#mutuality2012 Evidence For Ordained Women in the Patristic Period

Rachel Held Evans is hosting a week of mutuality on her blog. As part of this synchroblog event, here I will be doing two things: One, I will be highlighting posts that I have written on the subject; and two, Leslie Keeney over at The Ruthless Monk and I will be posting about encouraging women to attend this year’s ETS annual conference that is coming up in the fall. We want to write about this now so that people have plenty of time to prepare and plan to come.


A phenomenal book that should be on the shelf of every one who studies the role of women in the church is Ordained Women in the Early Church: A Documentary History by Kevin Madigan and Carolyn Osiek. This book looks at all the available documentation in the first six hundred years of the church and finds references to female deacons and presbyters in both the church in the East and West.

Madigan and Osiek argue that though the vast majority of ordained women were ordained to the office of deacon or deaconess, there is evidence of female presbyters in the early church. Indeed, “what can be said with certainty is that the claim that women never functioned as presbyters in the “orthodox” church is simply untrue.” (9). Prior to outlining all of the references to ordained women, Madigan and Osiek ask the question, what did the early Church say about these NT texts that suggest that women were in leadership roles in the NT church? So, in regards to the Romans 16 passage that mentions Phoebe the deacon, the authors compile commentary on this passage from Origen, John Chrysostom, Theodoret of Cyrrhus, Ambrosiaster and Pelagius.

And once we get into the Patristic writings, the conclusion is that, just like today, it’s complicated. While evidence for female presbyters is rare, it is not non-existent, and in some cases not enough evidence has survived to tell us exactly how or to what extent women participated in leadership roles.

Some interesting tidbits:

* Tertullian speaks out against women performing baptisms, suggesting that some communities were allowing women to preside over baptismal rites. Likewise, the Apostolic Constitutions (early 3rd century) specifically condemns women performing baptism, arguing that for a woman to preside over the rite is “perilous, rather uncustomary, and irreverent.” (AC 3.9.1) But at the same time, deaconesses were called to participate in the baptism of women “for the sake of decency” (AC 8.28.6) This is probably required because there is evidence that, in the early church, catechumens were baptized naked!

* For some reason, ordained female deacons are found almost solely in East and not in the West until the 5th century, and when the office of female deacons in the West does begin to appear it is usually in relationship to monastic orders.

* In 441 the Council of Orange decreed that women were no longer to be ordained as deacons: “if there are any who have already been ordained, let them submit their heads to the benediction that is granted to the laity.” The Second Council of Orleans in 533 reiterates this ban on female ordination: “It has been decided that, from now on, no women may be given the diaconal benediction on account of the fragility of their sex.” This seems to suggest that the edict forbidding female ordination was ignored, and that churches were continuing to ordain women.

* The Testamentum Domini (4th or 5th century) offers some clues as to the roles of female presbyters: “For the female presbyters we pray…” (TD 1.35) “Let the female presbyters remain with the bishop until the dawn, praying and resting.” (TD 2.19) Madigan and Osiek make this observation about female presbyters in the TD: “In a context such as this, presbyterae could simply be translated ‘elderly women’ but their special role alongside the bishop suggests a special status and role…they are found in prayer, their primary responsibility.” (pg. 158)

* Several funeral inscriptions denote specific women as presbyters. “The term for presbyter could mean simply older women, but this is unlikely in a tomb commemoration, where functional and honorary titles are used.” (170)

* In a letter written to Ambrose, Atto, Bishop of Vercelli in the early 10th century assumes or has knowledge of women having been leaders in church in the 4th century: Citing Romans 16, “Here it is understood that not only men but also women presided over the churches because of their great usefulness…We believe women were enjoined to the office of baptizing so that the bodies of other women might be handled by them without any deeply felt sense of shame just as those who were called female presbyters assumed the office of preaching, leading and teaching, so female deacons had taken up the office of ministry and of baptizing, a custom that no longer is expedient.”

  • When I saw the title to this post, I thought you were going to make some nuts historical claims (no direspect, I’ve just seen it a lot lately during this whole “mutuality week” thing. But I was pleasantly surprised. You stuck to “ordained”, and brought up some interesting texts.

    Being as TD is an Eastern Christian document, it is very possible that presbyterae were clergy wives, of the bishop, the presbyters, even prominent secular rulers, as such lines were blurred in those times. Now, in Eastern Christianity, this “place” (I would say office) usually comes with duties and roles; it is not a mere “tack-on” to the presbyter or episcopos.

    I don’t think there is any evidence of female presbyters in the sense of a presbyter offering the holy oblation, but it would not surprise me if they instructed and performed female baptisms under the omophorion of the bishop.