

Oh right, there is debate about the gender of Junia. Without going too much into it, this debate has been going on within the church for a long time. John Chrysostom (337-407) believed this person to be a woman24, while Epiphanius (315-403) taught that it was a man. If you compare modern bibles, you will notice they go back and forth as well.

Supposing that Junia is a woman, it still does not mean she was an apostle. I understand why people would read it this way, but with the understanding that women traveled with the apostles at that time, we can correctly interpret this passage. All Paul states, is that Junia was among the disciples.

The apostolic sister concept explains Priscilla and Aquila, Pheobe25, and the rest of the women commended by Paul. Still in doubt? In our pursuit of this truth, the next best thing would be to read some of the earliest church leaders right after Paul. I have already mentioned Clement of Rome26. The other two church leaders we can examine are Ignatius of Antioch and Polycarp. Both these guys are said to have been students of John the disciple whom Jesus loved. We have eight letters between them. Included are references to different church elders, overseers, and deacons. If women were leaders/teachers at that time, one would think they would be mentioned in these letters. Not one. There isn't a single woman leader/teacher mentioned.

Justin Martyr, also around the same time of these guys, 100-165 AD, wrote in his first apology about the administration of the sacrament. He writes that the bread and the wine were presented to the president of the brethren27, referring the the elders of the church. Notice its brethren. You might say, brethren could include men and women in those days. I agree. However in Justin's apology, when women were included he would write brothers and sisters28.

Tertullian, 160-220 AD, was straight-up with us a few years later: likewise the precepts of ecclesiastical discipline concerning women have an eye to the virgin. It is not permitted to a woman to speak in the church; but neither (is it permitted her) to teach, nor to baptize, nor to offer, nor to claim to herself a lot in any manly function, not to say (in any) sacerdotal office.”

As with Clement, the text speaks for itself.

Out of Syria we have a document which claims to be the oral tradition of the apostles, written down around 225 AD called the Didascalia:

For it is not to teach that you women … are appointed. … For He, God the Lord, Jesus Christ our Teacher, sent us, the twelve [apostles], out to teach the [chosen] people and the pagans. But there were female disciples among us: Mary of Magdala, Mary the daughter of Jacob, and the other Mary; He did not, however, send them out with us to teach the people. For, if it had been necessary that women should teach, then our Teacher would have directed them to instruct along with us.29

The Didascalia brings up a great point. If women were to lead/teach, why didn't Jesus have at least one woman disciple to be included in the 12? He had amazing, strong women to choose from. And why didn't the early church in Acts appoint one woman deacon when they selected the seven in Acts 6? There were women around who had been with Jesus just as long as the men, so it couldn't have been due to lack of knowledge.

Whew. That is a lot of information eh? But please go through it slowly and consider it. Take it to God in prayer. I know this is not a fun topic. But we must be within the parameters set by God. We made that first decision to stop following the world and follow God. We must continue to make that decision. We aren't here for us, but to serve God alone.

But cool are the apostolic sisters?! I want to be clear, I am not arguing that women are not to be in ministry. I am only showing what the word of God states, and how the early church interpreted, the role of women within church leadership. That is all. The more I researched the early church, the more I understood how important women are to ministry. They were doing things all over the place! They traveled with the apostles, risking their lives to bring the love of Christ to all people. John Chystostom, looking back on those days, wrote:

For the women of those days were more spirited than lions, sharing with the Apostles their labors for the Gospel's sake. In this way they went traveling with them, and also performed all other ministries. And even in Christ's day there followed him women, 'which ministered unto Him of their substance, and waited upon the Teacher30
We need more women with this spirit! We need more women ministry! Titus 2:3-5 gives us a glimpse of other ways women need to help the Church:

Bid the older women likewise to be reverent in behavior, not to be slanderers or slaves to drink; they are to teach what is good, and so train the young women to love their husbands and children, to be sensible, chaste, domestic, kind, and submissive to their husbands, that the word of God may not be discredited31.

Notice the words teach and train. I am not arguing that women were not given the gift of training or leadership. Paul wouldn't have had to address the issue if women didn't have the gift of teaching. He addressed it because they did have the gift, but they were using it in the wrong way. Women are to teach other women and children. I think this is one of the most important jobs. Every persons first teacher is a woman – their mom! And we need much more older women mentoring younger women. This is completely dead in the Church. So wake up women, we need you!

Well I hope this has been an enlightening conversation. Yes, loads of information, but this is knowledge of God's word and His ways. God says in Hosea:

My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge; because you have rejected knowledge, I reject you from being a priest to me. And since you have forgotten the law of your God, I also will forget your children32.

Oh and real quick – what I find very interesting is the way the New Testament views women. A woman was the first one to the open tomb. Jesus first appeared to a woman! It seems that women are shown to have more faith and be holier than most men. yes, ladies were created last of all but remember this about God:

Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?' So the last will be first, and the first last.33"

1Corporate means public worship. I am not referring to the casual hangout sessions or anything like that. If you read 1 Timothy in context, you will see that Paul is indeed referring to the public worship of the Church
2Though thats not saying much, as I have only been a Christian for about two years or so
3Pretty much all Paul, since he wrote almost everything pertaining to the doctrines and practices of the Church
41 Tim 1:3; 3:14-15
51 Tim 2:12-14
6All Bible referecences are from the Revised Standard Version (RSV)
7Eve was deceived by the serpent (2 Cor 11:3), and Adam was not (though he was completely aware that he was disobeying God). They both became transgressors, but what Paul is pointing out is that Eve was the one deceived by the devil. Matthew Poole, in English Annotations on the Holy Bible by Matthew Poole, 1685, put it as: “Besides, Adam was not first deceived, nor indeed at all deceived immediately by the serpent, but only enticed, and deceived by the woman, who was the tempter’s agent; so as that she was both first in the transgression in order of time, and also principal in it, contributing to the seduction or transgression of the man; which ought to be a consideration to keep the woman humble, in a low opinion of herself, and that lower order wherein God hath fixed her.”
8If that were the case, are Pauls requirements for overseers and deacons, which are written immediately after the passage in question, only for the church of Ephesus? And what of Pauls instructions for “men in every place to pray, lifting up holy hands, without wrath and dissension” found in verse eight of chapter two? Only for Ephesus at that time?
9Life Application Study Bible NASB, pg 2130
10Orr, James; Nuelsen, John; Mullins, Edgar; Evans, Morris; Kyle, Melvin Grove, International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Topic: Diane
11All emphasis in this paper is mine
121 Cor 11: 3-5
131 Cor 14:33-35
151 Cor 14:36-40
16Clement of Rome wrote an excellent discourse to this very same church a few years later about the importance of the order of God and how it must be reflected within His church. The Corinthian church at that time had rebelled and gotten rid of their leaders, which prompted Clement of Rome to write his epistle to them.
17Many believe that this is the same Clement Paul refers to in Philippians 4:3
18Definitely check out chapter 20, it is quite beautiful
19First Clement, Chapter 40, 41
20Clement is addressing the roles of laymen and leadership, but the principle applies to the general roles within the Church
21This has to be taken in context with 1 Cor 11:3-5, which states that when a woman prays or prophesies...This does not mean utter silence, but to be sitting quietly, unless the woman is to pray or prophesy.
22Clement of Alexandria, Stromata Book 3, chap.6, 54, 3-4
23i.e. no men
24He also taught that women should not lead/teach – John Chrysostom, Homily ix. 1 Timothy ii. 11-15. , which goes to show even if Junia was a woman apostle, it does not mean she taught.
25Pheobe is called a deaconess in Romans, but if you look at the original language you will find that this word can be translated as helper or servant. Paul makes such use of the word when not referring to women in numerous places - Rom 11:13; 1 Cor 3:5; 2 Cor 3:4; 2 Cor 6:3, 1 Cor 16:15
26Who is probably the same Clement mentioned in Philippians 4:3
27Justin Martyr, The First Apology of Justin, Chapter 65, verse 3 and 4
28Justin Martyr, The First Apology of Justin, Chapter 15, verse 6
29The Didascalia, 3:6:12
30Migne, Patrologia Graeca, Vol. 51, cols. 668f
31Titus 2:3-5
32Hosea 4:6
33Matthew 20:15-16


  1. You can use Judges 4 about Deborah and her role that God bestowed upon her (although this is not the early church). In addition, Acts 16 about the women in Phillipi, they gathered together and worshiped the God of Israel, there were no 10 men to have an organized synagogue. It doesn't appear that they led men either, at least not in the commentary I just read on
    Here's something from an commentary:
    4.4 ‘Now Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lappidoth, she judged Israel at that time.’

    "Deborah is one of three prophetesses mentioned in the Old Testament, two of whom were powerful figures. The others were Miriam (Exodus 15.20) and Huldah (2 Kings 22.14). Deborah means ‘a bee’ and was a relatively common name. The fact that she was a prophetess indicated that she had the Spirit of Yahweh. Her influence was so powerful that she was made a judge of Israel. All recognised an aura about her. It is significant that while prophetesses were officially allowed as religious functionaries, priestesses were not. Women could serve at the door of the Tabernacle but they could not enter it (Exodus 38.8). This may have been partly because of the function that priestesses served in other religions with their sexual rites. The Tabernacle was an asexual reserve."
    This commentary seems to explain more about her role and God's appointing of her as a judge.
    Hope this helps. Wish you the best with this study!
    Becky and Alex Shane

  2. Ah yes, good ol' Deborah. She is brought up a lot in this debate and rightfully so. Just curious tho, whats your stance on the issue and how does Deborah play into it for you? Im going to get an explanation for her here in a bit when I have some time.