But men might also seek a woman of acknowledged virtue and status as their leader. Ancient women were ideally described as limited to the private realm. Religious leadership was also civic in nature because it secured divine favor for the community. Myth 4. Celibate women could lead, but married women were subject to their husbands.
Some women leaders were married. Women in the Roman world maintained control over much of their property during marriage and thus had access to wealth, an important factor in social status. Like their unmarried counterparts, married women served as patrons, gave gifts, made loans, dedicated buildings and served as civic and religious leaders.
Chastity was a virtue prized by the church in its earliest centuries. Chastity was related to self-control, an important quality of leaders because it meant they could consider the needs of the whole community. So it is not surprising that many leaders were celibate. But chastity was encouraged for all Christians — whether married or unmarried.
Christian writers agreed that married persons could — and should — practice sexual self-control.
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And it is a feature that persisted, even into fairly recent history. Only the Armenian Church continued to ordain deaconesses to serve at the altar, up through the early twentieth century. And it should be noted that every one of those Armenian deaconesses was a nun, often the abbess of her convent. Their goal is the priesthood and, ultimately, the episcopate—just as it was for women deacons when the Anglican Church began recognizing their office as part of Holy Orders during the s.
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Video Podcasts. Charlotte Allen is a writer living in Washington, D. Writing in the s, they described her teaching center and hospital near Seleucia. The pilgrim Egeria visited this facility in A. The excavators also found numerous cisterns, apparently for washing the sick, two other churches, and many fine mosaics. The center apparently was in active use for at least 1, years, indicating the presence in Asia Minor of an extremely strong female leader.
Beside the outstanding achievements of individual women stood the ministry of consecrated women in specialized orders. These orders included ecclesial widows, virgins, presbyteresses and deaconesses. Sometimes such women were formally ordained and sat with the rest of the clergy in front of the congregation. Mary McKenna suggests that the disadvantaged women who accompanied Jesus in his Galilean ministry Luke formed the beginning of the order of widows. The Greek term cheira might refer to any woman who found herself in difficult circumstances.
Tertullian complained of a virgin who was admitted to the order of widows at the age of 19! These widows were supported by the gifts of the congregation, and in turn were expected to pray for their benefactors as well as for all other members of the church. Their duties and qualifications were developed from the instructions in 1 Timothy 5. In the Clementine Recognitions and Homilies , perhaps from the first half of the 3rd century, St. Peter, as he prepares to leave Tripoli, appoints elders and deacons and organizes an order of widows.
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Under no circumstances should she reveal the name of a donor, lest other widows demand an equal gift from the same source or, worse yet, curse the one who withheld such benefices. The selection process and ordination service of widows parallels those of deacons, bishops and presbyters. These widows assumed pastoral responsibilities such as instructing female catechumens and the ignorant, gathering those who desired to live a pure life for prayer and encouragement, rebuking the wayward, and seeking to restore them.
This is the function which was exercised in the church of Cenchreae by Phoebe, who was the object of high praise and recommendation by Paul… And thus this text teaches at the same time two things: that there are, as we have already said, women deacons in the Church, and that women, who by their good works deserve to be praised by the Apostle, ought to be accepted in the diaconate. As late as the end of the 4th century, diaconos might designate a woman as well as a man.
The order of deaconesses as distinct from that of widows appears clearly delineated in the first half of the 3rd century in the Didascalia , which declared that the deaconesses should be honored as figures of the Holy Spirit. They could visit believing women in pagan households where a male deacon would be unacceptable. To them belonged the duties of visiting the sick, bathing those recovering from illness, and ministering to the needy.
Deaconesses also assisted in the baptism of women, anointing them with oil and giving them instruction in purity and holiness. They could give communion to women who were sick and unable to meet with the entire church. The Apostolic Constitutions even specified that both male and female deacons might be sent with messages outside the city limits. The ministry of the widow was largely that of prayer, fasting, and laying of hands on the sick, while the deaconess, usually a considerably younger woman, undertook the more physically arduous tasks.
Ancient documents show that deaconesses were ordained.
The Neglected History of Women in the Early Church
The Council of Chalcedon set down requirements for the ordination of deaconesses, and the Apostolic Constitutions includes their ordination prayer. The Cappadocian father, Basil, uses presbytera apparently in the sense of a woman who is head of a religious community. It occurs not only in Titus , but most markedly in Canon 11 of Laodicea, which forbade the appointment of presbytides eldresses or of female presidents prokathemenai. The masculine form, prokathemenos , indicated the presbyter or bishop who presided over the communion service.
Dionysius of Alexandria, who died in A. There are even a few scattered references connecting women to the priesthood. Theosebia, truly a priestly personage, the colleague of a priest, equally honored and worthy of the great sacraments.
Early women leaders: from heads of house churches to presbyters
The walls of the Roman catacombs bear pictures showing women in authoritative stances, with their hands raised in the posture of a bishop. The Ecclesiastical Canons of the Apostles specifically forbade women to stand in prayer —8. But here we see them standing in prayer, exercising a ministry of intercession and benediction, and dominating the scene. To this day, their steadfast faith and ministry still bless us. Her doctorate is in classical studies and Greek, with a specialization in women in ancient religion, especially women and the ecclesiology of the Apostle Paul.
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The Neglected History of Women in the | Christian History | Christianity Today
Subscribe Subscriber Benefits Give a Gift. Subscribers receive full access to the archives. Home Featured Holidays. Home Featured People. Jesus Befriended Prostitutes. Early Church Middle Ages Reformation Early Modern Modern The Neglected History of Women in the Early Church A number of prominent leaders, scholars, and benefactors of the early church were women and—despite neglect by many modern historians—the diligent researcher can still uncover a rich history.