Is having women in ministry really a recent invention?
What we’re learning from church history about women in public ministry
“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
Women in ministry is a recent invention. Or so the many conversations, media, and books I’d encountered for years would lead us to believe. I had no reason to doubt them—until I took some doctoral courses in history. And as I worked through stacks of primary documents about women in the early church, it became apparent the church started talking about women in public ministry long before the U.S. Women’s Movement. So, I set out to determine when exactly the conversation did start.
A Historical Scavenger Hunt
I began in the modern era and started working my way backward. I found that during the last century Moody Bible Institute (MBI), a bastion of evangelicalism, trained scores of women to evangelize, preach, and pastor. But even before that, Jarena Lee (1783–1864) served as a lay preacher in the AME Church. And before her, John Wesley and Methodism welcomed women to the platform, with Wesley even licensing Sarah Crosby to preach (1761). I knew then that I would need to go back even further to reach the beginning of women in public ministry, and I wondered if perhaps the U.S. and French Revolutions—with their emphases on individual freedom—might have catalyzed the question. And certainly I found women in the era of revolutions. But I also found women such as Quaker Margaret Fell Fox, who wrote a pamphlet a century earlier in 1666 titled, “Women’s Speaking Justified, Proved, and Allowed by the Scriptures.”
If the question of women in ministry predated even the French Revolution, I wondered if I’d find the fountainhead still another century earlier. Perhaps the Reformation and its emphasis on the priesthood of all believers opened the door? I looked there, and sure enough, I found lots of early women reformers such as Katherina Schütz Zell and Marie Dentière engaged in active public ministry. And before them I found Catherine of Siena and Christine de Pizan. In her work, The Book of the City of Ladies (1405), the latter draws on examples of biblical women as she challenges her culture’s misogynistic ideals. Each woman rooted her ministry not in rebellion but in scripture. And they stood on the shoulders of women like Clare of Assisi. And Hildegard of Bingen.
Back, back, back I went. Like some never-ending scavenger hunt, each century sent me to an earlier era until I got to the very beginning of the church. And eventually I concluded that evidence for orthodox Christians affirming women in public ministry started on the day of Pentecost, when Peter explained in Acts 2 that the “sons and daughters,” both “men and women” whom everyone saw prophesying, fulfilled the prediction of the prophet Joel. Centuries earlier Joel had said God would pour forth his Spirit in the last days. And in Peter’s day the public proclamation of sons and daughters, young and old, meant the Spirit had descended.
Tracing the Office of Widow From Its Beginnings
If Pentecost started it all, what happened after that? After all, somewhere along the timeline of church history, women were pushed out of leadership. To find out, I had to reverse direction, starting at the beginning and working the other way around. Decades ago I had seen a mention of the word “widow” as an office in my Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (“Kittel”). Its last entry suggests a meaning for “widows” as “widows as an institution.” So last fall, I camped out in the first six centuries of church history, tracing the office of widow from its beginnings.
In the New Testament itself we find a reference to widows. Paul uses the word “widow” in his discussion of church offices in 1 Timothy 5. In earlier years, I had understood Paul’s structure for setting up leaders as first discussing elders, then deacons, then going off on a rabbit trail about widows, before finally returning to talk about those who lead. But I wanted to take another look at that passage. And it occurred to me as I reexamined the text that what I had assumed to be Paul’s wandering train of thought had a parallelism in requirements. Why do we say elders must be men? Because of “husband of one wife” in 1 Timothy 3:2. And voila! There on the list of requirements for widows in the church I found “having been the wife of one husband” (5:9). Did the church limit charity only to women who had lost husbands, or did Paul have more in mind than charity in his qualifications?
I dug beyond the lexica to find historians who explored “widow” in the church as an office. And I found a lot. Inscriptions shed light, as did old liturgies. I discovered some fascinating details as I read between the lines in documents 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 of ordination of priests and male deacons.
- Synod of Orleans AD 533, canon 17 [France – West]. Attended by thirty-two 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 sixty years for women deacons was relaxed to forty 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 seventeen 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.”
As part of my search through primary sources, I had some help from people ahead of me in the secondary sources. And one that fascinated me hit the presses forty-five years ago. A Belgian scholar named Roger Grayson published The Ministry of Women in the Early Church. His publisher? The Order of St. Benedict. After the book’s initial release, Liturgical Press picked it up, translated it into English, and published it in a form people like me could read. So: Belgium. Roman Catholic. Male author. Not rooted in the U.S. feminist movement. At all.
In his work, Grayson traces the offices of widow and deacon(ess) through the church’s early centuries. And after surveying the data, he concludes, “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.” So, historians conflated the offices of deacon(ess) and widow. And “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.”
One can wonder, indeed! In light of overwhelming evidence, how did the error of conflating deaconesses with widows stubbornly persist?
The Source of the “Deacon(ess)” and “Widow” Errors
As a context for exploring the answer to how we got here, we must bear in mind two considerations about words. First, the word “deacon” had no female ending at the time of the earliest Christians. The church referred to female deacons as “deacons,” not “deaconesses,” as no such word existed (in the same way my students call me teacher, not teachess). Second, by referring to “offices,” I mean positions in the church that came with qualifications, unlike “gifts,” which the Spirit bestows on all believers.
Now, then, back to the source of the errors. For centuries historians looked at church fathers’ manuscripts and councils’ pronouncements to rebuild pictures of the past. But social historians, determined to help researchers look beyond affairs of state and power, have pointed scholars to expand their tools of analysis. So now people collect data from everyday sources like liturgies and tombstones. Only one problem. Historians still tend to look only for mention of female names with “deacon(ess)” attached. And upon finding little to nothing until the third century, many concluded that men alone served in public ministry at the time of the earliest Christians—and that women in office came as a later development.
But what if the office of widow and/or virgin preceded the office of deacon(ess) in some places? If so, looking only for references to the word “deacon” connected with female names would lead to incomplete data on which to build conclusions. And, in fact, evidence does tell us female clergy configurations varied by location (east or west), century, and local council.
Imagine it: An historian thinking of a “widow” only as a woman bereft of her husband would find this funerary inscription in Rome: “Regina, the widow, who ‘sat’ as a widow for 60 years and was not a burden to the Church.” As Grayson notes, such an historian would see the data, miss it as evidence, and wrongly conclude that women’s representation in clergy came only as a later development. But instead, he argues, “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.’”
We can trace the presence of women in public ministry to the beginning of the church. And their presence opens a diverse pathway as practices in the East differed from those in the West.
In some locations, qualifications required the widow to reach age sixty or older; the “virgin” in office was younger. Tertullian [b. AD 160, N. Africa] ranked widows among the clergy, and spoke of seats reserved for them. In his work titled De virginibus velandis (9:2–3), he expressed 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)!” In this instance a “virgin” refers to 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. And ordination rites for deacon(esse)s looked almost identical to those of deacons.
By the third century in the West, the office of widow had disappeared. Grayson notes that when Alexandrians such as Clement and Origin [i.e., Egypt—West] do mention women deacons or widows, they refer to them as holding offices in the past tense. To these men, yes, women served in the time of the apostle Paul, but the office died out.
In the fifth century, the Testamentum Domini Nostri Jesu Christi, probably of Syrian [Eastern] origin, devotes four chapters to widows. The work refers to the “ordination of widows,” in two instances using the same word employed for clerics in major orders.
Eventually in the East, the relationship between widows and deacon(esse)s made a reversal, such that widows, who once supervised deacon(esse)s, became subject to them. And also, offices in the East and West carried the same labels at times but with different meanings, those in the West being only honorary. In the more conservative and segregated East, we find mention of workers doing ministry that focuses exclusively on women. People would have viewed men doing so as overstepping their boundaries.
Where did the women go?
Infant baptism eventually replaced adult baptism, so the need for someone to assist with female adult baptism (often nude to symbolize “rebirth”) disappeared.
What factors besides infant baptism led to the tapering off of women in ordained ministry? These reasons emerge from the data:
- The emergence of the monastic movement with often-segregated male and female worlds.
- A foregoance of the priesthood of all believers precipitating the rise of an all-male priesthood in the pattern of the Old Testament.
- A reinstitution of long-abandoned Old Testament temple practices—especially after Constantine, with church buildings and a clergy/laity divide—such as barring menstruating women from worship.
- Anthropology. Some influential church fathers adopted an Aristotelian view of women’s defective nature, which churches denounce today with virtual unanimity.
- Misogyny. Many people, men and woman alike, saw women as weak, fickle, lightheaded, of mediocre intelligence, and a “chosen instrument of the devil.”
Regardless of what we conclude about contemporary church offices, we must recognize that public, vocational, ordained ministry of women in the church began long before the U.S. Women’s Movement. To say otherwise is to speak falsely—and Jesus is the truth. Besides that, we make historians roll their eyes. And if we talk only of what the church fathers were doing without looking similarly to the mothers, we speak of “men in church history” rather than of “church” history.
It was not the radical feminist teachings of the past few decades in the U.S. that first spurred Christians to press for women engaging in public ministry. The stirrings started when the Spirit descended on daughters and maidservants at Pentecost.
So, where does that leave us?
From the first pages of Genesis, we saw that God made humanity in his image—male and female. And we also saw “it is not good for man to be alone.” Why? Because God made male and female to complement each other—and not only as marriage partners but as ministry partners, sharing the task of dominion.
When Jesus spoke of God’s people, he used the metaphor of a family. God’s good design is for Christlike men and women—married or single—to serve as fathers and mothers, standing shoulder-to-shoulder as they labor to bring God’s children to maturity.
And a glance into the future kingdom reveals men and women in a royal family serving as priests to our God, reigning together on the earth.
* A female form of the word “deacon” did not exist for the first few centuries of the church, in the same way English lacks a distinction between “plumber” and “plumbess.” Thus, I’ve denoted uses of “deacon” in this essay as “deacon(ess)” unless quoting someone using the word “deaconess.”
Cover image by Europeana.