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The role of women in the early church: what do we know?

The role of women in the early church: what do we know?

Writing in Religion Disptaches, Elizabeth Drescher analyzes the commentary surrounding The Gospel of Jesus Wife and concludes:

It is not likely, that is, that we will ever definitively answer the question of Jesus’ marital status and the specific ministry status of women in his circle as he and his followers understood it. But there is abundant evidence, both in contradictions within the Bible as it was canonized in the late fourth century and from extra-biblical artifacts that show that women did have leadership roles from the earliest days of the church, as both priests and deacons. The “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife” fragment adds to a bounty of evidence that women did hold both lay and ordained ministry leadership roles in the earliest Church and their status as such, as the with the nuptial status of priests, has been a matter of ongoing debate and divergent practice throughout the history of the church, however firmly Rome has believed it has spoken.

In this light, the questions that will stir again among my graduate students, and I suspect among many church-goers generally, will likely not have much to do with the authenticity of the fragment and what it may or may not, in itself, say about the marital status of Jesus or the leadership status of women. Rather, they will be asking again to what exactly—if the Church continues to disregard the evidence of history and the voices of the faithful in engaging the world as it is and as it can be—are its current leaders listening?

What is your understanding about the nature of women’s ministry in the Jesus movement, and in the early church?


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Chris Arnold

I will say that, as a man who is a Christian (and a priest), it’s important to me, too, to find positive role models in the early church.

I’ll also say that even if there were no mentions of women in leadership in the early chuch at all, I’d still support women in leadership today.


Seems to me that for many groups, women were not to mingle with strange or non-related males with impunity, so what man would be allowed to preside over women’s baptisms (in mikvoth) or actually teach and talk with the women of the towns and cities? Paul acknowledged women like Junia, Prisca, etc, but how many more were not named? I would say that women played a much greater part in the early church than they have been given credit for — at least, not since the 3rd or 4th century, anyway.

As a woman, I look for positive role models in the early church. I wish we had/knew more about them. But then, history was written by men, and women were usually not of any great standing except in the home, namely the kitchen and nursery. If I sound sarcastic, forgive me. It’s more frustration that we’re even still having to search for women in the early church but not finding much about them.

Linda Ryan

Ann Fontaine

Judging from Paul’s letters -“my fellow workers” and his travels with Thecla – and other references to women as leaders of the churches he visited — looks like they had a strong if not co-equal role. Also Junia – the apostle mentioned in Romans – who the church could not believe was a woman for centuries. The more the church became domesticated – the worse it was for women’s leadership.

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