Church History: What Do We Learn about Women in Public Ministry?

Have you ever heard comments about church history like these?   

“It was the feminist teachings of the past few decades that first spurred Christians to try to argue for [women in public ministry]. Like it or not, the two schools of thought are intertwined.” – Christian blogger

“The role of women in church ministry was simply not a burning question until it asserted itself in recent decades in conjunction with the modern women’s movement” – Men and Women in Ministry: A Complementary Perspective, p. 20

When I took some doctoral courses in history, I read numerous primary documents which revealed that the question about women in public ministry in the church has been burning since long before the U.S. Women’s Movement. So, I set out to determine when it actually started.  

I thought maybe it began with the American and French Revolutions with the cry for individual rights. But then I read documents like the pamphlet that Margaret Fell Fox (think George Fox of Quaker fame) wrote in 1666 titled “Women’s Speaking Justified, Proved, and Allowed by the Scriptures.” And I saw art like the above engraving dated to 1723 that features a woman preaching. 

So, I looked earlier. Maybe the Reformation started it, I thought—with its emphasis on the priesthood of all believers and the involvement of early women reformers like Katherina Zell

But then I found writings like those of Christine de Pizan, who was born in the 1300s. Her work, The Book of the City of Ladies, presents a positive view of the Bible as she cites examples of biblical women, carefully selecting those who challenge her culture’s misogynistic ideals. 

I kept going. Here are some samplings from the first nine centuries:

Pope Paschal I [Rome – West, AD 822] had a mosaic made of his mother, Theodora, labeled with the title “episcopa” (bishop). An inscription in another place in the same church (St. Praxedes) also describes her as “episcopa.”

Council of Trullo, Constantinople [Turkey – East], AD 692, canon 14. The Council speaks of “ordination” [cheirotonia] for women deacons using the same term used for ordination of priests and male deacons. 

Synod of Orleans AD 533, canon 17 [France – West]. Attended by 32 bishops. Here’s a quote from the Synod: “Women who have so far received the ordination to the diaconate against the prohibitions of the canons, if it can be proved that they have returned to matrimony, should be banned from communion.” 

St. Remigius of Reims [AD 533 AD, France] makes mention of his daughter, the deacon(ess) Helaria, in his will.  

Synod of Epaone, AD 517, canon 21 [France]. “We abrogate the consecration of widows whom they call ‘deaconesses’ completely from our region.” 

Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon, [East – Turkey] canon 15, AD 451.  An earlier minimal age of 60 years for women deacons was relaxed to 40 years. The earlier practice was based on 1 Timothy 5:9: “Let a widow be enrolled if she is not less than sixty years of age.”  

Synod of Orange, [West – France] AD 441, canon 26. Attended by 17 bishops. “Altogether no women deacons are to be ordained. If some already exist, let them bend their heads to the blessing given to the (lay) people.”  

First Council of Nicea, [Turkey – East] canon 19, AD 325. Deacon(esse)s are mentioned in passing in a canon referring to the reconciliation of ex-members of the sect of Paul of Samosata (AD 260–272). Paul, patriarch of Antioch, denied the three Persons of the Trinity: “In this way one must also deal with the deaconesses or with anyone in an ecclesiastical office.”  

Back, back, back I went. And each century sent me to an earlier one to find when it started. Eventually, I concluded that evidence for orthodox Christians affirming women in public ministry started on the day of Pentecost.  

So what happened after that? What led to the changes? 

This fall, I have been camping out in the first six centuries of church history, tracing the office of widow, which I first saw years ago mentioned in my Greek lexicon (TDNT) as the last entry for the meaning of “widow.” It appears that the early church did have such an office, along with that of deacon(ess).  

In 1976, a scholar in Belgium named Roger Grayson published a book titled The Ministry of Women in the Early Church with The Order of St. Benedict. It was translated into English and published by The Liturgical Press—not exactly feminist credentials. And he traces the offices of widow and deacon(ess) through the early centuries of the church. After surveying the data, he draws this conclusion: “Up to the end of the nineteenth century, historians of the early Church often identified deaconesses and widows as if these two different titles corresponded, for those who held them, to the same function.” In other words, historians conflated the two offices of deacon(ess) and widow. He goes on to note that “since deaconesses and widows obviously corresponded to quite different institutions, one can only wonder, after a close study of all the evidence, at the persistence of such an error” (110). That is, how is it possible that—in light of such overwhelming evidence—the error of conflating the two so stubbornly persisted?

Before exploring the answer, we need to keep in mind two details: 

First, there was no female form of the word “deacon” in the early church and for some centuries to follow, in the same way that the word “teacher” in English does not indicate gender (e.g., teacher/teachess). That’s why I’m denoting uses of the word in this post as “deacon(ess)” unless the word “deaconess” appears in someone else’s quote.

 Second, I’m using “office” to refer to positions in the church that have come with qualifications of character, as contrasted with “gifts,” which are bestowed by the Spirit on all believers. 

Now then, apparently, historians expanded their tools of analysis beyond church fathers’ manuscripts and pronouncements by councils to include liturgies and tombstones for mentions of “deacon(ess)” in the early church. Yet in some places, we don’t even begin to find mention of “deacon(ess)” till the third century because the prominent office in that geographical location was “widow.” And the office of deacon(ess) looked different from the office of “widow” in the first centuries. And how the clergy was even configured varied by location (east as compared with west), century, and local council. 

As Grayson has noted, such historians were not looking for references to the office of “widow.” Thus, some concluded that women’s membership in the clergy was a late development. Because if someone is thinking the word “widow” refers only to a woman bereft of her husband rather than also including an office rooted in 1 Timothy 5, that researcher can see a tombstone that says “a widow of the church” and miss that he or she is looking at the very evidence sought. Consequently, some historians have drawn faulty conclusions.

Grayson summarizes: “One thing is undeniable: there were in the early Church women who occupied an official position, who were invested with a ministry, and who, at least at certain times and places, appeared as part of the clergy. These women were called ‘deaconesses’ and at times ‘widows’” (xi). 

May I remind the reader that Grayson was writing in the 1970s for a Roman Catholic publisher in a different country? This is not US feminism in the Protestant church talking.   

The history of women in public ministry reveals that it started at the beginning. And practices in the East differed from those in the West. 

In some locations, the widow was 60 years old or older, and the virgin was younger. Tertullian [b. AD 160, N. Africa] ranked the widows among the clergy, and spoke of seats being reserved for them. In his work titled De virginibus velandis (9:2–3) he wrote with displeasure, “I know plainly that in a certain place a virgin less than twenty years old has been placed in the order of widows (in viduatu)!” Clearly, in this instance a “virgin” is not simply a maiden, but someone consecrated to Christ for vocational ministry. 

In the East, deacon(esse)s catechized women considering conversion, assisted at baptisms for women converts, and distributed the Eucharist to female shut-ins. The ordination rites for deacons and deacon(esse)s were almost identical.  

By the third century in the West, the office of widow was described as a thing of the past. Grayson notes that whenever the Alexandrians [i.e., Egypt—West] mentioned women deacons or widows, they referred to these as offices of the past, not active in the present. Both Clement and Origen occasionally recognized that women were placed in the service of the church in the time of the apostle Paul, but these men did not indicate that the office survived.   

In the fifth century the Testamentum Domini Nostri Jesu Christi, probably from Syria [East], devoted four long chapters to widows. It referred to the “ordination of widows,” in two instances using the same word employed for clerics in major orders. 

Later in the East, the relationship between widows and deacon(esse)s makes a reversal, and widows, who had once supervised deacon(esse)s become subject to deacon(esse)s.

Eventually, offices in the East have the same labels as in the West, but in the West they are merely honorary. The East was actually more conservative and segregated, so we find more mentions of workers doing ministry focused exclusively on women. For men to do so would have been considered an encroachment beyond their boundaries. But as infant baptism eventually replaced adult baptism, the need for someone to assist with female adults being baptized (often nude to symbolize “rebirth”) disappeared.

What other factors besides infant baptism led to the tapering off of women in ordained ministry?

These reasons emerged from the writings: 

  • Rise of the all-male priesthood in the pattern of the Old Testament. (What happened to the NT priesthood of all believers?)
  • A return to Old Testament temple practices—especially after Constantine, with church buildings and the clergy/laity divide—such as barring menstruating women from worship. (What happened to the veil being ripped and the Law being replaced by Christ?)
  • Anthropology. Some of the church fathers held to Greek views (think Aristotle) of woman’s nature, which would be unanimously denounced today. (Why pattern the church’s practice after the thinking of a pagan philosopher?)
  • Misogyny. Many believed women were weak, fickle, lightheaded, of mediocre intelligence, and a “chosen instrument of the devil.”  (Does that sound at all like Jesus?)

Regardless of what conclusions we draw about what of today’s practices should build on tradition and what need to go, we must never think that the US Women’s Movement was ground zero for the public, vocational, ordained ministry of women in the church. When we say such things, historians roll their eyes. If we talk only of what the church fathers were doing without including what the women were doing, we are talking only about “men in church history,” not “church” history.  

It was not the feminist teachings of the past few decades that first spurred Christians to argue for women in public ministry. Like it or not, it started at Pentecost. And it will be fully realized in the eschaton (Joel 2, Acts 2). 

Sandra Glahn, who holds a Master of Theology degree from Dallas Theological Seminary (DTS) and a PhD in The Humanities—Aesthetic Studies from the University of Texas/Dallas, is a professor at DTS. This creator of the Coffee Cup Bible Series (AMG) based on the NET Bible is the author or coauthor of more than twenty books. She's the wife of one husband, mother of one daughter, and owner of two cats. Chocolate and travel make her smile. You can follow her on Twitter @sandraglahn ; on FB /Aspire2 ; and find her at her web site: aspire2.com.