More Than Footnotes – Part 1: Women in Early Church History

Many Christians have inherited the supposition that the Church has been built on the backs of men. Masculine, courageous, and often oddly wigged men. When we read philosophy and theology addressing the roles of pastor, apostle, disciple, missionary, etc., we subtly assume a masculine context unless women are specifically brought up. Yet, failing to recognize the essential role of women in Church history is, in my opinion, to wrongly conclude that we should interpret our own story through the broken lens of “he shall rule over her” (Gen. 3:16) in place of humanity’s original commission for partnership (Gen. 2:18). Like the post-Fall curses of death and toil, the curse of unequal partnership is certainly worth fighting as Christianity seeks to understand the leadership behind our historical identity.

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In this series of posts titled, More than Footnotes will examine the role of women in different phases of Church history in order to offer a truer picture of Christianity which will benefit women and men alike. In each installment, I will briefly highlight the gender-relevant context of a section of Church history before overviewing important female figures. I will be primarily citing two works called, Her Story (HS) and Discovering Biblical Equality (DBE) for reference. My hope for these posts is to simply offer readers a more complete picture of Christian history which by focusing on the women who are too often footnoted and forgotten.

More than Footnotes Part 1: Women in the Early Church

THE CONTEXT

What role did women play in the earliest days of the Church? I am going to skip over most of the New Testament itself in order to avoid falling into a never-ending pit of Greek semantics, theological persuasions, or the painfully patriarchal world of both Greeks, Romans and Jews as recorded both in and outside of the NT (Did you know that both Jews and Romans had daily rituals of thanksgiving for not being born female?). If you want more detail about women in Jesus’ ministry or Paul’s ministry, then click these links. For now, it is important to keep in mind that this is a survey of historical figures who are essential to the establishment of the Christian Church.

As leaders and evangelists in house churches, women played an essential role in the earliest days of the Church. House churches, becoming the primary channels for the sustainability of the early Church, were funded and led by women such as Lydia (Acts 16:11-40), Nympha (Col. 4:15) and Mary the mother of John Mark, (Acts 12:12). In 1 Thess. 5:12 Paul suggests that such house-church leaders had significant authority as he tells his readers to be thankful for those who “have charge of you in the Lord.” In both Jewish and Greco-Roman culture, women did not always have equal access or rights in the public sphere, thus the home was the most socially acceptable and encouraged place for women to speak, teach, and take responsibility. It is within this household context that the Church was raised into infancy.

Yet as the Church acquired legal status in Roman society, it became increasingly subject to patriarchal ideology which was typical of the dominate culture. No longer raising the Church in their homes, women were increasingly marginalized–even being banned from church grounds if they happened to be menstruating (HS. 16). As the Church adopted more hierarchal structures in the 4th century, the positions at the top became only open to men as female bishops or presbyters would have been antithetical to Roman gender ideology (HS. 27). No longer commonly recognized as partners (Romans 16; Phil 4:2) apostles, (Romans 16:7) and prophets (Acts 21:9; Rev. 2:20), women were often forced to look for other roles to fulfil. As Barbara MachHaffie notes, “historians generally agree that women had a decisive part in the creation of the church and played a more prominent role in the first generation of Christianity than they did in later centuries (HS. 4).

THE LEADERS

With this rollercoaster of a trajectory in mind, the three important post-New Testament leaders we all should know go by the names of Perpetua, Proba, and Egeria.

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Perpetua and Felicitas

1) Perpetua and her servant Felicitas may be the best documented female figures (though not the only) to be martyred for their faith by Rome. After being held in prison in approx. C.E. 202 Perpetua and Felicitas were executed under Septimus Severus for their commitment to Christ (DBE. 24).

Tossed into the gladiator arena, the women were gourd and beheaded publicly. As a 22 year old mother, Perpetua had the chance to deny her faith and return home with her father but claiming her spiritual awakening, she and Felicitas chose otherwise (DBE. 24). The (possibly Montanist) record of Perpetua’s story reveals that she received prophetic dreams which help her to emerge as the leader of the imprisoned community (some of which were male clergy) who were all executed by Rome (HS. 27). In early Christianity, Perpetua’s leadership even led to regular Carthage holidays and special sermons from those such as Augustine the Bishop of Hippo (HS. 28).

Faltonia Betitia Proba

Faltonia Betitia Proba

2) Proba was a wealthy roman women who converted to Christianity sometime in her adult life (HS. 28). Written in approx. C.E. 351, Proba’s Centro stands today as a fascinating piece of early theological contribution in early Church history.

Centro is a form of masterful ancient poetry technique in which the author would rearrange exact lines from a well-known work, such as Homer’s Odyssey, in order to provide new and expanding meaning (HS. 29). Proba applied this poetic art form to biblical texts such as the Hebrew Pentateuch and the Last Supper thereby offering an artistically original and painstakingly studious work of scholarship. Despite receiving initial resentment in Roman culture, her theologically interpretive work would soon be considered a classic, allowing it to be used as a textbook for centuries (HS. 29). Barbara MachHaffie notes the further significance of Proba’s Centro in that her work allowed for the Bible to become better understood and accepted by Roman culture, thus easing the growing hostility between Christianity and Rome (HS. 29).

Egeria

3)  Pilgrimage to the Holy Land by a women named Egeria may be the first formal writing in prose by a woman in Western European Culture. Egeria’s manuscript describes her pilgrimage to the Holy Land sometime in the early fifth century.

Egeria’s diary reveals her deep understanding of scripture and appreciation for forms of worship in the Jerusalem church. Barbara MachHaffie observes that Egeria’s diary becomes especially important to early Christianity as it offers invaluable information on early church practices, architectures, and condition of biblical sites in the fifth century (HS. 30).

Other Posts: Women leaders in Medieval Christianity, Women Leaders in the Reformation Era 

 -Michael Wiltshire

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