Women in the early Christian church occupied submission and silent positions, while today they are entitled to occupy ordained ministerial positions. Even though the number of women in the ministry is still low, the women’s road to ordination was not easy. The way women view themselves and the way society views women both in the home and church settings dictates the roles assumed by women in Christianity. Although today women enjoy equality with men in social, political, and economic life, their roles within the church are still confined to the historical roles attributed to them at the times of early Christianity. A closer examination of women’s role in the history of the early Christian church reveals that women were suppressed and considered inferior to men.
Women are wicked and home-wrecking; they insinuate men inside their honorable household. This was a common attitude towards women in the early history of Christianity. Women were perceived as sexually immoral, hysterical, and open to witchcraft, incest, and even cannibalism (Bellan-Boyer, p. 48). Even when the “Gnostics” were established, the treatment of women did not change while they played significant roles. Women were responsible for controlling and subduing the house churches in the process. Women were coded with attributes of sin and scandal, however, they were entrusted to sound a bell and lead the acts of sacrifices.
Notably, women played a key role in the establishment of tradition for hospitality and table culture of the house churches following the example of Jesus. Nevertheless, this initiative of women was an invitation to scandal because women were uncovered, could eat and talk with men (Bellan-Boyer, p. 50). Women who were traditionally viewed by the church as prostitutes, courtesans, sexual deviants, and outlaws were granted equal rights to men. The early Christian church imposed strict marriage and childbearing requirements of women and severely punished those who dared to rebel. Men were considered holy in body and spirit, they represented honor, while women embodied shame.
Moreover, women of the early church were known to be not pure, while men had honorable status in the community. Female slaves were expected to be sexual servants to their owners (Bellan-Boyer 51). However, these female slaves were active participants in the church communities and some of them even bore leadership authority. Women supported and participated in the life and ministry of the Church. Nevertheless, women did not have the same level of respect. Only one woman, Mary the Mother of Jesus, was considered holy and was separated from all other women. None of the women was entitled to the same respect as Mary and none of the women could ever reach equal to men’s treatment.
Nevertheless, women in the ranks of the aristocratic elite took a very active role in the process of conversion and evangelization of Christianity (Shaw 21). Women were far more influential in activities of the early church communities than it was recognized by men. Females performed many liturgical roles including baptism and giving the Eucharist. Some historians argue that Christianity opened new powers to women (Shaw, p. 21). However, despite the important role played by women in the early Christian church, none of the women had the right to write religious messages. This right was granted only to men. At the time when Christianity emerged, the vast majority of the female population was illiterate. In the Roman Empire, women and girls were seated separately from men and boys, matrons were separated from virgins, widows from young girls (Shaw, p. 22). Moreover, women were obligated to cover their heads as a symbol of submission to their husbands. Despite their contribution to Church life, women could not change the attitude of male-dominated society towards them.
Interestingly, women were in control of the household, had personal wealth and property, however, they were not allowed to speak in church, to teach, or to undertake any other male duty in Christianity. As Vincent Faherty has noted, the oppression of women was closely related to the Christian community’s acceptance of the practice of slavery. Evangelist Paul of Taurus, the early Christian leader, preached to slave owners to treat slaves fairly and remember that slaves and masters were equal in the eyes of God; however, the issue of slavery itself was not doubted. Slaves, despite their sex, were not treated as true believers, thus, they were not entitled to the same rights as their masters. Women were considered inferior to men and their role in Church activities was not viewed as a contribution, but rather a responsibility to serve the needs of men.
Nevertheless, some theologians claimed that the role of women in the history of early Christianity was far-reaching. Rabanus Marcus, in particular, conducted a thorough analysis of the Book of Judges and concluded that it was written by a female Deborah. If the assumption of Marcus is true, Deborah is the only prophet among the male judges (Mayeski, p. 230). For the history of the Christian church, it means that women played a significant role in the establishment of Christianity and were entitled to preaching. Biblical scholars point out that women were considered the source of human sinfulness and were socially inferior to men because of their subjection to the body. However, the assumption of Marcus undermined this belief and led to the assertion that prophecy is open to women and is given about the quality of mind rather than biological differentiation between males and females.
Notably, in the Byzantine period, some females bore formal ecclesiastical titles and were organized in ordained orders (Karras, p. 96). Women actively participated in public affairs and were associated with the Christian church. They provided liturgical participation by the faithful. Active involvement and even encouragement of female participation, however, was directly related to Byzantine culture which recognized that the needs of mixed community could be met only through the participation of men as well as women. The theological notion of women’s subordination to men and social conventions that limited women’s activities to domestic affairs only distorted the real contribution of women to the spread of Christianity. Karras outlined three factors affecting the role of females in Byzantine Church: culture imposing sexual segregation, desire to honor publicly those who contributed to church life, and the need to recreate liturgically the events in the life of Christ.
Today women are not faced with discrimination either in social life or in church participation. Moreover, modern society promotes the unity of cultural and religious expressions. Some theologians, however, mark the increasing participation of women in church life as feministic and based on a desire for self-expression rather than true faith. “Some women from minority groups and other cultures complained about white Christianity and the dominance of American society” (“Women-Church and Diversity”). Despite promoted equality, the vast majority of Christian priests are males, while the church should not consist of hierarchy or depend on the pastor; it should depend on faithful people.
Undoubtedly, society no longer attaches the stereotype of sinfulness to all females, and women are empowered to participate in Christian church life. Nevertheless, the historical stereotype is not erased. As Liz Leibold Mccloskey wrote, “when I see the faith, the spirituality, the grace, the strength, the generosity of some of the women that have been called to priesthood and are free to answer that call in other churches, I am sad for what the Catholic church is missing”. However, the progress in assessing the role of women is evident. In particular, the Bible is no longer interpreted in the context of male importance. Jesus did not come for men, but all humans and their salvation. Jesus did not just become a man, he became one of the humans. Christianity does not divide people into races and sexes; it is for all people, men, and women.
Finally, there are still many people who support the traditional role of women in church and society: being inferior to men. Males are viewed as stronger, smarter, and more open to a message from God. Faithful women have an opportunity to teach in the classroom, help patients in hospitals, and remain faithful wives and good mothers. However, the male-dominated society is still hesitant to include women in church life and give females an opportunity to preach. Whether or not society admits the role of females in the Christian church, the contribution of women cannot be underestimated. Women were, are, and will remain important to the establishment and spread of Christianity.
- Bellan-Boyer, Lisa. “Conspicuous in Their Absence: Women in Early Christianity.” Cross Currents 53.1 (2003): 48-56.
- Faherty, Vincent. “Social Welfare before the Elizabethan Poor Laws: The Early Christian Tradition, AD 33 to 313.” Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare 33.2 (2006): 107-118
- Karras, Valerie. “The Liturgical Functions of Consecrated Women in the Byzantine Church.” Theological Studies 66.1 (2005): 96-112.
- Mayeski, Marie Anne. “’Let Women Not Despair’: Rabanus Maurus on Women as Prophets.” Theological Studies 58.2 (1997): 237+.
- Mccloskey, Liz. “Orphaned at Birth: Women in the Church.” Commonweal 122.2 (1995): 8-10.
- Shaw, Brent. “Women and the Early Church.” History Today 44.2 (1994): 21-29.
- “Women-Church and Diversity.” The Christian Century 110.16 (1993): 512-514.