[This is a continuation of our on-going series on Women in the Church]
Update: Part 2 is now up.
First off, one of the main limitations of writing is the necessity of producing summary titles for what you write. This post should, more precisely, have the title “Where have all of the ordained, teaching, preaching, and leading female leaders in Church History been?” But I can only put so much in the title before it becomes absurd.
I say that because even complementarians (who don’t think women should be ordained) will freely acknowledge the valuable place women (in general) have had in the Church over the years. They simply think that, in spite of gifting or value, God has placed limits on who should lead his church in ordained, official ways. So…sorry for any confusion.
When it comes to the Bible and the contemporary benefits women in Church leadership could offer, I’m pretty comfortable, confident, and secure in my egalitarianism. I think it is a faithful, consistent, practical, and edifying view to hold, and I see evidence for it written and displayed all over the place.
And yet, I’m in the extreme minority, relative to Church History.
As I’ve said before, that fact is the only thing that gives me pause or shakes my confidence in this. People more in-tuned with the Spirit of God, more doggedly faithful to the Scriptures, have been looking at these same passages for over a thousand years now, and the vast majority of them have come to a different conclusion than me.
Only the most arrogant of Christian egalitarians can easily disregard this fact (on a side note, I wonder if the same could be said concerning infant baptism?)
On the other side of the coin, though, I think this is also the reason for the frequent complementarian over-confidence and—often times—frustrating arrogance, when discussing this issue. It’s not so much that they’re so confident in their own individual “faithful and plain reading of the Scriptures” (as they would say), but rather in the feeling that there is a critical mass of people that agree with them. This can lead them to having the unquestioned assumption that they are reading things “plainly” and “faithfully” simply because most people in history have agreed with them.
This also makes it easier for them to demonize those that disagree with them (thinking they aren’t being faithful), and it often prevents real, constructive discourse between the two sides from happening.
Quieting the Voices in My Head
But a few things have calmed my fears when it comes to this historical concern of mine:
- The Reformation gives a precedent for a huge swath of the Church (especially the “thoughtful theologians” and “faithful readers of Scripture”) that could have been so wrong for so long.
- The fact that most of these theologians did not have the knowledge of the Greek language and cultural context behind the relevant texts that we have today.
- The entire history of the Jewish people (especially the Pharisees) is one of people who love God and even live out their faith in radical ways, for thousands of years, and yet miss the truth of the Scriptures when it’s staring them in the face.
It seems that getting Scripture wrong in spite of one’s sincerity in wanting to get it right is a human problem, not a Scripture fidelity issue.
But still, though these things have simply quieted the voices of doubt in my mind, they haven’t entirely removed them.
For the past several weeks, I’ve been really researching the history of women in Church leadership, to see exactly how this historically developed.
For this post, I’m going to do something different than the others. Instead of walking through the arguments and minutiae, I’m just going to give you my sources up front, and then talk about the way it looks like the history played out. If you’re still skeptical, you can go to the sources to read up on the relevant strands of evidence.
The most important thing that helped me out was this issue of Christian History Institute Magazine on “Women in the Early Church”, namely the articles I will link to in the rest of the posts. I was also helped by a lecture by Mardi Keyes and this article on Wikipedia on the topic.
The History from 50,000 feet
From the earliest days of the Church, it is clear that women were involved in every leadership role in the Church. You not only find the feminine form of the Greek words for every leadership office, including apostles, prophets, deacons, elders, ministers, and priests, but you also find the masculine forms of all of those offices ascribed to women.
Now, sometimes (especially later), these titles are ascribed in the context of forbidding these roles, but there are still lots of positive references (especially in earlier texts).
As said, there seems to be little controversy over women in leadership for the first couple-hundred years of the Church. One of the best articles in that magazine above is “The Early Controversies Over Female Leadership” that goes through the earliest Church “orders”. “Orders” were the documents that laid out who should be leaders, what they did, how they should be ordained, and how they exercised their authority.
When you do this, it seems like women were fully functioning as leaders in the Church until about the mid-200s A.D. This is a very key period in the Church, and it’s where many things began to turn and change that still reverberate in the Church today, especially when it pertains to women.
Tomorrow, we’ll begin looking at these changes specifically, and what effect they had on the place of female leaders in the Church.
[image credit: Istvan Sandorfi, “Quo Vadis”]