There’s much to learn from our past – and if we forget or overlook the past, that can be dangerous. It’s valuable to do church history, but much of our history is done at the big picture level, focusing on the standout leaders and major events. This often overlooks what was happening on the ground in day-to-day life for ordinary followers of Jesus, which is much harder to find evidence for.
That’s especially the case when it comes to learning about women in Christian history. Women are largely invisible. So, let’s get out our magnifying glass to have a closer look at some of these women, particularly those in the first few hundred years of the church post-Jesus and his apostles.
Most of the evidence is fragmentary and through the eyes of the big (male) figures in the early church, who wrote for various reasons. We need to be careful not to over-read what we find, reading in our own viewpoint, or making blanket statements about the whole 200-year period as if every woman’s experience, in every town, in every church was the same. We’ll meet just a few of the individual women – some named, some unnamed – as well as learn about some ministry roles for women. Hopefully this will whet your appetite to read more.
What I’m hoping you’ll see is that women were present everywhere in the early church, valued and active members, some even with leadership roles, seen as necessary to the church, with prayerful lives transformed by the gospel. They were courageous and deeply committed to our Lord Jesus before everything else. We have much to learn from them.
Alce, Gavia, and the widow of Epitropus were important members of the church of Smyrna in the late first century through to the early second century.
Ignatius of Antioch, an early Christian writer and the bishop of Antioch, writes these greetings at the end of some of his letters: “I greet the household of Gavia, and pray that she may be firmly grounded in the faith and love both physically and spiritually. I greet Alce, a name very dear to me...”; “I greet everyone by name, including the widow of Epitropus together with the whole household belonging to her and the children… I greet Alce, a name very dear to me.”
We don’t know much about these women, or what role they played in their churches and communities. But we get the impression they were key members who were loved, respected and valued, and there is obvious warmth in these greetings. They seem to be co-workers with Ignatius, along with other men in this church; maybe they hosted church gatherings in their homes, or were benefactors like Phoebe (Rom. 16:1). 218; meant to be 150
Tertullian was a prolific early Christian author and apologist from Carthage, in the Roman province of Africa. In a letter to his wife he shows us how active the Christian women were in the late second and early third century church and society. They were visiting fellow Christians, going from street to street visiting poor people, looking after martyrs in prison, washing the feet of the saints, sharing their food and drink with those in need, yearning after people, showing hospitality to visitors they didn’t know, including the generous provision of food. They were generous hearted, actively serving in God’s kingdom.
There are a number of references to women with leadership roles, particularly deaconesses and the order of widows. As early as 112AD we meet two nameless female slaves who were called deaconesses, whom Pliny the Younger (Roman governor of Bithynia and Pontus) refers to in his letters: women he spoke to and tortured as part of his investigation into the nasty spreading of Christianity. He probably chose them to challenge and torture because they were known leaders in the church.
From the Didascalia Apostolorom – the manual of church order from the early third century – we find much detail about the role of deaconesses as those who were involved in the discipleship and baptism of women, as well as caring for the poor and sick in their homes. The order of widows was another formal leadership role for women, those 50 years or over, whose main role was to pray unceasingly.
By at least the fifth century it seemed that churches had many widows in specific roles. The church manual called The Testament of our Lord Jesus Christ said there were to be 13 widows, along with 12 presbyters, seven deacons, and 14 subdeacons. Big team ministry, with multiple women an essential part of the team.
It is made clear in the Didascalia that women are not to be teachers in the congregation – however, we do meet Ammia, a prophet in Philadelphia. She’s mentioned by early church historian Eusebius (probably writing in the early fourth century AD) alongside the daughters of Philip (Acts 21:9).
Women were seen as a necessary part of church life and ministry, especially the deaconesses, who had a special ministry to other women, as well as to people more generally:
The Didascalia talks of each deaconess as “a woman for the ministry of women. For these are houses wither thou canst not send a deacon to the women, on account of the heathen, but mayst send a deaconess. Also, because in many other matters the office of a woman deacon is required. In the first place, when women go down into the water, those who go down into the water ought to be anointed by a deaconess with the oil of anointing… the ministry of a woman deacon is especially needful and important.
“For our Lord and Saviour also was ministered unto by women ministers, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the daughter of James and mother of Jose, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee [Matt 27:56], with other women beside. And thou also hast need of the ministry of a deaconess for many things; for a deaconess is required to go into the houses of the heathen where there are believing women, and to visit those who are sick, and to minister to them in that of which they have need, and to bathe those who have begun to recover from sickness.”
The order of widows was primarily to be devoted to prayer. They were often called God’s altar, offering intercession and praying with purity before the Lord. Rather than being talkative or quarrelsome, widows were to be meek, quiet and gentle, sitting at home meditating upon the Lord day and night, without ceasing.
In the mid-second century Justin Martyr (a Christian apologist) wrote about an unnamed wealthy woman with an unbelieving or intemperate noble husband. It’s heartwarming to see how her life changed when she came to a knowledge of the teachings of Christ. She used to be intemperate, delighting in drunkenness and every vice. But she gave these up, even wanting her husband to give it up as well – she sought to persuade her husband to change, citing the teaching of Christ, and assuring him that there will be punishment in eternal life for those who don’t live temperately.
Unfortunately, the conflict in the marriage got very bad – he didn’t appreciate or rejoice at all in the wonderful changes in her life. She felt compromised in her transformed Christian life so initiated their divorce, not wanting to partake in his wickedness. In response her husband brought an accusation against her, probably to the Emperor, accusing her of being Christian.
Courageous and committed
The women we’ve met so far have all been introduced by various Christian and pagan men, but in The Passion of the Holy Martyrs Perpetua and Felicitas from March 7, 203AD, we have the voice of a woman herself – Perpetua. It is the first writing we have in Latin by a woman.
Perpetua is a wealthy young wife and mum, a 22-year-old with a young child who is still breastfed. Felicitas is a pregnant slave, who has her baby just before the martyrdom takes place. They are martyred during the reign of Septimius Severus, as part of the celebrations of his son’s birthday. We see two main areas where these martyrs are courageous and committed to Christ before everything else.
Firstly, Perpetua remains committed to Christ despite the persistent pleas and pressure of her father to give up her faith – he comes back at least four times begging her to change her mind, even tearing his hair out and getting beaten before her. While her heart breaks and she has to say goodbye to her son, she remains faithful to Christ. In the context of Roman society where the father of the house has complete authority, we see how great her commitment to Christ is.
Secondly Perpetua, Felicitas and the men who were martyred with them showed their commitment to Christ to the point of death. They know they’ll be killed if they confess they are Christian. They don’t just resign themselves to die; they want to suffer for Christ, going joyfully and prayerfully to prison and to the day of their martyrdom. Perpetua sings psalms: “they rejoiced that they should have incurred any one of the Lord’s passions”. They did so trying to convince those around them to turn to Christ. The courage and commitment of these women to Christ before everything else is well worth a read. It’s horrific, but heartwarming, and also challenging.
This brief look at a few of the women in the early church shows that women are present wherever we look – different ages and stages, rich and poor, slaves and free, in formal ministry roles as well as informally serving, actively, prayerfully and courageously serving alongside men in passing on the gospel message to others. This is consistent with the biblical evidence in the New Testament of women who are greatly valued by Jesus and the apostles, necessary in God’s mission, transformed by the gospel, prayerfully and actively serving in various ways with great courage and sacrifice in partnership with men.
Despite the fragmentary evidence and lack of details about women in early Christianity, there is great value in slowing down and looking through the magnifying glass closely – and also great danger in overlooking these women. As women and men it is important for us to notice these things, to be inspired by what we’ve learnt, and to let it reflect in our lives and ministries.
Here are some questions that might help us to do this, as men and women. Do we view women in this way: as valued, active, and necessary in God’s mission, to be serving alongside men, or are we limiting ministry to what is upfront, paid, high-profile and fairly male-focused? Are we encouraging women and men to live as active followers of Jesus, with lives changed by the gospel, sacrificially seeking to love the people around us, going out to make disciples of all nations?
Are we raising up, training and encouraging women in our churches and different ministries? Are we creating distinct and multiple leadership roles for women to be evangelising, discipling and loving women from different backgrounds and religions, and serving the poor and sick? Are we committed to the ministry of prayer, considering setting aside widows or others to be devoted to prayer?
And, most importantly, are we courageous and committed to Christ above everything else, including our family, and even our own life? Are we joyfully suffering for Christ, considering it a privilege and honour to bear his name, to follow him in this way, becoming like him through suffering?
In many ways this does not describe me – I often keep quiet about my faith, I seek to avoid conflict and suffering, or maybe just grin and bear it rather than delight in suffering for Christ.
All of these things (and more) are lessons to be learnt from looking through the magnifying glass more closely at women in the early church. We must not overlook these women! Not so that we can put them up on a pedestal – but because they point us to our Lord Jesus and how worthy he is to live for and die for. They are inspiring, but only because they are inspired by the Lord Jesus himself and seek to shine the light and glory on him.
For an overview of women in Christian history: Feminine Threads: women in the tapestry of Christian history, by Diana Lynn Severance (2001).
For the history of women in the 1st century AD: Women in the world of the earliest Christians: illuminating ancient ways of life, by Lynn H. Cohick (2009).
For the history of women in the 2nd-5th centuries AD: Christian women in the patristic world: their influence, authority and legacy in the second through fifth centuries, by Lynn H. Cohick and Amy Brown Hughes (2017).
Tara Stenhouse is Dean of Women at Moore College and lectures in Ministry.