From Bondage to Blessing

Chapter 8 - Early Church Practice Reveals New Revelation

"There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus." (Galatians 3:28)

After the resurrection, the biblical account takes up forty days later with Jesus' ascension into heaven to be with the Father (Acts 1). Before ascending, however, He commanded the disciples to wait in Jerusalem for the promise of the Holy Spirit. They returned to Jerusalem and gathered together in the upper room to pray and wait on God. The interesting thing, though, was that it wasn't just the eleven apostles who gathered there to pray as Jesus commanded. The group included these men, but also Jesus' natural family and "the women". The account does not list all the women individually, but we can make an educated guess that it was the same women disciples who traveled with Jesus, those mentioned in Luke 8, Mark 15 and Matthew 27.

This was a climactic moment in history for women. The veil of the temple was rent in two, the new covenant sealed with the blood of the Messiah, a new order was being birthed ...and women were invited to be included from the very beginning! As most scholars identify the day of Pentecost as the birthing of the Christian Church, we might consider the day when men and women first met together "with one accord" to pray and wait on God as the conception of the Church. From that point on, women were a valid and integral part of the early Church and its leadership. They were, that is, until paganism began to make its subtle infiltration into the teaching and practice of the Church several hundred years later.

A new church order

Jesus frequently exhorted that the kingdom of God was at hand and encouraged people to come to a place of repentance. Repentance in the Greek is the word metanoia, which means literally "a change in thinking." Jesus' primary message was, "Change the way you think!" Indeed, the kingdom of God can only be understood and apprehended through a change in mindset. Today, we hear a lot of talk about "new paradigms" and that "paradigm shifts" are needed to move with what the Lord is doing. But the men and women of the early church had some real paradigm shifts taking place, especially in relation to the role of women. Let's look at three key shifts in mindset that characterized the early Church.

First - anointing for every Christian

The Holy Spirit, along with His empowerment and giftings, was now for everyone, not just a select group. The group of 120 men and women disciples were still gathered together in the upper room when the Holy Spirit fell on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-4). As people looked on in amazement and perplexity, Peter began an explanation of what was happening, referring back to a prophecy in Joel 2:28-32. The key points regarding women were that:

  1. God was pouring out His Spirit on all people
  2. Sons and daughters would prophesy
  3. He would pour out His Spirit on both men and women who served Him (and they would prophesy).

The Greek verb used to denote "prophesy" here means "to speak or share by divine inspiration" and can incorporate Spirit-led praying, worshiping, preaching, teaching or foretelling of future events. We must remember that Revelation 19:10, "for the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy," reveals that prophecy in the broadest sense of the word is merely that which testifies of Jesus.

We find evidence that the shift in mindset regarding women as valid recipients of the gifts of the Holy Spirit actually worked its way into church practice. Bristow notes that the apostle Paul referred to women praying and prophesying in "such a casual manner" (1 Corinthians 11:4-6) that it suggests public ministry by women in these areas were well established.1 1 Corinthians 14, specifically verse 31, makes it clear that all may prophesy and that we are to desire the gift of prophecy. Note, though, that the office of the prophet is a higher calling than the gift of prophecy, and not everyone who prophesies is a prophet. Justin Martyr's Dialogue With Trypho is one piece of historical evidence that both men and women were operating in the gifts of the Spirit in the early Church.2

Second -every Christian a priest

The priesthood - those who could minister to God and minister to the people - was no longer limited to the tribe of Levi but was opened up to all believers. The "priesthood of the believer" was established as the blood of Jesus was sprinkled upon the mercy seat for all who would believe in His Name. All the requirements of the priesthood were fulfilled through Jesus Christ: the need to be of special birth, the need to be washed, the special clothing, the anointing with oil, the access to the Holy of Holies. Because of His sacrifice, we can all walk before God as a holy and royal priesthood:

"You also, as living stones, are being built up a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ... But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; who once were not a people but are now the people of God, who had not obtained mercy but now have obtained mercy." (1 Peter 2:5,9,10, emphasis added)

"... To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood, and has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father -- to him be glory and power for ever and ever! Amen." (Revelation 1:5-6 NIV, emphasis added)

"And they sang a new song, saying: You are worthy to take the scroll, and to open its seals; for You were slain, and have redeemed us to God by Your blood out of every tribe and tongue and people and nation, and have made us kings and priests to our God; and we shall reign on the earth." (Revelation 5:9-10, emphasis added)

In this new order of priests, no distinction is made between male and female. Further, believers were admonished in the early Church to teach and learn from one another without any reference to gender. For example, Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16 both encourage believers to speak to, teach and admonish one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. 1 Corinthians 14:26 says "Whenever you come together, each of you has a psalm, has a teaching, has a tongue, has a revelation, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification" (emphasis added).

Jesus began this paradigm shift by selecting uneducated and untrained people to be the twelve who would represent the move of the twelve tribes into a new era. They became the leaders of a divine movement, laying a foundation for the leadership in this move to rest on God's calling and divine equipping rather than on worldly trappings, position, power, education or gender.

Priest of the home? Some church leaders are fond of saying that a husband is "priest of his home." This, however, is an unscriptural concept and a tradition of man. Nowhere in the Bible is a man called to be priest of his home. In discussing this concept, Dr. Fuchsia Pickett maintains there is more than semantics involved. She suggests that by using the term "priest", man is being given authority over women that God did not give him.3 Susan Hyatt links this "priest of the home" tradition with the English feudal concepts which permeated the Church of England upon its inception. She says, "...the home was to be seen as a little kingdom where the man was to rule as king of 'his castle' in the same way that the King of England was to rule the state. Furthermore, the home was also seen as a little church where the man was to rule as high priest in the same way that the King was to rule the Church of England."4

Third - the dividing walls are broken down in Christ

The dividing wall between Jew and Gentile, between slave and free, between men and women was broken down, bringing a new unity and oneness in Christ.

"For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ's, then you are Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise." (Galatians 3:27-29, emphasis added)

"For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace, and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit." (Ephesians 2:14-18 (NIV), emphasis added)

Tucker and Liefeld observe that the language of Galatians 3:28 "emphasizes the difference between the old age of the law and the new age of faith."5 The context of the passage in Ephesians 2 is the hostility between Jew and Gentile. But as we put this passage in context with Galatians 3, we can see that it could equally apply to the enmity between men and women as well. The spiritual principle is the same - He desires to break down the dividing wall between us, absolve our differences, and under a new dispensation of grace make us one in Him as we clothe ourselves with Him. His purpose to "create in himself one new man out of the two" sounds very much like His intent to unite man and woman in "one flesh". Here we see God's redemptive purposes played out to establish a family, a dwelling place for Himself built of living stones who will complement one another, to reveal Himself in fullness and display His glory in the earth!

Theology in practice - women in the first century Church

As we mentioned at the beginning of the chapter, the emerging Church was conceived as men and women disciples met together in Jerusalem to pray and wait on God for the promise of the Holy Spirit. The women were filled with the Spirit on the day of Pentecost as well as the men, and empowered to be witnesses for Jesus in all the earth as He foretold in Acts 1:8. From this point on, the biblical and historical record shows that they were an integral part of Church life and leadership. Bristow advocates that "Jesus' example regarding women became the norm within the apostolic church." He offers Luke 24:22, Acts 1:14, Acts 5:14, Acts 8:3,12; Acts 9:1-2 and Acts 22:4-5 as evidence.6 Of special note are the passages that refer to Saul of Tarsus' persecution of Christian men and women. Saul violently pursued and dragged off both men and women to prison, making no distinction between the genders. The inference is that Christian women were visible, of importance or value to the spread of the faith, and considered just as much a threat to Judaism as the men.

The book of Acts makes mention of women quite frequently. Luke was careful to record how they played a part - whether positively or negatively. In Thessalonica, he recorded that a number of the leading women of the city were persuaded to follow Christianity and joined themselves with Paul and Silas (Acts 17:4). Again in Berea, it was reported that a number of Greek women of high standing were saved, as well as some men (Acts 17:12). In Antioch in Pisidia (Asia Minor), women also played a key role, but this time in resisting the gospel! The account in Acts 13:50 tells us that some Jews worked up the devout women of the upper classes and leading men of the city and persuaded them to turn against Paul and Barnabas and expel them from the territory.

Study of the New Testament brings to the forefront a number of women who figured prominently in the early church. The very fact that these women believers are named specifically is an indication of their importance in the life of the Church.7

Lydia (Acts 16:14-15, 40)

Paul, Silas, Timothy and Luke found a meeting place in Philippi one Sabbath morning and shared the good news with the women there. That means they engaged in public conversation with a group of women, certainly not acting according to Jewish tradition at all. They were preaching to women! One of these women was Lydia. She was a businesswoman, a person of means and influence. She received what they had to say and had her whole household baptized with her. The first European convert to Christianity was a woman. She then convinced them to come and stay in her home. They did for a season, establishing their mission headquarters there. After the altercation with the girl with divination, Paul and Silas were thrown in prison. After a miraculous release in which the jailer was saved, they returned to Lydia's where they met with "the brethren" encouraged them and departed. F.F. Bruce, a well-known evangelical scholar, assessed that by the time they moved on, "they had gathered a promising young church together."8 It certainly sounds as if a church was meeting in Lydia's home, whether or not she was the leader is not known. However, a good case can be made for her being the pastor. Since no husband or father was mentioned, it is probable that Lydia was head of her own household. Roman households were often large, and Lydia's would have been even larger due to the fact that she managed her own business and most businesses were home-based. Since her whole household was baptized with her, and she was most likely already head of the household, it is very probable that she also took on the role to lead them in becoming established in the faith. This is the role of a pastor.

Damaris (Acts 17:34)

Damaris is the only woman mentioned by name who was converted as a result of Paul's preaching on Mars Hill, also called the "Aeropagus" or "Hill of Ares" after the Greek God Mars (called Ares by the Romans). It was an open forum for philosophical debates and was located southwest of the Parthenon on the Acropolis. Damaris was an Athenian who apparently was there during Paul's debate with the Epicurian and Stoic philosophers. Paul's intellectual arguments concerning the existence of God must have struck a chord in her heart, for the Greek text tells us that Damaris and the others (one of whom was a member of the Aeropagus court) not only believed, but joined themselves to Paul "like glue"!

Chloe (1 Corinthians 1:11)

Paul, in writing to the Corinthian church, said that he had heard from some of "Chloe's people" that there were dissentions among them. F.F. Bruce thinks they were part of a house church.9 Chloe's role is uncertain, but some scholars believe she may very well have been the leader.

Dorcas (Acts 9:36-42)

Dorcas was a woman "disciple" from Joppa who had died. Her name is given in both Aramaic (Tabitha) and Greek (Dorcas) in this passage, suggesting that the society in Joppa was bilingual and bicultural. She seems to have been highly esteemed and very loved. Her friends heard that Peter was close by in Lydda, so they sent for him. He sent everyone out of the room, then got down on his knees and prayed. Then he turned to her, called her by name and told her to get up. At this point, she opened her eyes. He helped her up and presented her alive to the rest of the group. Verse 42 tells us that word of this miracle spread through the city and many believed in the Lord as a result.

Priscilla (Acts 18:2-3, 18:28; Romans 16:3-5; 1 Corinthians 16:19; 2 Timothy 4:19)

Paul met Priscilla and her husband Aquila, both Jews, in Corinth after they had been forced to leave Rome by the Emperor Claudius (in A.D. 49). They, too, were tentmakers like Paul and he stayed with them while he was in Corinth. Then when he set sail for Syria, they both went with him. He left them in Ephesus while he went on to Caesarea and Antioch. While they were in Ephesus, another Jew came to Ephesus named Apollos (Acts 18:24). He was "an eloquent man and mighty in the Scriptures". The account says he was fervent and bold, but lacking in his understanding (probably that of the new covenant and the ministry of the Holy Spirit) because he only knew about the baptism of repentance preached by John the Baptist. He was already an educated, able teacher and minister. Priscilla and Aquila took him aside and "explained to him the way of God more accurately" (verse 26). In other words, they discipled him. Some believe that the order of the names here implies that it was Priscilla who took the lead in teaching Apollos.10 Bristow notes that Chrysostom (one of the fourth century Church Fathers) wrote that "Priscilla was a teacher of Apollos, pastor of the church in Corinth after Paul left."11 Certainly, Apollos went on to be a well known leader in church circles around Corinth, and was used mightily by God to disciple others, as we see from 1 Corinthians 1:12; 3:4-6, 22; 4:6; 16:12.

In Paul's letter to the Roman church, he mentioned Priscilla and Aquila as "my fellow workers in Christ Jesus" (Romans 16:3) and as those who had "risked their own necks for my life." Please note that He includes Priscilla as a fellow worker in Christ and as one who risked her own life for his! He gave his personal thanks and extended thanks to them both from all the Gentile churches. Then he asked the Romans to "greet the church that is in their house." This church in their house was mentioned again by Paul when he was writing to the Corinthian church and sending greetings from Aquila and Priscilla and their house church. They apparently knew Timothy as well, because Paul asked him to greet them for him in his second letter to Timothy, written from prison in Rome (2 Timothy 4:19). Here, he used the nickname "Prisca", revealing a deep familiarity and fondness for Priscilla.

The unique thing about this couple is that they stand out as the first husband-wife ministry team of the emerging church. They are always mentioned together. Neither seems to have been given place or importance above the other, though Bruce comments that more often than not Priscilla's name was mentioned before that of her husband [4 out 6 times]. He speculates that she may have been the more impressive personality of the two.12 However, the bottom line is that they were both recognized as able ministers of the gospel.

Eunice and Lois (2 Timothy 1:5)

Timothy was a young pastor being mentored by Paul. The letters to Timothy and Titus are often called "the Pastoral Epistles" by scholars. In His second letter to Timothy, Paul credited Timothy's grandmother Lois and mother Eunice with imparting to him their sincere, unhypocritical faith. In 2 Timothy 3:15, Paul speaks of how Timothy has known the Scriptures since he was a brephos (meaning embryo, fetus, newborn or baby). Remember any references to "the Scriptures" in the New Testament refer to the Old Testament, as the New Testament had not yet been written or canonized. Certainly, Eunice and Lois would be credited with this accomplishment as well, since Timothy would not have learned the Jewish Scriptures from his Greek father. Paul's implication is that the Lord mightily used these two women to train up this man of God, who would go on to be a significant figure in the early Church.

Euodia and Syntyche (Philippians 4:2-3)

In Paul's letter to the Philippian church, he implores Euodia and Syntyche to come into agreement and urges an unknown person to help them. He calls them "these women who labored with me in the gospel". Swidler points out that the verb used is a strong one and says, "Clearly ... these women did not simply supply material support for Paul and the other men, but preached, taught and spread the gospel as vigorously as they."13 Herb Hirt, Director of the Institute for Jewish Studies, points out that the verb Paul used implies the idea of "fighting together, as soldiers fighting side by side in battle."14 Bristow suggests that the very fact that he named them (and was so concerned about their disagreement, I might add) indicates their importance within the church.15

Nympha (Colossians 4:15)

In writing to the church at Colosse, Paul sends greetings to "Nympha and the church that is in her house" (NIV). Although the KJV and NKJV give the masculine form of the name, it is noted that the NU text (the most modern prominent Critical Text of the Greek New Testament) specifies the feminine form of the name. The NIV bases its translation on this text. Swidler asserts that Nympha was "unquestionably" a woman.16 Many feel it very possible that she was also a pastor. If Nympha simply hosted this house church rather than pastoring it, why did Paul not also greet the pastor? And if he did not know the pastor, why would he have reason to know the hostess well enough to call her by name and send his greetings?

Mary and Junia (Romans 16:6-7)

At the beginning of Romans chapter 16, Paul lists a number of church leaders by name who are worthy of praise and greeting. In this list of 28 people, about one third of them are women! This is truly amazing, considering the status of women before Jesus came along. Also, Tucker and Liefeld comment upon this passage, "in the opinion of an increasing number of scholars, two of the highest offices or roles are ascribed to women: deacon (Phoebe) and apostle (if Junias is a woman, Junia)."17

One of the women whom Paul mentions in Romans 16 is Mary, "who labored much for us." There is no clue here as to how she helped the apostles, but the very fact that Paul knew her well enough to send greetings and to honor her with such a comment is important. If we look at his comment through modern day lenses, it doesn't look like much. But relative to the status that women had before Jesus came (inferior, disdained, loathed), it is significant that he said anything at all. John Chrysostom who was normally rather critical of women, wrote about Paul's greeting of Mary in this passage:

"How is this? A woman is again honored and proclaimed victorious! Again are we men put to shame ... we are put to shame, in that we men are left so far behind them ... For the women of those days were more spirited than lions."18

It is very possible that this Mary is the mother of John Mark mentioned in Acts12:12. Indications are that she was the pastor of a house church. When Peter was released from prison, he went straight to her house where he knew there would be a gathering of Christians. The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia acknowledges that Mary's house was obviously "a well-known center of Christian life and worship."19

In the next verse, Paul also asks that they greet Junia, who he says is "of note among the apostles." Strong's Concordance and KJV/NKJV versions identify this person as a woman. Other sources, like The Spirit-Filled Life Bible, sidestep any controversy and state, "It is impossible to tell whether this name refers to a man or a woman."20 Bristow believes that the confusion comes in because the name actually occurs in the accusative form in the Greek text as a recipient of the verb "greet", i.e. it occurs as Junian. The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia substantiates his assertion.21 Bristow's opinion is that Junian is the accusative form of the feminine name Junia.22 Swidler is much more adamant in presenting his case for Junia being a woman. He states, "Some scholars, unwarrantedly, argue that Junia is a contraction of a much less common male name; but even the virulently misogynist fourth-century bishop of Constantinople, John Chrysostom, noted: 'Oh, how great is the devotion of this woman that she should be counted worthy of the appellation of apostle!'" He notes that the earliest commentator on the book of Romans, Origen of Alexandria (c. 185 - 253) also understood Junia to be a woman, as did Jerome.23 Junia was apparently recognized as a woman until the Middle Ages when a male Church hierarchy could not fathom the idea of a woman apostle. From that point on, the name appeared in masculine form in various manuscripts.24 Katherine Riss cites Bernadette Booten, a philologist, who comments on the possibility of Junia being the masculine Junias: "...It is unattested. To date, not a single reference in ancient literature has been cited by any of the proponents of the Junias hypothesis. My own search for an attestation has also proved fruitless. This means that we do not have a single shred of evidence that the name Junias ever existed."25 It would appear that those who argue that Junia was really a man, may do so because of their inability to accept the fact that there might have been a woman apostle. And yet, we have already seen how the women disciples were sent as apostles (the Greek meaning "a delegate, messenger, one sent forth with orders") to the twelve as they were commissioned to go tell them the good news. In the case of the group of women, an angel did the commissioning (Matthew 28:5-8). However, in Mary Magdalene's case, this commissioning was accomplished by the risen Savior Himself (John 20:14-18).

Phoebe (Romans 16:1-2)

Phoebe is another woman lauded and greeted in Romans 16 by the Apostle Paul. Many scholars believe she was the one Paul sent to carry his letter to the brethren in Rome.26 Her name means "bright", from the Greek word phos. This is where we get the word phosphorus, an ingredient in matches. Of Phoebe, he says,

"I commend to you Phoebe, a fellow-Christian who holds office in the congregation at Cenchreae. Give her, in the fellowship of Christ, a welcome worthy of God's people, and stand by her in any business in which she may need your help, for she has herself been a good friend to many, including myself." (Rom. 16:1-2 NEB)

Of note in this passage are two Greek words, diakonos and prostatis, which Paul uses to describe Phoebe.

  1. Diakonos. The first is the word diakonos, a servant, minister or deacon. Most translations, because of a prior mindset that women should not hold office in the church, translate this word "servant". The Jerusalem Bible translates it as "deaconess." Tucker and Liefeld point out that , "in the Pauline epistles, the noun form diakonos, usually indicated a person with a distinctive Christian ministry. In its meaning of "minister" it appears more frequently than many realize. In 1 Corinthians 3:5; 2 Corinthians 3:6; Ephesians 3:7; Colossians 1:23, 25; and 1 Timothy 4:6 it clearly means someone who ministers the gospel."27 Bristow notes that Paul used the masculine form of the word here, just as it was used elsewhere in the New Testament to describe the office of a deacon.28 The Word Bible Handbook says, "This is the same Greek word, deacon, used to identify Paul, Timothy, Tychicus [in Ephesians 6:21; Colossians 4:7], Epaphras [in Colossians 1:7], and the church leaders spoken of in 1 Timothy 3:8, 12! Most translations tend to blur this fact." 29
  2. Prostatis. The other word is prostatis which means "a woman set over others, a patroness, guardian or protectress." Most of the English translations just render it as "a help" or "a great assistance" or "a friend", which is extremely weak. None of these words carry the full impact of what prostatis really means! Indeed, the word belongs to a word group with a strong connotation of authority and leadership. It was used in ancient Greek to describe divine beings.30 Lenore Lindsey Mullican, who is an Assistant Professor of Modern Languages at Oral Roberts University, notes a source which defines the word as "exercising authority, to be a leader, to hold office, a leader, a chief, a protector."31 Ryrie sheds more light on the meaning of prostatis. He says "All the New Testament references include to a greater or lesser extent the idea of having authority ... The meanings range from simple presiding to definite ruling." He goes on to add that the President of the council was often called the prostates and this Presidency was exercised by the chief Jew or chief religious person of the province. He further points out that the high priest who held the presidency of the Sanhedrin also held this title.32

Other women mentioned

In Romans 16, the apostle Paul also mentioned Tryphena, Tryphosa and Persis - all women who labored or worked hard in the Lord (verse 12). He also mentioned the mother of Rufus whom he said had been like a mother to him (verse 13), then Julia, and the sister of Nereus (verse 15).

Apparently Philemon had a house church, along with the woman Apphia and another man called Archippus (Philemon 1:1-2). Paul greeted the three of them, along with "the church that meets in your home." Swidler points out that the "your" is singular and concludes that Apphia was singled out by Paul apparently as a leader in that house church."33

Finally, we must make mention of the "elect lady" to whom 2 John is written. While some sources advocate that the term is probably just a euphemism for a church, other scholars believe it was written to a real person who probably pastored a church in her home. They base their conclusions on the grammar and the specific words used in the Greek.34 The Spirit-Filled Life Bible explains that John writes "with instructions concerning whom she allows to minister in her 'house' (a designation for early church fellowships...)."35 Another study Bible notes that John may have used this title instead of her personal name in order to protect her from persecution.36

Official ministry by women in the early Church

Archeological evidence in the form of papyri and inscriptions from the first centuries suggest that women held ecclesiastical offices, according to Tucker and Liefeld. They conclude that "these texts provide a continuity of evidence for women as office-holders in the Church."37 Karen Torjesen, in examining various "church orders" from the 3rd century which sought to define the practices of the Church, comments, "the controversies over women's ministries in the church orders teach us much about women's leadership. Women were evangelizing, baptizing, teaching, interpreting Scripture, doing visitation, functioning as leaders of groups within the church, and speaking out in the assembly. The Statutes of the Apostles show that women also shared in the eucharistic ministry."38 There have even been some scattered references in various documents connecting women to the priesthood, and the walls Roman catacombs carry pictures of women "in authoritative stances, with their hands raised in the posture of a bishop."39 Martha Looper has pointed out that after the 4th century, Eastern and Western Churches began to take separate paths. The Eastern Church, she maintains, stayed closer to its pure Hebrew roots for a longer period of time, with the result that women participated in the sacraments and in the priesthood well into the Middle Ages.40 Torjesen, in her book When Women Were Priests, concludes,

"Giorgio Otranto, an Italian professor of Church history, has shown through papal letters and inscriptions that women participated in the Catholic priesthood for the first thousand years of the Church's history. The last thirty years of American scholarship have produced an amazing range of evidence for women's roles as deacons, priests, presbyters, and even bishops in the Christian churches from the first through the thirteenth centuries."41

Corroboration through the writings of the Church Fathers

The writings of the Church Fathers in the early centuries of the Church also tend to corroborate that women were ministers and leaders in the early Church. This is in spite of the fact that most of these men were either Platonists or influenced greatly by the writings of the Greek philosophers, and subsequently holding the same disparaging view of women. Tertullian (born in A.D. 160) spoke of women having obtained "honor of ecclesiastical orders."42 Clement of Alexandria is quoted as arguing that 1 Corinthians 9:5 was "not a reference to the wives of the apostles but to ministering women who accompanied the apostles in their ministry. He [Paul] refers to these ministering women (diakonon gunaikon), whom as fellow ministers (sundiakonai) the apostles took with them, 'not as wives, but as sisters'."43 John Chrysostom recognized Priscilla as a teacher of Apollos, an evangelist who later became the pastor of the church in Corinth. Further, Chrysostom, Origen and Jerome all identified Junia as a woman, and Chrysostom specifically called her a woman apostle. Ryrie also quotes Origen, born in A.D. 185, in describing Phoebe as set in a ministry office in the church. His assessment of Origen's comments was "Evidently he believed that Phoebe occupied an official position."44 Evidence for the official ministry of women in the early Church was also provided through correspondence between Pliny, governor of Bithnia, and someone called Trajan, in the year A.D. 111. Pliny wrote about two women slaves who had been arrested because they were Christians. He goes on to say that he submitted to torture to get information from these women "called by them 'deaconnesses'."45 Ryrie shares this same evidence and concludes, "it is quite likely that these two female slaves were known in their own Greek-speaking community as diakonoi, i.e. deacons."46

Women presbyters, elders or priests

Ignatius, Bishop of Lyons, described (around A.D. 110) leadership of churches as a team ministry between bishops, priests and deacons. What he called "priests" was a later derivative of the Greek presbyteroi (or presbyter).47 There is evidence from Paul's writings to Timothy (1 Timothy 5:1-2) that there were women presbyters as well as men presbyters. The word literally means "elder", but was also used to refer to members of the Sanhedrin as well as those who led churches. The word presbeteros, used for women in verse 1 is the same one used a few verses later (verse 17) which says, "The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching " (NIV). Kroeger cites the usage of the terms presbytera , presbutis, and presbytis to refer specifically to a female elder or "eldress."48 Torjesen notes the word, whether used to mean priest or elder, referred to a fully ordained clergyperson.49 She offers several examples of the inscriptional evidence which prove women held this office.50 Torjesen also reveals the existence of a mosaic in a Roman basilica which pictures four women. An inscription underneath one of the women identifies as her as Theodora Episcopa. The name means Bishop Theodora, using the feminine form of the Latin word for bishop.51

Women deacons

There is evidence that there was an official order of deaconnesses in the church. Swidler asserts, "Already in the lifetime of Paul (death A.D. 63), the office of deacon was established ... Women as well as men served in this 'ordained' office."52 It was not until about A.D. 100, that the term "deaconness" came into use.53 Swidler points out that the Council of Nicea (A.D. 325) referred to women deaconnesses as part of the clergy. The Council of Chalcedon (A.D. 451) gave guidelines on ordaining of deaconnesses and made reference to them continuing in their "liturgy". He also notes that the third century Didiscalia (a compilation of instructions on church practice) lauds the importance of the ministry of deaconnesses, and mentions that religious teaching (to other women) was part of it. The Didiscalia likened the ministry of the deaconness to that of the Holy Spirit.54 Tucker and Liefeld note that in the Eastern church, the ministry of the deaconness lasted more than a millennium. The cathedral at Constantinople had at one time in the 6th century, forty deaconnesses under its supervision.55

The downward spiral into the Dark Ages

As the philosophy of the Greeks began to rear its head again to oppress women through the teachings of the early Church Fathers, the freedom and release gained by women through the ministry of Jesus and during the first century of the Church was gradually lost. As early as the second century, it was obvious that the Church was moving closer and closer to the Dark Ages. Hyatt points to the persuasion of Ignatius as being a deciding factor in the rise of the institutional Church, with its emphasis on authority, hierarchy, and position. She says that early in the second century, "he designed a church structure like that of the civil government" in a bid to establish and centralize control over the various house churches. He was also apparently very intense in his desire to promote the authority and prestige of the bishop. She sadly concludes that history demonstrates the success of his efforts.56

One of the earlier Church manuals, the Didache, written sometime between the first and third century, shows no restrictions placed on the ministry of women and no controversy surrounding the ministry of women.57 The Didiscalia, a later Church manual, mentioned deaconnesses and commended them. However, by the time of its writing in the third century, the deaconnesses were limited to ministering only to other women. Things had already changed since the writing of the Didache. The Didiscalia also maintained that "women are not appointed by Jesus to teach and proclaim Christ".58Since the historical record of the gospels show otherwise (a number of women proclaimed Christ at His direction), and the historical record of the early Church shows otherwise (Priscilla as an example taught with the apostle Paul's hearty approval), we can only assume that the writers of the Didiscalia were influenced from another direction.

History records that by the 5th century, the order of the deaconness was coming under more restriction by the Church. Tucker and Liefeld share that the office of deaconess was "wholly abolished" in the West in A.D. 533 when the synod of Orleans decreed that "no woman shall henceforth receive the benedictio diaconalis, on account of the weakness of this sex."59 By the twelfth century (the middle of the Dark Ages), this order had all but disappeared in the Eastern Church.60 Interestingly enough, it was also in the twelfth century that the abbesses of Kildare, a Celtic Christian community in Ireland, had the dignity and honor of "Bishop" removed from their titles.61 As the Church moved through the Dark Ages, influenced more and more by pagan thinking and tradition, it became increasingly institutionalized and women were allowed less and less of a place in ministry. As the Holy Spirit was quenched and a spirit of deception gained a greater foothold in the Church, the restrictions on women from ministry were given theological justification.

Summary

Historical evidence verifies that the ministry of women was prevalent during the first six hundred years of Christianity. The profusion of women involved in Church life and leadership began with the conception of the Church as men and women gathered together to pray and wait on God for the promised Holy Spirit. The Church was given life as the Holy Spirit was poured out on men and women alike on the day of Pentecost and was characterized by three major paradigm shifts in thinking.

  1. The resident empowerment and giftings of the Holy Spirit were now for everyone, not just a select few leaders.
  2. A new priesthood was established, composed of all believers, as Jesus fulfilled all the requirements for the priesthood in Himself.
  3. The wall of division which separated groups from one another, including men and women, was understood to be broken down by the atoning work of Christ on the Cross. Just as the veil of the temple was rent in two at the resurrection symbolizing the removal of the barrier between men and God, so the dividing wall was broken down which separated people from one another. The limitations, restrictions and prejudices that come with labeling and relegating people into certain categories were washed away by the stream of Divine blood which flowed from Calvary.

Luke was careful in the book of Acts to record how women played a part in the emerging Church - whether positively or negatively. A study of the entire New Testament brings to the forefront a number of women who figured prominently in the early Church. Some of these were Lydia, Dorcas, Damaris, Chloe, Nympha, Priscilla, Eunice, Lois, Euodia, Syntyche, Mary, Junia, Phoebe and the "Elect Lady", all of whom are discussed in detail. Not only were they free to exercise and offer to the Church any giftings given by the Holy Spirit, but they also were free to function as pastors, teachers, apostles, prophetesses and evangelists.

There is archaeological evidence, as well as the writings of the early Church Fathers, to corroborate that women were involved in official ministry and leadership in the early Church. Paul's letters to Timothy record the existence of women presbyters or elders and bishops. There are also indications as well as inscriptional evidence, that women functioned as priests as well.

The most extensive role for women after the first century seems to have been that of the "deaconness". This order of ministry for women remained until the twelfth century in the east, but only until the sixth century in the west. It was abolished as an increasing amount of church organization and operation came under episcopal authority and the church became more and more institutionalized. As the Church moved into the Dark Ages, influenced increasingly by pagan thinking and tradition, women were given an ever declining place in ministry and leadership.

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Chapter 8 notes

  1. John Temple Bristow, What Paul Really Said About Women (HarperCollins, San Francisco, 1988), p. 58.
  2. Ruth A. Tucker and Walter Liefeld, Daughters of the Church (Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, 1987), p. 96.
  3. Fuchsia Pickett, "Man and Woman Created to Co-Labor with God", Spirit Led Woman (June/July 1999).
  4. Susan Hyatt, In the Spirit We're Equal (Hyatt Press, Dallas, 1998), p. 80.
  5. Ruth A. Tucker and Walter Liefeld, Daughters of the Church (Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, 1987), p. 65.
  6. John Temple Bristow, What Paul Really Said About Women (HarperCollins, San Francisco, 1988), p. 54.
  7. John Temple Bristow, What Paul Really Said About Women (HarperCollins, San Francisco, 1988), p. 56.
  8. F.F. Bruce, Paul - Apostle of the Heart Set Free (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., originally published by Paternoster Press Ltd., Exeter, 1977), p. 221.
  9. F.F. Bruce, Paul - Apostle of the Heart Set Free (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., originally published by Paternoster Press Ltd., Exeter, 1977), p. 258.
  10. Ruth A. Tucker and Walter Liefeld, Daughters of the Church (Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, 1987), p. 69.
  11. John Temple Bristow, What Paul Really Said About Women (HarperCollins, San Francisco, 1988), p. 56.
  12. F.F. Bruce, Paul - Apostle of the Heart Set Free (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., originally published by Paternoster Press Ltd., Exeter, 1977), p. 251.
  13. Leonard Swidler, Biblical Affirmations of Women (The Westminster Press, Philadelphia, 1979), p. 295.
  14. Herb Hirt, "Godly Women Who Made a Difference", Israel My Glory (August/September 1996), p. 24.
  15. John Temple Bristow, What Paul Really Said About Women (HarperCollins, San Francisco, 1988), p. 56.
  16. Leonard Swidler, Biblical Affirmations of Women (The Westminster Press, Philadelphia, 1979), p. 296.
  17. Ruth A. Tucker and Walter Liefeld, Daughters of the Church (Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, 1987), p. 72.
  18. Leonard Swidler, Biblical Affirmations of Women (The Westminster Press, Philadelphia, 1979), p. 295.
  19. International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Volume III (Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, 1939, 1956), p. 2006.
  20. The Spirit-Filled Life Bible, Jack Hayford, General Ed. (Thomas Nelson, Nashville, 1991), p. 1714.
  21. International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Volume III (Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, 1939, 1956), p. 1781.
  22. John Temple Bristow, What Paul Really Said About Women (HarperCollins, San Francisco, 1988), p. 57.
  23. Leonard Swidler, Biblical Affirmations of Women (The Westminster Press, Philadelphia, 1979), p. 299.
  24. Lenore Lindsey Mullican, "Women in Leadership, A Study in Paul's Views", Restore! (Winter 1999), p. 12.
  25. Kathryn Riss, "Women's Ministries in the Early Church", from God's Word to Women webpage, 1998.
  26. Leonard Swidler, Biblical Affirmations of Women (The Westminster Press, Philadelphia, 1979), p. 295.
  27. Ruth A. Tucker and Walter Liefeld, Daughters of the Church (Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, 1987), p. 72.
  28. John Temple Bristow, What Paul Really Said About Women (HarperCollins, San Francisco, 1988), p. 56-57.
  29. Lawrence O. Richards, The Word Bible Handbook (Word Books, Waco, 1992), p. 625-626.
  30. Ruth A. Tucker and Walter Liefeld, Daughters of the Church (Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, 1987), p. 73.
  31. Lenore Lindsey Mullican, "Women in Leadership, A Study in Paul's View", Restore! (Winter 1999), p. 13.
  32. Charles C. Ryrie, The Place of Women in the Church (The Macmillan Company, New York, 1958), p. 87-88.
  33. Leonard Swidler, Biblical Affirmations of Women (The Westminster Press, Philadelphia, 1979), p. 297.
  34. Ruth A. Tucker and Walter Liefeld, Daughters of the Church (Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, 1987), p. 74-75.
  35. The Spirit-Filled Life Bible, Jack Hayford, General Ed. (Thomas Nelson, Nashville, 1991), p. 1668.
  36. The Word in Life Study Bible (Thomas Nelson Publishers, Nashville, 1993), p. 863.
  37. Ruth A. Tucker and Walter Liefeld, Daughters of the Church (Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, 1987), p. 91-92.
  38. Karen Torjesen, "Early Controversies Over Female Leadership", Christian History (Volume VII, No. 1, Issue 17), p. 24.
  39. Catherine Kroeger, "The Neglected History of Women in the Early Church", Christian History (Volume VII, No. 1, Issue 17), p. 11.
  40. Martha Looper, "Her Own Works Shall Praise Her", Restore! (Winter 1999), p. 42.
  41. Karen Jo Torjesen, When Women Were Priests (Harper, San Francisco, 1993), p. 2.
  42. Leonard Swidler, Biblical Affirmations of Women (The Westminster Press, Philadelphia, 1979), p. 313.
  43. Charles C. Ryrie, The Place of Women in the Church (The Macmillan Company, New York, 1958), p. 109.
  44. Charles C. Ryrie, The Place of Women in the Church (The Macmillan Company, New York, 1958), p. 111.
  45. Ruth A. Tucker and Walter Liefeld, Daughters of the Church (Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, 1987), p. 94.
  46. Charles C.Ryrie, The Place of Women in the Church (The Macmillan Company, New York, 1958), p. 102-103.
  47. Elaine Pagels, Adam,Eve and the Serpent (George, Wiedenfeld and Nicolson, Ltd., 1988), p. 57-58.
  48. Catherine Kroeger, "The Neglected History of Women in the Early Church", Christian History (Volume VII, No. 1, Issue 17), p. 11.
  49. Karen Jo Torjesen, When Women Were Priests (Harper, San Francisco, 1993), p. 5.
  50. Karen Jo Torjesen, When Women Were Priests (Harper, San Francisco, 1993), p. 10, 19-20.
  51. Karen Jo Torjesen, When Women Were Priests (Harper, San Francisco, 1993), p. 10.
  52. Leonard Swidler, Biblical Affirmations of Women (The Westminster Press, Philadelphia, 1979), p. 309.
  53. Catherine Kroeger, "The Neglected History of Women in the Early Church", Christian History (Volume VII, No. 1, Issue 17), p. 11.
  54. Leonard Swidler, Biblical Affirmations of Women (The Westminster Press, Philadelphia, 1979), p. 312-314.
  55. Ruth A. Tucker and Walter Liefeld, Daughters of the Church (Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, 1987), p. 133.
  56. Susan C. Hyatt, In the Spirit We're Equal (Hyatt Press, Dallas, 1998), p. 41.
  57. Karen Torjesen, "The Early Controversies over Female Leadership", Christian History (Volume VII, No. 1, Issue 17), p. 21.
  58. Ruth A. Tucker and Walter Liefeld, Daughters of the Church (Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, 1987), p. 109.
  59. Ruth A. Tucker and Walter Liefeld, Daughters of the Church (Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, 1987), p. 133.
  60. Leonard Swidler, Biblical Affirmations of Women (The Westminster Press, Philadelphia, 1979), p. 314-315.
  61. Peter Berresford Ellis, Celtic Women (Constable & Co. Ltd., London, 1995), p. 147.

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