Faithseekers: Women written out of church history

Caroline, the host of Faithseekers, writes:

In Faithseekers recently, we have been looking at some of the women in the early church described in Acts and in Paul’s letters, and we have found that women played an important role in many of the very early churches.  In fact, although the early church developed in a society where women had no formal status or power, and although there were clearly debates about the role of women within the church, Paul seems to write as if in practice it was quite normal for women to be church leaders.  However, what we have learned is that disturbingly some of these accounts of women’s leadership were downplayed or even written out of English bible translations, and are only now being re-discovered by modern scholars.

Two thousand years later, many denominations including the Church of England still get tied up in knots debating whether women should have leadership roles.  In that context, I think it’s important to share what we have learned and for us all to understand the role that women played in the early church, and to realise that God worked then and can work now just as much through women – including female spiritual leadership - as through men.

In the Roman world surrounding the early church, laws and customs reflected deeply held beliefs that men were always superior to women.  But at the same time women’s roles in this Roman-ruled world were changing, and there were increasing opportunities for women to break traditional patterns by for instance owning property or running businesses.  Even some philosophers were starting to argue that women should be educated and could be equal to men in intellect! However, others felt that change had gone too far, and clamoured for a return to ‘traditional values’ where women were under the control of their husbands and certainly not allowed to speak up or speak out.

We looked at extracts from The First Urban Christians by Wayne Meeks, whose book was very helpful in describing social relations in the first century Roman world of the earliest Christians.  Professor Meeks teaches at Yale University in America, and is an expert in the writings of Paul and the development of the earliest church. He turned out to be one of those academics who litters their writing with obscure words no-one except other academics can understand.  Obloquy, metic, porphyropolis anyone?  However, keeping a dictionary handy, we found his book painted a rich picture of the position of women, and social relations more generally in and around the early church.

The very earliest churches described by Paul seem to have welcomed all, and been places which aspired for all to be one in Christ.  This new religion seems to have particularly attracted people who were not part of the power structures in Roman society, and to have promoted people from these groups, including women, into leadership roles.  So Paul was able to say truthfully in Galatians 3:28 that in the church, “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

This radical commitment to equality applied not just to women but also slaves and former slaves, immigrants, and other minority groups.  In research online, Catherine uncovered a letter from Pliny the Younger (a Roman governor) to Emperor Trajan 1 from around the turn of the 1st century.  In the letter, Pliny is asking for advice in how vigorously to hunt down Christians, and whether or not to grant stays of execution to any that recant their faith.  In the letter he talks of torturing two female slaves, who he says others had called Ministers of this new religion - evidence that not only slaves but female slaves were leaders in the church.

Paul’s letters do not give the sense that the early church was seeking to change wider society through campaigning for social justice in a modern sense.  But there is a sense that the early Christians wanted to demonstrate that they loved each other as God had loved them, and that meant putting different social positions to one side in the way they treated each other.

From the many references to women in Paul’s letters, it is clear that women played important roles in the early church.  Churches met in women’s homes, often women of means with their own successful businesses – such as Lydia, a seller of purple cloth.

And some like Priscilla, Phoebe and Junia are recognised as church leaders.  Priscilla (or Prisca) is mentioned in Acts, Romans, Corinthians and Timothy, and together with her husband Aquila was a close colleague of Paul and one of the first Christian missionaries.  Her name is often mentioned before that of her husband, a fact which in itself demonstrates her respected position in a male-dominated society.  In the book of Acts, Luke describes her as teaching Apollos - himself a learned man with a thorough knowledge of the scriptures, and another early church leader. 

We also looked at Phoebe, who is described in Romans 16 as a leader of the church of Cenchreae (the port area of the city of Corinth).  And Junia, who Paul mentions in the same chapter as notable among the apostles.

So the fact is that women did indeed lead local churches, teach men, act as missionaries, teach church leaders, and are even referred to as Apostles – those appointed to teach and preach the gospel.

However, as Professor Meeks says, this freedom within the church fuelled the invective of opponents, who portrayed Christianity as a foreign superstition, threatening not only proper discipline in the household, but the fabric of the whole society. No doubt as Christianity became more visible and better established, and attracted followers from higher levels in society, it must have felt more pressure to emphasise its agreement with traditional values.

That the early church was not immune to the wider debate about the role of women is reflected in the New Testament, where the writings of Paul seem confused to say the least.  In Faithseekers we have have found that Paul’s letters express contradictory views, sometimes almost in the same breath.  So Paul admires and praises many of his female co-workers, who are clearly leaders and teachers.  And in 1 Corinthians 11:11-12 Paul gives another great statement of equality.  “Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God.” 

But just a little later in 1 Corinthians 14:33-36, he says “Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says.  If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.”  This instruction for women to remain subordinate to their husbands is re-emphasised in the later letter to Timothy.  Whatever “women’s movement” there may have been seems to have been suppressed early.  Sadly, this still sounds all too familiar to observers of the Church of England in recent years.

In the church, the traditionalists eventually won the day and the male hierarchy has over time used many arguments to suggest that a male priesthood was as God had always ordained matters.  So ingrained became this view that many seemingly could not accept evidence that there might have been women in leadership roles in the early church.  For example, using Google Maps in Faithseekers weexplored the catacombs of Santa Prisca in Rome, which were a meeting place and burial place for Christians dating back to the second century.  The catacombs contain paintings which appear to show women teaching and even leading the eucharistic meal in the early church.  But most of the frescoes were destroyed on the orders of the Vatican in the 17th century.

And modern scholars are also uncovering patterns of gender bias in biblical translation.  For example, the very same Greek word ‘diakonos’ used of Phoebe is also used elsewhere to describe Paul, Apollos, and other male church leaders.  But typically, English translations have used a lesser word for Phoebe than for the men.  For example, the King James calls Paul & Apollos ‘Ministers’, but Phoebe is merely a ‘servant’ of the church.  And an even worse fate befell Junia.  She was simply written out by translators who, unable to conceive of a female apostle, used the male version Junias instead.

Imagine the difference to the debate over women priests in recent decades if proponents were able to point to bible verses describing Phoebe as a Minister or Junia as an Apostle.

If anyone wants to know more on this fascinating topic, The Lost Apostle by Rena Pederson is a good starting point.


Alexandra Lilley