Responsive image
Nederlands/Vlaams Deutsch Francais English language Spanish language Portuguese language Catalan Chinese Czech Malayalam Finnish Igbo
Japanese Korean Romanian Malay language Norwegian Swedish Polish Swahili Chichewa Tagalog Urdu
Equality of Women: The New Testament

Equality of Women: The New Testament

By Robert J. Willis, Ph.D.
Published on our website with his permission


On October 15, 1976 Pope Paul VI approved the “Declaration on the Question of the Admission of Women to the Ministerial Priesthood,” Inter Insigniores. The Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) prepared and published this work. It concluded that “the Church . . . does not consider herself authorized to admit women to priestly ordination” (Intro., para. 5). Its principal theological rationale stems from the following:

The Christian priesthood is therefore of a sacramental nature. The priest is a sign, the supernatural effectiveness of which comes from the ordination received, but a sign that must be perceptible and which the faithful must be able to recognize with ease. . . . In such a case it would be difficult to see in the minister the image of Christ. For Christ himself was and remains a man (para. 27).[1]

The document does not elucidate its understanding of “with ease,” nor does it explain how modern Christians may easily recognize Christ, a man of the people, in the splendor of a wealthy Church, or may without much difficulty uncover the image of a meek and humble Christ draped in the hierarchical trappings of a medieval monarchy.

Twelve years later, on August 15, 1988, Pope John Paul II reaffirmed the Vatican’s position. He noted: “in calling only men as his Apostles, Christ acted in a completely free and sovereign manner.”[2] He followed that up in 1994 with a letter to the bishops of the world. Seeking to cut off, forever, any and all discussion concerning women priests, he asserted with blunt finality:

… the church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful.[3]

Given such authoritative pronouncements, one might conclude that the question no longer exists. Wrong! Since then the Anglican Church, whose apostolic succession Rome recognizes, has ordained women priests and consecrated women bishops. Some daring Catholic bishops, moreover, have defied the Vatican; they have validly, if illicitly in Rome’s eyes, ordained women as priests. These women-priests currently serve many Catholic faithful. Their parishioners report scant difficulty in beholding in them, “with ease,” the image and presence of Christ. Moreover, professional theologians have challenged the Vatican’s argumentation. The renowned biblical scholar, John L. McKenzie, minced no words in his assessment of the Congregation’s declaration: “The church is never served well by bad scholarship. I cannot think of any pontifical document which departed so from the methods of sound learning as this document.”[4] Herbert McCabe, O.P., editor of New Blackfriars, a prominent Catholic journal in England, with obvious disdain dismissed the declaration:

We refer, of course, to the ludicrous Declaration on Women and the Priesthood which takes about 6000 words to say that nothing must ever happen for the first time. It is full of superb non-sequiturs of which my favourite is the argument that the equality of the sexes is irrelevant since the priesthood is not a human right. The argument, of course, is not whether anybody has a “right” to the priesthood but whether anybody has the right to refuse it to someone simply on the grounds of her sex.[5]

Today, we should consider the Congregation’s declaration and John Paul’s letter in the context of a Biblical Commission Report on the question of ordaining women. In 1997, three years after the Pope’s directive for non-discussion, it concluded: “It does not seem that the New Testament by itself will permit us to settle in a clear way once and for all the problem of the possible accession of women to the presbyterate.”[6]

As I write The New York Times reports a current effort on Rome’s part to contain this controversy. On May 29, 2008 the CDF “reaffirmed a ban on ordaining women as priests, warning that the consequences of any such ordination would be the automatic excommunication of anyone involved.” “Anyone” refers both to the women and to the bishops deigning to ordain them. Significantly, a spokeswomen for the Roman Catholic Womenpriests organization commented that it interprets this action as a positive sign “that the Vatican is taking us seriously.”[7]

American Catholics do not judge the dispute settled. The Gallup organization has conducted a number of polls on the topic. When it asked participants to respond to this statement: “It would be a good thing if women were allowed to be ordained,” in 1970 30% agreed. By 1993 that percentage had doubled. In 1999 the poll distinguished between ordaining celibate women (63%) and married women (54%).[8] Obviously, the majority of Catholic laity in this country rejects the current Vatican stance.

Any appeal to “The Church’s Constant Tradition” (Inter Insigniores, Part I), depends not only on consistent hierarchical practice or on relevant statements by Church Fathers and Councils; it also requires the consensus fidelium (“the consent of the faithful”), during the life of Jesus and among his early believers as well as down through the Christian ages. Did Jesus leave his followers examples of discrimination against women because of their gender? Did he and his early disciples exclude women from authoritative roles in the fledging community? In a male-dominated Hellenistic world and in the context of patriarchal Judaism, were god-seekers able “to recognize with ease” Christ’s image in, and understand his message through, his female disciples? In our time and place do Christians agree with the Sacred Congregation’s opinion that they would find it “difficult to see in the minister the image of Christ” simply because of her gender?

Near the conclusion of Vatican II, the council fathers produced, and Paul VI declared, “The Decree on Ecumenism” (Unitatis Reintegratio). To our purpose, it urged: “all are led to examine their own faithfulness to Christ’s will for the Church and, wherever necessary, undertake with vigor the task of renewal and reform.” (chap. I, para. 4).[9] Our all-male hierarchy has staked its claim about women’s ordination with stubborn determination. If we do not stand with them, then we must spell out our own position, one grounded in faith and in our perception of the Lord’s message.

In the pages that follow I will indicate how, in and through the ministry of Jesus and the decisions of his early disciples, we may recognize the authoritative, gender-blind roles of women in the New Testament.[10]

Jesus and Women

Mary, His Mother

Few would question the preeminence of Mary, the Mother of Jesus, in her Son’s life, and in the beginnings of his Church. That being said, what roles did she assume in the budding Christian community?

We know of her principally from the Gospel of Luke. It contains personal details absent from the other gospels; scholars reason that Mary herself must have shared them with that evangelist.

Confronted with the uncomfortable fact of Judas’s defection, the Eleven decided, with urging from Peter, to select a substitute to reestablish the core of the Twelve. Peter established this criterion for choice:

So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us—one of these men must become with us a witness of his resurrection (Acts 1: 21-22).[11]

Consequently, they chose Matthias.

Later on, the persecutor Saul received the summons of Christ on the road to Damascus. Converted, he became the “Apostle to the Gentiles” (cf. Rom. 15: 16). He based his legitimacy, not on the criterion of Peter, but on his conversion and subsequent dedication to the good news of Christ’s resurrection:

Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are you not my workmanship in the Lord? If to others I am not an apostle, at least I am to you; for you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord. (1Cor 9: 1-2)

Mary knew Jesus from the moment of his conception. As he grew she contemplated him and his life, and “kept all these things in her heart” (Lk. 2:51). She occasioned and witnessed his first public miracle in Cana. She accompanied him as he visited the towns and cities of Galilee, preaching and healing (Mk 3:31-35; 4: 1-34). She stood nearby as he hung on the cross (Jn. 19: 25-27), she was present in Jerusalem when the Lord appeared to his close followers (Lk. 24: 33-53), and she prayed with them in anticipation of the coming of the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:14, 2: 1-4). Clearly, Mary met Peter’s criterion, except for being a man, for inclusion in the circle of Twelve. In addition, she manifested Paul’s characteristics of an apostle: 1) she chose to believe in her Son; 2) she knew Jesus, both alive and as her resurrected Lord; 3) she bestowed her faith as a gift upon his followers: Pope Leo XIII in Adjutricem Populi Christiani declared: “She was, in very truth, the Mother of the Church, the Teacher and Queen of the Apostles, to whom, besides, she confided no small part of the divine mysteries she kept in her heart.”[12]

No one disputes Mary’s apostleship; none claim for her membership in the Twelve; but some, including the Vatican, confuse the two. When it argues that Jesus chose only men to be among the Twelve and, therefore, no woman can be a priest, they compound the confusion.

The Twelve in the New Testament filled two roles. In the first place this group stood for the twelve tribes of Israel in the new dispensation. In their community they would complete the revelation begun with Israel but fulfilled in Christ. It met this task by being his people, just as in the Old Testament the Israelites worshipped as Yahweh’s people. It did not do so by functioning as priests. In the Old Testament only the tribe of Levi acted as priests (cf. Num. 7: 1-6); in the New Testament no ordained priests served the young community. Secondly, they would take on the eschatological role of judging all the nations when the kingdom of Christ would be finally realized (Cf. Rev. 21: 101-14).

In the New Testament the term “twelve apostles” appeared only twice (Mt. 10:2, Rev. 21: 14). Additionally, in Luke (6: 13) Jesus summoned together his disciples, “and chose from them twelve, whom he named apostles . . . .” Indeed, after the ordination of the seven deacons in Acts 6, references to the Twelve disappeared; the scriptures directed emphasis, rather, toward individual apostles, such as Peter and Paul. Moreover, the sacred authors denominated others outside of the Twelve as “apostles”: Barnabas (Acts 14: 14, 1Cor. 9: 1-6); Paul (Rom. 11: 13, 1Cor 9: 1-5), Apollos (1Cor. 4:9), Silas and Timothy (1Thes. 2: 9), Andronicus and Junia (Rom. 16: 7), and even Jesus, “the apostle and high priest of our confession” (Heb. 3: 1). We know surprisingly little about the life and activities of the “Twelve Apostles” after the resurrection. We rightly consider them apostles, but other active apostles, including Mary, were not numbered among the Twelve. It appears that the Twelve-circle occupied a foundational position in the incipient movement struggling to gain legitimacy as descending from the patriarchal religion of Israel. Yet as it earned public recognition and separation from Judaism increased, the Twelve became less relevant to the ongoing life of the community. As for all the apostles, in the Early Church “the word, apostle, described a function and was not restricted to any group like the Twelve.”[13] In this regard, John Meier remarks:

The reasons for the swift disappearance or total absence of the Twelve from most of the New Testament are unclear. Perhaps some members of the Twelve, like the martyred James, the son of Zebedee, died in the first decade after the crucifixion, and no attempt was made to replenish a foundational group that was not viewed as ongoing in the church. Once this happened, it would make sense to speak of influential individuals like Peter, but it made little sense to continue to speak of the Twelve in regard to the present situation of the church, as opposed to remembering the Twelve’s activity in the life of Jesus or in the earliest days of the church.[14]

As mentioned previously, for historical and eschatological reasons the Eleven selected Matthias to substitute for Judas. We have no indication that subsequently the Twelve filled slots left vacant by death. When James, the brother of John expired at the command of Herod, the fact bore mentioning (Acts 12: 1-4); however, Luke did not record any effort to choose a successor. Acts ended with Paul in Rome, having been taken there in chains. Tradition tells us that Paul, and Peter, both died there at the behest of the Roman authorities; neither Scripture nor the writings of the Apostolic Fathers allude to elections to replace them. For all we know, the Twelve did not succeed itself. With that evolving recognition, we must question the meaning of apostolic succession. Elizabeth Fiorenza commented on this:

The theological issue at stake is therefore not whether or not women can be ordained even though Jesus did not call any woman to be a member of the Twelve-circle. The theological problem is whether the theological construct of “apostolic succession” can be maintained without any modification in view of the historical insight that the twelve apostles had no successors.[15]

We may argue that apostolic succession refers to the passing down by the believing community its experience of, and recollections about, Jesus, the Lord. Only as apostles serving the people of the Way, not as members of the circle of Twelve, do the Twelve and other apostles, women included, bequeath to us the true faith.

Speaking to the Corinthians, Paul lists the roles God has established in his Church:

Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, then healers, helpers, administrators, speaking in various kinds of tongues. . . . But earnestly desire the higher gifts. (ICor. 12: 27-31).

We have seen how Mary served the Church as an apostle. Consider now Mary, the prophet.

Luke set the scene. A young, unmarried girl experienced the breathtaking presence of God. An angel appeared and announced: “you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. . . . The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God.” Mary responded: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Lk. 1: 31-38).

Now pregnant, Mary traveled to visit her cousin Elizabeth, she also with child. When “Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and she exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women and blessed is your womb! And why is this granted me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me’”(Lk. 1: 41-43)? Thus prophesied Elizabeth.

In response Mary offered up her acclaimed Magnificat. She celebrated God’s action in her regard; she foretold that “henceforth all generations will call me blessed”; she assured us all that God’s “mercy is on those who fear him from generation to generation”(Lk. 1: 46-55).

When Elizabeth gave birth to her son, her husband, Zechariah, named him John. “And his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit, and prophesied”(Lk. 1: 67). After Mary bore Jesus, she took him up to the temple for “purification according to the law of Moses”(Lk. 2: 22). There she met Anna, a prophetess, an eighty-four-year-old widow. “And coming up at that very hour she gave thanks to God, and spoke of him to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem”(Lk. 2: 38).

The spirit of prophecy permeates the accounts of these two births. Mary and Elizabeth and Anna spoke in the tradition of Old Testament prophetesses like Miriam, the sister of Moses, celebrating Yahweh’s triumph over Pharaoh’s army (Ex. 15: 20-21), and Deborah directing the forces of Israel against the Canaanites and subsequently proclaiming Yahweh’s victory (Jud. 4: 4-11; 5: 1-31). They manifested a gift detailed by Paul in his First Letter to the Corinthians, and recorded by Luke as possessed by Phillip’s daughters (Acts: 21; 9).

In addition, Leo XIII alluded to Mary’s role as teacher in the Early Church. She instructed Luke about her son’s birth and boyhood. In her responses to Jesus’ mission, she informed us all about the primacy of belief and the dignity of the family of believers. From her quiet dignity under the cross we surmise that she counseled the discouraged disciples after the crucifixion to have faith and exercise patience. We further imagine the influence she had on the evangelist John and upon his inspired writings.

Thus did Mary exemplify in her life the three crowning gifts in Paul’s hierarchy of roles among Christ’s followers: apostle, prophet, and teacher.

One other woman clearly took the position of teacher in the New Testament. In the eighteenth chapter of Acts we meet Apollos, an Alexandrian Jew. “Being fervent in spirit, he spoke and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus, though he knew only the baptism of John” (Acts 18: 25-26). Two companions of Paul, Priscilla and Aquila, like him tentmakers and zealous Christians, heard Apollos speaking in their synagogue in Ephesus. Recognizing the deficiency in his understanding of the mission of Jesus, “they took him and expounded to him the way of God more accurately” (Acts 18: 26). We should notice that the New Testament writers in four instances mentioned Priscilla, the wife, before her husband, thus indicating her importance within the community (Acts 18: 8, 26; Rom. 16: 3; 2Tim. 4: 9). Besides being teachers of Apollos, an apostle, Priscilla and Aquila earn Paul’s praise for being “my fellow workers in Christ Jesus, who risked their necks for my life, to whom not only I but all the churches of the Gentiles give thanks” (Rom. 16: 3-4). Whatever else they did, they earned this encomium for leading a house church in Ephesus (1Cor. 16: 19). We should understand two oft-quoted passages about women being silent in church and not lording over men as their teachers (1Cor. 14: 33-36; 2Tim. 2: 11-12) in the context of the actions of Priscilla and of Paul’s praise concerning her efforts.

Three Female Apostles

Three additional women merited the title of apostle in the New Testament: the Samaritan woman, Mary Magdalene, and Junia. On what may we base these claims?

Jesus met a Samaritan woman at a well. He asked her for a drink. In the ensuing conversation he progressively led her to knowledge of him. It culminated in this exchange: “The woman said to him, ‘I know that Messiah is coming (he who is called Christ); when he comes he will show us all things.’ Jesus said to her, ‘I who speak to you am he’”(Jn. 4: 25-26). The woman left her water jar at the well. She “went away into the city, and said to the people, ‘Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ?’ They went out of the city and were coming to him.” As a result, “Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony. . . . And many more believed because of his word. They said to the woman, ‘It is no longer because of your words that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is indeed the Savior of the world’”(Jn. 4: 28-42). Recall Paul’s criteria for apostleship: knowledge of, and belief in, the Lord; freedom to choose to believe in him; sealing that apostleship by bringing others to a similar belief. All of these criteria she meets. In his commentary on this scriptural passage, Origen said: “Christ sends the woman as an apostle (άποστολω) to the inhabitants of the city because his words have enflamed this woman. . . . Here a woman proclaims (έυανγγελίξεται) Christ to the Samaritans.” [16]

In the male-dominated public life of Greco-Roman Palestine women enjoyed few legal rights and rarely entered into legal or political processes, among those serving as a public witness. In this regard, Tal Ilan remarks:

Josephus asserts that by Jewish law women were disqualified as witnesses (AJ 4.219), and the rabbis made the same determination. . . . According to Josephus, the reason why women were disqualified as witnesses was their lightheadedness and brazenness, in other words their questionable morality cast doubt on their testimony. The rabbis held a similar view . . . .

We may conclude that the specific law disqualifying women as witnesses was formulated as a general halakhic principle, just as in other matters such as punishments, but that many exceptions arose from actual custom and practice.[17]

When we consider the gospel accounts of women at the tomb of Jesus, we see this ambivalence on display.

Luke in his account definitely accepted the culture’s negative assessment of women as witnesses:

On the first day of the week, at early dawn, they [the women] went to the tomb, taking the spices which they had prepared. And they found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in they did not find the body. While they were perplexed about this, behold two men stood by them in dazzling apparel; and as they were frightened and bowed their faces to the ground, the men said to them, ‘Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen’ (Lk. 24: 1-5).

He described the women as “lightheaded”: perplexed, bedazzled, frightened, and ignorantly looking for Jesus in the wrong place. The encounter continued:

Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and on the third day rise. And they remembered his words . . . (Lk. 24: 6-8).

Finally, with a little coaching from the men, not from their own assessment, they got the message about the extraordinary situation. With that they left:

. . . and returning from the tomb they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. Now it was Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Mary the mother of James and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them (Lk. 24: 9-11).

Contrast the apostles’ reaction to the women’s resurrection account with Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman and her summoning of her townspeople to meet the Christ. Jesus trusted her, gave her the command to go into town, she did, and her neighbors accepted her witness, at least enough to check out the situation for themselves. In that earlier instance, the men judged a woman’s witness to be reliable; in the later one, unreliable.

The evangelist Mark went even further in discrediting female testimony. Mary Magdalene, Mary, the mother of James, and Salome stole away to anoint Jesus’ body. In the tomb they discovered a young man dressed in a white robe; “and they were amazed.” After explaining to them that Jesus has risen, he directed them to “go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him, as he told you.” This proved to be too much for the women. So “they went out and fled from the tomb; for trembling and astonishment had come upon them; and they said nothing to any one, for they were afraid” (Mk. 16: 5-8). Not only did the women prove to be “lightheaded”; out of all control, they did not attempt to obey the stranger’s command. They became witnesses only to themselves.

Matthew recounted that Mary Magdalene and the other Mary at dawn of the first day of the week went to anoint the body of Jesus. Similarly to the other accounts, they found the stone rolled back, an angel in attendance, and the body gone. Instructed to deliver the news to his disciples, “they departed quickly from the tomb with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples.” On the way they encountered the risen Lord, “took hold of his feet and worshipped him. Then Jesus said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; go and tell my brethren to go to Galilee, and there they will see me.’” Matthew did not describe their meeting with the disciples; we infer that it occurred as he ultimately recorded that “the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them” (Mt. 28: 1-16). We may conclude that the women fulfilled their apostolic role while the men’s response to their witness remained shrouded. These Jewish men, in a gospel written for a Jewish audience, needed not publicly to display their acceptance of the witness of women.

John’s account betrayed no hesitation about the testimony of Mary Magdalene. When she came to the tomb and discovered the stone rolled back, she ran back to the disciples, and returned with Peter and John, no hesitations recorded. Not finding the body, the two apostles returned to their homes. Mary stayed behind, weeping. Jesus appeared to her and said,

“Woman, why are you weeping? Whom do you seek?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned and said in Hebrew “Rabboni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not hold me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brethren and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Mary Magdalene went and said to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her (Jn. 20: 1-18).

This Evangelist portrayed Mary as decisive, one to whom Peter and John immediately responded. Confronted with the supposed gardener, she engaged him with courage and purpose. Though originally sad, she exhibited none of the amazement, fear and trembling and astonishment laced through the other accounts of the miraculous. After her encounter with Christ, she returned to the disciples and stated, with simple directness, what she had witnessed. She acted reliably; the disciples exhibited no hesitation in accepting her words.

Eisen comments: “Hippolytus of Rome in the early third century said that Christ met women at the tomb on Easter ‘so that women, too, would be Christ’s apostles.’”[18] During medieval times in the Western Church religious leaders and commentators called Mary Magdalene “The Apostle to the Apostles.” Ancient Jewish ambivalence about women’s public role still holds sway in official Christianity, but the reliable witness of Magdalene and her female companions chip steadily away at this male, self-serving prejudice.

We see this prejudice played out in the reporting of the third female apostle, Junia. We learn about her from Paul’s list of greetings to his co-workers in the last chapter of his Letter to the Romans. The text in question reads as follows: “Greet Andronicus and Junias, my kinsmen and my fellow prisoners; they are men of note among the apostles, and they were in Christ before me” (Rom. 16: 7, R.S.V.). In this translation Junia transforms into Junias, my relatives becomes my kinsmen, a man and woman, probably a husband and wife, morph into two men.

Brooten notes in this regard: “. . . no commentator on the text until Aegidius of Rome (1245-1316) took the name to be masculine. Without commenting on his departure from previous commentators Aegidius simply referred to the two persons mentioned in Romans 16: 7 as ‘these honorable men’ (viri).”[19] Eisen demonstrates the before-Aegidius commentary by quoting John Chrysostom:

It is certainly a great thing to be an apostle; but to be outstanding among the apostles—think what praise that is. She was outstanding in her words, in her good deeds; oh, and how great is the philosophy (ή φιλοσοφία) of this woman that she was regarded as worthy to be accounted among the apostles.[20]

Neither Chrysostom nor Paul appeared to have any problem with a female apostle. Nor did Origen and Jerome, Theophylact and Peter Abelard.[21] Others, following Aegidius, clearly do. A comparison of eleven current translations of the bible bears this out. Seven of them favor “Andronicus and Junias, my kinsmen”; four accept “Andronicus and Junia” while describing them as “my relatives,” “my fellow Jews,” or “my countrymen.” To confuse matters further, two Catholic bibles, Revised Standard Version: Catholic Edition, and the New Jerusalem Bible: English Translation choose the masculine Junias, while the New American Bible goes with the feminine Junia.

What might we say about the preference for a male apostle? In the first place, Brooten could unearth not “ a single shred of evidence that the name Junias ever existed.” Proponents of the Junias hypothesis have cited “ to date not a single Latin or Greek inscription, not a single reference in ancient literature” to support their case. Her research leads her to pose this question: “What can a modern philologist say about Junias? Just this: it is unattestable.”[22] Secondly, we must note that making Junia into Junias, turning a woman into a man, fits well the a priori position of those who cannot accept that women, like Mary and Mary Magdalene, the Samaritan woman and Junia, could be, and indeed were, apostles.

The Outsider Women

The evangelists included in their history of Christ’s ministry his interactions with a number of women who violated acceptable socio-cultural norms. Authorities, both religious and secular, routinely condemned or, at least, dismissed such women as subversive of right living in the community. Jesus did neither. Instead, he pierced through the veil of their actions to the person striving to find her way in a difficult world. He met the women there, in their soul, and confirmed their right to be heard and to be validated in their struggle to live. Like Jesus, we need to attend to them; they reveal to us the personal role of the believer, one not simplistically reducible to civil and religious laws or the dictates of conventional behavior.

The Book of Leviticus detailed restrictions imposed upon menstruating women and those associated with them: “When a woman has a discharge of blood which is her regular discharge from her body, she shall be in her impurity for seven days, and whoever touches her shall be unclean until the evening (Lev. 15: 19).” As Ilan notes: “A woman’s monthly discharge was treated as a subject of fear and abomination. . . . Menstrual blood, like most of the biological phenomena unique to women, was interpreted by the rabbis as part of the punishment meted out to Eve because of the sin in Eden . . . .”[23] Moreover, “ if any man lies with her [during her menstrual period], and her impurity is on him, he shall be unclean seven days; and every bed on which he lies shall be unclean” (Lev. 15: 24). This “biblical law, probably following an ancient taboo, strictly prohibits sexual relations with a menstruant.”[24]

The northern tribes of Israel separated from those of Judah in the south after the death of Solomon. Because of Solomon’s disobedience, Yahweh had declared that he would tear the northern kingdom from Solomon’s line. This happened through a siege by the Assyrians in 724-722 B.C. The ten tribes of the north intermarried with the Assyrians and other foreigners, thus creating the Samaritan people in a land called Samaria. Eventually, the Samaritans established a competing center of worship on Mt. Gerazim, where they practiced a conservative form of the Old Testament religion. The Jewish people of the south came to think of the Samaritans as no more than half-breeds and mongrels, and the two groups became hostile and estranged. In this context, the Babylonian Talmud declared: “The daughters of the Samaritans are regarded as menstruants from their cradle.”[25] This judgment did not reflect that the Samaritans disregarded the rites of purification, but rather that they did not perform them properly. Therefore, the rules of cleanliness demanded that Jewish men have no interaction with Samaritan women.

When Jesus interacted with the Samaritan woman at the well, he violated a number of cultural expectations. Most immediately, he engaged in conversation with a woman unrelated to him. Pious Jews followed the teachings of the rabbis in this matter. “Josef b.Yohanin famously said: ‘Talk not much with womankind.’” And the Talmud explicitly stated: “It was taught: Do not speak explicitly with a woman lest this ultimately lead you to adultery.” Pertinent to this discussion Ilan reports:

A disciple of the sages would exercise special care not to enter into conversation with a woman. An example is the following, expressed in the style of wisdom literature: “Our rabbis taught: Six things are a cause of reproach to a disciple of the sages: . . . he shall not converse with a woman in the market. . . .”[26]

Jesus disregarded these counsels; to the orthodox he could not be a rabbi and act in this manner.

Almost as bad, Jesus was conversing with a Samaritan. “It is commonly acknowledged that pious Jews of Christ’s day avoided all contact with Samaritans.”[27] As in all family disputes, divorcees often possess a particular rancor toward each other. Previous closeness generates more intense feelings when fractured and lost. In religion, especially when the break occasions competition for adherents, the disputants often demonize their former comrades and cling tenaciously to mutual condemnation: think, for example, of the Catholic response to the churches arising out of the Protestant Reformation. Such animosity between Jews and Samaritans explains, in part, why “the disciples marveled that he was talking with a woman, but none said, ‘What do you wish?’ or ‘Why are you talking with her?’” (Jn. 4: 27).

In addition, Jesus knew that this woman lived immorally, that many would brand her a public sinner: “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and he whom you now have is not your husband; this you said truly” (Jn. 4: 18). Dealings with such as she would fuel the perception of the pietistic that “this man receives sinners and eats with them” (Lk. 15: 2). When “a woman of the city” anointed Jesus’ feet and wiped them with her hair, Simon, a Pharisee, would say to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known what sort of woman is touching him, for she is a sinner” (Lk. 7: 36-40). In both cases Jesus beheld within the sinner a woman striving to believe and to love.

When Jesus requested a drink of water from her water jar, he rejected the Jewish taboo about the uncleanness of a menstruating woman, the perpetual impurity of Samaritan women, and the transferring of ritual impurity to any man who touches her or what she has touched. He treated her as he would any woman, directly and with respect for her as a person, no matter the religious dictates that disparaged her worth.

Leviticus extended the ritual uncleanness of menstruation to any discharge of a woman’s blood:

If a woman has a discharge of blood for many days, not at the time of her impurity, or if she has a discharge beyond the time of her impurity, all the days of the discharge she shall continue in uncleanness; as in the days of her impurity, she shall be unclean (Lev. 15: 25).

The writer offered the following reason for the prohibitions involving a menstruating or hemorrhaging woman: “Thus you shall keep the people of Israel separate from their uncleanness, lest they die in their uncleanness by defiling my tabernacle that is in their midst” (Lev. 15: 31).

Mark related the account of a woman who for twelve years had suffered from an unnatural flow of blood. She had tried everything, exhausted herself and her means with physicians, but nothing helped. Having heard of Jesus and his healing power, she joined the crowds pressing around him. She thought to herself: “If I touch even his garments, I shall be made well.” In an outburst of faith she reached out and, immediately, became healed. Jesus, sensing energy flowing from him to another, inquired: “Who touched my garments?” The woman in fear and trembling came forward. She confessed to him and to the crowd her gesture, her long illness, and her present cure. She knew she had broken the Jewish taboo about touching anyone during her uncleanness; she could reasonably expect anger from Jesus and the crowd for contaminating this rabbi; in her faith and gratitude she dared the truth and believed in Jesus’ concern for her. Recognizing faith that outweighed social rejection, Jesus with compassion said to her: “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease” (Mk. 5: 25-34). As with the Samaritan woman, Jesus placed greater worth on the person and her health than on the unnatural strictures of religious legalism.

Two women anointed Jesus with precious ointment. Both dried his feet with their hair. Onlookers fretted over both: Simon judged the woman a sinner (Lk. 7: 38-50); Judas berated Mary’s wastefulness: “Why was this ointment not sold for 300 denarii and given to the poor” (Jn. 12: 3-5)? In each instance Jesus commended the women’s ministration. Jesus recognized the first woman as a sinner; he also forgave her because she loved him much. The evangelist explained Judas’s consternation as occasioned by his ongoing thievery of their common fund. Jesus accepted Mary’s attention as preparing him for his passion and death. These he had foretold, but his male disciples refused to accept their approach. In addition, both women had acted contrary to cultural decorum.

Nice people expected girls of marital age and married women to keep their hair fixed on top of their head. Only women of the streets and women in frenzy unloosed their hair in public. Modesty demanded bound hair.

A beautiful woman, Susanna, wife of Joakim, was bathing alone in her garden, for the day was hot. Unbeknown to her, two elders, mad with desire, were watching. After her maids had departed, as she had commanded for privacy’s sake, the elders accosted her. They demanded she make love with them or they would blackmail her: they would publicly claim that she had sent the maids away in order to commit adultery with a young man. She brushed off their extortion. The next day the elders accused her in front of her husband, her family and friends, and all the people. At that point the writer commented: “Now Susanna was a woman of great refinement and beautiful in appearance. As she was veiled the wicked men ordered her to be unveiled that they might feast upon her beauty. But her family and friends and all who saw her wept” (Dan. 13: 31-33). They wept because her modesty was assaulted as she stood before them with her hair let down like a sinful and disreputable woman.

The rabbis celebrated women who obeyed this rule of modesty. In the aggadah we find examples of women so modest that they would not unloose their hair, even at home. “Thus Qimhit, when asked by the sages how it happened that seven of her sons served in the high priesthood, gave the following answer: ‘The beams of my house never saw the hair on my head.’” [28]

Commenting on the strictures laid upon Jewish women, Ilan summarizes thus:

By the terms of this moral code, then, a woman was expected to remain concealed inside her house, she was forbidden to walk in the market-place and speak with strange men, and was required to wear only clothes becoming her modesty, including a head covering.[29]

Commentators dispute whether modesty demanded a veil or hair bound up into a head covering. See, for example, Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. He wrote them because he had heard that “there is quarreling among you, my brethren” (1 Cor. 1: 11). The dispute centered around the conducting of worship services in a becoming fashion. The inclusion of women prophesying was proving disruptive, both in matter of time and in behavior. As regards the latter, the prophetesses during their inspiration were tossing their unloosened locks about like possessed women. Paul offered this resolution:

Judge for yourselves; is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? Does not nature itself teach you that . . . if a woman has long hair, it is her pride? For her hair is given to her for a covering. If any one is disposed to be contentious, we recognize no other practice, nor do the churches of God (1Cor. 11: 13-15).

Veiled or hair bound up, women should not act in immodest ways, as if they were not married. With their husbands alone, should they “let their hair down.” They owed that much to their husbands, not because originally woman was made from man and for his companionship, but because “in the Lord woman is not independent of man nor man of woman; for as woman was made from man, so man is now born of woman. And all things are from God (1Cor. 11: 11-13).

In Roman law “a married woman was guilty of adultery if she had sexual relations with any man other than her husband, a man only if the woman was married, and his own marital status was irrelevant.”[30] The woman, indeed, belonged to her husband and his family in a manus marriage,[31] to her birth family if her father or grandfather still lived and she remained in potestate (under their jurisdiction),[32] or required the legal guidance of a tutor if she lived sui juris (on her own).[33] Adultery, then, created an injury against the woman as property. In a polygamous society, men could have more than one wife and any number of concubines. In such instances, “A wife could not prosecute her husband, since in the eyes of the law he had committed no offense against their marriage and women could prosecute in criminal courts only for offenses against themselves. . . .”[34] “Augustus’ Lex Julia de Adulterius (18 B.C.) specifically allowed a father to impose summary justice on a daughter caught in the act of adultery in his or his son-in-law’s house. . . .”[35]

Jewish law paralleled Roman practice:

The transfer of the woman from the authority of her father to the authority of her husband was viewed conceptually by the rabbis as the transfer of property by purpose. They did not differ from the convention in the ancient world whereby a daughter was the property of her father and then of her husband.[36]

Should a man seduce a virgin, she was expected to marry him. If her father refused to transfer ownership of his daughter to the seducer, then that one had to recompense the father for the damage done to his property (Ex. 22: 16-17). Should a man have intercourse with a married woman, “both the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death”(Ex. 22: 10) if they are caught in the act (Cf. Deut. 22: 22). But “Jewish law contains no definition of or provision against adultery by the husband against the wife, since he may marry more than one woman. The only way a man can commit adultery is with another man’s wife.”[37]Only the married woman could commit adultery defined as an offense against her husband.

The Book of Ecclesiasticus counseled Jewish men to refrain from looking at women lest this lead to legal jeopardy, and to guard their property in their daughter:

Do not look intently at a virgin, lest you stumble and incur penalties for her (Sir. 9:5).

Turn away your eyes from a shapely woman, and do not look intently at beauty belonging to another (Sir. 9:8).

Be ashamed of . . . looking at a woman who is a harlot . . . (Sir. 41: 19-20).

Keep strict watch over a headstrong daughter, lest, when she finds liberty, she use it to her hurt. Be on guard against her impudent eye, and do not wonder if she sins against you. As a thirsty wayfarer opens his mouth and drinks from any water near him, so she will sit in front of every post and open her quiver to the arrow (Sir. 26: 10-12).

Yet “Like the sun rising in the heights of the Lord, so is the beauty of a good wife in her well-ordered home. Like the shining lamp on the holy lampstand, so is a beautiful face on a stately figure” (Sir. 26: 16-17).

In this socio-cultural context, Jesus called for equality between men and women in their intimate relationships. Matthew, an evangelist writing for orthodox Jews, recorded in his Sermon on the Mount, the first of Jesus’ departures from Jewish law: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery’ [Deut. 5: 18]. But I say to you that every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Mt. 5: 27-28). Note that Jesus defined adultery as lustful desire by a man for any woman, married or unmarried.

During the classical Roman era divorce “was easy. As marriage was based on consent, so the will of either of the consenting parties in free marriage to renounce it sufficed. . . . Divorce was a private act and as such was subject to no limitation by law, with one exception, introduced by Augustus: A freedwoman married to her patron could not divorce him without his consent.”[38] As for Jewish law, “it should be clear that divorce was always the right and responsibility of the husband to initiate. Jewish law was a- symmetrical in this respect as opposed to Roman law, which grants the wife the right to divorce her husband.”[39] A husband could divorce his wife “if then she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her. . .”(Deut. 24: 1).

Jesus said: “For your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.” God permitted divorce; he did not command it. Jesus issued his own restrictions on divorce, applicable alike to men and women. Although he allowed separation from one’s spouse for significant reasons, to do so in order to marry another did not qualify. Remarriage for a divorced man or a divorced woman made either an adulterer.[40] In this Jesus summoned up the ideal of marriage. When “they are no longer two but one,” when such a marriage is actualized, “what therefore God has joined together, let no man put asunder” (Mt. 19: 6).[41] To our point, we emphasize that Jesus did not accept any legal inequality between the sexes.

The Pharisees dragged an adulterous woman before Jesus. “Teacher, they said, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such. What do you say about her” (Jn. 8: 4-5)? They were hoping to force an impossible decision upon him: either he upheld the law and forfeited the admiration of the people, or disparaged the law and earned the condemnation of the religious authorities. Jesus, however, had no facts other than their word. Had credible witnesses actually discovered the woman in the act of adultery? What about the man? Had religious authorities in accordance with the strict interpretation of the law already had him stoned? Why had they not forcibly included him in this interrogation? Why humiliate only her in front of the people; why not make their embarrassment as mutual as their purported sin?

Jesus also could read the treachery in their hearts. He well understood that they were using the law to further their own ends. In truth, they cared nothing about the law or God’s will; nor did the supposed sinfulness of the woman disturb them; they sought only to solidify their power vis-à-vis this troubling prophet.

In addition, Jesus knew Jewish law. A man could do with a woman whatever he wished, just as long as it did not offend her owner, her father or husband. On the contrary, a woman had to remain a virgin out of respect for her father and her future husband; a married woman faced divorce, public condemnation, and even death for marital infidelity. He did not accept this unjust burden put upon her while her brother had next to none. He would not publicly support this injustice.

Jesus confronted the Pharisees in their righteousness:

Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? (Mt. 7: 1-3)

They did not qualify as judges of another until they were willing to seek their own forgiveness. In the meantime, let God, the almighty and all merciful, do the judging.

Finally, Jesus was unwilling to give up on the woman. Although she came before him against her will, still she could, by and through his compassion, discover forgiveness and recover hope. He had already taught: “the sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath” (Mk. 2: 27). Moreover, in the name of healing, whether physical or spiritual, he would heal on the sabbath (Mk. 3: 5); that is, no matter what the letter of the law required. This woman, no matter her sin or her spoiled reputation, deserved God’s love just as much as any other, including the righteous and hypocritical. God, above all, is not an unjust respecter of persons, regardless the disparities sanctioned within a given society.

A constant refrain runs through the Old Testament: I will be your God and you will be my people. It began with Abraham: “Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing’”(Gen. 12: 1-2). God confirmed this with Jacob, now Israel: “I am God Almighty: be fruitful and multiply; a nation and a company of nations shall come from you, and kings will spring from you. The land which I gave to Abraham and Issac I will give to you, and I will give the land to your descendents after you”(Gen. 36: 11-12). God acted directly to realize this. He told Moses to say to the people of Israel: “ . . . and I will take you for my people, and I will be your God, who has brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians. And I will bring you into the land which I swore to give to Abraham, to Issac, and to Jacob; I will give it to you for a possession. I am the Lord” (Ex. 6: 7-8).

Christ instituted a new covenant in his blood, “which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Mt. 26: 28). “In speaking of a new covenant he treats the first as obsolete” (Heb. 8: 13). “He abolishes the first in order to establish the second. And by that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (Heb. 10: 9-10).

During his brief adulthood in Palestine, Jesus lived as a devout Jew and brought his message of a new covenant to his compatriots. As in the original covenant, those who believe in him would be his people and he would be their God. His Jewish followers, then, became the new nation blessed by God. As in bygone times, Israel still held prominence in the plan of God. Christ came first and primarily to this graced people. No matter the changed covenant: Israel remained a nation of insiders, special to, beloved by, and protected by God.

The insider-outsider issue came to a head with the mission of Paul to the Gentiles. “Some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brethren, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved’” (Acts 15: 1). In other words the new covenant depended on fulfilling the requirements of the old one, Christ’s mission rested on the promise to Abraham, Issac, and Jacob, the new people in Christ must continue on as the ancient people of Israel. The brethren in Antioch appointed Paul and Barnabas to proceed to Jerusalem, to pose the question to the apostles and elders there. After much discussion and the influential interventions of Peter and James, the church of Jerusalem decided that being a disciple of Christ did not demand being a follower of Moses. It drafted a letter to the church in Antioch telling it of their decision. “And when they [the congregation] read it, they rejoiced at the exhortation.” It read: “For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from unchastity. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well” (Acts 15: 28-31). Christ’s salvific action belonged to humankind; no nation or group or religion has possession of his grace to the exclusion of others.

Jesus recognized this tension between Judaism and his mission; he also offered his solution to it.

As he was traveling through the district of Tyre and Sidon, a Canaanite woman approached him. Loudly she implored him to cure her daughter “severely possessed by a demon.” As a pious Jewish man, Jesus at first did not respond to her: men, and especially rabbis, should not hold conversations with unknown women in the marketplace. When his disciples complained about the fuss she was making, Jesus commented as if to himself: “I was only sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Here he indicated the special place of Israel in God’s providence even as it involved the new covenant in Christ. The Jews retained the position of insiders; non-Jews, like this woman, remained outsiders.

Then “she came and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’” Even with this plea Jesus still resisted: “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” The children of Israel, to whom he was sent by God, deserved to receive his grace before it could be shared with non-believers such as she. The woman accepted what he said. She would not contest that God could have a peculiar grace for the Jewish people. Yet, she persisted with her request for God’s compassion for her. Could God not help them too without depriving the Jews? “She said, ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs [little puppies] eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.’” She was not seeking any favor equivalent to what the Jews enjoyed; she wanted only for grace to touch her and her daughter in this one instance. Could not an outsider be saved while remaining an outsider?

Jesus, moved by her plea, weighed her request. Certainly, his mission extended beyond the boundaries of Israel, to all humankind. For those who believe in him, any distinction between Jew and Canaanite, monotheist and polytheist, Jewish Christian and Hellenistic pagan, should disappear. “O woman, great is your faith!” Your trust in me touches me deeply; it removes my hesitation; it demands God’s response. “’Be it done for you as you desire.’ And her daughter was healed instantly” (Mt. 15: 21-28).

Roles in the Early Church

The Lady is a Deacon

In the 6th chapter of Acts, Luke described the ordination of seven male deacons: “these they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands upon them.” Community leaders instituted this order in order to free themselves for prayer and preaching, leaving to the deacons the task of distributing goods to the needy. This new office would incarnate the role of helper within the community.

Preachers and theologians do not hesitate to refer to this scene for validation for the church’s primitive hierarchical structure. Less often do church officials speak of the ordination of women as deacons. This fact causes uneasiness among the ecclesiastical circles of male power.

Toward the conclusion of his Letter to the Romans, Paul sought to be remembered to many devout Christians. He began, however, by recommending to the Roman community his “sister Phoebe, a deaconess of the church at Cenchreae,” a port city east of Corinth, on the Aegean coast. Catholic translations denominate her as a “deaconess” (Revised Standard Version, New Jerusalem Bible), a “minister” (New American Bible), and a “deacon” (Douay-Rheims). Non-Catholic translations tend to call her a “servant.” The Greek term behind these translations is διάκονον, the same word as in Acts (6: 2-6) for serving tables (έν τή διακουία) and for ministry of the word (τή διακουία τοϋ λόγου). The author of 1Timothy 3: spoke of “deacons,” a translation of Διακόνους. How should we understand the office of “our sister Phoebe”?

As mentioned, Paul listed her first, thus emphasizing her importance. He asked the Romans “to receive her in the Lord as befits the saints”; that is, as a representative of her gathering of Christian believers. She came with a task she needed to complete with them; Paul beseeched them to “help her in whatever she may require from you.” He testified about her place in the church, how she had been a patroness (προςτάτις), one who helps others with her resources, for many, including himself.

John Chrysostom, commenting on this passage, proclaimed her worth: “It is no small thing to be called Paul’s sister, and he adds her status by calling her ‘deacon.’”[42]

The Early Church chose other women to be deacons too. 1Timothy (3: 8-12) spoke to the behavior required of both male and female deacons. Dealing first with the men: “Deacons likewise must be serious, not double-tongued, not addicted to much wine, not greedy for gain; they must hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience.” In a parallel construction, the writer said: “The women likewise must be serious, not slanderers, but temperate, faithful in all things.” (Compare Διακόνους ώσάυτως σεμνόυςwith the subsequent γυνάίκας ώσάυτωσ σεμνάς) Some, undoubtedly trying to make the case that women were not ordained deacons then, maintain that the women referred to were their wives, not deacons themselves. Again quoting Chrysostom: “Some say that he is talking about women in general. But that cannot be. Why would he want to insert in the middle of what he is saying something about women? But rather he is speaking of those women who hold the rank of deacon.”[43]

Kevin Madigan and Carolyn Osiek have published a collection of all known literary and archeological references to female deacons. They concluded: “The overwhelming preponderance of evidence for female deacons comes from the Greek East. Presented here are approximately sixty-one Eastern and four Western inscriptions of known women deacons, along with forty Eastern and two Western literary references to real women who held the office.” Their survey encompassed data from the New Testament period to the sixth century.

In the beginning “there is no distinction by sex.” By the third century, especially in the East, the office of female deacon or deaconess developed “intended especially for ministry to women. It is clear that in most churches that reflected this custom in the fourth, fifth, and sixth centuries, the deaconess was considered an ordained member of the clergy with special tasks.” Early on, the term διακόνος designated both male and female deacons. By the late third century the designation for women deacons became διακονίσσα. However, these authors note: “The title diakonos did not give way to the newer diakonissa; rather the original term diakonos continued to exist side by side with the later term diakonissa after the fourth century, often in contexts that seem to suggest the complete interchangeability of the two titles.” They further comment: “English translations tend to be inexact about this, assuming that ‘deaconess’ is the appropriate term for a woman (even sometimes for Phoebe in Rom. 16: 1!).”[44]

We know, therefore, the following: 1) male and female deacons existed from the beginning with no distinction based on gender, 2) in the early church its leaders ordained male deacons, 3) we presume they also ordained female deacons, 4) they continued to ordain male and female deacons up through the sixth century, 5) by the third century women occupied the office of deacon or deaconess, 5) deaconesses had a special ministry to women in the church, but their political roles often overlapped those of male deacons.

The available historical data compel no assertion other than this: During the New Testament era, Phoebe and her co-deacons served the community no more, no less than their male counterparts; they did so in an office essentially the same as that held by Stephen and his compatriots in the sixth chapter of Acts.

Women as Community Administrators

In our time we think of the parish as an extension of the diocese. The bishop has administrative oversight of his diocese. He appoints pastors to fulfill his responsibility at the local level. He ordains priests and deacons who will serve worshipping communities through liturgy, the sacraments, and preaching; they will also direct the various outreach activities that constitute parish life.

It is tempting to discover this same organization in the churches chronicled in the New Testament, especially in the quest for scriptural authorization. Edward Lohse, quoted by Eisen, warns against any facile comparison:

The earliest Christian documents, collected in the canon of the New Testament, contain only sparse information about the external forms of early Christian community life. Both the beginnings of the Church constitution and the development it underwent in the first two generations of early Christianity are shrouded in darkness, dimly illuminated only by a few hints that can be drawn from these sources.[45]

With that salient point taken, what may we unearth about the role of women administrators from the New Testament?

The term “bishop” (έπίσκοπος) occurred only five times. At the beginning of his Letter to the Philippians Paul addressed “all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the bishops and deacons” (Phil. 1:1). Peter exhorted “the elders (πρεσβυτέρους) among you . . . Tend (έπισκοπούτες) the flock of God that is your charge” (1Pet. 5: 1-2). Paul charged the elders (πρεσβυτέρους) of the church of Ephesus to “Take heed to yourselves and all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you guardians (έπισκόπους)”. . . (Acts 20: 17, 28). The author of the Letter to Titus (1: 7-9) called the bishop (έπίσκοπον) God’s steward and enumerated the qualities expected in him. This echoed a similar declaration in 1Timothy 3: 1-10.

From these passages we learn that bishops held the charge to care for their people and to manage the affairs of the local church. They related to a local council of elders, either as taken from them, or by functioning as their presiding officer. This fits an observation noticed by Eisen: “Lietzmann has shown that in Greco-Roman society episkopoi were public officials with a broad variety of functions, but frequently entrusted with administrative duties. In this context it seems probable that the episkopoi mentioned in Phil. 1: 1 are to be understood as the community administrators.”[46]

Scripture does not mention any gender requirements nor indicate the gender of the bishops addressed. We have, however, clues in passages dealing with women in the role of patroness (προστάτις) or as conveners of house churches.

Luke informed us of the women who accompanied Jesus throughout his public life even to the end: “And the twelve were with him, and also some women . . . : Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod’s steward, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their means” (Lk, 8: 2-3). After his death, “the women who had come with him from Galilee followed, and saw the tomb, and how his body was laid . . . (Lk. 23: 55). Returning later to anoint his body, they discovered it missing. In his place they encountered two dazzling young men who proclaimed his resurrection. The female witnesses carried the news “to the eleven and all the rest. Now it was Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Mary the mother of James and the other women with them who told this to the apostles” (Lk. 24: 8-10). These women because of their faith in Jesus used their financial resources to support him and his ministry. Although Luke does not specifically call them patronesses, they acted as such. In this regard, we may also include Martha and Mary, who took Jesus into their home, where Martha prepared a substantial feast for him while Mary “sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching” (Lk. 10: 39). She later “took a pound of costly ointment of pure nard and anointed the feet of Jesus” in anticipation of his burial with its customary preparations (Mk. 12: 3-8).

As noted above, Paul praised Phoebe, the deacon of Cenchreae, as “a helper (προστάτις) of many and of myself as well” (Rom. 16: 2). We presume that this support came in the form of lodging, in offering her home for Christian worship, in financial assistance and social networking. Whatever the apostle Paul and the community of converts needed, a patroness would strive to provide.

Some women demonstrated their patronage by hosting house churches. We know by name the following: Phoebe in Cenchreae (Rom. 16: 1-2), Lydia of Thyatira (Acts 16: 14-16), Prisca and her husband, Aquila, in Ephesus (1Cor. 16: 19), Nympha in Laodicea (Col. 4: 15), Mary, the mother of John Mark, in Jerusalem (Acts 12: 12-18), and “Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier” in Colossae (Philemon 1: 2).

In periods of persecution from both Jewish and Roman authorities, Christians gathered together as unobtrusively as possible. They met to pray, to preach and to listen, to encourage and strengthen one another, to distribute goods to the needy, and to share fellowship in a meal. At first, they celebrated it in association with the remembrance of Christ’s death and resurrection. Paul explicitly addressed this conjunction in his First Letter to the Corinthians. He excoriated whoever “eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner. . . . For any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself.” He concluded with this direction: “. . . when you come together to eat, wait for one another . . . lest you come together to be condemned” (1Cor. 11: 17-33).

Someone had to organize these gatherings, host them, and see to the necessary preparations and provisions. It seems reasonable to presume that the homeowners filled this role. Remember, also, that the Christian community did not as yet have any ordained priesthood, no special cadre to offer sacrifice on its behalf as did the priest (ίερέυς) in the Old Testament. Indeed, the Letter to the Hebrews explicitly rejected any need for such a priesthood: “For it is fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, blameless, unstained, separate from sinners, exalted above the heavens. He has no need, like those high priests, to offer sacrifices daily, first for his own sins and then for those of the people; he did this once for all when he offered up himself” (Heb. 7: 26-27). We must surmise, therefore, that the host of the Christian gathering, he or she in whose house it occurred, oversaw the feast and celebrated its eucharistic conclusion.

Given this pregnant evidence, Eisen makes this judgment: “Leadership of the house church, with its technical administrative and economic duties, was therefore an early form of the office of episkopos. “[47] To the degree that this nascent episcopacy grew out of the presbyterate, the council of elders, so much did women participate in that office.


In the beginning, I posed a set of questions relative to the consensus fidelium, the collective judgment of Christ’s followers about women in his Church. As a summation, consider these answers.

Did Jesus Discriminate Against Women?

Jesus chose to be born of a woman, Mary. He obeyed and loved her; he included her in his ministry to humankind. He cherished and honored other women, like Martha and Mary and Mary Magdalene. He performed miracles on behalf of women: recall his raising Peter’s mother-in-law from the dead and freeing the troubled daughter of a Canaanite woman. He showed compassion for an adulteress, and blessed a repentant woman of the streets. Jesus allowed a group of women to accompany him in his ministry throughout Palestine, to care for him in their own way, even as regards his death. He responded to their faith, announcing that anyone, male or female, who “does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother, and sister, and mother” (Mt. 12: 50). He disregarded the strictures of Jewish law when he accepted water from a Samaritan woman, conversed with women in the marketplace, cured a menstruating woman who dared to touch him, and permitted a sinful woman to wipe his feet with her hair. He revealed himself to women first after his crucifixion and entrusted them with the news of his resurrection.

Did Jesus and His Early Followers Prohibit Women From Community Roles?

Consider Paul’s catalogue of God-given roles within the Christian community: apostles and prophets, some speaking in tongues, and teachers; miracle-workers and healers; helpers and administrators.[48]

In the power of God’s spirit Mary became “Queen of the Apostles,” Mary Magdalene earned acclaim as “The Apostle to the Apostles,” and Paul celebrated Junia, his sister, and praised her as outstanding among the apostles. In that same spirit Mary and Elizabeth and Anna prayed prophetically; women believers in Corinth, and the daughters of Phillip, prophesied and spoke in tongues; at Pentecost “when they were all together,” men and women, “they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance” (Acts 1: 14, 2: 4). Jesus’ mother, Mary, taught the evangelists Luke and John about him, his life and ministry. Prisca instructed another apostle, Apollos, about the new baptism in Jesus.

The evangelists portrayed Christ as a healer and miracle-worker. They made it clear that his followers would act likewise. At the Last Supper Jesus declared: “. . . he who believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works then these will he do, because I go to the Father (Jn. 14: 12). At the end of his gospel Mark has Jesus promise: “And these signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; . . . they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover” (Mk. 16: 17-18). Note that neither evangelist has Jesus reserving these gifts to men alone.

The apostles chose deacons, both men and women, to assist community members. They ordained them, a practice that continued for centuries. In the beginning we have no evidence that gender affected the position, its official sanction, and the tasks required. In testament times we know by name only Phoebe, a deacon of the church near Corinth. Others undoubtedly served other churches. The title of “deacon” applied to both genders as late as the 6th Century, even as the concurrent title “deaconess” signified women ordained specifically to assist women congregants.

The New Testament chronicled patronesses of Jesus in his ministry, of Paul during his apostolic journeys, and of local groups of believers. Some of these patronesses, other women too, hosted house churches. They opened their homes to weekly meetings in which all affirmed their belief in Christ and celebrated his resurrection and ongoing presence in the Holy Spirit. They supplied the necessities for a communal meal, and guided the eucharistic remembrance of the Lord as he had directed. These women served as forerunners of the church administrators called episkopoi.

Note that Paul did not include in his catalogue of community roles the following: mediators between God and the Christian people; celebrants of the community sacrifice to God; liturgical representatives of the community of believers. Priests modeled on the practice of Judaism did not exist in the apostolic era. They were unnecessary: Christ, the high priest, sacrificed to his Father once and for all through his death; believers prayed and shared according to the gifts of the Spirit given them for the community.

Was Christ Easily Manifested Through His Female Disciples?

A pregnant girl visited her cousin, and Elizabeth’s child “leaped for joy” in her womb. Three wise men from the East discovered a young peasant woman with her newborn; they recognized here the promised savior of the world, and adored him. At a marriage feast in Cana, Mary instructed the servants to “do whatever he tells you.” Thus happened “the first of his signs . . .and manifested his glory; and his disciples believed in him” (Jn. 2: 11).

A Samaritan woman summoned her neighbors to come to Jesus and “many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony” (Jn. 4: 39). Jesus, loving the sisters Martha and Mary, and their brother, Lazarus, summoned him back to life. “Many of the Jews, therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what he did, believed in him. . .”(Jn. 11: 45).

A hemorrhaging woman touched the fringe of his garment and was healed. She testified concerning his power to the crowd surrounding them (Mt. 9: 20-22). A young girl had just died. “He went in and took her by the hand, and the girl arose. And the report of this went through all that district” (Mt. 9: 20-26). After his own death, Mary Magdalene encountered her risen Lord. Following an emotion-charged conversation, she went to his disciples and said, “ ‘I have seen the Lord’; and she told them that he had said these things to her”(Jn. 20: 1-18).

In these and like instances a woman met Jesus, believed in him, and led others to such belief. We have no examples in the New Testament of women, because of their gender, blocking others, except for those already ill disposed, from recognizing Christ or from nourishing their faith. For many, women offered the pathway to Christ.

Is It Difficult to See in a Female Minister the Image of Christ?

The Vatican answers that question with a resounding: “Yes.” But do the Christian people agree?

Most Protestant denominations accept women ministers. We do not routinely hear complaints about them being less Christ-like than their male counterparts, less able to lead their people in belief in, and service of, God. Given their experience, this portion of Christianity disputes with the Vatican’s doctrinaire assessment, one based on theological deduction. The facts belie any assertion that women cannot image Christ.

In First World countries, women compete for and hold the highest political positions, they manage corporations with a worldwide reach, they preside over prestigious universities, and they take prominent roles in all phases of art and entertainment. For the most part, modern societies have banned discrimination solely on the basis of gender. Overt sexism does still exist in rural areas and among the less educated, socio-cultural remnants of Western patriarchal civilization; covertly, it remains in the locker-room mentalities of “old boys networks,” and in ongoing efforts by its minions to keep the choice jobs and the richest rewards in male hands. Educated lay Catholics generally reject sexism as contrary to the example of, and teachings of, Christ.

In the United States the Catholic Church lacks effective leadership. A succession of European popes well schooled in male dominance and medieval monarchy have appointed bishops to serve as minor lords in a male-only hierarchy. They expect their appointees to be their regional mouthpieces, preaching obedience and demanding compliance, in order to keep hierarchical exclusivity in place. These bishops, in turn, ordain priests and appoint pastors who will support this program at the local level.

With the recent scandal of clergy sexual abuse of children and the concomitant complicity of bishops in protecting the church’s good name instead of its children’s safety, American Catholic are abandoning their long-accustomed role of thoughtless subservience to clerical authority. One immediate sign of this: vocations to the priesthood have diminished to the point that they can no longer replace priests who die, retire, or forsake their hierarchical rank as being inappropriate to an educated and democratic Catholic populace.

Older generations of American Catholics received their religious education from their mothers and from religious sisters. That education took root to the extent that these women inspired children to follow Christ in and through their example. Only the inexperienced or the blindly rigid would dare maintain that Catholic people in those days could not recognize the sign of Christ’s presence in and through these women.

Today, Catholics meet fewer and fewer priests; those they do encounter will most likely be elderly or foreign-born. Those who claim the priest as the sign of Christ’s presence must first of all find a priest who can be present to his people. In reality, the laity serves the day-to-day life of the American Catholic Church. In large part women shoulder that burden as parish administrators, religious education directors, CCD teachers and lay educators, and hospital and prison chaplains. They have even penetrated into the deepest sanctuary of male exclusiveness, the liturgy. Women read scriptures at mass; in some places they preach. They lead the prayer of the faithful, and sing various parts of the liturgical service. As eucharistic ministers they assist in the distribution of communion and take the Eucharist to the sick. In all of this few complain that these women obstruct the recognition of Christ among us; such a claim would verge on the absurd.

In New Testament days Paul confronted the Jerusalem church with its bias toward Judaism to the detriment of Gentiles attracted to the fellowship in Christ. The Church leaders declared: converts need not be Jews as a precondition of their Christianity. Given that most significant step forward, they left in place other un-Christ-like socio-cultural discriminations. It took eighteen hundred years before Christians recognized the evil of slavery. The horror of the Holocaust and Christian complicity in it finally drove Church officials to denounce anti-Semitism after nearly two millennia of vilification and muteness in the face of sectarian savagery. Has the moment finally come when our Church will renounce, once and for all, its sexism, a bias it supports with concocted distortions of the Christian message?

Hans Kung, commenting on scattered sexist passages in the Pauline and deutero-Pauline portion of the New Testament, describes with deep feeling the true Christian position. I can do no better than end with his words:

No commands for women to be silent or submissive issues from the lips of Mary and Jesus. Neither knows any “Eve myth” which makes women responsible for all the evil in the world. Neither knows any vilification of sexuality, any degradation of the woman as an object of pleasure or defamation as a universal seductress. Nor does either know any law of celibacy, though strikingly Jesus was unmarried; nor do they know any fixation on marriage. To this degree the apostle Paul interpreted the cause of Mary and Jesus sympathetically when he wrote about Christ, the exalted Lord, “For freedom he has set us free.” “And where the Spirit of this Lord blows, there is freedom.” In the sphere of this freedom there is no place for sexual discrimination, devaluation of women, making sex taboo, emotionality, feminine corporeality, submission to a male hierarchy. In the sphere of this freedom which Christ embodies, “there is neither male nor female, for you all are ‘one,’ in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 5: 1, 2Cor. 3: 17, Gal. 3: 27).[49]

[1] Cf. http://www.papalencyclicals.net/Paul06/p6interi.htm

[2] Mulieris dignitatem, Para. 26. Cf. http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/apost_letters/documents/hf_jp-ii_apl_15081988_mulieris-dignitatem_en.html

[3] Sacerdotalis ordinatio, May 22, 1994, para. 4. Cf. http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/apost_letters/documents/hf_jp-ii_apl_22051994_ordinatio-sacerdotalis_en.html

[4] Swidler, Leonard & Arlene (eds.). Women Priests. “St. Paul’s Attitude Toward Women.” New York: Paulist Press, 1977, pp. 214-215.

[5] Quoted in Swidler,” Introduction,” p. 11.

[6] Annuario Pontificio, 1997, p. 1073, part IV, section 2. Cf. http://cara.georgetown.edu/pubs/authorindex.html

[7] The New York Times, Saturday, May 31, 2008, p. 8.

[8] Meyer, Katherine. National Catholic Reporter, October 29, 1999.

[9] Cf. Abbott, Walter. The Documents of Vatican II. New York: The America Press, 1966, p. 347.

[10] I am well aware that the “Jewish Testament” and the “Christian Testament” more adequately describe the two scriptures. But because I am writing particularly for a Catholic audience, I will throughout use the more common “Old Testament” and “New Testament.”

[11] Unless otherwise stated, all scriptural quotations are taken from the Revised Standard Version: Catholic Edition. Camden, N.J.: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1965.

[12] September 5, 1865. Cf. http://www.papalencyclicals.net/Paul06/p6christ.htm. Paragraph 8.

[13] Op. cit. Swidler. “The Twelve,” Elizabeth Schûssler Fiorenza, p. 115.

[14] Meier, John B. “The Circle of the Twelve: Did It Exist during Jesus’ Public Ministry?” Journal of Biblical Literature, vol. 116, #4 (Winter, 1997), p. 671.

[15]Op. cit, p. 120.

[16] Origin, “Commentary on John 4: 26-28.” Quoted in Eisen, Ute. Women Officeholders in Early Christianity. Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 2000, p. 51.

[17] Ilan, Tal. Jewish Women in Greco-Roman Palestine. Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1996, pp. 163 & 165.

[18] Eisen, op.cit, p. 51. Cf. Hippolytus “Commentary on the Song of Songs.”

[19] In Swidler, op. cit. Brooten, Bernadette, “ Junia . . . outstanding among the apostles” (Romans 16: 7), p. 141.

[20] Eisen, op. cit., p. 51. Cf. Chrysostom, “Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans,” Homily 31, 2. Cf.

[21] Cf. Brooten, op. cit., p. 141.

[22] Brooten, ibid., pp. 141-142.

[23] Ilan, op. cit., pp. 100-101, 102.

[24] Ibid., p. 101.

[25] Tractate Niddah, Chapter IV, 2. Commentary on Mishnah. Cf. http://www.come-and-hear.com/niddah/niddah_31.html#chapter_iv ; cf. Ilan, ibid., p. 105; cf. also Massey, Lesly. Women and the New Testament. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company, 1989, p. 14.

[26] Ilan, op. cit., p. 126.

[27] Massey, op. cit., p. 14.

[28]Ilan, op. cit., p. 130.

[29] Ilan, ibid., p. 132.

[30] Gardner, Jane. Women in Roman Law and Society. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986, p. 127.

[31] Ibid., p. 11.

[32] Ibid., p. 5.

[33] Ibid., p. 11.

[34] Ibid.,p. 127.

[35] Ibid., p. 7.

[36] Ilan, op. cit., p. 88.

[37] Ilan, ibid., p. 135.

[38]Gardner, op. cit., pp. 81-82.

[39] Ilan, op. cit., p. 143.

[40] Cf. Mt.19: 8-9.

[41] I do not address here the complicated theological question as to when and how a God-given marriage actually occurs.

[42] Homily 30 on Romans 16: 1-2. Cf. http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/210230.htm

[43] Homily 11 on 1Timothy 3: 8-11. Cf. http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/230611.htm

[44] Madigan, Kevin & Osiek, Carolyn. Ordained Women in the Early Church. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005, pp. 3-8, 203-204.

[45] Lohse, Edward. “Die Erlstehung des Bischofamtes,” pp. 60-61. Quoted in Eisen, op. cit., p. 205.

[46] Lietzmann, Hans, “Zur altchristhedes Verfassungsgeschichte.” Quoted in Eisen, ibid., p. 205.

[47] Ibid., p. 205.

[48] C. 1Cor.: 12: 27-32.

[49] Kung, Hans. Women in Christianity. John Bowden (trans). New York: Continuum, 2001, p. 59.

Wijngaards Institute for Catholic ResearchThis website is maintained by the Wijngaards Institute for Catholic Research.

The Institute is known for issuing academic reports and statements on relevant issues in the Church. These have included scholars' declarations on the need of collegiality in the exercise of church authority, on the ethics of using contraceptives in marriage and the urgency of re-instating the sacramental diaconate of women.

Visit also our websites:Women Deacons, The Body is Sacred and Mystery and Beyond.

You are welcome to use our material. However: maintaining this site costs money. We are a Charity and work mainly with volunteers, but we find it difficult to pay our overheads.

Visitors to our website since January 2014.
Pop-up names are online now.

The number is indicative, but incomplete. For full details click on cross icon at bottom right.

Please, support our campaign
for women priests
Join our Women Priests' Mailing List
for occasional newsletters:
An email will be immediately sent to you
requesting your confirmation.


Please, credit this document
as published by www.womenpriests.org!