Recently, a number of scholars have noted that archaeological and other evidence supports the idea that the early church had women elders and bishops. While the existence of the evidence is undeniable, some argue that such women were part of heretical sects.
However, others argue that women had these roles early on but the church later came to reject this practice. As a result, references to women have been deleted in the ancient writings that have been preserved, but the archaeological evidence continues to testify to women having had leadership roles.
The WIkipedia offers a helpful summary of the evidence in “Ordination of women,”
Some supporters of women’s ordination have claimed that there have been ordained priests and bishops in antiquity. The official [Catholic] Church position on this is that “a few heretical sects in the first centuries, especially Gnostic ones, entrusted the exercise of the priestly ministry to women: this innovation was immediately noted and condemned by the Fathers who considered it as unacceptable in the Church.” In response to that position, some supporters of women’s ordination take the position that those sects weren’t heretical, but, rather, orthodox.
Some arguable evidence that not all ordinations in the Catholic tradition have been those of males exists. For example, the Pope Gelasius I apparently condemned the practice of women officiating at altars; inscriptions near Tropea in Calabria refer to “presbytera,” which could be interpreted as a woman priest or as a wife of a male priest. Furthermore, a sarcophagus from Dalmatia is inscribed with the date 425 and records that a grave in the Salona burial-ground was bought from presbytera Flavia Vitalia: selling burial plots was at one time a duty of presbyters. There have been some 15 records so far found of women being ordained in antiquity by Christians; while the Vatican insists those are ordinations by heretical groups, the Women’s Ordination Conference contends that those were orthodox Christian groups. There is also the church of Santa Praxedis, where Theodora Episcopa — Bishop Theodora, with the word for “bishop” in feminine form — appears in an image with two female saints and Mary. That church’s pastor alleges that the church was built in honor of Pope Pascal I’s mother by her son, who graced her with the title “Episcopa” due to her being the mother of a Pope. However, Theodora wears a coif in the image, suggesting that she is an unmarried woman.
Part of the difficulty is the fact that some heretical sects, the Montanists in particular, ordained women. It’s just hard to tell whether a tomb or even a church building was orthodox or heretical. Also making the analysis difficult is the uncertainty as to whether feminized forms of church office titles — episcopa, presbytera — refer to female bishops or elders or to their wives. The evidence goes both ways, although the idea that these are titles of wives seems to be losing ground.
It’s unquestionably true that the roles of women shifted in the early Christian years, with the cults of virginity and martyrdom coming to define the ideal woman, whereas we clearly see in the New Testament a much more robust participation by women in the Christian community. Women are honored for their spiritual gifts, as prophets, as witnesses, as missionaries, and even apostles.
The early church unquestionably did appoint women as deacons (later referred to as deaconesses). They were especially involved in the baptism of women, due to concerns of modesty. We’ll consider the Biblical evidence in a later post on deacons. The early Christian evidence is summarized here.
Moreover, there’s evidence that women took on priestly duties in areas where there was a shortage of men — such as due to warfare. But this hardly proves that women were treated as equal to men.
Of course, I’ve long held that historical evidence is unpersuasive, as our conclusions must be built on scripture only. And so, ultimately, it’s interesting but hardly persuasive. But it is interesting.
For the Catholic Church, which builds so much of its teaching on the traditions of the Fathers (uninspired early Christian writers), the question of early practice is nearly central. For us in the Protestant tradition of sola scriptura (scriptures only), it’s a fascinating study but not determinative.
Here’s a short bibliography for those interested:
Nicola Denzy, Bone Gatherers: The Lost Worlds of Christian Women (2007)
Eisen, Ute E. Women Officeholders in Early Christianity: Epigraphical and Literary Studies (2000)