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Place of Women In The Church

Although Christ was not married and none of the Twelve was a woman, women played a decisive role in His ministry, which was often directed to the needs of the female sex (cf. Matt. 9:20ff.; Mark 7:25ff.; Luke 10:38; John 4:7ff.). At the crucifixion “many women were there, watching from a distance. They had followed Jesus from Galilee to care for his needs” (Matt. 27:55). Mary Magdalene and the “other Mary” were first at the tomb on Easter morning. The Book of Acts calls special attention to the women who were in the upper room after the Ascension (Acts 1:14). Both men and women were baptized in the early church (Acts 8:12). Much attention was given to the important women who were attracted to the faith in this period of the church (Acts 13:50; 17:4,12).

Paul specifically excludes women from the official ministry of the Christian community, and requires that they neither practice the tongues gift in corporate worship or exercise places of leadership in the church (1 Cor. 14:26-36; 1 Tim. 2:8-15; 5:1- 16). Perhaps more important is the fact of service rendered by women and the strong emphasis upon their full participation in the reality of the church as the body of Christ. In the former case, the important role of Priscilla and Aquila should be noted (cf. Acts 18:2,18,26; Rom. 16:3; 1 Cor. 16:19; 2 Tim. 4:19). In the extended list of believers to be greeted in the church at Rome, a large number were women (cf. Rom. 16:1-16). The specific mention of Phoebe as a “deaconess of the church at Cenchreae” clearly implies a recognized ministry of service if not of leadership. The early church never failed to note the purpose of the Incarnation as the Redeemer coming to “serve,” not to be served (Mark 10:45). To speak of a “deaconess” (“one who waits on tables”) is to pay the highest tribute to the role of women in the early church. Her full participation in the community is guaranteed also by the fact that sexual distinctions disappear in the body of Christ, and the marriage relationship derives its significance from the relationship of Christ and the church (Gal. 3:28; Col. 3:11; Eph. 5:21-33).

Specific mention should be made of the practice in the apostolic age of widows in the church. The ministerial class of deacons probably had its origin in the issue surrounding the neglect of the Greek-speaking (Hellenist) Jewish widows. The apostolic church seems to have assumed material responsibility for widows, but Paul warns of the abuses and dangers of this practice (1 Tim. 5:1-15; Acts 6:1-7).

Probably the two most distinguishing features of female relationships in the church in the postapostolic age are Syneisaktism and monasticism.* Syneisaktism (Gr. suneisaktoi; Lat. subintroductae) was a form of spiritual marriage appearing very early. The female partners were known as agapemtae from the Greek term for “love” or “beloved.” Some scholars have interpreted Paul's statement in 1 Corinthians 7:36- 38 as referring to a spiritual marriage which under the stress of the sexual instinct has made legal marriage necessary; the former vow of spiritual marriage is then appropriately set aside. Syneisaktism grew out of the ascetic ideals popularized primarily in the East, and the strong emphasis in ecclesiastical circles upon the life of brotherly love. Evidence for this practice appears in the Shepherd of Hermas, and in the churches at Antioch under Paul of Samosata* and Constantinople under John Chrysostom.* At a later time, Irish monasticism was characterized by mixed communes which often led to charges of sexual abuses. A number of early church synods and councils condemned the practice, especially Nicea* (325), as well as church leaders such as Chrysostom and Cyprian.*

With the development of binding clerical celibacy* in the Middle Ages, it became customary for clergymen to have dwelling with them housekeepers whose relationship was functional as well as spiritual, if not sexual. From the same ascetic ideals developed a form of Christian monasticism among women. Macrina* is credited with being the founder of women's conventual life, especially in the Eastern Church. Paula,* one of Jerome's converts, took up the monastic calling and assisted Jerome throughout his life with his scholarly pursuits. Francis of Assisi* was equally successful in winning converts from the female section of the church, and established the Poor Clares.*

During the period of the Avignon papacy, Catherine of Siena* exercised a great influence in returning the papacy to Rome; in her is seen a kindred movement to monasticism-mysticism.* Noted mystics are Gertrude the Great,* Mechthild of Hackborn (d.1310), Mechthild of Magdeburg,* Bridget of Sweden.* The women of the Middle Ages always drew inspiration from the Virgin Mary, and stimulated the development of Mariology.* With the appearance of the Mendicant Orders of the thirteenth century, women began to play a more decisive role in education and social service, as did the monastic movement generally. Ordination and administration of the sacraments were never open to women throughout the postapostolic and medieval period.

With the Protestant Reformation came a general decline in the monastic movement, and Christian marriage took on a more positive appearance. Luther played matchmaker in arranging marriages between monks and nuns who were leaving convents and monasteries. Even within the Catholic Church, women such as Teresa of Avila* helped to bring about reform. The Sisters (or Daughters) of Charity carried on a commendable work among the poor and sick. Nevertheless women still played minor roles so far as ecclesiastical life was concerned, and general education of women, except in rare cases, did not begin until the nineteenth century and then mainly in England.

In that century, Congregationalists and Baptists, particularly in England, were the first to admit women into the official ministry, as in the case of Agnes Maude Royden; but such women as Selina, countess of Huntingdon,* a patroness of evangelicalism, are also important. The Salvation Army* was a notable pioneer in giving opportunities for women to minister, and from the second half of the nineteenth century the role of missionary was open to women (in some cases the missionary movement was almost exclusively their responsibility). From 1950 most of the major denominations, apart from Roman Catholics and Orthodox, allowed women to be ordained, though their position in the Anglican Communion* is still to be precisely determined. The Protestant Episcopal Church in the USA approved the ordination of women in 1977.

In 1780 Robert Raikes* secured the services of four women to teach the catechism to children on Sunday. From these beginnings, the Sunday school* has become largely the responsibility of women in the church at almost every level. Not a few denominations, particularly in America, owe their origins to the leadership of women (see, for example, Ann Lee, Mary Baker Eddy, and Aimee Semple McPherson).

E. Deen, All the Women of the Bible (1955); R.C. Prohl, Woman in the Church (1957); C.C. Ryrie, The Place of Women in the Church (1958); M.E. Thrall, The Ordination of Women to the Priesthood (1958); H. Lockyer, The Women of the Bible (1967); G. Harkness, Women in Church and Society (1972); D.M. Lake, “Woman,” in ZPEB (1975).