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Woman and Work in the Early Christian Community from 'Woman as Priest, Bishop and Laity in the Early Church to 440 A.D.' by Arthur Frederick Ide

Woman and Work in the Early Christian Community

Woman as Priest, Bishop and Laity in the Early Church to 440 A.D.
by Arthur Frederick Ide, Ide House 1984, pp. 117-120.
Published on our website with the kind permission of the author

Poor Christian women were found in the most menial of jobs, working for very little pay—all of which they surrendered to their husbands or fathers or older brothers whom they believed “had charge over them.” Wealthy Christian women worked within the house for no pay and enjoyed no say over the expenditure of their husband’s monies, since those monies were considered his exclusively. Chrysostom summed up the situation best, writing, “To make money is man’s function; all lucrative activity is forbidden to women. ”(l)

Following the ancient Greek and Near Eastern precedent women were without say in the management of the family and its wealth, having only, at the very best, determination on the upkeep of the household: its cleaning, preservation, and maintenance. Most women experienced empty lives, being consigned to a life tantamount to enslavement in a gyneceum. Again the Church Father spelled out the substance of her existence: “to keep the acquisitions, to preserve the grains, to take care of the house,” “for God hath given her this purpose—to serve man.(2)

Woman was not to quarrel with what male theologians and male Church leaders saw as her lot. Chrysostom warmed that woman would end her days in great unhappiness if she would quarrel with or fight her husband, pontificating: “this is an aspect of the divine providence and wisdom, that the one who can conduct great affairs is inadequate or inept in small things, so that the function of woman becomes necessary. For if He [God] had made man able to fulfill the two functions, the feminine sex would have been contemptible. And if He had entrusted the important questions to woman, He would have filled woman with mad pride. So, He gave the two functions, neither to the one, to avoid humiliating the other as being useless, nor to both in equal part, less the two sexes, placed on the same level, should compete, and fight, woman refusing the authority to men.” (3)

Still women worked. During the Principate most of the empire lived within municipalities, which developed from the poleis, or city-states. The majority of these poleis were run by popular assemblies composed strictly of men who did not permit and seldom invited women to their deliberations. Under the Republic the municipalities were modified in the interest of the wealthy citizens. When Christianity became a dominate force they were modified again in the interest of the Church and the churchmen who dominated the Church, exempting them from taxes and various civil obligations, especially the paying of taxes, which, once mitigated, were dropped unceremoniously upon the overly burdened backs of the poor who were compelled to work harder and for longer hours to come up with the money demanded by insensitive tax collectors. Thus increasing numbers of women were farmed out to work in bakeries, smiths, tent-shops, and the like. The women did not see the money their sweat had earned, for the Church admonished their husbands to garnish their wives wages “ lest she fall into the sin of pride of ownership of which is rightfully that belonging to men.” At the same time the women who were set out to work for extra money were expected to keep up their own homes. There was to be no slacking from their obligations to their husbands unless they wished to be accused of exchanging their sex for that of the other. So frustrating was this situation and the apparent disintigration of society that many women fled to the deserts to take up a cenobetic life, only reluctantly merging together into a monastic community out of need for protection.

Some women became monastic artists, excelling in bas-reliefs which are vigorous, lively, and yet rather naive. Although these works of art generally depict genre scenes of the workaday world, they clearly owe their inspiration to the classical interest of Greece and Rome. The figures are short and stubby, and nearly always in a frontal position, for the artists were generally incapable of expressing perspective or foreshortening. Technically and artistically the most interesting medium was now the mosaic, but at the same time painting remained in vogue. Later, with the decline of the empire, art was cannibalized from other structures and married haphazardly to poor edifices weak in material and planning. But here again women were to be found as architects and as workers.(4)

Some women went to school. Some were educators. Their education, nearly always was centered around and based on Scripture and the writings of early Church men.(5) Those who did not teach in schools went out to the world to teach, usually on an individual, basis, but sometimes holding classes for several families daughters. Not only did they teach but they baptized, patterning themselves after Thelca. Occasionally a few of these women became accomplished writers, commenting not only on the events of the day, but critically examining scripture and the Church Fathers, and penning what today are considered Apocryphal Acts.(6) These did not always agree with the regimentation spelled out for women as prescribed in the Apostolic letters (cf. Col. 3:18-4:1; Titus 2:3-9; 1 Peter 3:1-7; and 1 Tim.) but were filled with delightful insights into the rare quality of the mind of women who saw themselves as god-fearing and god-worthy.(7)

Life continued, but as the end of the empire descended woman’s freedom increasingly diminished. She would be chained to a plow and an ox; she would be at the beck and call of a man who was generally calloused; she would be pregnant most of her life; she would die years before her husband. She contributed greatly; she was, still, ignored and her contributions underplayed. She accepted this willingly. All she knew, was what church men had taught her. They repeatedly drilled into her mind their prejudices and phobias about women. They demand that she take a subordinate place to men because of her sex, even though the Scripture they cited was distorted from its meaning. They had canonized the past and closed their god out from a living environment. This would be the lot of women through the Dark Ages, with light coming only in patches, with no true illumination of a glory that would be theirs until the first permanent rays of promise filtered in to the cold dampness of the eighth century?


1. Sources chretienne, vol. 137, p, 183.

2. Chrysostom, Homily Quales ducendae sint uxores, in Opera III: 250.

3. Ibid., 260-261. By the act of creation woman was “made for man”, that is “for man’s consolation,” “in order to help him in the necessities and the utilities of life.” Subjection to man was imposed upon woman “for her own sake” for “it is better for you to be under him and have him as your Lord, than, that, living freely and on your own, you fall into the pits.”, Migne, Patrologia Graeca, vol. 53, cols. 122, 145.

4. See my Woman in Ancient Rome.

5. Tertullian, De Baptismo 17.4; Steven Davies, “The Social World of the Apocryphal Acts,” unpub. dissertation, Temple Univ., 1978, pp. 73, 154f.

6. Ibid., and appendix.

7. See my Woman in Ancient Rome.

8. Charles Anthony Stanley Ide and Arthur Frederick Ide, Woman in the early Middle Ages (Mesquite, 1982).

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