The view and Role of Women in the Early Church

What can we learn from it?

 by Lilly Cruz

In many churches today (as well as societies) women are treated as second-class citizens. Some churches do not allow woman to perform even a simple task in the functions of the church such as, researching for sermons, organizing church activities, assisting with seating or sound functions, sharing their thoughts and ideas on matters or any other activities. Some churches however, go completely opposite and ordain woman as ministers, allow them to give public talks and use them in every area of church functions or business. Which way is the correct way? While there can be no absolutes and it is up to the church itself as mandated by their own conscience what role women should play, looking at the view of women held in the early church and more importantly by our Lord Jesus himself can help us have a balanced view in this area.

Cultural View of women during the early church time

Women in the first century were viewed through patriarchal eyes. Women were not given the same rights as men, or for that matter, slaves. They were objects that were meant to please and serve men. A woman’s main function was to run the home and raise the children and her main focus was to be in the home. Women were not allowed to vote. Women not permitted in public prayer nor could a man talk to a woman in public, or for that matter, women were not even allowed to talk in public, and they had to keep their heads covered. Women lived under the rule of the Roman Empire consisting of male authority. Most of the ancient cultures either by law or custom, excluded women from religious worship or public domain, which comprised a large part of the world's ideas and cultural and creative contributions. Women were also viewed as "unclean" during menstruation and after childbirth, which would isolate them from society even further during and after each of these events.

Jesus' treatment of women at that time

Although Jesus was not a champion of women’s rights, he treated women like people which contrasted his Jewish background and runs counter-culture to how a man treated women (Searching the Scripture, p.120).

Jesus went against prevailing traditions and attitudes toward women. Men did not speak to women in public, did not allow them public prayer and certainly did not allow them to serve in worship services. Jesus spoke to women in public, such as the Samaritan woman at the well (John Chapter 4) and allowed women to become deaconesses. This is contrary to rabbinical trends (Women and World Religions, p 312). Jesus’ attitude toward women would have been depicted as being un-Jewish according to the standards at that time.

The fact that Jesus even conversed with women, going against the prevailing tradition of the time, must have been seen as an outrage. In the bible book of Luke the text validates the importance of women and their contribution to Jesus' ministry and gives detailed descriptions of how Jesus interacted with them. If Jesus really did treat women as equals, listen to their opinions, taught them and loved them without judgment, women must have flocked to him. Luke commonly uses Jesus’ interaction with women to reveal his concept of Jesus’ character. Two specific examples include Jesus comforting the widow of Nain and having compassion on a prostitute, a practice unheard of in that society or in our own society. Do we have compassion on prostitutes? Do we see them as lonely, lost and exploited or do we look at them as drugged-out women who don’t deserve compassion or forgiveness? Jesus looked beyond externals to the constitution of the soul.  In Luke 8:1-3 he includes a summary of the part women played in Jesus’ ministry. Accompanying him are numerous female disciples whom he has healed and who now support him and the male disciples “out of their own resources.

Also according to the Luke gospel, it appears that women were greatly supportive of Jesus in his ministry. In first Century Jerusalem, it was not common practice for a woman to support a man. It isn’t common practice today. It goes against social mores, yet Jesus allowed these women to support him in his work so he could be free about “his Father’s business.” “Unlike his contemporaries, Jesus was not derogatory about women’s nature, ability or religious capacities.” Both women and men came into Jesus’ vision as individual people who don’t have the burden of stereotype. We see Jesus dealing with a woman personally, intimately and against the grain of prevailing male-female relations and boundaries.

Luke also records that Paul converted several "Greek women in high standing" in Macedonia. (Acts 16:14, 17:4) It may be relevant that in Hellenistic times Macedonia was famous for producing aristocratic and royal ladies of outstanding vigor, from Olympia, mother of Alexander the Great, to Cleopatra VII last of the great rulers of Egypt. For early Christian women, economic status significantly shaped the ways they could participate in Christian Communities.

Early Church's treatment of women

The Book of Ephesians endorses rigid social and domestic hierarchy of the day but makes the system more humane by insisting that Christian love apply to all and that men love their wives as Christ loves the church. (Ephesians 5:25) Women whose husbands die were “better off” because they didn’t have divided loyalties and could be of more service to the church. If an unbeliever leaves believing spouse, she is “exonerated” from the stigma of divorce. The advantages sometimes belong to the unmarried state as furnishing better opportunities for doing good, did much to create the impression that to abstain from marriage is a praiseworthy act of self-denial. The most esteemed writers, from Cyprian back as far as Justin Martyr, give special honor to the class of women who from early times chose to remain single and devote themselves to doing good (History of the Christian Church, p. 62). Women were allowed to hold the position of deaconesses in the early church. Although limited as to their functions, women could become deaconesses but they were not allowed to baptize or preach. Many women opened their homes to the church, which is comprised of a body of believers rather than a building. Lydia is mentioned in Acts for opening her home. And Paul thanks Phoebe in Romans chapter 16 for her administration of church duties and asks other believers to support her administration. Women made considerable contributions to the development of Christianity in the first four centuries (Searching the Scriptures, p. 291). The book of Acts also mentions Tabitha, Lydia and Mary who opened their homes as well. Women were given the opportunity for service and purpose in the home and outside of the home in the community.


Contrary to some popular teaching about biblical submission, the Bible never portrays women as silent shadows that have little to contribute mentally or spiritually. In fact, women played an important role in Jesus' ministry and in the spread of Christianity. The following list contains just a few of the valuable spiritual contributions women have made in the history of the church.

• Mary and Martha were close friends of Jesus (Luke 10:38-39)
• Mary anointed Jesus prior to his death. (John 12:3)
• Many women lamented Jesus' crucifixion (Luke 23:27-31 and John 19:25)
• Women were the first to visit Jesus' tomb on Resurrection morning (Luke 23:55-24:1)
• Early church leaders responded positively to widows' complaints (Acts 6:1-6)
• Dorcas was "abounding with deeds of kindness and charity" throughout her community. When Peter later raised her from the dead, many townspeople believed in Christ (Acts 9:36-42)
• The church gathered in Mary's home to pray for Peter (Acts 12:12)
• Women gathered for worship at Philippi, where Paul spoke to them (Acts 16:13)
• Lydia was a successful businesswoman. She became a Christian and prevailed upon Paul and his colleagues to meet in her home (Acts 16:14-15)
• In Thessalonica " a number of the leading women" were responsive to Paul and Silas' teaching (Acts 17:4)
• In Berea "many…believed, along with a number of prominent Greek women." (Acts 17:12)
• Priscilla and Aquila, her husband, were partners in church work (Acts 18:2 and 18:19)
• Both Priscilla and Aquila corrected Apollo’s theology (Acts 18:26)
• Paul mention Phoebe as a "servant of the church… a helper of many and myself" (Romans 16:1)
• Paul calls Priscilla "a fellow worker" (Romans 16:3)
• "Chloe's people" gave Paul information on the Corinthian problems (1 Corinthians. 1:11)
• Paul lets unmarried women "stay as they are" so they can serve the Lord and not be forced into marriage (1 Corinthians 7:28)
• Widows were given special attention, assistance and care (1 Timothy 5:3-6)

Strengths of women (grace, hospitality, nurturers) balancing strengths of men

Many women are quoted in the Bible for their strengths, which are meant to balance the strengths of men. The Hebrew Bible mentions Deborah who was a judge and a prophetess (Judges 4-5) and she is credited with a military victory.

Modern Judaism can claim such outstanding women as Henrietta Szold who is Founder of the Hadassah Medical Organization, and Golda Meir, the Prime Minister of Israel.

Whereas men have physical strength, logical thinking and often can see things in only black and white, women are the nurturers, add emotional depth and can see the gray areas; women also have the ability to give birth, which requires a high tolerance of pain! Women and men however can share similar qualities such as intelligence, a sense of humor creativity and the ability to lead and teach.

In the Genesis account of creation, we read how God created both men and women. Women are of equal value in God's eyes. Although men and women are created for different purposes and as many psychologists can attest, have different thinking patterns, women were meant to be an integral part of humanity and have purpose and significance in God's creation and purpose. If not, why would God ignore half of the population He created?

 

Bibliography

Searching the Scriptures - publisher Herder & Herder 1997, Author: Elizabeth Fiorenza

 
Women and World Religions - publisher Prentice Hall, 2001 Author: Lucinda Joy Peach

History of the Christian Church - publisher Hendrickson Publishers, 1996

 

 

Article by: Lilly Cruz

2006


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