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>The Church Fathers and the Ministry of Women by Carolyn Osiek from 'Women Priests'

The Church Fathers and the Ministry of Women

by Carolyn Osiek

from Women Priests, Arlene Swidler & Leonard Swidler (eds.), Paulist Press 1977, pp. 75-80.
Republished on our website with the necessary permissions

Carolyn Osiek, RSCJ, has been Research/Resource Associate in Women’s Studies at Harvard Divinity School, where she achieved her doctorate in the field of New Testament and Christian Origins. She is Professor of New Testament at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago.

The Declaration’s interpretation of the evidence regarding the Church Fathers’ attitude to women in ministerial roles implies a number of underlying assumptions that are highly problematic. Let us consider each statement in turn.

“The Catholic Church has never felt that priestly or episcopal ordination can be validly conferred on women.” At later times the definition and boundaries of the “Catholic Church” are clearer. In the first centuries of Christianity they are not so clear. As first used by Ignatius of Antioch in his letter to the Smyrneans (8.2), the expression “Catholic Church” seems to have meant the association of Christian communities with whom he was in communion across the Empire from Antioch to Rome. To say that in the following years there was a clear consensus of doctrine that distinguished this Christian tradition from others is misleading. The Christology of Justin Martyr and other theologians in Rome in the next two generations after him was not that of the later dogmatic pronouncements of Nicea, Ephesus, and Chalcedon; the differences between Tertullian’s theology in his earlier “orthodox” period and his later “Montanist” period are not totally definable; the Acts of Perpetua and Felicitas, accepted by the Catholic Church, show Montanist tendencies; many aspects of the theology of Clement of Alexandria can be construed as “Gnostic”; the theology of some of the Desert Fathers showed similarities to Gnosticism. This does not exhaust the list of possible examples. When speaking of the first centuries of the Christian faith as does the paragraph quoted above, caution must be applied to be sure that a certain fluidity of concept is maintained.

“A few heretical sects in the first centuries, especially Gnostic ones....” The Commentary on the Vatican Declaration (par. 10) expands the interpretation: in “some heretical sects” we find “attempts” to have women exercise priestly ministry, but these are “very sporadic occurrences.” Again, the interpretation of the data is misleading. We know that the Marcionite and Montanist Churches had women in prominent ministerial roles as did many Gnostic communities. Most of the evidence for these groups comes only from the heresiologists precisely because the majority of the books and documents written by such groups perished with them in the eventual triumph of the Catholic Church as it gained political ascendancy as well as doctrinal clarity. The discovery in this century of a wealth of Gnostic literature, particularly from Nag Hammadi in Upper Egypt, has added much information about the theology and spirituality of communities from which it came, but very little knowledge of their ecclesiastical organization.(1) Consequently we must rely almost exclusively on the writings of their opponents for accurate information of this sort about them, and the Church Fathers who wrote polemical treatises against the “heretics” were anything but objective. One of their favorite tactics was to insinuate sexual impropriety and delusion on the part of women who exercised church leadership, exactly as does the Commentary on the Declaration by its passing statement that these “very sporadic occurrences” of women in ministry are associated with “rather questionable practices,” a suggestion which, given the tendency to rhetorical exaggeration on the part of the same heresiologists and the strong stress on sexual continence on the part of most of these “heretical” groups, is often not credible. Many Gnostic gospels were written under the authority of a woman, and some of the second-century apocryphal acts of apostles portray women as important evangelizers.(2) While such literature was long recognized as pseudepigraphical, it nevertheless shows women exercising roles which must have been credible in the Christian communities from which they came: teaching, preaching, even performing miracles.(3) We know of many women, some in traditions based on New Testament times, who were prophets and teachers in Gnostic and Montanist communities: Marcellina, Helene, Salome, Mariamne.(4)

The Declaration goes on to say that these heretical sects “entrusted the exercise of the priestly ministry to women.” It is unclear in the Declaration itself, just as it is in most texts of the period of church history which we are considering, precisely what “priestly ministry” does and does not include. As the statement of the Pontifical Biblical Commission on the question points out (Introduction, #2), the New Testament knows no specialized office of hiereus, or priest in the later sense, and never connects authorization to perform the Eucharist with the office of apostle, bishop, or presbyter. The early Church Order known as the Didache expressly allows itinerant prophets to celebrate Eucharist in the form and wording that they wish (10.7). Ignatius of Antioch (Smyrneans 8.1) says that there can be no Eucharist without the bishop that is bebaia: reliable and, in that sense, valid or authorized. An examination of the role descriptions of ministers in the early Church reveals that attention is focused not on authority to perform the Eucharist but on authority to preach and teach, and therefore to be recognized as a teacher of sound doctrine.(5)

The Declaration notes seven texts in the Church Fathers in which information is found about the exercise of “priestly ministry” by women.(6) Irenaeus (Adversus Haereses 1.13.2) describes part of the Gnostic liturgy of the Marcosians in which women offer the cup at the altar; Marcus is depicted as a charlatan and the women in question as deranged. Tertullian (De Praescriptione Haereticorum 41.5) satirizes the lightness and lack of seriousness of heretical groups by mocking their lack of structure. Another proof in his estimation of their lack of genuineness is the arrogance of their women who dare to teach, refute, exorcize, promise healing, and perhaps even baptize, No eucharistic celebration is mentioned in this passage. The letter of Firmilian recounts the tale of a woman of the generation before him who exercised prophetic powers and performed Baptism and Eucharist in the accepted way and with the correct formulae, apparently not in a heretical church but in a situation well known to the bishop. (He of course considered such liturgical actions invalid.) This occasion may be considered exceptional, but those described by Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Epiphanius are not; they are rather practices of long standing in some Christian communities. Origen’s remarks on 1Cor. 14:34-35 concern the right to prophesy or teach in the assembly they are directed against the Montanists’ women prophets. Epiphanius’ account of the prophecy and leadership of Priscilla and Quintilla speaks of the Montanists’ practice of admitting women “into the clergy” (en klero) as presbyters and bishops but does not specify what the offices entailed (Panarion 49.2-3). His description of the Collyridians is more specific. In this case groups of women assemble and perform priestly functions (hierourgein) in honor of the Virgin Mary (Panarion 78.2-3, 79.2-4). Of these seven references cited by the Declaration, three concern the exercise of a eucharistic function two that of baptizing, and four that of the authority to preach or teach. There is no one model of ministry used in these texts. Moreover, once we see the variety of roles included here in the exercise of priestly ministry, we must also see that it is simply not accurate to state as the Commentary does (par 10) that we know of these roles being exercised by women only from the above texts. There are other texts by some of the same authors as well as passages in Church Order collections such as the Apostolic Constitutions which condemn a woman’s right to teach, baptize, or offer Eucharist.7 The controversy over the question was more widespread than the impression left by the Declaration.

“This innovation,” continues the Commentary, was noted and condemned. Considering the information we have about the evangelizing activities of women in apostolic times, it is impossible to label the whole role of women as prophets and teachers an innovation. To say that women’s further role in baptizing and celebrating Eucharist during the first centuries of the Church was an innovation is to accept the classical position of the heresiologists that all “heresies” originated later than the true teaching of the apostles and were in opposition to this apostolic teaching which was absolutely clear and unifed from the beginning. Such a conception of the origins of church history is highly questionable in the light of recent scholarship.(8) The same monolithic conception of church history is implied later in the Declaration: “this attitude of Jesus and the Apostles . . . has been considered as normative by the whole of tradition up to our own day” (par. 18); and in the Commentary (par. II) the custom is referred to as “the constant and universal practice of the Church.” One wonders how a practice can have been constant and universal if all the statements regarding it are negative and imply that the practice needed to be defended.

“This innovation was immediately noted and condemned by the Fathers, who considered it as unacceptable in the Church.” Certainly those Church Fathers cited, inasmuch as they speak on the subject, did consider official ministry for women unacceptable, with the exception of the limited role of deaconess admitted by Epiphanius for the Baptism and visiting of women— the same role assigned to them by the contemporary Apostolic Constitutions. (9) It is then necessary to ask why the Fathers considered the practice unacceptable. There are two obvious reasons given within the texts themselves. The first is that they considered it predominantly a practice of heretics, and in the mindset and literary style of most of their writings, anything connected with the heretical must be wrong. This brings us to the question: did the heresiologists reject ministry for women on principle or because it was considered a practice tainted with heresy? The latter alternative was suggested long ago in regard to the Montanists(10) and must be kept as a live possibility in regard to other heretical groups who differed more radically than they from orthodox or Catholic tradition.

The second reason contained within the texts themselves for the Church Fathers’ rejection of women in ministry is their appeal to a select group of Scripture passages which can be interpreted to support the natural inferiority of women: Gen. 3:16 and 1Cor. 11:3, 8; and especially 1Cor. 14:34-35 and 1Tim. 2:11-15, which base submissive behavior of women in the Christian assembly on the argument from the order of creation and the fall. Origen’s commentary on 1Corinthians, #74 interprets 1Cor. 14:34-35 to include even prophecy, allowing women to prophesy (as in 1Cor. 11:5) only outside the assembly, he also invokes 1Tim. 2:12 and Titus 2:3, as well as Gen. 3:16 in #71. Tertullian in de Baptismo 17.4-5 invokes the authority of 1Cor. 14:34-35, as he also does in Contra Marcionem 5.8.11, where he forbids women to speak in the assembly even in order to learn. Again in de Virginibus Velandis 9.1, probably written when Tertullian was a Montanist, he still assumes that women cannot perform any priestly function and again appeals to 1Cor. 14:34-35 and 1Tim. 2:12. The Apostolic Constitutions 3.6 quotes 1Cor. 14:34 and 1Cor. 11 :3 against women teaching and 3.9 again cites 1Cor. 11:3 and Gen. 3:16 against women baptizing or having any part in the priesthood. When the Montanists against whom Epiphanius writes justify their inclusion of women as bishops and presbyters on the authority of Gal. 3:28, he quotes against them Gen. 3:16; 1Cor. 14:34-35; 1Cor. 11:8; and 1Tim. 2:14 (Panarion 49.2-3). As the Commentary on the Declaration admits (par. 12), St. Thomas Aquinas still uses the same scriptural bases for his exclusion of women from priesthood: because woman is in a state of subjection (quia mulier est in statu subiectionis) even though at that point such an argument is called “scarcely defensible today.” We are thus left with conclusions based on authorities whose reasons are admitted to be no longer viable. Indeed the appeal to the natural inferiority of women runs counter to the current voice of the teaching Church. Both the Declaration and the Commentary fail to wrestle with this fundamental problem of appeal to scriptural statements which seem to stand in opposition to a contemporary vision of human dignity recognized by the Church. That is the most serious problem arising from this section of the Declaration.

There is however an additional problem of no little seriousness, namely that the reasons advanced by the Church Fathers in these texts all rest on an appeal to a hierarchy of authority between man and woman: woman cannot be a priest because she is subordinate to man; priesthood is therefore seen only in terms of authority and dominance. How well do such arguments hold against a more comprehensive notion of priesthood and ordained ministry for which we are striving today?


1. For texts, see Werner Foerster, ed., Gnosis: A Selection of Gnostic Texts, trans. R. McL. Wilson, 2 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1972 and 74) especially vol. 2.

2. See Edgar Hennecke, New Testament Apocrypha, ed. by Wilhelm Schneemelcher, trans. R. McL. Wilson, 2 vols. (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1963 and 65); Roger Gryson, The Ministry of Women in the Early Church, trans. Jean Laporte and Mary L.Hall (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1976), pp. 15-16.

3. Acts of Paul and Thecla: Acts of John 82-83.

4. On Marcellina: Irenaeus, Adv. Haer. 1.25.6, and Epiphanius Panarion 27.6; Marianne: Acts of Philip 94-95, and Hippolytus, Refutatio 5.7.1; 10.9.3; on them and others: Origen, Contra Celsus 5.62; Augustine, de Haer. 27.

5. See Raymond Brown, Priest and Bishop: Biblical Reflections (NewYork: Paulist Press), 1970, pp. 13-45.

6. Declaration, n. 7: Irenaeus, Adv. Haer. 1.13.2 (Foerster, Gnosis I pp. 200-201); Tertullian, Praes. 41.5 (Ante-Nicene Fathers III, p. 263); Firmilian of Caesarea in Cyprian, Ep. 74(75) (Ante-Nicene Fathers V, p. 393); Origen on 1Cor. 14, frag. 74, reconstructed by Claude Jenkins in Journal of Theological Studies 10 (1909), pp. 41-42 (Gryson, The Ministry of Women pp. 28-29); and Epiphanius, Panarion 49.2-3 on the Quintillians or Montanists; 78.2-3 and 79.2-4 on the Collyridians.
N.B. Sources in the original languages are given in the notes of the Declaration itself. Where English translations are readily available, they are given above in parentheses and in following notes. Ante-Nicene Fathers henceforth = ANF.

7. Cf. Tertullian, de Bapt. 17.4-5 on teaching and baptizing (ANF 111, p. 677); de Virg. Vel. 9.1 on teaching, baptizing, and offering Eucharist (ANF IV, p. 33); Con. Marc. 5.8.11 on teaching; Epiphanius, Panarion 42.4 on baptizing; Didascalia Apostolorumand parallel texts in Apostolic Constitutions 3.9 on baptizing (ANF VII, p. 429) and 3.6.1-2 on teaching (ANF VII, pp. 427-8).

8. See for example, Walter Bauer, Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity, ed. George Stecker, trans. Robert Kraft and Gerhard Krodel (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1971); James M. Robinson and Helmut Koester, Trajectories through Early Christianity (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1971); Robert L. Wilken, The Myth of Christian Beginnings: History’s Impact on Belief (Garden City: Doubleday, 1971).

9. Panarion 79.3; Apostolic Constitutions 3.15 (ANF VII, p. 431); 8.20 (p. 492).

10. Labriolle, Pierre de, “‘Mulieres in Ecclesia Taceant’; un aspect de la lutte antimontaniste,” Bulletin d’ancienne littérature et d’archéologie chrétiennes 1 (1911), pp. 3-24; 103, 122; 292-298; especially pp. 120-122.

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