Christian History Home > Issue 17 > The Early Controversies Over Female Leadership
The Early Controversies Over Female Leadership
Church documents from the first few centuries give us glimpses of what women could and could not do. But what were the controversies that made these rules necessary? Antiquities scholar Karen Torjesen traces the development of the church orders, and considers their social subtext.
Those Eccleiastical traditions which have not yet recognized the legitimacy of women’s leadership see themselves as keeping faith with an ancient tradition that explicitly rejected the leadership of women in the church. Their appeal to tradition is largely an appeal to a series of documents called the church orders, which span five centuries.
These church orders, claiming apostolic authority, sought to define the liturgical and ecclesiastical practices of the church. However, each of the church orders was composed at a particular point in ecclesiastical history. They convey, in the language they use and the issues they discuss, the particular concerns of the church at that moment. Although their claim to apostolic authority intends to obscure their roots in particular crises of ecclesiastical history, a careful reading can identify the controversies out of which each new church order was formed.
The debate over women’s ordination has sparked a number of recent studies of early church orders. Scholarly activity has focused primarily on the types of ministries exercised by women and on the specific nature of their ordination. Scholars have tended to read the church orders exclusively as regulatory documents, excerpting only their authoritative definitions of ritual and practice.
But the church orders are more than legal codes. They are treatises composed to settle controversies over liturgy, discipline and ordination. For the historian, it is the polemical contours of these controversies that provide the most reliable knowledge about the practices of the 3rd-, 4th- and 5th-century churches. The so-called “apostolic teachings” buttress only one side of a dispute. It is the controversies behind them that provide concrete evidence for the practices of the churches of the first five centuries.
Getting at the Controversies
Most scholars have limited themselves to the question, Do the church orders prescribe ordained ministries for women? They conclude that, although women had an important role in the Christian community, they exercised no leadership role. On this reading the only offices held by women were those of deaconess and widow. According to these scholars, the office of deaconess did not develop until the 3rd century, and then only in the East. The office of widow, according to these scholars, was never a true office but only a way of life sanctioned by the church for those dependent on her benevolence.
However, a different reading of the church orders, one that attempts to reconstruct the conflicting positions rather than recite the imposed settlement, provides a different picture of the practices of the churches in the first four centuries. From this vantage point we see women exercising a variety of ministries—teaching, disciplin, disciplining, moving from house to house, entering into public debates, and speaking in the assemblies.
So why were women excluded from church offices? Because Jesus excluded them, says the Didascalia, putting these words in the mouths of the apostles:
“For our master Jesus Christ sent us, the twelve, to teach all nations, but He did not command the women to teach, nor to speak in the church and address the people …. For there abode with us Mary Magdalene and the sisters of Lazarus, Mary and Martha, and Salome and others along with them, and since he did not command them to teach alongside us, neither is it right for other women to teach” (Didascalia XV, translated by A. Voobus).
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