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Women in the time of the church fathers

Women in the time of the church fathers

by Dr. Ruth Albrecht

in Theology DigestNo 36:1 (Spring, 1989) pp 3-7.

The church fathers' view on women and what it means to be female was influenced by the anthropology of late antiquity and the common Judeo-Christian tradition. Despite the fact that women were considered the weak sex there were women who went their own unique way and did not conform to the church' s ideal of womanhood.

"Erinnern, was vergessen ist: Frauen ond der Begriff des Weiblichen in der Zeit der Kirchenväter," Stimmen der Zeit 113:5 (May, 1988) 326-33.

During the period of the church fathers the theological writings and influence of women were very limited. Still, women did markedly influence the activities of priests, bishops, church teachers, brothers, husbands, fathers and male contemporaries. Women of the ancient church had few opportunities to make their voices heard; however, they lived the gospel message in such a radical way that male theologians could not shut their eyes, and through their theological works the voiceless received a voice.

While the voices of these Christian women are heard today only through the writings of male authors, they should not be overlooked and ignored. Nor should their significance be pushed into the darkness of history, but challenge us today. One cannot speak of church mothers in the same sense as church fathers. There is not, nor will there be, a discipline called "matristics," if matristics is understood only as parallel to patristics. Such a discipline will only emerge if our eyes are opened to those women who in their own way made a mark on the church and thus deserve the title church mothers.

Daily encounters with women

It was easy for theology and church history to overlook daily experiences and events. Af'ter all, the so-called little things, the chance encounters and daily happenings, were not the principle subjects of the patristic authors. Rather, these occurrences are found on the periphery between the lines of theological abstraction.

On the empirical level there is a great difference among regions, centuries, and the life circumstances of individual church fathers.

A few church fathers mention their mothers in their writings, e.g.. Augustine: Monica: Gregory of Nazianzus: Nonna: the brothers Basil of Caesarea ancl Gregory of Nyssa: Emmelia. Some of them grew up in families with sisters, e.g., Basil of Caesarea and Gregory of Nyssa: Macrina: Gregory of Nazianzus: Gorgonia.'The desert father Antony the Great had a younger sister whose name has not come down to us; Pachomius the Egyptian founder of monasteries, also had a nameless sister; Bishop Ambrose of Milan dedicated a work to his sister Marcellina (Concerning virgins); and Benedict of Nursia had a sister named Scholastica.

In addition to their mothers and sisters, the church fathers also encountered other women. Numerous bishops and teachers of the ancient church came from aristocratic families where the housework was done by female slaves and servants. The care and education of children was the duty of nurses. Basil of Caesarea, e.g., was raised by a nurse. Benedict's nurse accompanied him to school and cared for him. A few church teachers were married (probably Tertullian and Gregory of Nyssa). Augustine lived with a concubine for many years. They had a son.

Women were also encountered outside the home. In large commercial centers like Rome, Alexandria and Jerusalem there were women of various occupations—from businesswomen to prostitutes. In late antiquity, church people traveled to synods and councils in distant cities and countries, made friendly visits, were called to help with conflicts in other communities, or were exiled from their own communities because of theological or church-political controversy and had to flee. Thus, they encountered numerous men and women. Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria, e.g., was hidden by a young woman when he fled the Arians. When Origen (215) had to flee Alexandria he found shelter with a young woman named Julia in Caesarea. Women and men not only encountered each other in the streets and daily life, but also in the church through common celebration, worship, songs and prayers. In eucharistic worship priests and bishops distributed the consecrated elements to women and men. Women, like men, received catechumenate instruction when they converted to Christianity. Origen prepared female Christians for baptism, among them, Herais, who died as a martyr. The baptism and anointing of women was done by female deacons who worked together with male clerics.

The letters of the Latin father, Jerome, and John Chrysostom, bishop of Constantinople, are witnesses to the fact that male teachers developed their theological positions in correspondence with women. While John Chrysostom corresponded chiefly with the deaconess Olympias, Jerome wrote to a wide circle of women.

One of the chief goals of the monastic movement was to flee the opposite sex. However, that goal was not completely reached. The ascetics and monks who retreated into the desert in order to flee the dangers of the world and women soon found that anchoresses were living in the same desert environs as anchorites. Female and male cloisters were established in close proximity.

The fathers' words on women

What the fathers, East and West, said about the nature of women was influenced by the same anthropological tradition of late antiquity, and the common Judeo-Christian tradition. Despite the real political and social emancipation of women in the regions of hellenistic Greece, and Rome, women were still considered inferior. Christian authors referred to the Alexandrian teacher Philo who said that males possessed spiritual capacities, the Logos, while females belonged to the inferior realm of corporeality. The fathers' image of women was also influenced by the biblical tradition, especially Gn 2 where the woman was created after the man. Consequently, all women were generally understood as second rank. Without any doubt women were considered the weak or weaker sex, physically as well as morally. Furthermore, the fathers also held to the pauline, especially the deutero-pauline, view of the subordination of women.

In his funeral oration for his sister Gorgonia, Gregory of Nazianzus emphasized that the way Gorgonia lived her Christian life showed: "that the sexes show a difference in the body but not in the soul." This emphasis made clear that for the author and his readers the supposition obtained that women's spiritual capacities were not inferior to men's. Gregory's interpretation illumines the tendency of patristic exegesis to place Eve, the symbol of all women, in the foreground as the primary and sole cause of the Fall.

The NT command that women should keep silent in church (1 Cor 14:34) is also echoed in Gregory's praise for his sister: Gorgonia said very little and "remained silent within the established boundaries of women's faith." The author does not refer here to an explicit biblical text, but seems to take for granted that his hearers were familiar with these boundaries.

Basil of Caesarea's interpretation of Ps 1 brings the basic patristic conviction into sharp focus. Basil questioned whether because Ps 1:1 says, "B1essed is the man who walks not in the council of the ungodly," women were excluded from this blessing. Basil's response was that though the psalm only mentions men, it still refers to both sexes and "women also share in this blessing. On the basis of Gn 1:27 ("God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them") the church fathers deduced that the nature, virtue and reward of both sexes were the same. Literally, then, the text means: "The nature of both sexes is one and the same, and the primary sex can designate the whole." Of course, in the eyes of these exegetes the primary sex was clearly the male sex, and the interpretation of Ps 1 corroborates patristic anthropology.


Basil of Caesarea uses the word "female" ( das Weibliche) to refer to the Cappadocian martyr, Julitta. In a speech given on her memorial day, Basil declares: "The female sex, just as the male, has been created by the creator to receive virtue." More frequently than "female," however, ancient church literature speaks of the female nature or the nature of women.

Julitta's memorial day provided Basil with the opportunity to preach on her life. Hc praised her as the "most blessed of women. But he also spoke of the "weakness of the female nature." The significance of this martyr who died for her faith lay in the fact that she fought her weakness "in a great battle" waged "in the most male way in a female body."

This paradoxical formulation is intensified if it means: "Julitta was endowed with natural weakness, and in her battle as a martyr was more masculine than her nature." This example shows that all women were understood as weak. If a woman did something unexpected, i.e., something strong, exemplary, the word male was used to describe it.

In his sermon, Basil also questions ''whether it is appropriate to call someone a woman if the weakness of the female nature is concealed by spiritual strength." While the Bishop of Caesarea does not give a direct answer to this question, he does answer it indirectly through his statements that being a woman and being strong are mutually exclusive, while maleness and courage are thoroughly compatible.


Basil is not the only one to reflect on the nature of women. His younger brother, Gregory of Nyssa, wrote a biography of their younger sister, Macrina. Macrina was one of the first women in Asia Minor to found a female cloister. While Basil is considered the father of male monasticism, Macrina's significance for the development of female monasteries is hardly known.

Macrina, the daughter of an aristocratic family, received a fine practical and intellectual education. She learned to spin, and her mother, with the help of Holy Scripture, introduced her to reading and writing. Macrina's parents had already chosen a bridegroom for her at the age of 12. When he unexpectedly died, Macrina, through great strength of will, decided to remain a virgin. In the 4th century throughout the East, the term virgin (parthenos) designated a Christian lifestyle of abstinence and radicality. While still in her parents' house Macrina constantly tried to live more simply. After a few years, however, she founded a cloister, together with other women (former female servants and slaves who had been freed) in the desert of Pontus in northeastern Asia Minor. Here Macrina served as spiritual mother and teacher until her death in 380.

A few years after her death, her brother Gregory wrote her biography. In his introduction Gregory said that he was going to write about a woman, "though I do not know whether it is appropriate to call a woman a woman who has transcended nature." This was also Basil's conclusion about Julitta. What did Gregory mean by this statement? In his eyes a woman who lived as an ascetic with other women in a spiritual community could hardly have been a woman. Macrina was not married and brought no biological children into the world. She was, however, spiritual mother to many women and men. She gave them spiritual instruction and accompanied them on their way to God. In the opinion of the patristic authors Gregory's conclusion that a woman who lived like Macrina could hardly still be a woman, was the highest praise. If women wanted to attain the ideal set by Gregory and Basil, they had to make every possible effort not to act or appear as women. What, then, according to the church fathers, constituted being a woman?

For Gregory, courageousness (andreia) was set over against feminine weakness. Macrina's brother, Naucratius, with whom she was especially close, lived near the cloister. When he had a fatal accident his mother broke down. Macrina, however, showed, strength and andreia. Though she also grieved for her brother, there was nothing about her, wrote Gregory, that was "ignoble and womanish." In her pain she maintained great composure (hesychia) and so grew "beyond her nature."

According to this description, a woman by nature was "womanish," i.e., characterized by strong emotionality and affectivity. Through the words, "ignoble,""womanish," "effeminate," the author leaves no doubt about his opinion: "Woman/female" and derivative words clearly have a negative ring.

These texts show that the thoughts of the church fathers concerning women were marked by contradiction, ambivalence and tension. The ancient church did not develop a conclusive anthropology or theology of women. In the ancient sources, however, women did play a greater part than present church history and collections of these sources show. Women were present in the consciousness of patristic authors, but as the weak sex. Consequently, they gradually disappeared until they had become "invisible in theology and church."

If we now begin anew to ask about women in the ancient church, to lament the long tradition of silence and layer by layer peel away the suppression, the vivid models of women will appear. Though hidden in the shadows of androcentrism, they have not lost their meamng and effectiveness. Nevertheless, only traces of certain women have been preserved: mothers and sisters of theological writers; the church's recognized and revered female saints, virgins, ascetics and martyrs. Groups of women were persecuted as heretics, and there are no biographies that preserve the lives and names of women from the lowest social strata.

Those women who remain alive in the church's memory and who are still accessible today, are not only the boring and conformist saints shaped according to the desires of the church fathers. Despite the tendency to smooth things over and twist them around, some traditions do testify to women's rebellious, radical and irksome conduct in the ancient church. Though considered the weak sex, there were women conscious of their own strength and not subordinate. They went their own way, and that way did not always conform to the church's womanly ideal.

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