Women in the Early Church: A Problem of Perspective
Lloyd G. Patterson
from Towards a New Theology of Ordination: Essays on the Ordination of Women, pp.23-41.Ed.
by Marianne H. Micks and Charles P.Price,
Virginia Theological Seminary, Greeno, Hadden &Company Ltd.
Somerville, Mass., 1976

A preliminary piece of evidence

One of the more striking of the so-called “praying figures,” orantes, found at early Christian burial sites is a third century (?) painting on a wall of the Priscillian catacomb at Rome.(1) In many respects, the figure follows the conventions governing this form of early Christian art. The person there interred is shown standing with arms upraised, as that person once stood by virtue of baptism in the eucharistic meeting on the Lord’s Day and will stand with the full assembly of God’s people at the Last Day. Thus it presents that person in true Christian identity.(2)

What gives this figure its particular grandeur is the way in which the motif of light, locus lucis, one of the conventional features of an orans, is introduced. In this case, the face and upstretched hands are bathed in light, so that the figure itself reflects back to the visitor the light of Christ beginning to be manifest in the darkness of this world.

Other things which a modern visitor might like to know are obscure. The identity of the person depicted, his or her sex, his or her special function in the Church, are hard to determine. In this case, there is no inscription of the sort which is often added to an orans. Surrounding scenes, as well as a ceremonial scarf falling across the head to the shoulders, may identify the person as a virgin veiled. Yet the treatment of the hair, often the only pictorial indication of sex, seams to me at least to suggest that the person is male. Dress is no help. The figure wears, over the usual white tunic, an overcoat of Dalmatian cut, with sleeves, rather than one of the poncho sort, paenula, more common in the period. Blut these garments were worn by pagans as well as Christians, by men as well as women, of whatever calling in the Church, throughout the period.

The evidence suggests that it is a male figure. But it is a matter of conjecture, precisely because the conventions governing this form of early Christian art are concerned with other things. What these conventions do, and in this case do admirably, is to show the true identity of the person as one whose participation in the Christian community is a foretaste of participation in the redeemed community of God. Other matters were, fortunately or unfortunately, of less interest to the artist than to the modern visitor to the site.

The problem of perspectives

The Priscillian orans may help to explain the purpose of these remarks.

It is plainly impossible to write briefly about the place of women in the first three or four centuries of the Christian movement. This period saw the movement spread through and beyond Judaism into the vast reaches of the Graeco-Roman society, witnessed its persecutions at the hands of the imperial government and its eventual acceptance as the official cultus of the state, and its many and various attempts to interpret itself in the light of the intellectual world of the time. The historical panorama is extensive, Christian practice and thought diverse, the evidence remaining scattered and difficult of generalization. Efforts to deal with the subject are numerous. But they constitute a literature more extensive than definitive, to which it is almost literally painful to contemplate adding a few more pages.

The danger of beginning with this literature itself lies in the fact that it almost inevitably approaches early Christian evidence with modern issues in mind. This is particularly true when it asks why women were not admitted to holy orders—at least to the orders of presbyter and bishop—in the period. It is also true when it goes farther afield to ask how early Christians viewed sexuality, personal identity, and other matters on which the evidence is far more difficult to interpret. Periodically, the attitude of the writer informs the answers which the evidence is thought to give, with the result that the early centuries turn out either to have established important criteria for Christian life or to have deviated from the Gospel under the influence of inherited social customs, the influence of pagan philosophy, or some other misfortune, depending on where the writer stands on modern issues.(3)

The point is that this literature, like the modern visitor to the Priscillian orans, is sorely tempted to ask questions which the evidence will not anwer, failing all the while to absorb what the evidence actually has to say. This has, of course, been the difficulty with much writing on the early Church since the age of Charlemagne, whenever pressing contemporary issues have led us to review how things came to be as they are, whether good or bad. What seems hardest to get at is what the early Church, let speak for itself, might have to say in its own way about matters of contemporary interest.

The problem is thus one of perspectives—not of discovering something new so much as of putting what is already known in its own perspective rather than ours. That is no easy problem to solve; but it is one that can at least be raised, and then left to the consideration of the reader.

Church in early Christianity

The first subject to be considered is our orans itself. The figure, standing with upraised arms, reflecting back light to the visitor, identifies the person interred there as a member of the Church, ecclesia, the “assembling” of a redeemed humanity which God has begun to make through the death and resurrection of Christ.

No aspect of early Christianity—liturgical, ethical, or theological—can be seriously studied where this fundamental sense of what it means to be a Christian is left out of account. It is assumed more often than spelled out in references to the baptismal and eucharistic meetings, or when the style of life required of those who take the name Christian is discussed, or where the proclamation of God’s work in Christ is interpreted in the light of contemporary thought.(4)

But Church always stands opposed to World, cosmos, in early Christianity. To be part of redeemed humanity-to-come is to be such in the midst of presently unredeemed humanity. To be part of “the age to come” is to be that in the midst of “the present age”, to live in an alien environment, to expect opposition from the powers which, however fruitlessly, seek to thwart the power of God. It is to live now, literally or figuratively, a life of “martyrdom”, of witness to belief that the new life in Christ will be triumphant over the old life of the world.

In its tendency to oppose church and world, early Christianity was the inheritor of many strands of later Jewish thought, which from the Maccabean period onward were given concrete form in the notion of an inevitable conflict between the people of God and the political powers which opposed them. Eventually, of course, the Roman imperium, with its slowly evolving policy of opposition to the Christian movement, came to be regarded as the final manifestation of these powers. Indeed, even after the persecutions ceased and the imperial and other high offices were occupied by Christians, a sense of hostility between the church and the world represented in the imperium remained a conscious factor in Christian thinking. It was only when that situation had in some psychological sense become “past”, perhaps not until the age of Charlemagne, that a vision of a Christian Empire could arise to the imagination as a heritage to be recovered rather than an anomaly to be lived with.

We cannot expect early Christians, thinking in this way, to approach any aspect of the problem of “liberation” in quite the way we do. Neither can we expect them to associate self-fulfillment with the given social structures in anything like the the way Christians have come to do because of the experience of the church’s actual involvement with those structures in the so-called era of Christendom and its aftermath. By our standards their perceptions seem severely limited when they exhort one another to avoid sexual license, elaborate clothing, the luxuries of the baths, or the excitements and the pagan associations of the spectacles, the theater, and the literary classics. And the same is true of the modest efforts at the betterment of the human condition undertaken by those in positions of leadership in the period after the persecutions. From their own perspective, however, what was chiefly at stake was the integrity of the new life they were called to live in the midst of the old. Theirs was a very positive—a positively negative—attitude toward a number of aspects of the old life, what we would class as social conventions or even legal prescriptions. They thought these conventions and prescriptions were in the process of being abrogated by a power greater than the powers responsible for them.

It is in this light that we must read Paul’s much discussed statement that in Christ there is “neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female” (Gal 3:28) . Paul is not here enunciating an ideal to be achieved in the church—much less in the world—but saying something about the manifestation of the new life in the midst of the old in the congregations with which he is familiar. Plainly, he is also talking about what we might assume, from our perspective, to be an alternative to the conventions and prescriptions of paganism and Judaism. But in fact he is speaking from a perspective so different from ours that it is better to withhold judgment until we have said something about what he—and his successors—quite concretely meant by such statements.

Women in the church in early Christianity

We can use our orans once again to introduce the question of what the abrogation of “male and female” meant in early Christianity. The question of the sex of the person interred would not arise if we did not know from any number of sources that women as well as men underwent baptism and took part in the eucharistic meetings on the Lord’s Day. Centuries of familiarity with the practice, as well as loss of touch with the meaning attached to the “assembling” of the people of God for what we now tend to undervalue as mere liturgical events, may lead us to think of it as less significant than it is. Set in contrast to the synagogue, where an assembly capable of giving thanks to God is defined by the presence of circumcised males, the church is a visual proof that the distinction of “male and female” is abrogated in Christ. It may seem to us merely a matter of who could “go to Church”, but the early Christians did not regard it so. It is a question of perspectives again.

Other evidence, scattered and spotty though it may be, helps to fill out the picture. Paul sends greetings to women as well as men in his letters. Women as well as men were celebrated for their martyrdom, the passio of Perpetua and her companions being perhaps the best known of many accounts in circulation. The Christian women of Rome stand out in successive generations, not merely the martyrs in considerable number, but such persons as the Flora whom Ptolemy sought to convert to Valentian Gnosis, as those who befriended Athanasius during his exile, and as the household with which Jerome corresponded regarding the superiority of eastern ascetic practices. Then, too, in Asia Minor there is the community of ascetic women for which Methodius wrote his Symposium, his most elaborate exposition of the place of the ascetic life in the plan of salvation. And one must at least mention the theological insights attributed to Macrina by her brother Gregory of Nyssa, and to Monica by her son Augustine of Hippo.(5)

It is easy to notice the contradictory evidence that the social conventions which assigned to women a subordinate place in the family and in public life continued to be reflected in the life of the church, and are supported by theological argument. Leaving aside for the moment the problem of women in the “ministry”, we should note that women are said to be subject to their husbands and to leave the running of affairs to men because of their weaknesses, their creation from the rib of Adam (Gn 2:21), and the guilt which falls on them as descendants of Eve. Moreover, on any statistical view of the evidence, women do not appear in great numbers among the notable figures of the period. doubtless because of the influence of inherited custom if not of the theological arguments made in support of it.(6)

And then, again, looking; at the period from a modern point of view, it may well seem that the attitude toward marriage is such that the sexuality of the female in particular is regarded as a liability to her being truly human. In fact the women celebrated in the early Christian evidence—leaving the martyrs on one side—are ascetics.

Here, however, we confront a much more complicated aspect of early Christianity, which is the fact that it owed much to its origin among those movements within Judaism which not only expected hostility from the world but sought to demonstrate their freedom from it by embracing continence (encrateia). That many primitive Christian communities were committed to continence in this sense, at least in principle, is clear from the Pauline letters and other writings from the gentile wing of the movement no less than from the newly appreciated Jewish-Christian and proto-gnostic writings.(7) Such an attitude, of course, does not involve the judgment that sexuality is evil; but the defense of marriage mounted by the Alexandrian and Cappadocian theologians against a developed Gnosticism convinced of the evil character of the physical creation and against pagan philosophical tradition unconvinced of the desirability of embodied existence altogether, goes no further than saying that it is a controlled way by means of which the increase of humanity to its perfection is to be achieved by procreation. The encratitic ideal continued even in non-gnostic circles. It underlies the concern of the early Christian communities for the support of virgins and widows (persons most likely to be forced to marry in the prevailing circumstances), and forms the basis of the great fascination with the ascetic life which followed the end of the persecutions.

The early Christians adopted the attitude toward women which it inherited, and even defended it, as among the characteristics of fallen humanity. But at the same time, they acknowledged that this attitude was transformed in Christ. There is certainly a good deal of tension to be found in the evidence on this point. But the fact is that women are not celebrated as Christians because they fall easily into special roles set aside for women, as in the pagan cults or in the Jewish family, but because they do the things which every Christian may be celebrated for doing. In the context of that time this fact looms much larger than it does in ours.

On the subject of the encratitic tendency of early Christianity we are in a much more complicated area. It is obvious from the evidence that sexuality is simply not regarded as so closely related to personal identity as we take it to be as a result of a series of developments from the early Middle Ages to the work of Freud and his successors. Rightly or wrongly, the abandonment of marriage is seen as a means of transcending the social restrictions and of avoiding the passionate aspect of procreation —or rather of witnessing to the fact that they are transcended in Christ—in a way that is foreign to our thinking. But it remains to be shown that the full range of attributes which make up what we describe as “selfhood” is not taken into account.

Perhaps it can be said that the evidence most easily falls together if we say that for early Christians the abrogation of the distinction of “male and female” in Christ is most clearly manifest, apart from the liturgical meetings themselves, in the ways in which men and women act “beyond” the social structures of the fallen world. This will be highly unsatisfactory both to the proponents of a liberation theology and to those who think that the social patterns of the early Christian period are applicable to the circumstances of the present. It is, however, a matter of a perspective so different from ours that it is hard to render an immediate judgment upon it.

Women in the “ministry” of the church in early Christianity

We come, now, to the place of women as deacons, presbyters and bishops, or in what we now call the “ministry” of the church, the subject of considerable contemporary interest and of no little confusion and controversy at that time.

There is no question that women functioned with men as deacons throughout the period, caring for needy members of the congregations, helping candidates during the baptismal liturgy, and certainly in many places reading scriptures and administering the communion at the eucharist. There is, however, a good deal of evidence of conscious opposition, within the “Catholic” communities from the latter part of the second century on, to women functioning among the presbyters on whom the administration of the affairs of the congregations fell. And there is no evidence from the episcopal lists of the same communities that they functioned as bishops, those on whom by that time the main burden of teaching and of presiding at the baptismal and eucharistic meetings had fallen.

In the writings of the time it can be noticed that no real rationale is offered for any of these offices—it is left to the common assumptions of the time—except in the case of the defense of the episcopacy as the guarantee of the continuity of the apostolic preaching and of the unity of the church.(8) And to this can be added the more or less obvious point that inherited convention more or less dictated who would occupy them. Thus women no less than men might be expected to function as deacons in this peculiarly Christian office, since there were women as well as men who needed its ministrations. Again, the the office of presbyter stood in such obvious continuity with that of the elder in the Jewish synagogue that its occupancy by men would seem a foregone conclusion. And yet again, the same may be the case with the office of bishop, though its emergence into prominence is coincidental with the exclusion of the “heresies” in which women held prominent positions to such an extent that it is not possible to proceed without reference to this particular phenomenon.

It is in connection with the “heresies”, with the New Prophecy of Montanus as well as with Marcionism and the many gnostic sects, that much of the opposition to the functioning of women first appears. But it is hard to know what to make of the opposition. Much of the writing of the time, from the catholic side, had to do simply with the refutation of the claims of the “heresies” to represent the Gospel. Yet where the functioning of women in the “heresies” is concerned, it tends most frequently to take the form of reference to their brashness or weakness rather than to the relation of their functioning to the theological issues at stake. Indeed, except for the women prophets of Montanism, we are left with considerable uncertainty as to precisely what was the role of women in the “heresies”, and whether and in what ways it reflected earlier practices or novel departures.(9) It is a fair guess that the controversies of the second century reinforced the inherited social customs of the catholic communities. But beyond such a guess it is very hard to go.

At a later stage, these customs are further reinforced by new circumstances. The bishops of the period after the persecutions accepted a status equivalent to that of civil magistrates. This new status would have reinforced the exclusion of women, for example. Thus the backlog of custom, supported by scriptural interpretations, led to positive assertions that women were excluded from the episcopacy, many of whose functions were now exercised by the presbyters as well. And a growing awe surrounding the eucharistic species may well have been in part responsible for the attacks in this period on the custom of women’s administering the communion, though even here the continuation of the custom among Nestorian and Monophysite Christians may have the same kind of unacknowledged influence as the fear of the “heresies” did earlier.

The outcome of any review of this evidence must be unsatisfactory to all sides in the current issue. Women are practically, if not on principle, excluded from the offices of presbyter and bishop. But the arguments, such as they are, are repetitions of those having to do with continuance of the fallen life rather than with the implications of redemption. On the other hand, we are still—as we must shortly make clear in some detail—very far from a time when the president of the eucharistic assembly was regarded as an alter christus, standing in some fashion in the place of Christ, rather than as the offerer of the prayer of the community. Social customs, combined with the convolutions of theological debates and their non-theological impact on the life of the church are the most obvious determiners of the practices of the time. Plain answers to questions which we might like to ask, from whatever position we take with respect to the issues of our time, simply do not come.

When we have come this far, however, we are still in the position of asking the evidence our own questions without fully appreciating what the evidence has to say to us—and this is probably truer of the evidence regarding the place of women in this aspect of the life of the church than in any other.

In fact, it is hard for us not to approach early Christian references to deacons, presbtyers, and bishops with the assumption that they are references to a clergy as distinct from laity—a “ministry” as distinct, presumably, from a non-ministry—of the sort with which we have become familiar through our medieval and reformation heritage. But what the evidence actually tells us—what even our much overworked orans, which may well picture a veiled virgin, or a bishop, or simply a Christian man or woman held in high esteem tells us—is that there simply was no such thing as a clergy or a “ministry” of the sort that we know. Certainly by the end of our period these persons had become figures of civil as well as religious prominence. As certainly, they were all along regarded as exercising important functions in the life of the community. Yet they still did not constitute a special hierarchy. The fact that the episcopacy was most frequently, though not always, occupied by people who had been presbyters or deacons is chiefly a tribute to their visibility and popularity.(l0) Nor were they yet regarded as having any real identity as Christians other than that which they shared with other baptised members of the eucharistic assembly.

It may well seem that we are merely laboring an obvious point, since we are now quite accustomed to talk about the primary importance of one’s calling as a member of the church. But inherited notions about a clergy or a ministry are difficult to avoid, as witness the curiously back-handed way in which we now speak of a “ministry of the laity”. It is hard for us to grasp what the early Christian evidence has to tell us of a church highly articulated with respect to the various functions of its members and yet clear that these functions are exercised by people whose fundamental status is that of members of the church. What we have is evidence of a period in which there is nothing but a number of “ministries of the laity”, the laos or people of God. It is a question of perspectives once again. But it may be one which helps us understand why the functioning of women in a “ministry” of the sort with which we are familiar was not likely to arise as a general issue in this period.

Women and “Priesthood” in the church in early Christianity

We must, finally, address the question of whether women did not occupy the offices of bishop and presbyter in the early church because these offices were thought to be means by which a “priesthood of Christ” was exercised in some special way which would have made it impossible for women to occupy them. This is a frequent assumption in current debate both on the part of those who think the practice right and those who think it wrong. Our position is that the early Christian evidence simply does not contain the sort of notion of a “priesthood of Christ” which would make it possible for the subject to arise.

The earliest Christian writings preserved in the New Testament speak of Christ as priest and the church as a priestly body. Nevertheless, neither the title priest nor priestly imagery of any kind is used to describe the work of any particular official in the church. Moreover it is worth noting that there are far fewer references to the church as a priestly body than this generalization would suggest.(1l) The real difficulty with this way of putting the matter, however, is that it does not necessarily make clear what the use of priestly and sacrificial imagery is really all about.

It is better to begin by saying that the earliest Christian use of terminology drawn from the Jewish sacrificial cultus and its functionaries is “typological” in character, and belongs to the effort to find in the Jewish scriptures foreshadowings of the final action of God now beginning to be manifest in the work of Christ. Looked at in this way, the scriptures could be seen to contain various materials—the Servant figure, the atonement motif, and the sacrificial imagery itself—which foreshadow the self-giving of Christ as fulfilling and transcending the Jewish cultus and as opening the way for those in Christ to offer thanksgiving, service, and their own lives to God in concert with him. The result of this approach is the application to Christ and the church of a variety of scriptural references far more extensive than any narrow study of the use of the terms priest and priesthood (hiereus, hierosune) would suggest.(l2) It is not surprising, however, that there is no notion here of a “priesthood of Christ” exercised by anyone but himself, as the one in association with whom it is possible for Christians to offer themelves to God.

This same “typological” approach governs the elaborations of the priestly and sacrificial imagery which appear in the evidence of the following centuries, and which do include eucharistic references to those who preside at the eucharistic meetings of the church. As liturgical scholars are well aware, these meetings at which bread and wine are offered and partaken are regarded, among other things, as occasions on which the church offers the bloodless sacrifice of the final inbreaking age and holds communion with the coming Christ. Thus Justin Martyr can describe the work of Christ as involving, among other things, teaching us how to offer sacrifices to God; and Irenaeus can enlarge on this point by observing that it is through material things, bread and wine, that we have communion with Christ. It is even conceivable that Justin and Irenaeus could have referred to the “president” of the eucharistic assembly (by Irenaeus’ time normally the bishop), in priestly terms. However, it is first of all in Hippolytus’ model prayers for the consecration of a bishop and its attendant eucharistic offering that such terminology appears.

It is also conceivable that the bishop could be referred to as a priest, though to my knowledge—leaving aside the peculiar use of the term in Clement of Rome—it is only Cyprian who seems easily to refer to the episcopal figure as “bishop and priest”. But it is a fair guess that disinclination to follow Jewish or pagan precedents, and in the case of the Alexandrians, Clement and Origen, a highly spiritualized view of the Christian life combined with an exceptionally critical attitude toward the Jewish sacrificial cultus, account for the omission of the term. However this may be, such a case of the term would imply no more than that the one who offered the bread and wine in the name and presence of the congregation did precisely that. Aside from the curiously and richly complicated imagery by which Christ’s offering and that of those in Christ are interrelated, there is no way in which a “priesthood of Christ” different from that of the whole church would make any sense at all.

It is when we come to the Constantinian Peace of the Church that it becomes fairly common—though certainly not universal—for the bishop and those associated in his work to be referred to as priests, and their function as that of priesthood. Reasons for this development scem fairly obvious. Despite continued rejection of the notion that Christianity contained any precise equivalent of the Levitical priesthood, there was no reason not to employ priestly terminology to describe the functions of those who offered sacrifices to God. Anyone familiar with the situation of the church in this period, its new willingness to adopt terminology heretofore suspect, will find it easy to understand the increasing use of this terminology. It is, in any case, in this period that we encounter the great works on the responsibilities of the Christian leadership, the works of Gregory of Nazianzus and John Chrysostom, of Ambrose and Gregory the Great. One might presumably turn to these works to discover what significance this period attaches to the use of the terms priest and priesthood.

It is just here, however, in the period immediately prior to that in which later views of the Christian priesthood took shape and in works assiduously read by the formulators of those views, that we most clearly discern the fact that early Christian uses of priest and priesthood arise from a perspective very different from those we have inherited. In fact, the writings in question do not seem to us to discuss what we have come to regard as the substantial issue about priest and priesthood. Rather, they deal with the awesome responsibilities which fall on the persons engaged in the work and offer advice as to how it is possible to shoulder them.

The first piece of this literature, Gregory of Nazianzus’ oration “On [his] flight” from the responsibilities he finally assumed as associate of his father in that see, does not deal specifically with the functions of the bishop or use priestly terminology, but employs a wealth of illustrations from the history of Israel and the church to show what an impossible thing it is for any one to serve as a teacher, preacher, and pastor of a congregation of diverse people without the development of inner resources virtually beyond imagining.

Chrysostom’s “On the priesthood”, written while the author was still a presbyter but directed, as the title suggests, to the full range of episcopal functions, begins by referring to the terrifying prospect of being one through whose actions and words Christians are born at Baptism and the Lord’s body made present at the Eucharist. But as the work unfolds, it is the line taken by Nazianzus restated with considerable detail regarding the work of the preacher and pastor.

Ambrose’ “On the duties of ministers,” is actually the work of a bishop, but stands in a curious relation to the rest of this literature. We have other works of his which represent his preaching and catechizing, and unfold his views of Baptism and Eucharist. This work is, except for an initial reference to his extraordinary election to the “priesthood”, an attempt to draw on Cicero’s “On the duties” of public officials for counsel in the virtues required of Christian leaders.

Finally, Gregory the Great’s “Pastoral Rule”, stands more in the line of Nazianzen and Chrysostom, and is an effort to make their considerations available for Latin readers as part of the famous pope’s interest in instilling a sense of responsibility in the Italian episcopate in the difficult time in which he occupied the Roman see. The interest of all of these works lies more in the style of piety or view of the Christian life in general which they bring to bear on the work of the bishop rather than on any precise relationship between sacramental theology and views of the priesthood—the relationship which now seems so natural to us.

This is not to say that these works lack interest. They are extremely interesting for anyone who reads them from their own perspective. They reveal the pressing need for those who were bishops—or, as in the case of Nazianzen and Chrysostom when they wrote, associates of bishops who already had an important share of their work—for help in dealing with the problems of functioning in the new circumstances which the popularity of the Christian movement and the confusions of the times had forced upon them. They attempt to fill this need by applying the insights of Christian spirituality, the techniques of rhetoric, and a great deal of common sense to these problems. In the case of Chrysostom in particular, it is possible to discern the great aura of mystery which now surrounds the baptismal and eucharistic rites, and which at least for him makes the office of bishop even more awesome to contemplate.

The difficulty with these works, from our perspective, is that they do not address the subject of “priesthood” in the way we assume it should be addressed, and certainly not in the way they were made to address it when many of their references to the inner life and external responsibilities of the bishops were applied to those who were thought to stand in the place of Christ in the dramatic sacrifice of the mass as it came to be viewed in the medieval period. They do not contain a view of the bishops and their associates as exercising a special “priesthood of Christ” which virtually make the eucharistic celebrant an alter Christus. Insofar as they treat, directly or by allusion, the liturgical functions of those now described as “priests”, they are most easily read as continuing the view of the preceding centuries rather than as anticipating those of the centuries to come. The alter Christus theme, frequently mentioned in current debate, comes from a different environment altogether, from a time when it was necessary to interpret the visual motions of the celebrant as an allegory of the life of Christ and when it was common to take the saying of mass to be part of the celebrant’s personal growth in the life of Christ.(13)

We began this section on the question of whether women were excluded from the office of bishop and presbyter because these offices were thought to be the means by which the “priesthood of Christ” was exercised in a way which virtually excluded them from consideration. What we have tried to suggest is that the use of priestly and sacrificial imagery in the early Christian evidence is such that there is no place for a “priesthood of Christ” of the sort assumed by the question. Indeed, by the time that the great works just mentioned were written, the occupancy by men of the offices in question was already a matter which had been decided by inherited tradition and social convention rather than on theological grounds.

To put the matter in this way will please neither those who want the early Christian evidence to speak against the inclusion of women in the office of bishop or presbyter nor those who want it to speak in its favor. To my mind, the evidence shows clearly that priestly and sacrificial imagery could and was used of the life of the church in ways which apply equally to women and men. Even so, that imagery is not used in a way which allows it to be applied directly to the current issues. And we must, after all, deal with the evidence in its own right. The truth of the matter would seem to be that, once again, it must be looked at from a perspective very different from our own.

Some reflections

It might seem that it has been our purpose to render the evidence of early Christianity irrelevant to the issues of the present. It is truer to say that it has been part of our purpose to suggest that too great an involvement with the issues of the present can make this evidence unintelligible and hence irrelevant to us.

But what is its relevance? We do not live in the early Christian era, face its problems, or attempt to deal with them with its assumptions and insights. We live in our own time, face our own problems, and have to deal with them with our own assumptions and insights. It has been a recurrent danger in western Christianity to expect help of the wrong sort from the past, and then either to be critical of the past or to force it to be different from what it was. On the whole the critics are the more impressive, since they at least grasp that there is some problem involved. But they are not necessarily any more correct.

In the present instance, it seems to me that the early Christian conviction that the distinction of “male and female” was abrogated in Christ looms much larger when set within the context of that time than we are likely to appreciate when we look at the evidence from our point of view. The way in which this conviction was reflected in the life of the church, in its liturgical meetings, in its celebration of women martyrs and ascetics, and so forth, was of much greater significance than we are likely to realize. Certainly assumptions and conventions inherited from both paganism and Judaism are evident in the way in which the life of the church was constructed. But we ought to be able to take them for what they were—assumptions and conventions of that time rather than ours. In particular, this seems to me the case with the functioning of women in what we now call the “ministry” of the church. The appearance of women as deacons but not as presbyters or bishops is certainly largely a reflection of the circumtances of the time. Efforts to make it more than this are inconclusive as efforts to discover serious reasons for the exclusion of women from certain of the offices. It is now commonly said that there are no “theological objections” to the functioning of women as presbyters and bishops, and I should judge that the early Christian evidence—if left to speak for itself—can be cited in support of this dictum.

But to me there is a far larger issue for us to ponder. The principal claim of the early church was to be a manifestation of the inbreaking power of God in the midst of the powers governing the life of the world. What was said and done about the abrogation of the distinction of “male and female” in Christ was said in relation to this claim. This claim naturally made little sense during the time when the church’s attention was directed toward the building of a Christian society in the aftermath of the collapse of the Roman imperium. It is beginning to make a good deal more sense in our time, in which the vestigial remains of Christendom—including the distinction of clergy and laity—survive in yet another, and far more confusing set of circumstances.

To ponder what it might mean in our own time to be church in the early Christian sense, is the first priority for modern Christians. Indeed, concern with the place of women in the church is most evident where this problem is being pondered. One result of such pondering may well be, as I think it will, the admission of women to the orders of presbyter and bishop, since the conventions of our time no longer impede it. But other results of such pondering may well be far more surprising than that.


1. It is easy to see the orans in question through the reproductions, in color in G. Gassiot-Talabot, Roman and Palaeo-Christian Painting (New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1965), p. 74 (commentary p. 187), and in black and white in W. Lowrie, Art in the Early Church (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1965), plate 16. Neither reproduction makes clear that the white portions surrounding the head are the results of damage to the wall.

2. The orantes have been interpreted in many ways. We take Lowrie's view (Art in the Early Church, pp. 45ff.) that those which represent Christians buried at the particular sites show them alive at prayer. But there is surely more to the matter. The praying position is used in the depiction of figures from Israel’s history as well as from the early Church. It is quite clearly a means of identifying those who belong to the people of God which is being assembled in anticipation of the Kingdom.

3. The problem is an instance of “anachronism”, that bane of all historians, which is admittedly the easiest charge to bring against those who take a different view from your own. The slow effort to place early Christianity in its contemporary setting has still not done much to overcome the influence of the divergent 19th century views which saw early Christianity either as a departure from the original Gospel as a result of philosophical or institutional concerns, or as in some sense still the touch-stone of Christian life and thought it had long been taken to be.

4. Of the number of works reflecting the recent recovery of the centrality of the liturgical meetings for all aspects of early Christian life, the comprehensive work of A. Schmemann, Introduction to Liturgical Theology (London: Faith, 1966) should be noted. In many places (e.g. pp. 60ff., 78ff.) it touches on the importance of the liturgical meetings as defining the nature of the Church as a manifestation of the eschatological people of God in the sense assumed in these remarks.

5. For the passio of Perpetua see volume 3 of the Ante-Nicene Fathers, pp. 697 ff. Ptolemy’s letter to Flora can be found in J. Stevenson’s New Eusebius (London: SPCK: 1957), extract 69. See also Jerome’s Letters, especially 22, and Methodius’ De cibis 1.1-2, and De sanguisuga. For a picture of Macrina and Monica see Gregory’s De anima et resurrectione or Augustine’s De beata vita.

6. H. van der Meer, Women Priests in the Catholic Church (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1973) offers the most readily available collection of references, though the focus of the work is the priesthood.

7. For an introduction to the close relation of martyrdom and asceticism and their appeal to the contemporary world, see W. H. C. Frend: Martyrdom and Persecution in the Early Church (Dover: 1967) and E. R. Dodds: Pagan and Christian in an Age of Anxiety (Cambridge University Press, 1965).

8. Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses 3.1ff.

9. Cf. H. van der Meer (see note 6) for a comprehensive catalogue of the evidence. Women clearly functioned not merely as Montanist prophets but in various capacities in Marcionite and Gnostic communities, and it seems clear that it was in reaction to this that the arguments supposed to show the subordinate place of women in the life of the Church were given prominence.

10. It is true that the canons of the synod of Serdica A.D. 342 suggest that those in important positions should be elected from those who have proved themselves in less important ones, and that these canons can seem, on a later reading, to suggest a hierarchy of offices. In fact it is the intention of these canons to secure a local ministry free from external pressures of the sort common at the time. In any case, they were not commonly adhered to, and were treated, as were other early Christian canons, as sage advice rather than as legislation. At a later time, however, they did provide precedent for the elaboration of a much more structured hierarchy of orders than they themselves envisage.

11. The most familiar reference to the Church as a priestly body is in I Pt 2:5. Another is in 5:10. See also Jn 17:17 - 19. The Pauline corpus speaks of the sacrifice of Christians in Rom 12:11 and Phil 4:18, though of course the whole motif of baptismal death and resurrection (Rom 6.3ff., Gal 3.27ff.) is replete with sacrificial features. It is, of course, important to sort these references out into strands of interpretation, as well as to take a«ount of the related references of a “priestly” character. It remains true, however, that there are fewer references to the priestly character of the Church than later generalizations would suggest.

12. To illustrate our point, by and large the Synoptic materials conflate the Servant and the atonement themes, as in Mk 10:33ff., esp. 45; Mt 16:21, 20:28 (leaving aside the special emphasis of Lk 18:31 on the death of the prophets as foreshadowing that of Christ). The same conflation is already present in the Pauline stress on Christ’s death for others, as in Rom 5:10ff., Eph 5:2, cf. 1 Cor 11:26. The Johannine theme is that of Christ’s making himself holy, as in the famous Jn 17:1ff., esp. 17:19. See also Ap 5:6ff. The most extended use of priestly and sacrificial imagery, of course, is that in Heb 2:17ff., 4:14ff., 5:20ff., 8:1ff., 9:11ff., in which Christ’s self-offering is interpreted as a fulfillment of the promise contained in the figure of Melchizedek. However, a very great number of references having to do with offering, thanksgiving, righteousness, and death take onpriestly and sacrificial overtones in the contexts in which they occur.

13. See J. Jungmann, Mass of the Roman Rite (New York: Benziger, 1951), vol. 1, pp. 233ff., and more generally T. Klauser, A Short History of the Western Liturgy (London: Oxford University Press, 1969), esp. pp. 49ff., 109ff. It is not hard to see how this different environment would allow the writings of the earlier period to be read in a very different fashion from that intended.

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