Women’s Leadership in the Early Church

“Women’s leadership and contributions to early Christianity can only become historically visible when we abandon our outdated patriarchal-androcentric model of early Christian beginnings.” [1] 

 In many quarters there is a fascination with the “early church”, the model of church that existed in the first century C.E., exhibiting a romantic naiveté in believing that it had some idyllic, unified conduct. It is apparent that certain particularities of the early church have been considered normative by churches old and new. The mega- or meta-church movement in the U.S. and elsewhere has drawn on the practice of home-churches, as reported in Paul’s letters and Acts, to develop massive organizations, built on cell- or small-group ministries, that have little or no resemblance to the early church. Pentecostal churches have strived to emulate the Apostles in becoming filled with the Holy Spirit after baptism, leading to the proliferation of the once peculiar “born again” phenomena. Perhaps the single particularity of the early church to have been most widely adopted as normative by a great many of the world’s churches is the exclusion of women from leadership roles and, in many churches, a discomfort with or outright denial of the status of women as being made in God’s image. Rather than resulting from a naïve understanding of the Christian church in the first century, which would lack any intent to degrade women, the view of many feminist theologians is that male hegemony is the consequence of deliberate efforts to institute and maintain patriarchal language and systems within the early church and beyond. 

While arguments have been made mitigating the claim that Hebrew Scripture is largely androcentric, if not misogynist in a great many places, it is undeniable that the Jewish culture into which Jesus was born was male-dominated. It is also debatable whether all the Biblical statements credited to Jesus were actually uttered by him, but it is nonetheless interesting that none of those sayings elevate men to a dominant position nor relegate women to an inferior position. New Testament passages that appear to debase women originated with the apostles, with most attributed to Paul or his followers, some even claiming to be Paul. Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza’s quote used as the title of this essay is from an article about Romans 16 written for Luther Seminary’s Word and World periodical, in which she forcefully argued against the perennially accepted model of the early Christian church as having exclusively male leadership. A discussion of Fiorenza’s exegetical and historical-critical reasoning is beyond the scope of this paper, but certain of her conclusions bear explication.[2]

The use of grammatically masculine language is problematic. While male nouns and pronouns used in the Bible, “man” and “he” for example, have long been understood to be inclusive when used in a communal, or even plural, sense, these same words are interpreted as masculine specific in the singular, especially when used in regard to leadership, ministry or mission.[3]  This linguistic norm begs the question of whether the message of male domination results from original intent or subsequent interpretation. In relation to Paul’s writing in Romans 16, Fiorenza demonstrated that Paul’s remarks concerning women were many times made using the same language he used for men. When Paul described men using diakonon it has been generally interpreted as “deacon” — missionary, preacher, prophet, apostle, etc — whereas it has been commonly translated as “deaconess” (New Jerusalem) or “servant” (KJV, NIV) with regard to Phoebe, with the exception of the NRSV (Romans 16:1). Likewise prostatis , has been translated as “succourer” (KJV), “helper” (NIV, New Jerusalem) or “benefactor” (NRSV) in Phoebe’s case. While only otherwise appearing in 1 Thess 5:12 and 1 Tim 3:4-5 as forms of the verb proisthmi, which Fiorenza and Elizabeth Castelli assert has the same root meaning, it was translated as “leader”, “patron” or other positions of authority.[4]  Without repeating Fiorenza’s arguments here, suffice it to say she also showed that Prisca (Priscilla used diminutively in Acts) was among the “brothers” who wrote the letter of recommendation for Apollos in Acts 18:27.[5]

While Fiorenza showed Paul to be distinctly androcentric in his use of language, as demonstrated by using feminine descriptors only when specifically discussing women and male nouns and pronouns when talking about men specifically or people of both genders generally, she logically shed doubt on the early church having a patriarchal structure, at least as it is described in the last chapter of Romans. This, unfortunately, doesn’t mitigate certain passages elsewhere in the New Testament, such as 1Timothy 5 or the Haustafeln (household codes) in Ephesians 5 among many others.  E. Elizabeth Johnson sought to redeem the early church from even these passages when she pointed out that they are from a later period, being Deutero-Pauline writings. Paul’s proclamations proved problematic for the early Christian house-churches, causing later writers to present arguments “absent from the first generation of the church, and denied rather dramatically in the Pauline baptismal formula of Galatians 3:28.”[6] 

The incarnation of God in Jesus Christ demonstrated “God’s preferential care for the poor, the widow, the alien, and the oppressed, all of whom enjoy special protection in the Law, and for whom the prophets repeatedly demanded justice.”[7]  Many Christians — feminists, liberationists and mainstream believers, alike — accept this image of Jesus, the man, and Christ’s ministry. Human domination and submission, long held cultural assessments of a human’s worth or worthlessness based on their circumstances and, as stated earlier, speeches denigrating women based on gender have no place in the teachings of Jesus.  If grammatically masculine language was the linguistic norm for Paul’s time and, as Fiorenza’s exegesis of the limited but telling chapter 16 of Romans confirmed, he made no effort to hide the fact that women held significant roles as leaders of the church, at what point in time did the message of scripture become distorted into one of male dominance? Since it seems quite reasonable to assume that outright patriarchy was not an original intent, it seems equally reasonable to suppose that this process was largely a later development, which accords well with Johnson.

It must be pointed out that the efforts of Fiorenza and Johnson, as examples, do not represent a norm for feminist theology, and do not necessarily coincide to any great degree. Several schools of thought exist, but not all are appropriate for discussion in this paper – certainly not based on a priori judgments of correctness, but simply on the basis that the nature of this discussion revolves around those feminists who are trying to reconstruct a vision of the early church that allows women and men to realize the importance of feminist thought in today’s church. Some feminist approaches reject the Bible as a foundational basis for faith on the grounds that it is irredeemably sexist, while others abandon Christianity outright as the unhealthy product of patriarchy and abuse.[8]  The latter have no interest in the Christian church at all, never mind the early church, and the former see no value in trying to resurrect an ‘original’ meaning or norm from scripture. This paper, then, is attempting to engage in the theological discourse that is seeking to retain some semblance of ‘authority’ for the Bible. Based on what has already been discussed, it is apparent that maintaining the authority of all that is considered scripture by Christians is impossible, since it contains not only original Christian theologies of the early church, or as close as we can get to original at this point, which may be flawed, but also interpretations and redactions of original works that inherently contain biases and hidden agendas. The authority herein referred to is not a literal or inerrant acceptance of scripture as “equal truth in all its parts”, but in the sense that there is truth in that “to which it witnesses”[9] while also bearing in mind that it has been recorded, interpreted, embellished and altered by fallible humans. This is similar to an adage (of unknown origin) that states, “the difficulty for all Christians is determining what in scripture is truth for all time, and what is truth for a time”, while also ascertaining those passages that may have been adulterated to communicate later messages of dubious intent.

Fiorenza and many other feminist theologians advocate a hermeneutical approach that incorporates “suspicion, proclamation, remembrance and creative ritualization”, which involves a “dual emphasis on deconstruction and reconstruction.”[10] She followed this pattern in her article cited above. This process necessitates delving into what is not stated or is inferred in a passage, as well as what is said.  In the case of the topic herein discussed, the process of paring away androcentric and patriarchal language and opinion requires identifying at what point the relatively inclusive early church became portrayed as male dominated. In order to historically reconstruct the diminished visibility of women in the early church, it is necessary to track the change from Paul’s “there is no longer Jew or Greek … slave or free … male or female” (Gal 3:28) to the household codes (Eph 5:21 – 6:9), and eventually to the development of largely male-only church hierarchies within four centuries of the time of Christ.

Elizabeth Castelli compared George Steiner’s “process” of translation to rape, by using his language to describe translation as a result of “being methodical, penetrative, analytical [and] enumerative.”[11]  Essentially, the translator cannot be separated from the resultant translation – he or she has to possess a sense of fidelity in order to produce a good translation. In reality, therefore, the translator is also interpreter. Conversely, it would seem irrefutable that the interpreter also functions as both translator and commentator. As with most significant thinkers, rather than taking on a life of their own, their works take on a life largely under the direction of later interpreters, many times assuming significant characteristics missing from the original. This phenomena is certainly not limited to the theologians of the early church like Paul, but also with individuals for whom we have copious amounts of literature indisputably written by their hand. In a lecture, Christopher Burchill gives a more recent example when he said, “Indeed, in his major statement on the question, which appeared under the title of ‘Early-Orthodoxy and Rationalism’ in Barth’s Theologische Studien in 1963, Bizer was able to identify a series of issues on which the theologians of Geneva and Heidelberg had departed from the teaching of their mentor within less than twenty years of Calvin’s death.”[12] 

When tradition is challenged tradition, or rather those that benefit from the maintenance of tradition, find a way to push back. The Haustafeln describe the manner in which households were conducted in Hellenistic times, beginning with Aristotle, although the traditional dyads of husbands/wives, fathers/slaves and masters/servants are reversed to wives/husbands, etc.[13]  Osiek believes there may be a subtle message in this ordering that still maintained some difference with the predominantly Hellenistic society in which Christianity was more and more finding itself. Traditionally, household codes dealt specifically with a man and his relationship with the other components of his household, thereby having four people/groups in the discussion, since the male head was central. In Ephesians, the ordering first of the normally less significant partner in each arrangement demands that there are six roles being examined, not four. While interesting, this did not seem to be particularly relevant to the topic of the paper, however. What is pertinent is that the Christian community may have been feeling the need to be less obvious in it’s contrast to surrounding culture, especially with the continued influx of Greek and other non-Jewish converts who were accustomed to the Hellenistic ordering of family and, therefore, society. The pressures to move back towards more traditional roles, ensuing from within as well as without, would have required mitigating  Jesus’, and Paul’s subsequent but less palpable, moves towards egalitarianism.

Another aspect Osiek pointed out is the increasing use, in simile and metaphor, of marriage to signify the church in Ephesians and later deutero-Pauline works. What began as simile, the husband/wife relationship is like the Christ/church relationship, developed into a metaphor where males became associated with Christ, by virtue of having the same gender as Jesus, and females became designees for the church.[14] Furthermore, by integrating metaphors from elsewhere in Paul’s writing, the authors of Colossians 1 and Ephesians 4 developed the marriage metaphor into a notion of Christ, and therefore man, as head or principal component of the body and the church, and consequently woman, as the body of Christ.[15]  This later development gave rise to the conditions prompting Henriette Visser T’Hooft to write in a letter to Karl Barth concerning the latter’s use of “St. Paul’s theology” in his debasement of women in ecclesiastical roles, “I hope you understand: I am only opposed to the decapitation [of the woman] and the disembodiment [of the man].”[16]  Through this deformation of both genders, Visser T’Hooft claimed as early as 1934 that men had elevated themselves to a position of truly human, while at the same time relegating women to an inferior position, thereby completing the transformation of the actual church to a patriarchal system and depriving both genders of their “true, God-given identity.”[17]  

The metaphor of marital relations for the Christ/church relationship would break down on another basis, unless men could have envisioned themselves as a “higher” order than women. Largely because of Rev 18:23, a metaphor developed where Christ was likened to the bridegroom and the church to the bride.[18]  Men and women were members of the church and, as such, made up “the bride” of Christ. Ancient archetypes of the “pure bride” speak of the value of unsoiled virginity in the female marriage partner that was not required, perhaps even negatively viewed, in the male partner. Osiek quoted Margaret McDonald as writing that the “union with a pure female body has symbolic importance in expressing the nature of the separation from a past way of life. As a reflection of the holy and unblemished church, the pure bride stands in contrast to the evil world outside.”[19]  The church became identified with the biological functions of womanhood: wives became mothers who produced and raised children, provided services for those around them, etc. But by personifying the church as female, complete with the imperfect temporal stain of menstruation with which women in a male-dominated record of history have been denegrated, this required the more Christ-like men be set apart from the worldly church, in the same manner as Jesus Christ is over and above the church. Men would not view themselves in these distinctly feminine terms. Combining these thoughts with Paul’s discourse on the parts of the body in Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12, reinforced the view that men were the ‘head’ and women the ‘body’.

What appears to be the next round of gender denigration occurred with the “Church Fathers”. St. Clement of Alexandria (150-215 C.E.) had such a contempt for women that he believed such a feeling must be universal. He wrote, in his book Paedagogus that in women, “the consciousness of their own nature must evoke feelings of shame.” Tertullian (160-225 C.E.), the African Father of the Church, called women “the devil’s gateway”. Origen (185-254 C.E.) is well known for his hatred of sex and women. At the tender age of eighteen, he castrated himself in his quest to achieve Christian perfection. Origen’s teaching weaved together the Christian hatred for women and abhorrence for the sexual act into one system, in which women were considered worse than animals because they were continuously lustful. St. Ambrose (339-397 C.E.), a Doctor of the Church, and Bishop of Milan reminded believers that the way woman was originally created confirmed her second class status: “Remember that God took the rib out of Adam’s body, not a part of his soul, to make her. She was not made in the image of God, like man.” Jerome (342-420 C.E.) called women the “root of all evil”.[20] The list goes on and on and includes other “fathers” like John Chrystostom and Augustine of Hippo. While outside the context of this paper, one has to wonder at the psychological profiles of these individuals who, had it not been that their aberrant views were comfortable to men because they reinforced some long-standing cultural biases, would have been considered insane in any other age or context. To say that these individuals simply embellished lessons of scripture with their own interpretation of Paul’s theology lessens the impact these men had on theological thought. These misogynist men, because some of their thoughts have had profound significance, found places of power and importance in Christian culture and have been considered primary interpreters and commentators of Christian faith for the church through the ages, despite having “raped” the scriptures by interpretation through the lenses of their own bias and hatred.

Feminist theology has been disparaged by some as picking through scripture and choosing just those parts that are palatable. Rather, it proposes a process of investigation into widely accepted theological ideas to determine how the message may have been changed or augmented by people who have had a particular agenda, or gender, to push. It becomes apparent that the Deutero-Pauline authors and the Church Fathers have, themselves, been guilty of sifting through scripture, chosing those parts that suit their purposes, and interpreting those parts through discolored lenses. The “original sin” of women, as sarcastically described by Visser T’Hooft, may be that “[they] accepted the dominance of the latter and with that negated [women’s] life-task” thereby “depriving [both genders] of their true God-given identities.” [21]  From the moment a thought is shared, it becomes subject to the possible manipulation of others who can twist it to suit their particular selfish desires. The deconstruction inherent in feminist theology seeks to separate later revisions and ‘enhancements’ to determine if the original thought can be reconstructed. When applied to the issue of female leadership in the early church, this process sheds considerable light on the fallacies promulgated by later interpreters of Christian thought and reveals roles for women that decry the patriarchal systems so common in churches. It then becomes impossible to maintain a male-dominated pattern of governance without consciously deciding to accept errant interpretations as normative.  




Fiorenza, Elizabeth Schussler. 1986. “Missionaries, Apostles, Co-workers: Romans 16 and the Reconstruction of Women’s Early Christian History.” Word & World Vol. 6/4. (St. Paul, MN: Luther Seminary)


Fiorenza, Elizabeth Schussler, Editor. 1993. Searching the Scriptures Vol. I – a Feminist Introduction.  (London: SCM Press)


Fiorenza, Elizabeth Schussler, Editor. 1994. Searching the Scriptures Vol. II – a Feminist Commentary.  (London: SCM Press)


Heyward, Carter. 1999. Saving Jesus From Those Who are Right – Rethinking What It Means to be Christian. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press).


LaCugna, C.M., Editor. 1993. Freeing Theology – The Essentials of Theology in Feminist Perspective. (San Francisco: HarperCollins)


Moltmann, Jurgen. 1999. “Henriette Visser ‘T Hooft and Karl Barth.” Theology Today V.55 #4 – January, 1999. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Theological Seminary.)


Moore, Zoe Bennett. 2002. Introducing Feminist Perspectives on Pastoral Theology. (London: Sheffield Academic Press.)


Newsom, Carol A. & Ringe, Sharon H. Ringe, Editors. 1992. The Women’s Bible Commentary. (London: SPCK & Louisville, Ky: Westminster/John Knox Press).


Osiek, Caroline. 2002. “The Bride of Christ : a problematic wedding – Ephesians 5:22-33.” Biblical Theology BulletinInternational Quarterly Journal of Biblical Theology Vol 32:1 Spring 2002. (South Orange, NJ: Seton Hall University). [http://articles.findarticles. com/p/articles/mi_m0LAL/is_1_32/ai_94331936].


[1] Fiorenza, 1986, 422.

[2] To fully appreciate the Fiorenza’s rationale a reading of her article in Word & World is highly recommended. It is available online at [http://www.luthersem.edu/word&world/Archives/6-4_Romans/6-4_Fiorenza.pdf]

[3] Fiorenza, 1986, 422.

[4] Fiorenza, 1986, 426. & Elizabeth Castelli, “Romans”, in Fiorenza, 1994, 277-278. Translated as “benefactor” in Beverly Roberts Gaventa, “Romans”, in Newsom/Ringe, 320.

[5] Fiorenza, 1986, 429.

[6] E. Elizabeth Johnson, “Ephesians”, in Newsom/Ringe, 340.

[7] Justo L. González, Mañana – Christian Theology from a Hispanic Perspective, 1990, (Nashville: Abingdon), 153.


[8] Moore, 54-57.

[9] Alan Richardson & John Bowden, Editors, The Westminster Dictionary of Christian Theology, (Philadelphia: Westminster Press), 1983, 59.

[10] Moore, 56-57.

[11] Elizabeth A. Castelli, “Les Belles Infidèles / Fidelity or Feminism? The Meanings of Feminist Biblical Translation”, in Fiorenza, 1993, 195.

[12] Christopher Burchill, Visiting Assistant Professor in Core Humanities at Villanova University. Calvin against the Calvinists, lecture delivered at a conference in Aberdeen [http://www74.homepage.villanova.edu/christopher.burchill/ my%20papers/Calvin%20against%20the%20Calvinists.pdf], 1984, 3. Accessed 4/4/04.

[13] Osiek, 1.

[14] Osiek, 4.

[15] Osiek, 4-5.

[16] Moltman, 528.

[17] Moltman, 530.

[18] Osiek, 4-5.

[19] Osiek, 3.

[20] The preceding quotes come from research for an essay by this author for a class in early Church History in 2002. The sources utilized in the essay were, among others,  Phelips, The Churches and Modern Thought; Ranke-Heinemann, Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven; Warner, Alone of All Her Sex.

[21] Moltmann, 529-530.

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That's too bad - I'm so sorry. Oh, well, just try to make the best of it. What you'll find here is a variety of essays and ramblings to do with things theological, social, whimsical and, sometimes, all three. I don't write to get famous - trust me, I've been told how futile that would be - but to express myself. I love to communicate and browbeat - ummm, I mean dialogue - about the things I find intriguing. Since you're here, and the door's locked, why don't you stay a while. There's a page bar under the header with links to information about us - I mean me. Don't forget to tell me what you think - in a nice way, I mean.

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