Women in Ministry—First Century and Today

I have to keep reminding myself, even as I write an individual-focused psychology of spirituality, that women commonly have certain experiences in their spiritual lives that men rarely do.  They may experience being left out or “made less” in a variety of ways, in addition to leadership.  They may feel those teaching them and leading their churches just cannot relate to the concerns and perspectives they have.  Many of us men, even when we think we have our feminine side awakened, know this only indirectly through women we love or read about.

What Has Changed in 2000 Years?

In this article, we will consider just the effects of traditional Christianity, coming down to us today, on women who are involved somehow with Christian faith (churches, groups, employment, etc.).  The focus will mainly be on women in ministry of various forms, particularly church leadership.  To take on 20 centuries of tradition and teaching is way beyond a short article.  But don’t forget that we cannot understand today’s issues without understanding “yesterday’s” (say the prior century or so).  And so on, back to very ancient times.  Here, I will focus on foundations begun in the first century.  However, grasping these well also takes connecting them to surrounding culture and inherited tradition, along with what was new.   So my important disclaimer is that this will be admittedly selective material, leaving out much that is also important.  One further related point: the sources we have for first century Christian attitudes (including the pre-Christian Jesus) and practices on gender issues and leadership are sketchy and limited.  Much of what we can say is from examples or inference.

What Happened to a Good Beginning?

When I say a “good beginning” (in the first century), though it was not one of full gender equality by any means, I am tipping my hand that I am an egalitarian.  This includes gender roles, both for family and societal relationships and for church leadership. With that, I am also indicating that I see signs of more mutual respect and openness for leadership in what were apparently Jesus’ views and actions and those of Paul. Both of these, of course, were prior to the important historical pivot-point of the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 70 C.E.

What we have in the New Testament (NT), outside of Paul’s genuine letters (likely seven), are all documents of the post-70 era.  This is important in that things changed rapidly and radically in many ways then, particularly for believers in Israel and nearby Syria (present day Jordan and Syria).  (As to important issues of dating, I go with the strong majority of scholars saying that Luke-Acts, plus Matthew, Mark and John were all post-70 — Mark perhaps 70/71, and Acts perhaps the latest and close to John in the last decade of the first century or just into the second. It is possible that John was not the last canonical gospel written, however.)

I need to give a super-quick summary of Paul’s teaching and posture toward women’s roles and leadership.  It is of core importance, both to traditionalists on backgrounds (such as dating, authorship and audience of NT books) and to those more favorable to recent scholarly concensus (who definitely tend to be more egalitarian, but are not alone in it).

The summary is this: Paul seems to be inconsistent in his teaching about what women can properly do in churches and in leadership as well as in family roles.  Part of this is fairly easily resolved (as below).  Part of it is not.  Regardless of the resolution here, Paul consistently regards women highly as supporters and even “colleagues” such as heads of home-churches and even as teachers or “apostles” (lower case–like missionaries). I will leave readers to find and follow the pertinent references as they have been copiously cited in many books from various theological angles. They actually can best be gotten by reading (or re-reading) Paul directly for that with marker in hand.

Many authors have pointed out that the Gospels seem to portray, without labeling it, a breaking from Jewish traditions in the way Jesus related to women, respected them and their leadership, if informal.  He did not seem to formally institute them in leadership.  It is questionable just how formalized was male leadership within his disciple group, also.  The likely reality was a fairly closely knit group with leadership or “pecking order” unclear.  The Gospels/Acts are varied and present a puzzling picture of organization for leadership, both while he was alive and in the early Jerusalem Jesus-as-Messiah group, let alone the broader Church.  However, it does seem clear that women were not included as formal leaders in Jerusalem.  It may be that none of them aspired to such roles in that group, though they certainly did outside Jerusalem within just years or a couple decades.  However, the cultural and religious circumstances of congregations around the Empire were quite different than those in Jerusalem and nearby.

Luke, in the book of Acts, cites a number of examples of women in leadership or teaching roles.  Even though it seems clear this book was written a generation (about 30 – 40 years) after the last writings of Paul, Luke does not seem to have an agenda toward either boosting or limiting the role of women in church leadership.  Of course, the authority bases and leadership of the Church is perhaps the core theme of Acts, which is presented as an historical/theological summary of the growth of the new Christian faith. Incidentally, I perceive Acts as more theological than historical, within a broad framework that does seem to be accurate history.  (I.e., while aspects of relevant scholarship have confirmed many of his historical and geographical reference points, other aspects have shown significant revisionism, selective citing, and smoothing over of conflicts and matters not favorable to Luke’s themes and theological positions.)

It is important that the Holy Spirit is the crucial player for Luke and that has implications for his treatment of Paul’s theology and for women as teachers and leaders.

Gifts of the Spirit and Women’s Roles

On the point of Luke’s posture toward women, there does seem to be an important connection between his theme of the vital role of the Holy Spirit in launching and empowering the Church, which included “charismatic” gifts, and the role of women.  To him and to church leaders beyond Paul, we might gather, women validly expressed these gifts along with men, though not as prominently — at least it was not as much reported on if relatively equal.  It is interesting that Luke, in what seems a sidebar, notes in Acts 21:9 that the fairly prominent “Philip the evangelist” had “four unmarried daughters who had the gift of prophecy.”  It is a perhaps-important question why he threw in the adjective “unmarried” — we’ll have to leave that unexplored for now.

The reason I implied it interesting that a full generation after Paul, Luke seemed without an agenda or concern re. women is that by this time, or very soon thereafter, we know that leaders of proto-orthodox churches (in the line that later could claim orthodox status) were asserting male-only leadership.  We have indications of this from extra-canonical writings from around the turn of the century, particularly in the form of increasing emphasis on formal positions of authority and a developing hierarchy of them within and among churches.  This would include Ignatius of Antioch, apparently a regional (Syrian) bishop of the very early second century, who aggressively asserted submission to a three-tiered leadership–elders, presbyters and bishops.  The bishop’s unifying authority represents God although Ignatius does not mention apostolic succession.

Big Slippage within a Century

Now let me tie the NT book sources we have of the late first to early second century into implications from Ignatius and others of his day and just after (and how successive leaders treated those concepts, up to and around the end of the second century.)  That is, the proto-orthodox leaders contemporary with and succeeding Igantius increasingly embraced formal offices with varying views of their authority basis, but in the trendline of greater organization and absorption of earlier house churches into groups meeting in buildings dedicated to worship and meetings only. These made more sense to many and became possible mainly in the second century and following.

It is also important to remember here, that not only had the original Apostles who knew Jesus personally (not including Paul) died, but their direct following in Jerusalem and much of the surrounding area had been seriously disrupted and displaced by the horrendous suffering and loss of the long war with Rome, ended (except for Masada) in 70.  So whatever they carried of Jesus’ own attitudes and teachings was likely lost around then or eventually through diminished influence.  (Some scholars believe the Ebionites, a Jesus-following sect that endured for a few centuries but remained practicing Jews not believing in deity for their Messiah, Jesus, were the descendants of the “Jerusalem Church.”)

So, in addition to the recountings of Luke in Acts, we have other writings from the same turn-of-the-century era.  This is where dating/authorship issues become important.  Without taking space to argue the case here, I will reiterate my relative certainty about the authorship of just three of several debated books–the Pastoral Epistles (I, II Timothy and Titus).  They were written by one or more authors well after the death of Paul, probably near or just after the beginning of the second century.

As such, they expound what is to be expected for that era, a development well beyond what Paul taught, in circumstances different than Paul’s.  And that is regardless of how one interprets difficult passages in his genuine letters, particularly the section of I Cor. from about chapter 11 through 14. (Incidentally, small or even fairly large insertions or changes in his original text is one possibility not to be ignored, although I know of no strong case supporting it either — admittedly I have not studied that in depth.)  The reality of this more-developed Church, with expected institutional evolution, is the reason for the highly-charged and controversial comments of the Pastorals about women.  This includes their “nature” as well as  their subordinate place as to leadership.

Basically, the Church was developing within a strongly partiarchal and heirarchical society….  Despite the freshness and hopefulness we see in Jesus and Paul, it is not surprising that male domination would soon assert itself and claim exclusive leadership privileges.  Maybe women could lead among women, of course… no real complication or threat there. 

This leads us back to a final important point introduced earlier: there seems to be a strong corelation between open and spontaneous expression of “gifts” or what much later was called “enthusiasm” (enfused with God) or “charismata–charismatic gifts” on the one hand and the leadership of women — formal or informal — on the other.  We have seen this in the 20th century like in the first.  Pentecostal denominations a century ago happily (for a while) accepted women evangelists, healers and pastors.  The ratio is way down now, but they still have more than most theologically conservative denominations.

Some of Paul’s churches apparently thrived because of inspired use of gifts and more unfettered speaking in gatherings.  But, just as in the 20th century and today, Paul faced the other side of the same coin — that inadequate controls can sometimes lead to a bit of chaos or unruliness and thus hamper growth and harmony.  Generally, the imposition of controls includes putting men largely or fully in charge.  I believe it also means that a more competitive, less compassionate and accepting kind of mentality gains ascendancy.  Along with that is a greater emphasis on abstract and analytical theology and less focus on social needs, care for the hurting and the more whole-being focus of development I believe tends to be stronger among women than men.

In other words, it is not just women who are losers when leadership and teaching are controlled largely or completely by men… we all are!

What thoughts or questions do YOU have about how things got started off for women in Christianity? What are key lessons for today?

Review & Commentary