Women in the Early Christian Church

By: Bob Moore


Most Christian denominations today are struggling with the issue of women's ordination. While it is not new, some churches having embraced the practice over a century ago, the question is only now stirring discussion and consideration in mainstream Christianity. These denominations in one way or another trace their ministerial authority back to the time of Christ. Since he chose only men for apostles, and the Bible contains no compelling evidence that women performed the sacerdotal office, these denominations have traditionally ordained only men to the clergy.

The recent world-wide movement to provide equal rights for all regardless of race, creed or sex has pressured traditional denominations to carefully rethink the role women should play within their church. This re-evaluation has highlighted the research of several investigators who have found in the Bible what they believe is evidence that women were ordained in the early Christian church. They point to passages where women are referred to as ministers and conclude they held priesthood authority. Those opposing the ordination of women cite other passages which forbid women to teach or exercise authority over men. Neither side is able, to convince the other that their scriptural interpretation accurately describes the practice of the church then. As a result, most Christians remain confused and irritated by the unending debate.

Fortunately, the Bible is not the only source of information regarding the affairs of the early church. Just like James, Peter and Paul, succeeding church fathers-wrote epistles and dissertations during the centuries that followed. While many of their writings have been lost, some survived. They are a rich source of information about the affairs of the early church. Originally written in Greek and available only to the avid scholar, most have recently been translated into English and can now be obtained by all. These ancient texts reveal the teachings and practices of the church from the death of the apostles to the apostasy and beyond. In places, they even provide valuable insight into the personal ministry of Jesus and his disciples.

It follows that a review of the available texts can cast a great deal of light on the role women played in the early Christian church. The purpose of this work is to examine what these writings disclose. It has been arranged in chronological order so that the teaching of the church on this matter can be studied systematically. The source of each text is provided in the footnotes at the end. Hopefully, this analysis of the role women played in the church will help settle the question of whether they were ordained during the first few centuries.

The Hebrew Foundation

From the days of Abraham the Hebrews worshipped a God much different than that worshipped by the heathen. Originally, the pagans knew the true Lord, but, as one of their own historians admits, "on account of their lack of faith and their neglect of divine worship and true religion they invented the art of creating gods. ...[To do this] they called up the souls of angels or demons and made them inhere in sacred images and in divine mysteries, so that by their means [that is, the demons] the idols could have power of doing good or inflicting harm."1 The result of this apostasy was that those embracing it ended up worshipping the creation of their own hands in the place of their Creator (Rom 1:21-25), and giving honor to devils instead of God (I Cor 10:20). Eminent among the many gods which evolved the mother goddess, who boasted that she was "nature, the parent of all things, Mistress of all the elements, ...the first of all heavenly beings."2 Called in different languages Isis, Diana, Venus, Ashtaroth, she is for the pagan the personification of that portion of the divine which is feminine. To attend this female deity the idolaters authorized a female priesthood of priestesses3, which could more adequately express her attributes and desires. The Jews, however, worshipped a singular masculine God. "There is no goddess to share His throne; no priestess ministers in His temple."4

Nevertheless, women were not neglected in ancient Israel. They functioned in political and spiritual capacities. Deborah served as Judge. (Judg 4:4) Female door keepers were appointed for the Tabernacle and the Temple5 to both admit and watch over those who sat among the women. In addition, since the gifts of the Holy Spirit are given to all (1 Cor 12:7-14) for the benefit of the entire congregation, spiritual manifestations came without regard to position, race or sex (Gal 3:27). Women as well as men prophesied (Ex 15:20), and kings heard the Holy Word, not only by the mouth of a prophet, but by a prophetess as well (2 K 22:14-20).

After the Jews rejected the Messiah the Christian faith continued the true worship of God. Women continued to give service and ministry for Him. The daughters of Philip prophesied (Acts 21:9). Women opened their homes for use as houses of worship (Rom 16:5; 1 Cor 16:19). They also testified to nonmembers of the gospel they had embraced (Acts 18:26). Unfortunately, the early Christian church was surrounded by a world almost entirely gone astray with idolatry. Priestesses practiced secret rites in shrines and women discussed doctrine in temples.6 As the church expanded into the pagan world it encountered a role for women in religious life different than what was customary among the Hebrews.7 This presented problems for the early church. The way in which it met them and the role it provided for women are of great interest today.

The Apostles

Before His ascension Jesus commissioned His disciples to go into all the world and preach the gospel (Matt 28:10-20). This job was most arduous, for the times then were not only primitive but violent. This meant that the gospel was propagated by ministers who traveled on foot, often in strange and foreign lands, and were away from home for years at a time. Not only were their lives in jeopardy from the rigors and dangers of travel then, but often they faced persecution with its threat of martyrdom from the people to whom they preached. Their initial lack of friends where they first went meant that they had few, if any, places to provide refuge, protection and support. Even the necessities of life such as food and shelter were at times difficult to obtain. To provide assistance, many apostles took their wives with them (I Cor 9:3). Philip took Marianne as an associate.8 Normally, this missionary band was composed of several people, both men and women (Phil 4:3), so that the responsibility of the various tasks, from providing life's necessities to giving ministry, could be more equally borne. The women accompanying the apostles were called "sisters", but were not necessarily related to them.9 Their presence freed the apostles to preach the gospel without undue concern for their physical needs.

At the same time these women assistants provided a source of ministry that the apostles themselves could not fulfill. According to the custom of the pagans, young women dedicated to their religion served as temple virgins.10 While few remained in that position for life it was not uncommon for widowed women who had no family or independent means to also serve in the temple. This practice provided them an acceptable and sometimes dignified means of support. By the age of the apostles temple attendants were housed in what was called the "women's quarters". Men could not enter there without arousing suspicion. Since all good Christians wanted to avoid even the appearance of evil (I Thes 5:22) the apostles were not able to preach in these quarters. This prohibition, however, did not prevent the sisters of the apostles from bearing their testimony there or, for that matter, anywhere else women might gather. Clement of Alexandria explains that in this way the women assistants were the apostles' "fellow ministers in dealing with housewives. It was through them that the Lord's teaching penetrated also the women's quarters without any scandal being aroused."11 Three centuries later, John Chrysostom, whole looking back to this time, envied the dedication these women had. He described them,

"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 Teacher.'"12

The church was fortunate to have a large number of women servants then. While some, as traveling ministers, assisted the apostles, others served in new-founded congregations. Converts from the women's quarters could not remain housed among the pagans, for "what part hath he that believeth with an infidel?" (2 Cor 6:15) Having now no other means of support, these converts became at baptism dependent upon the charity of the saints. Paul had charged the church to care for what he called "widows indeed". These women were bound together into a sisterhood (2 Tim 5:3-17) which, as we shall see, eventually developed into the order of widows. At first some needy widows lived with more affluent women, but in time, quarters for them were established in each locality. In fact, within two centuries the convents overflowed with residents. John Chrysostom tells that the number at Antioch alone exceeded 300013. The responsibility for visiting and providing care to these women fell upon other women. Propriety still prevented men from visiting any convent, whether pagan or Christian.

Women, then, provided two types of ministry to those residing in the women's quarters. first, they distributed charities. Justin tells us that at each sacrament service the Bishop received an oblation offering14 to be given to orphans and widows. Since he could not distribute them himself he designated certain women to do the job on his behalf. These women used their own discretion, subject of course to the advice of the bishop, and sometimes endured complaints from widows who felt they received too little. A second duty these women performed was teaching other women the principles and practices of Christian living. This instruction included teaching the younger women to "be sober, to love their husbands, to love their children, to be discreet, chaste, keepers at home, good, obedient to their husbands." (Tit 2:4-5) Because the recipients of these benefits were themselves anxious to return the hospitality they had received, the church quickly developed a number of capable women ministers.

Some women gave long and outstanding service, and became famous for it. Among them were Phoebe (Rom 16:1-2), Priscilla (Acts 18:2-3; Rom 16:3; 1 Cor 16:9), and perhaps Junia (Rom 16:7). Even in ancient times some debated whether Junia was a man or woman.15 If a woman, the latter two traveled with the apostles but the first seems to have ministered among the saints, for Paul called her a "helper". Actually, the Greek word he used is "prostatis". According to the scholars the use of this word "evokes a custom known by the ancients as 'patronage? by which material assistance and moral support were given by more influential persons to the communities, or to some individual, who made up their 'clientele'."16 While the help provided by Phoebe was probably given to other women, especially those in want, in her case it was not limited to them. Paul states that he was a recipient of her generosity (Rom 16:2). By this he means he was lodged and fed by her when preaching in the area she resided.17 How many congregations have been established either in the early days of the apostolic church or in the early days of the restoration because women opened their homes to a preacher of the gospel?

The latter two women were called in the Greek scripture "diakonos". This same word was used in reference to the widows mentioned in Timothy. Clement of Alexandria used the word "syndiakonous" when referring to the apostles' sisters. Diakonos literally means "servant" and could be translated "deaconess". Those advocating that the early church ordained women point to the use of this word in the original texts as evidence that women held a specific priesthood office. While such a conclusion seems on the surface to be reasonable, other evidence refutes it. This is because the word "diakonos" in used in scriptural passages which have no reference to women. Paul uses the word in reference to himself and his works (Rom 11:13; 1 Cor 3:5; 2 Cor 3:4; 2 Cor 6:3). He lists it as a manifestation of the Spirit placed between the gift of prophecy and the gift of teaching (Rom 12:7), which the King James translates as "ministry". The word is also used to describe the work of Stephanas and his household, they having "devoted themselves to the service of the saints" (eis diakomian tois hagiois etaxan heautous) (I Cor 16:15). Such a varied use implies that the word, instead of defining a specific office or calling for women, had a broad application.

Today we use the word "minister" in such a broad way. While we say a priesthood member ministers in ways peculiar to his office, we also describe the service lay members give by using the word "minister". We speak of the ministry of music, the ministry of social service, and the ministry of physical care, all of which can be and are performed by the unordained. The fact that Paul uses the word "diakonos" in such diverse ways implies that he did not intend it to describe a priesthood office. As a result, some scholars have concluded that the most reasonable way to translate "diakonos" is to render it "minister".18 This means that the use of the word "diakonos" in the original text is no evidence that women were ordained to priestly offices.

Supporters of the belief that women were ordained in the days of the apostles also point to the text (Rom 16:7) which mentions that Junia was noted among the apostles. They conclude that Junia, who perhaps was a woman, held the apostolic office. This seems a reasonable assumption, too. Equally reasonable, however, is the assertion that Junia was a noteworthy sister of the apostles, who traveled with them in order to provide them ministry, and who helped spread the gospel among widows and housewives.19 Fortunately, Clement helps us determine which of these two possible interpretations is correct. Clement was the third Bishop of Rome, succeeding Linus and Anacletus.20 He had labored with Paul (Phil 4:3) before assuming the pastorship. This gave him first hand knowledge about those who served in the" apostolic office. His position at Rome kept him in touch with affairs throughout the church, for all church-wide correspondence required his consent, if not his approval.21 In his first epistle to the Corinthians he writes,

"So likewise our Apostles knew by our Lord Jesus Christ, that there should contentions arise upon account of the ministry. And therefore having a perfect foreknowledge of this, they appointed persons, as we have before said, and then gave direction, how, when they should die, other chosen and approved men should succeed in their ministry."22

Clearly, only men succeeded the original apostles. Junia, their contemporary, if a woman, could not have served in that office.

Despite the apparent fact that women did not hold the sacerdotal office, the early church still discussed the ministry they should provide. Perhaps the pagan practice of priestesses kept the issue alive among the saints as converts after baptism had to be continually weaned away from the doctrine. At any rate, the Cannons of the Apostles quotes their discussion and the decision they made.

"Andrew said: It would be good, my brethren, if we established ministries for women.

Peter said: Having given commandment and direction concerning all these things, we have come thus far. Now we will give careful teaching concerning the oblation of the Body and Blood.

John said: You have forgotten, my brethren, that our teacher, when He asked for bread and the cup, and blessed them saying, 'This is my Body and my Blood& did not permit these (the women) to stand among us.

Martha said: (concerning Mary) I saw her laughing between her teeth exulting.

Mary said: I did not really laugh, only I remembered the words of our Lord and I exulted; for you know that He told us before, when he was teaching: 'The weak shall be saved through the strong.'

Cephas said: We ought to remember several things, for it does not benefit women that they stand up for prayer, but that they should sit on the ground.

James said: Now then with regard to the women can we fix any ministry, except that they strengthen and keep vigil for those women who are in want."23

Early in its history the church embraced the principle that women should be devoted solely to the ministry of other women. They were not to teach in church (I Tim 2:12), exercise authority over men (2 Tim 2:12), or prophesy with their heads uncovered (I Cor 11:5). First of all, such prohibitions were in keeping with the precedent the Old Testament set. In ancient Israel a prophetess did not approach the King or his court as Isaiah, Jeremiah and other prophets did, but remained at home and waited for the Lord to bring the King to her. Huldah follows this procedure when she prophesies to Josiah (2 Chr 34:23-24). Second, the early saints believed these restrictions were in keeping with nature, which had placed women in a lesser role to men.24 This did not prohibit them from sharing their testimony with men. Some did. After all, the church was infused with enthusiasm as it spread the good news of Mint into foreign lands. It did, however, mean that the circumstances in which it was acceptable were relatively rare. As the church grew the need for women assistants in missionary hands lessened. Friendly homes were opened in increasingly more places. When this happened the service the church needed women to fulfill was to provide ministry to other women. No ordination was needed for this. After all, it is the duty of any member to both bear a personal testimony and perform deeds of charity.

The Apostolic Father

The generation which followed continued the missionary efforts of the apostles. Like them they suffered martyrdom, but the blood of the righteous was sprouting congregations of believers throughout the known world. In this fast developing church little attention seems to have been given to historical documentation or theological dissertations. What remains are epistles to advise and comfort particular congregations and apologies to persuade Jew, Gentile or heretic to believe and obey the gospel. The issue of women ministry does not directly appear in the short volume of work remaining from that period. However, three indirect references do occur.

Both the epistles of Ignatius and Polycarp contain references to the office of bishop, presbyter, and deacon. On occasions they give the names of some holding one of these offices. In all cases the names given are masculine. No women priesthood member is mentioned. Sometimes the reference to a particular priesthood ministry shows that only men performed it or were considered for it. For instance in his epistle to the Philadelphians Ignatius writes,

"It will become you, as the church of God, to ordain some deacon to go to them Cat Antioch thither as the ambassador of God; ... Blessed be that man in Jesus Christ, who shall be found worthy of such a ministry.25

In his epistle to Polycarp he writes similar advice.

"It is fitting, O Polycarp, most blessed in God, to assemble a very solemn council, and to elect one whom you greatly love, and know to be a man of activity, who may be designated the messenger of God; and to bestow on him this honour that he may go into Syria."26

If women actually served in the priesthood during this period of history it seems likely that even if none are mentioned among the list of male ministers, they would at least not be uniformly excluded, as Ignatius implies, from a particular ministerial responsibility that is obviously reserved for only men.

Justin gives Monger evidence that women were not ordained during those times. While explaining in his first apology the administration of the sacrament, he describes how the communion service proceeded. He states that the bread and wine is "brought to the president of the brethren"27 for a blessing. The editors in their footnotes give the Greek text and then may, "This expression may quite legitimately be translated, 'to that one of the brethren who was presiding.'"28 Clearly, the leader, or pastor elected in each congregation, and the entire clergy were all men. Some may suppose that this is an inaccurate conclusion resulting from a failure to take into consideration the literary practice many use of writing in the masculine case when referring to the general population. This, however, was not the case with Justin. When he referred to both men and women he made his reference clear. For instance, in discussing the presence of spiritual gifts within the church he writes, "Now, it is possible to see amongst us women and men who possess gifts of the Spirit of God."29 If those presiding at the communion service or participating as priesthood were sometimes men and sometimes women Justin would have been careful enough to not call them brethren.

Evidently, the early Christians called the priesthood a brotherhood. After all, the widows were called a sisterhood. If this is true, Irenaeus gives further evidence that only men served in the priesthood during the early days. Speaking about the inability of the heretics to perform miracles, let alone enact cures, he says,

"And so far are they from being able to raise the dead, as the Lord raised them, and the apostles did by means of prayer, and as has been frequently done in the brotherhood on account of some necessity..."30

The ability to raise the dead is a mark of a true servant of God ( K 17:24). Irenaeus shows that the heretics did not have the authority to do this, and in so doing reveals that the brotherhood did. The same authority that Jesus and his apostles exercised remained in the early Christian church among men ordained to that power.

Irenaeus also provides the last example from this period. After referring to the sin of Aaron and Miriam (Num 12:1-14) he asks why Miriam alone was punished. His answer followed:

"First, because the woman was the more culpable, since both nature and the law place women in a subordinate condition to the man. Or perhaps it was that Aaron was to a certain degree excusable, in consideration of his being the older (brother), and adorned with the dignity of high priest. Then again, inasmuch as the leper was accountable by the law unclean, while at the same time the origin and foundation of the priesthood lay in Aaron, (the Lord) did not award a similar punishment to him, lest this stigma should attach itself to the entire (sacerdotal) race."31

The above quotation shows that Irenaeus did not consider a woman capable of holding priesthood, for he states that one reason Miriam alone was afflicted is because Aaron held the sacerdotal office. If women served as ordained ministers in the first century church, Irenaeus would not have supposed Miriam's inability to hold the priesthood was the reason she was afflicted with leprosy, nor that the reason Aaron was not afflicted was because he was ordained.

All three of these references illustrate that those succeeding the apostles neither recognized nor even conceived of women functioning in ordained positions. Not only did they fail to teach this practice, but their comments rQ only understood from a background of an all male clergy. This conclusion is supported by Tertullian who, writing shortly after this period, reveals that only certain men were considered for ordination. He says, "they who are chosen into the sacredotal order must be men of one marriage."32

Succeeding Centuries

Three orders of women developed in the early church. They are deaconesses, widows and virgins.33 All were a result of the interaction of the church with its pagan environment as it extended care to its women converts. The least significant of these three orders is the order of virgins. Apostle Paul had advised all who could to remain unmarried (1 Cor 7:33-38) in order to help spread the gospel (1 Cor 7:7). Since chastity was preferred, both young men and women made vows of service, often working together as brothers and sisters in the gospel. These vows were neither life long nor publicly made34. By the end of the first century the growth of asceticism had influenced relationships between the sexes to such an extent that many considered it a demonstration of faith to live together as brother and sister35 without yielding to temptations for sexual gratification. Unfortunately, too many couples were unable to obey their VOWS. Church leaders complained that some sisters became pregnant36 thereby dishonoring their baptismal covenant and becoming the cause of mockery among the heathen. Needless to say, this practice was short-lived. Afterwards, many women who preferred celibacy were numbered with the widows37. Celibacy among men eventually made its way into the Catholic clergy. Because virgins were never organized into a distinct group nor given definite duties, female virgins had little impact on church organization. Virgins were admonished to "walk in a blameless and pure conscience."38 In his Apostolic Tradition Hippolytus devotes only one sentence to them. He says, "A virgin does not have an imposition of hands, for personal choice alone in that which makes a virgin."39 Virgins were not ordained.40

In contrast, the order of widows became a recognized organization early in the church. We have already seen how the apostles provided for their organization. Participants in the order were expected to perform certain tasks. Originally, their responsibilities included saintly devotion, attendance to prayer, and the instruction of younger women. Polycarp advised, "Teach the widows to be discreet as respects the faith of the Lord, praying continually for all, being far from all slander, evil-speaking, false-witnessing, love of money, and every kind of evil."41 These activities are the responsibility of all members, but because widows were unusually free of secular activities they were expected to devote a significant portion of their time to pious disciplines. In the second century they were admonished, "a widow should have no other care save to be praying for those who give, and for the whole church."42 Unfortunately, problems arose- Some widows spent their time complaining to other members, or spreading rumors, or participating in gossip. This caused obvious problems that disrupted the harmony that should have prevailed among the saints. The Didascalia Apostolorum complains,

''A widow must not therefore stray or run about among houses. For those who are gadabouts and without shame cannot be still even in their houses; for they are no widows but wallets, and they care for nothing else but to be making ready to receive. And because they are gossips and chatterers and murmurers, they stir up quarrels; and they are bold and shameless."43

As a result, the church began to be careful in choosing which women should serve in this order. The Tradition suggests that candidates he tested for a time prior to their appointment44 so that potential problem-makers could be detected and, if unrepentant, excluded.

While widows had specified duties and sufficient authority to perform them, they were not ordained.45 The tradition of the apostles specified, "When a widow is appointed she is not ordained."46 The reason for this is explained.

"But she shall not be ordained, because she does not offer the oblation nor has she a (liturgical) ministry. But ordination is for the clergy on account of their ministry. But the widow is appointed for prayer and this is (a function) of all (Christians)".47

The ninth Cannon of Hippolytus, once ascribed to Hippolytus, the author of the Tradition, states,

"The appointed widows should not be ordained, since we have in their regard the prescriptions of the Apostles Let them not be given ordination, but prayed over, since ordination is for men."48

Out of necessity some women were authorized to be in charge of the widows. Normally, they were women who were already members of that order and had shown an ability to give faithful service. We have already seen that these women servants distributed charities among the widows. In some congregations they were a part of the processional and had seats on the rostrum. Their place was between the subdeacon and the reader. Often they shared the eulogy with the bishop, presbyters, deacons, subdeacons, readers and singers.49

In places women in charge of the widows were given the title of deaconess. This title was probably chosen because some people considered them women deacons. After all, they served other women. The Didascalia directs the bishop, "Those that please thee out of all the people thou shalt choose and appoint as deacons: a man for the performance of the most things that are required, but a women for the ministry of women."50 However, this title had been in use for some time. As we have seen, it comes from the word "diakonos" which means "servant" or "minister". By the decade 50-60 AD some women were already called deaconess.51 They had spent much time in church service and had earned the honor the saints gladly gave them. Some had traveled with the apostles. The name of deaconess evoked respect from the saints toward a women known to have given dedicated service to the church to such an extent, that in cases, she had become dependent on its generosity. These women were given housing among the widows, and may have made up the original order of widows mentioned by Paul.52 As early as 110, Ignatius, while waiting execution at Rome, addressed deaconesses who were among the virgins and widows at Syrna 33. About 145 Hermes claims to have been given a divine commandment to write a book and send it to Grapte, the deaconess, to be read to widows and orphans.54 However, not every area of the church used the title of deaconess. In Egypt favored widows were called "widows who sit up front" or "widows in office."55 While the office of deaconess flourished in Syria56, it was generally unknown in Palestine and the west57. Regardless of the title given, women reaching this position "were allowed to teach other women; to visit women in pagan households where men teachers would not be able to reach them; and to visit and attend the sick."58 They also served as door keepers on the side of the church on which the women sat."59

Early in the church rules governing virgins, widows and deaconesses were enforced differently in different jurisdiction, For instance, the widow of Olympia who lived from 368 to after 410, and who was a student in one of John Chrysostom's Bible classes for women, became a widow at the age of 18. Her husband had been killed in the military. Since many in the church at that time considered it a sin to remarry under any circumstances she demonstrated her faithfulness by serving as a deaconess from that time on60. Tertullian, speaking of events during the second century, tells of one woman inducted into the order of widows at the age of 20.61 Both of these violate the age proscribed by Paul which admitted no women' as widows until the age of 60 (1Tim 5:9). During the second century, the Didascalia required that no woman be appointed a widow until the age of 50, because, if "she endure not widowhood because of her youth, and marry, she will bring reproach upon the glory of widowhood."62 By this time appointed widows or deaconesses were required to remain unmarried after they were widowed.63 Nearly a century later the minimum age was low-red to 40.64 We have seen that at times all these age requirements were ignored. This only illustrates that different jurisdictions at different times provided different rules to govern women ministers. It also explains why the office of deaconess was not universally accepted throughout the church.

During the latter part of the second century the church in Syria organized deaconesses into a separate order. The Didascalia cannonized them in the Eastern Church. It defined their responsibilities. One duty required a deaconess "to go Into the houses of the heathen where there are believing women, and to visit those who are sick, and to minister to Them in that of which they have need, and to bathe those who have begun to recover from sickness."65 A second area of service was at baptism. By the beginning of the second century, at least, those being baptized apparently had their entire bodies anointed with oil before entering the water. For modesty's sake a deaconess was appointed to anoint women candidates.

"When women go down into the water, those who go down into the water ought to be anointed by a deaconess with the oil of anointing; and where there is no woman at hand, especially a deaconess, he who baptizes must of necessity anoint her who is being baptized. But where there is a woman, especially a deaconess, it is not fitting that women should be seen by men."66

The third responsibility prescribed by the Didascalia for a deaconess was to instruct those women just baptized.

''And when she who is being baptized has come up from the water, let the deaconess receive her, and teach and instruct her how the seal of baptism ought to be (kept) unbroken in purity and holiness. For this cause we say that the ministry of a women deacon is especially needful and important."67

The Didascalia gives the first known reference to the office of deaconess. It calls for an appointment but is silent about an ordination. The fact that any woman seems to be qualified to fulfill the baptismal responsibility assigned a deaconess, the Didascalia calling any woman to anoint a female candidate in the absence of a deaconess68, is strong evidence that a deaconess received no ordination. After all, if a deaconess was ordained at that time and considered to hold divine authority to assist in the baptismal ordinance, another woman who did not hold the office would not be authorized to function in her stead under any circumstance. For this reason, some scholars propose that the Didascalia created the office of deaconess, separating it from the order of widows, with the intention "to elevate the dignity of deaconess to a quasi-equality with that of deacons."69 This, action was an innovation in the church at that time.70 Some may suppose that the Didascalia authorized a female priesthood office. This assertion goes beyond the scope of that work. While it does allow the bishop to send a woman wherever they can not send a deacon,71 it does not allow women to function in any public ministry except assisting women baptismal candidates. Only bishops, deacons and elders could baptize.72 A woman was forbidden.

"That a woman should baptize, or that one should be baptized by a woman, we do not counsel, for it is a transgression of the commandment, and a peril to her who baptizes and to him who is baptized. For if it were lawful to be baptized by a woman, our Lord and Teacher Himself would have been baptized by Mary His mother, whereas He was baptized by John, like others of the people. Do not therefore imperil yourselves, brethren and sisters, by acting beside the law of the Gospel."73

A deaconess could not even say the baptismal prayer74 Neither could she teach.

"It is neither right nor necessary therefore that women should be teachers, or especially concerning the name of Christ and the redemption of his passion. For you have not been appointed unto this, 0 women, and especially widows, that you should teach, but that you should pray and entreat the Lord God. For the Lord God, Jesus Christ our teacher, sent us the Twelve to instruct the People and the Gentiles; and there were with us women disciples, Mary Magdalene and Mary the daughter of James and the other Mary; but He did not send them to instruct the people with us. For if it were required that women should teach, our Master Himself would have commanded these to give instruction with us."75

In fact, the Didascalia restricted women from even answering questions in public.

"And when she in asked a question by any one, let her not straightway give an answer, except concerning righteousness and faith in God; but let her send them that desire to be instructed to the rulers. And to those who question them let them make answer only in refutation of idols and concerning the unity of God.''76

The restriction in the Didascalia excluding women from teaching or presiding is consistent both with the early teachings of the church and with contemporary teachings from other jurisdictions. About 180 Tertullian wrote, "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 herself a lot in any manly function, not to say (in any) sacerdotal office."77 Around 200 Didymus the Blind, while commenting on the admonition of Paul, explained, "He does not permit a woman to write boots imprudently, on her own authority, nor teach in the assemblies. The reason for this silence imposed on women is obvious: women's teaching in the beginning caused considerable havoc to the human race; for the apostle writes: 'It is not the man who was deceived, but the woman.'"78 About the same time Origen taught that "it is not becoming for a women to be a teacher of men; but they must train young women in chastity and love of their husbands and their children."79 He added that "men should not sit and listen to a woman, as if there were no men capable of communicating the word of God ... no matter what she says, even if she says admirable things, or even saintly things, that is of little consequence, since they come from the mouth of a woman."80 Over a century later John Chrysostom echos the same sentiment. While commenting on Romans 16:6 in Homily 31 he says of Paul, "He means to hinder her from publicly coming forward, and from the seat of the Bema."81 The Bema is the pulpit. In his Homily on the salutations on Romans he emphasizes, "The matter is not the same when he says: 'I permit no women to teach.' This declaration concerns teaching from the pulpit and giving speeches in public, which belong to priestly duties."82 Epiphanius, a contemporary of John Chrysostom, sums the matter up when he writes, "women were never worthy of the priesthood."83 Clearly, the writings of these ancient church leaders consistently show that women could not teach, preach or serve in any public ministry. The Didascalia did not change the stance of the church by authorizing a female priesthood.

The fourth century witnessed the publication of the Apostolic Constitution. Like the Didascalia it was written in Syria. Forged under the name of Clement it expanded the duties and prestige of the office of deaconess. According to it a deaconess watched over the women's section of the assembly to see that it remained orderly.84 She ministered to women in the homes of non-believers and assisted women at the time of their baptism.85 A deaconess was also required whenever another woman wanted to address a male minister.86 For the most part those duties are the same as practiced in the previous century. What makes the Constitution significant is that it specifically calls for the ordination of a deaconess. "Concerning a deaconess," it decrees, "J. Bartholomew make this constitution: O bishop, thou shalt lay thy hands upon her in the presence of the presbytery, and of the deacons and deaconesses."87 The ordination prayer then follows.

"Eternal God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Creator of man and woman, who didst replenish with the Spirit Miriam, Deborah, Anna, and Huldah; who didst not disdain that thy only begotten Son should be born of a woman; who also in the tabernacle of the testimony, and in the temple didst ordain women to be keepers of Thy holy gates - do Thou now also look down upon this Thy servant, who is to be ordained to the office of deaconess, and grant her Thy Holy Spirit, and cleanse her from all filthiness of flesh and spirit, that she may worthily discharge the work which is committed to her, to Thy glory, and the praise of Thy Christ, with whom glory and dominion be to thee and the Holy Spirit forever. Amen."88

In 451, a century after the Constitution, the Council of Chalcedon approved the practice of setting a deaconess apart by the imposition of hands. It ruled,

''A woman shall not receive the laying on of hands as a deaconess under 40 years of age, and then only after searching examination. And if after she has had hands laid on her and has continued for a time to minister, she shall despise the grace of God and give herself in marriage, she shall be anathematized and the man united to her."89

Evidence shows that in the Syrian church, at least, women were eventually elevated to a position of responsibility requiring an ordination. The question arises, however, what was the ordination these women received? Did they received authority to function in priestly roles, or were they merely set apart for tasks the church had already asked them to do? The answer to this question is revealed in the duties and prohibitions placed on the office of deaconess by the same work that first authorized their ordination, the Constitution.

The Constitution specifically forbids a deaconess to "do or say anything without the deacon."90 In addition it prohibits her from performing any of the ordinances.

"A deaconess does not bless, nor perform anything belonging to the office of presbyters or deacons, but only is to keep the doors, and administer to the presbyters in the baptizing of women, on account of decency."91

She can not ordain92 and is not to baptize.

"Now as to woman's baptizing, we let you know that there is no small peril to those that undertake it. Therefore we do not advise you do it; for it is dangerous, or rather wicked and impious For if the man be the head of the woman; and he be originally ordained for the priesthood, it is not just to abrogate the order of creation."93

It goes on to explain.

"For if baptism were to be administered by women, certainly our Lord would have been baptized by his own mother, and not by John; or when He sent us to baptize, He would have sent along with us women also for this purpose. But now He has nowhere, either by constitution, or by writing, delivered to us any such thing."94

In fine, a woman was prohibited from functioning in any priestly role.

"But if in the foregoing constitutions we have not permitted them to teach, how will any one allow them, contrary to nature, to perform the office of a priest? For this Is one of the ignorant practices of the Gentile- atheism, to ordain women priests to the female deities, not one of the constitutions of Christ."95

These references clearly show that a deaconess was given no authority in the Constitution to function in any of the ordinances of the church. She could not even perform ministry outside the quarters for widows without the presence of a male minister. This is strong evidence that the ordination a deaconess received was only a formal setting apart of appointed widows, and carried no priesthood authority. Epiphanius supports this conclusion when he maintained that deaconesses were "not priestesses in any sense, that their mission was not to interfere in any way with Sacerdotal functions, but simply to perform certain offices in the care of women."96 "From all this it is evident that they are entirely in error who suppose that 'the laying on of hands' which the deaconess received corresponded to that by which persons were ordained to the deaconate, presbyterate, and episcopate at that period of the church's history."97

Despite the eventual ordination of deaconesses in some jurisdictions, we find the early Christian church consistent in prohibiting women from performing any part of the sacerdotal office. What seems clear is that the office of deaconess evolved over the centuries until it attained a status for women not originally intended by the apostles, a status calling for a special commission provided by the laying on of hands. The Constitution itself admits this when it reveals that men were "originally ordained for the priesthood."98 This evolution is highlighted by comparing the Tradition and Constitution. The former, a work predating the later by a century, specifies that neither a reader99 nor a subdeacon100 is to be ordained. The Constitution, however, ordains both.101 The Tradition does not mention the office of deaconess. The Constitution provides for her ordination. The Tradition states that no woman has a liturgical ministry. These comparisons show that the Constitution changed the former practice of the church by imposing the laying of hands when setting apart a women minister, and demonstrates that both the office and ordination of deaconess evolved over the centuries.

Considering that the Constitution changed the more ancient pattern practiced by the apostles, and considering that the office of deaconess which it helped established disappeared from the church during the sixth century102, one may wonder what underlying factors caused its creation and temporary acceptance among the saints.


Even during the ministry of the apostles some converts began to accept and even espouse strange doctrines. Jesus had previously predicted that some would endure the gospel for only a season before falling away (Matt 13:20-22). As a result the apostles, in order to defend the gospel, spent time warning the church about the heretical teachings that were beginning to besiege the saints (Acts 20:29-30; 2 P 2:1-3). Nevertheless, falsehoods swept through the church and a number of people embraced them (1 J 2:19).

Foremost and eventual leader of these heresies was Simeon.103 He was a magician who, when he saw that the Holy Ghost was given by the laying on of the apostle's hands, which resulted in some of those confirmed prophesying, and supposing that these spiritual experiences were caused by some magical art unknown to him104, offered the apostles money to obtain the means of doing the same himself (Acts 8:9,18-23). They rejected his offer and exhorted him to repentance. Instead, he traveled about the church teaching his doctrine of "knowledge" that he had learned as a pagan. His skill in magic allowed him to perform enough signs to attract both Christians and pagans to his movement. He ended up in Rome. Upon his death Claudis Caesar erected a statue of him in honor of his magical abilities.105 Central to the theology of his followers was their claim to be able to give a gift similar to, and even better than, the Comforter. Calling it Gnosis, they said it was knowledge of the unknown. Through a mystical process that often took advantage of the women who were seduced by their doctrine, they granted this special knowledge in the form of Charis, a virtue or spiritual muse, called an aeon, which resided in the Pleroma. Irenaeus describes the way Marcus practiced this rite.

"Pretending to consecrate cups mixed with wine, and protracting to great length the word of invocation, he contrives to give them (the wine) a purple and reddish colour, so that Charis, who is one of those that are superior to all things, should he thought to drop her own blood into the cup through means of his invocation, and that thus those who are present should be led to rejoice to taste of that cup, in order that, by so doing, the Charis, who is set forth by this magician, may also flow into them. ...He devotes himself especially to women. and those such as are well bred, and elegantly attired, and of great wealth, who he frequently seeks to draw after him, by addressing them in such seductive words as these; 11 am eager to make thee a partaker of my Charis, since the father of all doth continually hold the angel of thy face before his face. Now the place of thy angel is among us; it behooves us to become one. Receive first from me and by me (the gift of) Charis. Adorn thyself as a bride who is expecting her bridegroom, that thou mayest be what I am, and what thou art. Establish the germ of light in thy nuptial chamber. Receive from me a spouse, and become receptive to him, while thou art received by him. Behold Charis has descended upon thee; open thy mouth and prophesy.' On the woman replying, 'I have never at any time prophesied, nor do I know how to prophesy;? then engaging, for the second time, in certain invocations, so as to astound his deluded victim, he says to her, 'Open thy mouth, speak what ever occurs to thee, and thou shalt prophesy.' She then, vainly puffed up and elated by these words, and greatly excited in soul by the expectation that it is herself who is to prophesy, her heart beating violently (from emotion), reaches the requisite pitch of audacity, and idly as well as imprudently utters some nonsense as it happens to occur to her. ...Henceforth she reckons herself a prophetess, and expresses her thanks to Marcus for having imported to her of his own Charis. She then makes the effort to reward him, not only by the gift of her possessions (in which way he has collected a very large fortune), but also by yielding up to him her person, desiring in every way to be united to him, that she may become altogether one with him."106

While such religious rites offend most today, the practice described above is not at all unlike the activities performed in heathen mysteries. There, women mimicked the fabled history of the gods in which, among many other vile things, they disrobed and pretended to conceive through physical contact with images of the gods.107 As a result, pagan women initiates believed that they had a special relationship with those they worshipped. The reception-of Charis was less degrading than the mysteries, and, with their apparent ability to prophesy which, of course, gave them a reputation as a prophetess, was more rewarding then paganism. As a result many women embraced Gnosticism, most of them in time believing that they were Christian. The early church tried to rescue the women deluded by this heresy.108

During the height of the Gnostic heresy there lived a man named Montanus. By this time the church, which had been poor in the days of the apostles, had obtained a degree of both wealth and influence. As the prestige and power of the bishops grew abuses occurred. Montanus, a devout Christian, denounced both the worldliness he felt most Christians were beginning to embrace and the autocratic authority of church leaders. He demanded a return to a more primitive Christianity. This required a simpler, even austere, way of living and, equally important, the reoccurrence of prophecy among congregational members. By 156 he developed a following. In their meetings two women, Priscilla and Maximilla, often fell into religious trances during which they delivered oracles for the sect.109 The role of these women and their prophecies even eclipsed Montanus himself.110 In fact, their followers, complained Hippolytus, "magnify these wretched women above the Apostles ... so that some of them assert that there is in them a something superior to Christ."111 Joseph Smith in regard to a similar but different movement renounced such occurrences as false manifestations. He concluded, "God placed in the church first apostles, secondarily prophets; and not first women.''112 Nevertheless, Montanism grew in influence and domain. It taught that Christianity had left behind the simpler truths of the Gospel. Because this was true (1 N 3:168-170) it won many converts including for a while both Tertullian and Augustine. Although the church pronounced Montanism a heresy it did not begin to lose members until the prophecies of Priscilla and Maximilla proved false. It finally ceased to exist in the early part of the 6th century, about the same time as the office of deaconess disappeared in the western church.

The influence of Montanism was immense. It "offered women a possibility of exegetical training and training in the ministry of the word which proved to be very attractive and would enable women to receive the title deaconess."113 This opportunity appealed to gentile women who were accustomed to a more prominent position in religious activities, and provided a place for women who had been caught up in Gnosticism to continue their "prophetic'' practices in positions the church would not provide them. According to Epiphanius, who catalogued seventy different heresies that had afflicted the church by the year 400, four sects of Montanism developed. He calls them Quintillianists, Prepuzianists, Priscillianists and Artotyrites, naming them after different women prophetesses of Montanism.114 Describing these heretics he states, "Among them there are women-bishops and women-presbyters."115 Of these the Priscillianists were the first to provide some of the women joining the sect the title of deaconess, which title they imported from the East.116 Some of the women in these sects assumed authority to baptize, which church leaders, and in particular Tertullian denounced as an "arrogant assumption of dignity."117 "The very women of these heretics," he writes, "how wanton they are! For they are bold enough to teach, to dispute, to enact exorcisms, to undertake cures - it may be even to baptize."118 Almost two centuries later Ambosiaster adds, "As the way with heretics, who try to build their opinions on words and not on the meaning of the law, they invoke the words of the Apostle to go against he thought of the Apostle. Whereas the latter orders a woman to keep silent in Church, they, on the contrary, demand for her the authority which the deaconate confers in the Church."119

The church was required to take measures to protect its members from Montanism. It warned them, especially women, from attending questionable meetings. The First Council of Saragossa in 380 admonished, "Let all believing women belonging to the Catholic Church keep away from lectures and meetings conducted by foreign men; neither join women who give lectures, neither to teach nor to be instructed, for such is the command of the Apostle."120 Nevertheless, the effects of Montanism were increasingly felt within the church. Perhaps church women, especially those sent under the authority of the bishop, felt a need for more recognition, or even a title. After all, this was happening in the heresies. Some women may have wanted the same type of leadership role to be provided for them by the church. For this reason the Council of Laodicaea ruled in its eleventh cannon, "Presbytides, as they are called, or female presidents, are not to be appointed in the church."121

Even though outside pressure tempted it to include women in priesthood functions, the church continually refused. From the birth of Montanism by the words of Tertullian, through the resolution of Arianism at the Council of Nicea, the official stand of the church, consistent with apostolic instruction, refused to grant ministerial authority to women. Tertullian wrote, "Neither (is it permitted her) to teach, nor to baptize, nor to offer, nor to claim for herself a lot in any manly function, not to say (in any) sacerdotal office."122 The Council of Nicea tried to establish ways for those enmeshed in any heresy, whether they had been either ordained or falsely baptized, to return to fellowship within the church. In doing so it reiterated the position those who had been titled deaconess should really have in the church by decreeing, "We mean by deaconesses such as have assumed the habit, but who, since they have no imposition of hands, are to be numbered only among the laity."123 About the same time John Chrysostom wrote in his work entitled On The Priesthood, "Put when one is required to preside over the Church, and to be entrusted with the care of so many souls, the whole female sex must retire."124 Canon 44 of the Council of Laodicea maintained that "women may not go to the alter."125

Consistently throughout the early church, priesthood function was denied women. The reason the church had to repeatedly address this issue was because the tradition of priestesses was so deeply ingrained in the society about them. Even with the constant oversight of the church some women were deceived. False teachings suggesting some women in ancient Israel had held priesthood were even circulated to support the ordination of women ministers. In a final attempt to settle the issue the Council of Nimes in 394 ruled,

"It has been reported by certain ones that, contrary to apostolic discipline and unknown until today, women seem to have been, one knows not where, admitted to the Levitical Ministry. Since it is improper, the ecclesiastical rule does not permit this-innovation. Made contrary to reason, an ordination of this type must be annulled and care must be taken that no one in the future shows a similar audacity."126


In time the issue of women serving in priesthood duties abated until it was no longer heard in the church. We have already seen that it stopped about the same time that Montanism lost its following. This lends significant support to the assertion that Montanism fueled the debate among the saints. While it has been shown that until this time women served the church in significant ways, it has also been shown that there is no evidence that any received an ordination authorizing even one to perform priestly responsibilities or to hold the sacerdotal office.

Ancient texts show that from the time of Christ the church resisted the pagan notion that women serve in the priesthood. Unfortunately, the practice drew the attention of the saints. It was part of their environment. Then, too, false teachers advocated its practice in order to attract a following. The church may have responded by focusing attention on ministries already open to women. In fact, the eventual practice of ordaining deaconesses in the Syrian church appears to be an attempt to further elevate the position of women in response to Montanism, so that faithful women might feel fulfilled within the church and not be enticed into joining a heresy in order to obtain ministerial positions. Nevertheless, these women, even though they were given in time both office and ordination, never presided or administered in the sacraments or ordinances of the church. It was forbidden in each generation, and flourished only in some of the heresies. So consistent is the evidence supporting this assertion that some scholars conclude, "The priesthood was not conferred upon women. The absence and the negation of the priesthood of women is supported so uniformly that one might wonder how the question can be raised without offense."127

While women were not ordained in the early church, let us not loose sight of the fact that they provided valuable service. Their willingness to bear their testimony and minister to the needs of others, especially women, is an example for us today. Priesthood responsibility is not the goal of devoted Christians. Celestial glory is. Those who achieve it must, like their Master, Jesus, become a submissive servant of all. Both women and men, the ordained and unordained, bond and free, rich and poor, in fact, every person can, through obedience to Christ, become his follow servant. For this reason, priesthood office is not a requirement for salvation. Jesus made this very clear when he chided a portion of the priesthood who were congratulating themselves on their success in bearing priestly authority. He said, "Rejoice not, that the spirits are subject to you; but rather rejoice because your names are written in heaven. (Luke 10:20) He wanted them to understand that holding priestly authority should not delight their souls, but instead, their sole delight should be in obtaining the promise of eternal life. Here is the miracle of Christianity; that anyone, under any circumstances, upon only the condition of repentance, can, by grace, become a child of God, enabled to dwell forever in His presence.


1 Hermes Trismegistus; Asclepius, 37, as quoted in Augustine; City of God, Bk 8, Ch 24; Penguine Books; NY, NY; 1981; p 334
2 Apuleius as quoted in Colonel J. GArnier; The Worship of The Dead Or The Origin And Nature Of Pagan Idolatry; Chapman & Hall; London; 1904; p63-64
3 A. Maude Royden; The Church And Women; George M. Doran Company; 1924; p 25
4 Ibid
5 Apostolic Constitution; Bk 2, Sec 7, Ch 57, as quoted in Ante-Nicean Fathers; Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing Company; Grand Rapids, Michigan; 1986; Vol 7, p 421
6 Will Durant; Story of Civilization, Vol 2, Ceasar And Christ; Shuster and Shuster; NY, NY; 1944; p 370-371
7 Ibid
8 Roger Gryson; The Ministry Of Women In The Early Church; Translated by Jean LaPorte and Mary Louise Hall; The Liturigal Press; Collegeville, Minn; 1976; p 3
9 Durant; p 577
10 Alexander Hislop; The Two Babylons; Loizeaux Brothers; Neptune, N.J.; 1959; p 228
11 Clement of Alexandria; Stormata 9;6, as quoted in Gryson; p 30
12 John Chrysostom, Homily on Romans, 20, as quoted in Nicean And Post-Nicean Fathers; Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing Company; Grand Rapids, Michigan; 1986; Vol 11, p 554
13 Jean Morris; Against Nature And God: The History of Women With Clergical Ordination and The Order Of Bishops; Mowbrays; 1978; p 7
14 Justin, First Apology, Ch 67, as quoted in AF, Vol 1, p 186

[NOTE: This article was scanned in from an old typewritten copy. (A few typos may still exist from the scanning process that are not found in the original.) The footnotes did not scan well and will have to be typed. As time permits they will be added.  -- Editor]