Women & Church History: the century we’re still recovering from {pt.2}

Dubay-lizglass-eyeThis is a post in an on-going series on Women in the Church.

Yesterday, I began talking about the history of Women in the early Church. Up front, I gave my primary source for information, this issue of Christian History Institute Magazine on “Women in the Early Church”, which I will quote from in this post. If you need more information, you can go there.

I also gave a brief sketch of my view: women were quite active in leadership in the first two-centuries of the Church, but come the 200s, some radical things began to change in the Church–things that still effect us today, especially as it pertains to women in ministry.

(Most of this material is comes from the excellent article “The Early Controversies Over Female Leadership” by Dr. Karen J. Torjesen.)

The Big Turn with the Church


First, the Church was being hit by a second wave of major heresies, and was trying to figure out how to fight against it. The major controversies of the 100s– Gnosticism and Montanism–almost tore the Church apart. They certainly didn’t want that happening again.

For various sociological reasons, women were strongly attracted to these heresies and were quite often their leaders and priestesses. As these new heresies came up in the 200s, there was found an even greater suspicion over women leaders, and an even easier tendency to restrict their roles–all in the name of “protecting the Church”.

Over-reaction to Spiritual Gift Abuse

Relatedly, some of these 3rd-century heresies had to do with a wild use of the spiritual gifts. Until this time, we have lots of records of Holy Spirit gift activity occurring in the Church. In response to these heresies, though, the Church (primarily in a document called The Didache) put strong restrictions on how and when spiritual gifts were used.

After this point, you see the records reflect a dramatic drop-off in the “spiritual gift” nature of Church life and their usage in it. This has lasted even through today, with pockets of the Church “rediscovering” these gifts at various times and in various ways.

From Spirit to Sacrament

This spiritual gift issue relates to women because of this third, related change. To help fight these new heresies, the Church orders begin redefining who was in “authority” in the Church in the first place!

Previously, “leadership” was expressed through the Spirit-inspired offices of apostle, prophet, and teacher (all offices women had clearly and positively been a part of). With a 3rd-century document called The Apostolic Tradition, though, the “authoritative” offices were changed from the Spirit-oriented “teaching” offices to the role- and hierarchy-oriented “Eucharistic offices”.

This document is also the first Church order that places any restriction on women being ordained–but only implicitly. It doesn’t say “women shouldn’t be ordained”, but it says that the “office” of widow (a female-only church office in the early Church) could not be ordained because it wasn’t a Eucharistic office.

So one should note that “widow” is only one of several offices that are no longer allowed to be ordained; it just so happens that it’s made up women. (Yes, that really is the extent of the first known ministerial restriction placed on women.)

The Church Enters the World Stage

Lastly, and most importantly, the Church became a public institution and no longer private. Previously, Christian life was conducted in the home–a realm where women already exercised significant authority.

And so, when the church began living life as a family, based on household familial rhythms and practices, there was little conflict with women exercising leadership in these house churches and visiting other church members in their homes.

In the mid-200s, though, the Church began moving out of the house church setting and moved into the public sphere: they began building their own buildings, meeting in public spaces, becoming more hierarchical and ritualistic, and institutionalizing Church leadership.

Suddenly, the radical nature of women being in leadership was thrust out of the privacy of homes and into a society much more scandalized by it. It’s only then that you find ecclesial restrictions placed on women.

The Big Turn with Women

These early restrictions on women almost exclusively use, as their justification, societally-based words like “shameful”, “scandalous”, “embarrassing”, and “inappropriate”, not spiritual or theological terms like “unbiblical”, “morally-wrong”, or “against the nature of the Gospel”.

Over the century of conflict concerning women in the Church at this time, we see an attempt by the Church to maintain a role for women and not bow down to cultural standards, but it was difficult. As Dr. Torjesen summarizes:

Women’s leadership in the 1st and 2nd centuries would have been exercised in the private sphere, which is the sphere of the household. In this sphere there were no limitations placed on women. Women would have continued exercising these ministries in the 3rd and 4th centuries as well. But around the middle of the 3rd century, Christian worship began to be perceived as taking place in the public sphere. Women no doubt continued exercising the ministries they had in the 1st and 2nd centuries, but suddenly their ministries were controversial primarily because Hellenistic women were not allowed to exercise authority in the public sphere. What follows is a century of conflict over women’s roles until the ministry of women is restored again in the private sphere. But the church by that time had gone public. (p.29)

It’s interesting that the “direction” of “acceptable female leadership” in the Church is increasingly relegated to the home (as it is today). But by the time this was finalized, ordained leadership was now exercised in the public sphere, not simply the private. Women were then left behind in ordination simply because of how scandalous their authority was in the wider culture.

Restricting Women to be Biblically Faithful?

But here’s an important piece of the story that has encouraged me. It does not seem to me that this movement away from women leadership was done out of a desire for power, cultural accommodation, or misogyny.

It seems it was the feeble attempts by a young, embattled church to navigate the complications of ethics in the real world. Just as with complementatirans today, they were trying to be faithful to the Bible.

In an extremely helpful article “What about Paul?” by Randy Peterson, this paragraph helped me so much:

The pattern seems to be this: Paul recognizes the social institutions and says Christians should respect them; but in the church there are new rules, rules of unity. This gives us some interesting groundwork for the male-female relationship. Following the examples of Jew-Greek and slave-free, we would expect that women and men would receive equal treatment in the church, though the relationship at home and in society might need to cater to cultural norms. Thus, the call for wifely submission may have the sense of “As long as you are in a world where women are considered subordinate to their husbands, be a good wife, in reverence to Christ.” (Just as he would say, verses later, “As long as you are a slave, be a good slave.” (pp.35)

It would make sense to me that the early Church was trying to apply this principle to a Church that was becoming increasingly public, whose mission was facing more and more distraction over this whole women in ministry thing.

They (the women included) may have thought that the most loving thing they could do for that culture was restricting their own freedom for the sake of the world.

The problem is that this became calcified and dogmatic, and the loving flexibility that led to this state of affairs did not remain. This prevented the Church from leaving a space open for women to regain a place of ordination once the culture would not be distracted by it.

And so nowadays, when it is more of a scandal not to have women leaders, the Church has not responded to this in the way it may have early on. The Gnosticism of Contemporary Western Christianity sees being combative and scandalous to the “world” around us as a virtue, even when it distracts from (or tries to add to) the Gospel itself.

Tomorrow, we’ll talk about how the Reformation actually exacerbated these problems, on into the present. We’ll then end on some encouraging notes about how, as Paul puts it in Romans 9, “the word of God has not failed” when it comes to his daughters in the Church.

[image credit: photo by Bryan Dubay]


6 thoughts on “Women & Church History: the century we’re still recovering from {pt.2}

  1. Pingback: Church History: Where have the female leaders been? {pt1} | the long way home | Prodigal Paul

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