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The Ministry of Women in the Apostolic Generation by Adela Yarbro Collins from 'Women Priests'

The Ministry of Women in the Apostolic Generation

by Adela Yarbro Collins

from Women Priests, Arlene Swidler & Leonard Swidler (eds.), Paulist Press 1977, pp. 159-165.
Republished on our website with the necessary permissions

Adela Yarbro Collins received the A.B. degree in Religion from Pomona College. A member of Phi Beta Kappa, she has received the Fulbright, Woodrow Wilson and Danforth Fellowships. She received the Ph. D. with distinction in New Testament from Harvard University in 1975 and was at the time Assistant Professor of New Testament at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago.

Taking the literary context into account, the argument of the opening sentences of the Declaration’s paragraph sixteen may be restated as follows: In the apostolic mission to the Gentiles, two factors were conducive to the introduction of the practice of ordaining women: (1) the decision that Mosaic practices were not necessarily binding and (2) the contemporary movement in Greco-Roman civilization for the advancement of women; since the apostles did not ordain women in spite of these two factors, they must have explicitly considered the possibility of ordaining women and rejected it in conscious conformity to what they believed was the will of Jesus Christ on the matter. This argument is not persuasive for two basic reasons. First of all, it ignores a number of historical and exegetical problems which bear directly on the validity of the argument. One such problem is whether the concept “ordination” is an appropriate category for the thought and practice of the apostolic generation. Second, it proposes inadequate justification for its position that the practice of the apostolic generation ought to be normative for the Church today. The reason given is that the leaders of this generation were conforming their practice to the will of Christ. Conformity to the will of Christ is never stated, however, in the passages to which the Declaration refers as a motivation for action. Even if it were, the legitimacy of such a claim would still need to be questioned.

The Attitude and Practice of the Twelve

The Declaration’s conclusion that the Twelve did not ordain women is based on two passages in Acts. The nomination of two men as candidates to replace Judas Iscariot is interpreted as a passing over of Mary, the mother of Jesus, as a candidate (Acts 1:14-26). It is implied that this passing over of Mary was a conscious rejection of the possibility of ordaining women. The second passage is the account of Pentecost (Acts 2). Although the women also received the Spirit (2:1), only Peter standing with the eleven (2:14) made the public proclamation of the event. The implied conclusion is that women may have the Spirit, but are not authorized to exercise the official teaching function of the Church.

With regard to the first passage (Acts 1:14-26), it is not immediately apparent that the selection of Matthias involved his “ordination.” He was chosen by lot and thereafter “he was reckoned along with the eleven apostles." There is no mention of the laying on of hands or other rite which was associated later on with ordination. The act of laying on of hands does occur elsewhere in the book of Acts. According to Acts 6, the whole body of the disciples in Jerusalem chose seven Hellenists “to serve tables” (vs. 2). The apostles prayed and laid their hands upon them (vs. 6). By analogy with later texts (for example, Book VIII of the Apostolic Constitutions, compiled in the late fourth century) this passage might be read as an ordination ceremony of deacons (literally “servants”). This interpretation probably does not correspond to the original intent of the passage, since the laying on of hands, even by the apostles themselves, is not confined in the book of Acts to situations in which persons are commissioned to a special ministry. In 8:17 the apostles lay hands on the Samaritan converts in order that they might receive the Spirit, a gift linked to Baptism. There is no indication that a particular ministry or office is involved. Similarly, in 19:6, Paul lays hands on disciples at Ephesus that they might receive the Spirit. Here also, it is a matter of proper Baptism and not ordination to an office. In 28:8 Paul lays his hands on the father of Publius and heals him. In 9:17, Ananias’ laying of hands on Paul is associated both with the gift of the Spirit (related to Baptism—vs. 18) and with the healing of his blindness. The one who lays on hands here is not an apostle (at least according to Acts) and the gesture is not directly related to Paul’s commission. In 13:3 Barnabas and Saul receive the laying on of hands from members of the Church at Antioch (including at least Simeon Niger, Lucius of Cyrene and Manaen—vs. 1). Here a special ministry is indeed involved, missionary work. The ones who lay on hands, however, are not the Twelve, and Barnabas and Saul are not given any special titles. The book of Acts then does not support the theory that there was a fixed ordination ceremony during the apostolic generation. It is thus questionable whether the idea of ordination to a particular office had yet developed. What we seem to have is rather a more fluid conception of particular functions in the community (for example, serving tables and missionary work). Those designated for such tasks might be prayed over and receive the laying on of hands, but there is no indication that these confirming activities had to be performed by the apostles or by people designated by them.

The selection of Matthias by lot to replace Judas is a special case, and its relationship to the various forms of ministry in the apostolic period is not clarified by the book of Acts.

The second passage of Acts referred to by this section of the Declaration is Acts 2, the event of Pentecost and the proclamation of Peter which followed. The Declaration implies that mention of Peter, standing with the eleven (2:14), as the author of the speech is a deliberate indication of the apostles’ exclusion of women from official ministry. There is no indication that the exclusion was deliberate. Furthermore, the Pentecost proclamation is a special situation, like the election of Matthias. The book of Acts does not indicate how this event was related to the other ministerial activities performed during the apostolic generation.

The picture of the apostolic period given by Acts, however, does imply that the leadership was predominantly male. It is assumed that Judas’ replacement would be a man (1:21) and that the seven ministers to the Hellenists would be men (6:3). The emissaries selected by the Jerusalem Church to accompany Paul and Barnabas to Antioch were men (15:22). The point the Declaration intends to make is that there must be a deeper reason for this fact than cultural conditioning, given [1] the break in principle with Mosaic practices, and [2] the greater freedom of women in Greco-Roman civilization relative to Jewish culture. There are several problems with this argument. First of all, the book of Acts represents a mediating position on the question of the break with Mosaic practices. Paul’s thought exemplifes one pole; the opposite position was taken by those referred to in Acts as “believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees” (15:5). The difference between Paul’s position and the position approved of by the book of Acts may be seen by a comparison of Acts 15 with Galatians 2:1-10. The current scholarly consensus is that the same event is described in both passages—the consultation in Jerusalem on the Gentile mission.(1) In Gal 2:4, Paul refers to “our freedom which we have in Christ Jesus.” It is clear from 1Cor 8-10 and Romans 14 that this freedom included the rejection in principle of the Jewish dietary laws. According to Galatians 2, the Jerusalem leaders added nothing to Paul’s message except the request to “remember the poor.” According to Acts 15:20, 29, however, the consultation ended with an agreement which would require Gentiles to observe certain Jewish dietary laws. Since the book of Acts reflects only a partial break from Mosaic food laws, it is not surprising that there is little evidence in Acts for an increase in the leadership of women relative to current Jewish practice. The book of Acts reflects a moderate position on the issue of food laws in spite of the significant movement exemplified by Paul, to abolish their binding character. We have far less evidence that the leadership of women was a controversial issue during the apostolic generation.

The second problem with the argument mentioned above is the implication that the movement for the emancipation of women in Greco-Roman civilization was so strong that there would be significant pressure on the leaders of the early Church in the Greco-Roman milieu to allow women to exercise leadership within the Church as they were doing outside. In fact, the movement for the advancement of women was by no means so strong and widespread. Since the time of Alexander the Great, women in regions dominated by Hellenistic civilization gradually attained more extensive education; greater legal rights, especially in relation to marriage and divorce; and some increase in economic rights. Analogous trends can be traced in the late Republic and early empire in Rome. However, even among the most aristocratic and wealthy families in Greco-Roman culture, the leadership of women in the public realm was extremely rare.(2) Women were thought of primarily as wives and daughters and exercised their influence on politics and society only indirectly—through their men. While women had greater flexibility of lifestyle in Greco-Roman culture than most Jewish women, their emancipation had hardly progressed to such a point that the issue of the leadership of women would have been forced upon the apostles as they preached the gospel in the Greco-Roman milieu.

As noted above, the Declaration’s conclusions regarding the practice of the Twelve on the issue of the leadership of women are based solely on the book of Acts. It should be noted that there is no statement in Acts which excludes women in principle from any ministerial role. No rationale whatever is given for the de facto exclusion of women from the more prominent leadership roles mentioned in Acts. The Declaration’s conclusion that this de facto exclusion resulted from an attempt to follow the will of Christ is completely unfounded. Since the issue of the leadership of women is in large part a social issue, the social attitudes and practices of the time were undoubtedly contributing factors in this de facto exclusion. If the book of Acts did contain statements excluding women in principle from some form of ministry, thoughtful Christians today would be moved to examine the validity of the arguments presented in support of those statements. The argument of conformity to the will of Christ is certainly not a persuasive one. The Gospels tell us very little about the inner life of Jesus. The exclusion of women from the Twelve in the Gospels is a de facto exclusion without explicit rationale. There is no evidence that this exclusion reflects a conscious decision by Jesus that women ought to be excluded from the forms of ministry which developed later on in the early Church.

The Attitude and Practice of Paul

Section three of the Declaration, “The Practice of the Apostles,” concludes that Paul made a deliberate decision against “conferring ordination” on women (par. 16) and against extending the collaboration of women “to the official and public proclamation of the message, since this proclamation belongs exclusively to the apostolic mission” (par. 17). The first difficulty in these conclusions is the appropriateness of the term “ordination” for Paul’s understanding of ministry. His starting point is the universal Christian experience of Baptism which involves the reception of the Spirit (1Cor 12:13). With regard to ministry, the result of the universal experience of the Spirit is that each person is given a ministerial gift to exercise for the benefit of the community (1Cor 12:4-7). The image of the body used by Paul in this chapter makes it clear that he is not presenting an egalitarian model in which individual differences are to be leveled. He explicitly rejects the idea that the gifts (and thus ministerial functions) are universally interchangeable (12:29-30). A certain hierarchy is implied: The apostles were appointed “first,” the prophets “second,” and so forth (vs. 28) and Paul can speak of “higher gifts” (vs. 31). At the same time the understanding of ministry expressed in 1Corinthians 12 is based on interdependence and mutual concern rather than on authority. There is little in this chapter which suggests the concept or practice of ordination. People are appointed to the various ministerial functions by God, not by leaders of the community passing on powers which they had previously received (vs. 28). Paul describes his own apostolic commission as a divine call “through a revelation of Jesus Christ” (Gal 1:12, 15-16). He does not give us much information about the appointment of others to their functions, but it is likely that a transcendent experience was involved in many cases. There is evidence that some functions, apparently those involving communication between local churches, were assigned by an election held in one or more local churches (2 Cor 8:19, 23). This practice is also attested by Ignatius (Phld. 10:1, Smyr. 11:2 and possibly Pol.7:2). According to the Didache (15:1), bishops and deacons (literally, “overseers” and “servants”) were elected by the local congregations.(3)

There is no evidence in the undisputedly authentic Pauline letters for a special ceremony linked with the appointment to a ministerial office. For example, the term “laying on of hands” does not occur in these letters. In the Pastoral Epistles, however, whose authorship is disputed, we do find a particular ceremony associated with the appointment of Timothy to a particular form of ministry, the laying on of hands (1 Tim 4:14 and 2 Tim 1:6). It is not obvious that Timothy’s duties are associated in the Pastoral Epistles with a particular office. His work is described as the work of an evangelist on one occasion (2 Tim 4:5), but elsewhere his duties are simply described (for example, 1 Tim 4:11-14). Timothy’s ministry is based on a gift of God (2 Tim 1:6) which he received through prophecy (1Tim 4:14). Like Paul’s commission, Timothy’s is rooted in a transcendent experience understood as a divine call. The transcendent sign is combined with community approval, expressed by the laying on of hands by the council of elders (1 Tim 4:14) and with the approval of the apostle Paul (2 Tim 1:6). Timothy, as noted above, is not called a bishop, presbyter or deacon. Thus, the ceremony ascribed to him does not necessarily apply to the installation of others into those forms of ministry. The only other reference to the laying on of hands in the Pastoral Epistles is 1 Tim 5:22. The allusion is vague and thus difficult to interpret. The association of this laying on of hands with the forgiveness of sins is as plausible as its association with installation into a special ministry.(4) It is thus not clear that the concept and practice of ordination as evidenced in later times are reflected even in the Pastoral Epistles, which are generally agreed to be the latest letters in the Pauline corpus.(5)

The assertion that Paul refused ordination to women is not a meaningful one, since the category “ordination” is problematic for the Pauline letters. The question should thus be rephrased in terms of the participation of women in what Paul considered the primary forms of ministry. With regard to the apostolic ministry, it must be noted first of all that Paul did not consider apostolic ministry or the title “apostle” to be limited to the Twelve. His broader understanding of the title “apostle” is obvious in 1 Cor 15:3-11. In Romans 16:7, Paul greeted two apostles by name. One is clearly a man, Andronicus. It is very probable that the other name is a woman’s name and should be translated “Junia” rather than as a man’s name (“Junias”).(6) In his list of ministerial functions in 1 Cor 12:28, Paul lists apostles as appointed “first.” The evidence bearing on the translation and interpretation of Rom 16:7 supports the conclusion that Paul did not exclude women from the exercise of what he considered the primary form of ministry.

It is clear from I1Cor 12:31-13:13 that Paul considered the highest gift of the Spirit to be love. The other gift which he singles out for special praise is prophecy (1 Corinthians 14). In the list of ministries (12:28), Paul names prophets “second” after apostles. In 1 Cor 11:2-16 he explicitly acknowledges prophesying by women. Paul restricts only their manner of dress and does not limit their prophetic activity itself in any way. He thus explicitly affirmed the exercise by women of the prophetic ministry which he called the “second.” It would seem then that Paul did not exclude women from the forms of ministry which should be considered the equivalents of the later ordained ministry.

The second conclusion in the third section of the Declaration regarding Paul is that he refused to allow women to engage in the official and public proclamation of the message. The first argument given in support of this conclusion is that Paul refers to women as “my fellow workers,” but reserves the title “God’s fellow workers” for men. The weakness of this argument has already been pointed out.(7) The second argument is given in section four, “Permanent Value of the Attitude of Jesus and the Apostles” (par. 20). This argument is that 1 Cor 14:34-35 and 1 Tim 2:12 show that Paul prohibited women from exercising the official function of teaching in the Christian assembly.(8) There are several flaws in this argument. First of all, there is no indication whatsoever in 1 Cor 14:34-35 that the issue is teaching by women in the assembly. On the contrary, vs. 35 implies that the issue is whether women ought to ask questions in the assemblies, that is, whether they should actively seek to be taught. Many exegetes take the position that these verses are not by Paul but are a later interpolation. There are strong arguments in favor of this position.(9) Even if this passage was written by Paul, it cannot be understood as excluding women from “official” teaching (if “official” means “authoritative”). Besides the reason mentioned above (the issue is women’s questions, not their teaching), the passage cannot be so understood because Paul affirms the prophesying by women in 1 Cor 11:2-16. Chapter 14 makes clear that prophesying for Paul means in part authoritative teaching. The one who prophesies speaks to the members of the congregation, apparently during the worship service, “for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation” (14:3). The purpose of prophesying is “that all might learn and all might be encouraged” (14:31).

The other passage referred to in support of this argument is 1 Tim 2:11 15. There is no explicit indication that this passage refers to the conduct of women in the Christian assembly. Rather, it seems to refer to the conduct of women in general. This impression is reinforced by the phrase “in every place” which modifies the preceding instructions on how men ought to pray. The prohibitions of teaching and of the exercise of authority by women over men (vs. 12) thus appear to be absolute. These prohibitions are in real tension with 1 Corinthians 11 and 14. As noted above, many exegetes question whether the Pastoral Epistles were written by Paul (for reasons other than this particular tension).(10) In any case, whether this passage was written by Paul or not, the Catholic Church has long since acted in a way which denies the normative character of the straightforward meaning of this text. The active role of women in teaching at various levels in Catholic education is contrary to the simple prohibition of teaching by women in 1 Tim 2:12. The next part of this verse does not deny only a particular kind of authority to women but simply denies any authority of women over men whatsoever. The Declaration itself mentions two events in the Church which go against both prohibitions of that verse: the naming of Saint Teresa of Avila and Saint Catherine of Siena as Doctors of the Church (par. 2) and the inclusion of women in some of the working bodies of the Apostolic See (par. 3).

The rationale given in 1 Tim 2:11-15 for the exclusion of women from teaching and from the exercise of authority over men is not conformity to the will of Christ. According to section three of the Declaration, such conformity was Paul’s reason for not allowing women to proclaim the Christian message publicly and officially (pars. 16-17). The stated rationale in 1 Timothy 2 is an interpretation of Genesis 2-3 which implies the subordination and moral inferiority of women (vss. 13-14). In 1 Corinthians 11, Paul alludes to Genesis 2 in a way which seems to support the idea of the subordination of women to men (vss. 3, 7-8). But in the same passage Paul qualifies this traditional Jewish exegesis of Genesis 2 by saying that in the Lord men and women are interdependent (vss. 11-12). He thus explicitly undercuts the normative character of the traditional interpretation of Genesis 2 for the Christian community. This qualification, as well as the fact that he did not forbid women to prophesy, show that there was indeed a tendency in the apostolic generation to increase the participation of women in ministry. The revival of the traditional Jewish, normative use of the Adam and Eve narrative in 1 Timothy must be understood in the context of the difficult circumstances in which the letter was written.(11) It is questionable that the teaching of 1Tim 2:11-15 ought to be normative in other historical circumstances.

The third section of the Declaration embodies an attempt to close debate concerning the ordination of women on historical and exegetical grounds. It is clear that this attempt has failed because of faulty exegesis and inaccurate historical interpretation. In any case, as the Biblical Commission has pointed out, it does not seem that the issue can be decided on Scriptural grounds alone. Further discussion should take up the question whether exegetical considerations ought to be the main ones.


1. Günther Bornkamm, Paul, trans. D.M.G. Stalker (New York Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc., 1971), p. 31.

2. Sarah B. Pomeroy, Goddesses, Whores, Wives and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity (New York: Schocken Books, 1975), pp 125-26 189


3. Eduard Lohse, “Cheirotoneo,” Theological Dictionary of the New Testament , Vol. IX, ed. Gerhard Friedrich, tr. and ed. by Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1974), p. 437.

4. Martin Dibelius and Hans Conzelmann, The Pastoral Epistles, trans. Philip Buttolph and Adela Yarbro, ed. Helmut Koester (Hermeneia; Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1972), p. 71.

5. Paul Feine, Johannes Behm and Werner Georg Kümmel, Introduction to the New Testament, 14th ed., trans. A.J. Mattill, Jr. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1966), pp. 261-72.

6. For a fuller discussion of this point, see the essay by Bernadette Brooten, pp. 141-144.

7. John R. Donahue, “Women, Priesthood and the Vatican,” America, Vol. 136 (April 2, 1977), pp. 286-87; see also the essay by Mary Ann Getty, pp. 176-182.

8. For a detailed discussion of this second argument, see the essay by Robert Karris, pp. 205-208.

9. Hans Conzelmann, 1 Corinthians, trans. James W. Leitch, ed. George W. MacRae, S.J. (Hermeneia; Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975), p.246.

10. Feine, Behm and Kümmel, Introduction to the New Testament, pp. 261-72; Dibelius and Conzelmann, The Pastoral Epistles, pp. 1-5.

11. Dibelius and Conzelmann, The Pastoral Epistles, pp. 65-67.

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