Women in Leadership in the Early Church Part 3

This is the third article addressing women in ministry.  The first two articles use the Bible to document their service and leadership from the time of Jesus through the first century.  Part 3 looks at the factors that came together to oppose the equality found in the early church. church-fathers-beardsWHAT HAPPENED AFTER THE FIRST CENTURY

The list of women included in Romans 16 gives us a good picture of how active women were in the ministry and leadership of the early church. Yet in only a few hundred years, this shared ministry was no longer present. A number of factors came together to oppose the equality found in the first century church. Prominent among them are 1) the long standing patriarchal nature of society, 2) the educational background of second-generation church leaders, and 3) the institutionalization of the church.

The beginnings of equality found in the early church were quickly overcome by the surrounding culture and traditions. Even while negative influences predominated, our faithful God, through moves of the Holy Spirit, kept a trace of His unchanging plan that can be followed through the years. Of particular interest is the fact that during every move of the Spirit for the last 2000 years women have been lifted toward equal status with men.[1]  He begins to restore with the Reformation and has continued to move to free women into the present day.


 Patriarchy is a social system in which males hold primary power, predominate in roles of political leadership, moral authority, social privilege and control of property; while in the domain of the family, fathers or father-figures hold authority over women and children.[2]  The world of the early church was strongly patriarchal.

Historically, nearly every known culture has ignored contrary evidence and believed that the female was intellectually and biologically inferior to the male.  Patriarchal beliefs were supported by the fact that women were seldom educated which made it easy to consider them intellectually inferior to educated men.

The acceptance of male superiority is clearly seen in the widely held belief that the male “seed”(sperm) contained a tiny human, fully formed but needing a place to grow.  The wife was thought to only carry the baby but have no part in its conception in the same way that ground is only to nurture seed. This belief did not end until the end of the 19th century.


 In the second century the educational background of church leaders was rooted in the teachings of classical Greek philosophers like Plato and Aristotle who had very negative views on women. Second generation leadership was primarily from pagan backgrounds and lacked the Jewish training in Old Testament scripture.  Cultural influences, as well as their educational/cultural training, evidently blinded these early leaders and theologians.

The tragedy is that what they wrote has been accepted as traditional or orthodox theology –the acceptable way of thinking about things—even though it generally disregarded Jesus’ teaching about women and the clear participation of women in leadership positions in the book of Acts.

All classical Greek philosophers taught that women are inferior to men and therefore should be commanded by men and used for their pleasure.  Stoic philosophers said women are a distraction and temptation to men and should be avoided in order to pursue philosophy and things that make men superior.  The influence of both schools of thought can be found in the teaching of the church fathers.

Aristotle’s view is clearly seen in these words, “Woman is an embarrassment to man, a beast in his quarters, a continual worry, a never-ending trouble, a daily annoyance, the destruction of the household, a hindrance to solitude, the undoing of a virtuous man, an oppressive burden, an insatiable bee, a man’s property and possession.”  He taught that the husband is to the wife as the soul is to the body.  The church fathers assumed that’s what Paul meant by “the husband is the head of the wife” when Paul was really challenging that concept.[3]


Institutionalization was bad news for women.   God’s intent is for His people to be a royal priesthood. But as the church grew, the man-made need to organize and “be in control” caused a move away from choosing leaders from both genders because they were recognized as being anointed by the Holy Spirit.

Ministry functions began to have titles like Bishop, Prophet or Apostle.  Soon Christians were divided into two categories, clergy (with titles) and laity, (without). These words come from kleros, “the called ones” and laos, “God’s people,” words that originally referred to all believers.  Over time titles indicated rank in a male hierarchical structure where clergy led and laity followed.

By the fourth century when Constantine made Christianity the “state religion,” women had been removed from leadership and the downward spiral into the dark ages was well underway. The institutionalized (organized) church was structured after worldly government and the “clergy” were male. Structures similar to these remained even after the Reformation and are still with us today.

God intends for there to be leadership, but it only works when He does the choosing. Spiritually all Christians are called.  We are a kingdom of priests (male and female) who do not look only to a “hired holy man” to do the work of the ministry.  God calls us to take personal responsibility to know scripture and be the priesthood of believers that God has called us to be.

Today, God has cleared the way for many women to be free to function according to His plan for their lives.  We need to take great care that we remain His servants not fearing to move in our call because it is not traditionally acceptable or seeking recognition through worldly means rather than waiting on His anointing.  God’s Kingdom functions as light in the darkness of today’s world.  As Kingdom citizens our job is seek Him for where and how we are to be that light.  Are we up to the challenge?


[1] Eddie L. Hyatt, 2000 Years of Charismatic Christianity, (Hyatt Press 1998)

[2] Wikipedia definition

[3]Exploring the Greek Word Kaphale Translated “Head”

[4] This diagram is taken from Susan S. Hyatt, The Spirit, The Bible, and Women: Teaching and Study Guide for In the Spirit We’re Equal (Hyatt Press 1999) p 33.  Original source Lars P. Qualben, A History of the Christian Church (New York: Thomas Nelson and Sonas, 1933), p. 99


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