Ordained Women in the Early Church: Book Review

Ordained Women in the Early Church: A Documentary History
Kevin Madigan and Carolyn Osiek, ed. and trans.
Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 2005. 220 pp.

The big question is “Were they?” and the answer is “Yup,” but there’s some details to be filled in twixt here and there.

First, I should admit that I am not professionally qualified to really pass proper scholarly judgment on this book. I will, however, tell you a little about what’s in the book and the conclusions reached by Madigan and Osiek. From there, you can do your thing.

Madigan and Osiek are serious students of this domain. Madigan teaches at Harvard Divinity School, Osiek is president of the SBL and teaches at Brite Divinity School. The project began when both taught at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago.

The book has nine chapters: one on the pertinent references in the NT, three on women deacons in the East, divided according to source by literary text-types, canon and comments, and later texts (after the 600 CE cut-off), one on women deacons in the west, one on women deacons in the TESTAMENTUM DOMINI NOSTRI JESU CHRISTI and related texts, one on women presbyters (priests), and a conclusion. As you can see, there’s far more evidence of women as deacons in the East, but surprisingly the situation is reversed when it comes to presbyters: the West has more evidence of this than the East.

Madigan and Osiek believe that they have collected all the known evidence for women as deacons and presbyters in the Latin- and Greek-speaking world. There are also some entries from the Syriac, but they do not claim a similar level of inclusion. Each entry features an intro with pertinent information for understanding the passage in context and a translation of the passage. Most are followed by some statement regarding the import of the passage in the larger picture. I could have wished for more context, but that just means I ought to wander over to the other side of the library and read the original sources myself. Most of this stuff is not that hard to find.

Madigan and Osiek conclude that the earliest references (NT) to the office of deacon make no distinction by gender. The few other first and second century references (outside the NT) are ambiguous for a variety of reasons. By the third century, the office of female deacons or as they are sometimes called, deaconess, had developed in the East. They were considered members of the clergy with special tasks and in some cases, such as dealing with property and politics, these overlapped with their male peers.

In the West, similar roles don’t seem to appear until the fifth century, and the male leadership in that region seems never to have been all that enthusiastic about women as clergy. Echoes of women in these roles continues into the Middle Ages, where the great abbesses of Europe’s monasteries gave blessings, wore some priestly vesture, and heard confession. By and large, however, the appearance of women in these offices worldwide peaked in the sixth century and declined after that. One reason may be that as infant baptism became more universal, women were not needed in baptismal roles, but other forces must also have been at work as well.

Anyway, it’s an interesting book, short, and well-written. You don’t need to be an expert in either history or religion (I’m not) or to even care about the central issue of women’s ordination (I don’t) to read it and enjoy the stories of service and sacrifice that you’ll find inside—in fact, you’ll probably wish there were more. I’ve gone on longer below, extracting some of the passages cited by Madigan and Osiek if you’re interested in more detail, but here I’ll just leave my recommendation: it’s worth your time.

The NT text are the usual suspects: Rom 16:1-2, which talks about Phoebe as a deacon and benefactor of Paul and 1 Tim 3:11. Phoebe’s title is deacon, not deaconess or “servant” as the AV has it. The challenge here is that we don’t know what deacons of either gender did in Paul’s house churches, so we don’t know what Phoebe did. But she’s a deacon, regardless.

In 1 Tim 3:8-11, there’s a different sort of ambiguity:

8 Similarly, deacons must be dignified, not deceitful, not addicted to drink, not greedy for sordid gain, 9 holding fast to the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. 10 Moreover, they should be tested first; then, if there is nothing against them, let them serve as deacons.

11 Gynaikas, similarly, should be dignified, not slanderers, but temperate and faithful in everything.

The issue is, how should ”gynaikas” be translated: as “women,” which by the analogous structure with v.8, would indicate women deacons, or as “wives,” which would mean that part of the requirement for a deacon was a decent wife?

There’s also brief mention of Phil 1:1, including the possibility that Evodia and Syntyche are among the episkopoi, (bishops) but no coverage of Junia as “prominent among the apostles” in Rom 16:7. (against the AV, which has the male name “Junias”)

But this stuff in the NT has been hashed over so many times that it gets old. I was actually interested in reading some of the less well-known entries, and particularly in getting at the questions of

a) Were women considered members of the clergy?

b) Did women serve “at the altar” in a sacramental role?

The answer to the first is “yes,” while the answer to the second depends on what you make of a couple of statements and inscriptions. First, a statement from Pope Gelasius I (492-96) in a letter to some bishops in southern Italy (trans. from Latin, Madigan):

We have heard to our distress that contempt of divine things has reached such a state that women are encouraged (firmentur) to serve at the sacred altars (ministrare sacris altaribus) and perform all the other tasks (cunctaque) that are assigned only to the service of men (non nisi virorum famulatui sexum) and for which they [women] are not appropriate (cui non competunt).

Then there’s this one from three Gallic bishops to two priests in Breton, written in 511, which made me laugh right out loud:

Bishops Licinius, Melanius, and Eustochius to priests Lovocatus and Catihernius, our most blessed lords and brothers in Christ. We have learned through a report of the priest Speratus, a venerable man, that you have not desisted from carrying certain altars (tabulas) through the domiciles of several citizens and presume to say masses there with women, whom you call conhospitae, who are employed in the divine sacrifice; so that, while you are distributing the eucharist, they hold the chalices and presume to administer the blood of Christ to the people of God. This novelty and unheard-of superstition saddens us not a little, as such a horrendous sect, which by no means has ever existed in Gaul, seems to be emerging in our times.

There’s a number of others, but I’ll leave off with one more, this time from a gentleman and bishop named Atto (Bishop of Vercelli) to a priest named Ambrose, and written around the tenth century:

Because your prudence has moved you to inquire how we should understand “female priest” (presbyteram) or “female deacon” (diaconam) in the canons: it seems to me that in the primitive church, according to the word of the Lord, “the harvest was great and the laborers few”; religious women (religiosae mulieres) used also to be ordained as caretakers (cultrices ordinabantur) in the holy church, as Blessed Paul shows in the Letter to the Romans, when he says, “I commend to you my sister Phoebe, who is in the ministry of the church at Cenchrea.” Here it is understood that not only men but also women presided over the churches (sed etiam feminae praeerat ecclesiis) because of their great usefulness. For women, long accustomed to the rites of the pagan and instructed also in philosophical teachings, were, for these reasons, converted more easily and taught more liberally in the worship of religion. This the eleventh canon of the Council of Laodicea prohibits when it says it is not fitting for those women who are called female presbyters (presbyterae) or presiders (praesidentes) to be ordained in the churches. We believe female deacons truly to have been ministers of such things. For we say that a minister is a deacon (diaconum) from which we perceive female deacon (diaconam) to have been derived. Finally, we read in the fifteenth canon of the Council of Chalcedon that a female deacon is not to be ordained before her fortieth year—and this was the highest gravity. We believe women were enjoined to the office of baptizing so that the bodies of other women might be handled by them without any deeply felt sense of shame…as as those who were called female presbyters (presbyterae) assumed the office of preaching, leading, and teaching, so female deacons had taken up the office of ministry and of baptizing, a custom that is no longer expedient.

Bishop Atto doesn’t seem nearly as bothered about women clergy as Pope Gelarius and the three Gallic bishops, but that’s probably because it’s not in his diocese. There’s also a good deal of other information and references to women participating in baptisms, particularly in the anointing that followed. There’s reason to believe that these women assumed some sort of responsibility for the newly baptized, including taking them in for the first eight days afterwards.

There’s quite a variety of stories and entries, some of which are funny, some charming, and some touching. This one, from the Alphabetical Collection of Matthew Blastares (1335), with its stereotypical outlook on women’s sexuality, just cracks me up:

Previously there was an order (tagma) of female deacons (diakonoi gynaikai) and another of widows. The fathers ordained (cheirontonein) deacons those who chose the dignity of virginity and live a chaste life, and who were at least 40 years old. But out of suspicion of their tendency to be easily deceived and slide toward evil, they [the fathers] thought this age was necessary, for the apostle determined that those accepted into the order of widows should not be less than sixty, reasonably so. For those who had not tasted worldly pleasure could not easily be dragged into it after so long a time. But widows, being used to the marriage bed, would rather be more inclined to passion, with their customary carnal attitudes stirred up. Therefore they delineated the age of sixty for the widow, so that since they are already growing old, the flame of passion should be extinguished….

Then Bro. Blastares goes to tell us about other problems associated with women. It amuses me that Christianity managed to lose circumcision in about one generation, but the old “women’s affliction” was an issue for much, much longer:

Women deacons then fulfilled a certain service among the clergy (kleroi) which is nearly unknown to everyone now. There are some who say that they baptized women because it was not proper for men to see undressed those being baptized who were of a certain age. Others say that they were allowed to approach the holy altar and perform nearly all the functions done by male deacons. They were forbidden access and performance of these services by later fathers because of their monthly flow that cannot be controlled. So it was legitimate in previous times for women to have access to the holy altar, and indeed for many others to seek after it, especially according to the funerary oration that the great Gregory did for his sister.

Actually, I have no idea how long it took for Christianity to wholly leave off circumcision, even for Jewish-Christian families. I’d be interested if anyone does know more details.

  • J. Watkins

    The older I get (all of 26 I admit) the more liberal in my thinking I become and right now I wonder if someday this won’t be a situation identical to the Blacks receiveing the priesthood. Not a novel idea I know, but it somehow seems more possible to me today than ever before (that is, in my mind not in the world). With the women serving in the temple the way they do I wouldn’t be surprised if it evertually came about, nor would I be surprised if it didn’t. I used to be contented by the ol’ “priesthood for guys, motherhood for girls” argument. Now I just wonder why no one ever says “fatherhood for guys, motherhood for women.” And I would add “and priesthood for all.” Oh well, it’s God’s decision and thank goodness for it.

  • Mogget

    Yes, “God’s decision” is really pretty much the bottom line here and now. But the history is interesting.

    One of the things that does come through is that the ex post facto rationalization is the need for women, which takes several forms:

    First, there’s the need for women to assist in adult baptisms. This is important in both East and West.

    Second, there’s the need for women to act as liasons between male leadership and female laity, particularly as the “virignity thing” became more important. This is bigger in the East than in the West.

    Finally, there’s a “between the lines” sense that the early church needed the money and protection offered by wealthy, educated women. While the offices of deacon and deaconess had functional roles, it wouldn’t surprise me to find that on occasion they were given for other services.

  • J. Watkins

    Great review of this. Keep up the interesting posts.


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