Women Overseers of Churches
by Joan Morris
from Against Nature and God, Mowbrays, 1974, Chapter 1, pp 1-3.
- Chapter 2, Stones will cry out
- Chapter3, Canonical Institutes and Religious Orders
- Chapter 4, The Episcopal Jurisdiction of Abbesses
The role of women in the Church of early Christian times has become hidden history. New Testament accounts show that women naturally assumed administrative duties in the apostolic period, for it is a noteworthy fact that all assemblies of Christian communities mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles and in the Epistles of Saint Paul are said to be in the houses of women: the church in the house of Chloe,(1) in the house of Lydia,(2) in the house of the mother of Mark,(3) in the house of Nympha,(4) in the house of Prisca (Priscilla) and Aquila.(5) Note that the name of Priscilla is put first.
As Christian assemblies were commonly held in the houses of women, why are commentators so surprised that Saint John in his second Epistle should address it to an Elect Lady; that is, to a woman who, obviously by the content of the letter, was in the position of overseer of a church community?
Prejudiced commentators, unwilling to consider the possibility of a woman holding a position of authority and overseer of an early Christian community, have tried to evade the issue by suggesting that the word elect might be the proper name of a woman Electa. But since at the end of the epistle her sister is also called elect, the suggestion was discarded as it was unlikely that two sisters with the same name would occur in one family.
A second explanation has been brought forward that is accepted by many today: the Elect Lady is considered to refer to a whole church in the same way as the term mater ecclesia is used to indicate the main church of the locality. But the word Kyria is nowhere else used in this sense, while we do know that the word eklektaelectwas sometimes used to denote a clerically ordained person.(6) The Elect Lady, addressed by Saint John, would therefore have been an elected person ordained to a special service of the Christian community, that is, as overseer. This does not mean that as an ordained overseer she also was ordained to consecrate the Holy Eucharist. We know that for reasons of the taboo of women during menstruation, they were considered unclean and liable to contaminate others and even to be under the domination of the devil.(7) Women were therefore withheld from the service of the altar, but they were able to undertake many other services such as overseers of communities that in apostolic times started in their homes.
The second Epistle of Saint John is very short, which is more characteristic of a private letter than of an epistle to be read in a public church. It corresponds closely to the third Epistle of Saint John to Gaius, which is certainly a private letter. The opening of the second Epistle reads: The presbyter to the Elect Lady and to her children whom I love in truth. The opening of the third Epistle reads: The presbyter to the beloved Gaius, whom I love in truth.
The second Epistle of Saint John goes on to warn the Elect Lady and her community against false teachers, and it ends with greetings from the children of her sister elect. We can understand this sister to be an Elect Lady over another community in her house as has been shown was usual in apostolic times.
There is evidence of other women heads of Christian meetings in the letters of Pliny the Younger, the nephew by adoption of Pliny, the author of Natural History. The letters were written to Trajan while Pliny the Younger was governor of Bithynia.(8) He said he found it necessary to torture two maids called ministrae by the Christians in order to obtain information from them.
They were evidently singled out from among the others as being the ones responsible for the meetings and as being leaders in service of the others.
Many women are known to have been heads of double communities of men and women in early Christian times,(9) both on the Continent and in England, such as the well-known case of Hilda of Whitby.(10) The position of these women heads of communities was similar to that of the women of apostolic times who looked after groups in their own homes and to the Lady Elect head of the Christian community in her house addressed by Saint John.
The subject of study in this bookthe quasi-episcopal abbesses -can be looked on likewise as continuing the accepted custom of apostolic times. A great number of communities headed by abbesses with independent jurisdiction exempt from bishops were spread throughout Italy, Spain, France, Germany, Poland, Austria, England, and Ireland.
We can conclude that to have women overseers (episcopae) (11) of churches and Christian communities was a common practice from apostolic times and that it continued throughout many centuries and was only very slowly suppressed.
Dalc - Dictionnaire d'archéologie chrétienne et de liturgie, F. Cabrol (ed.) (Paris, 1912-1955).
PG. - Patrologia Graeca, J. P. Migne (ed.), 161 vols. (Paris,1857-1866).
PL. - Patrologia Latina, J.P. Migne (ed.), 221 vols. (Paris, 1879-1890).
1. 1 Corinthians 10:11.
2. Acts 16:14-15, 40.
3. Acts 12:12.
4. Colossians 4:15.
5. Romans 16:3, 5; 1 Corinthians 16:19; 1 Corinthians 16:15, 17, the name of Stephana put before the name of Fortunatus.
6. Clement of Alexandria, Paedagogi, PG. 8, lib. 3, col. 675 D.ff. "Plurima autem alia praecepta, quae ad ELECT A PERSONAS pertinent, in sanctis libris scripta sunt: haec quidam presbyteris, alia vero episcopis, alia diaconis, alia autem VIDU1S, de quibus fuerit aliud dicendi tempus.
7. See Appendix I.
8. Pliny the Younger, Epistles 96 and 97.
9. Mary Bateson, Origin and Early History of Double Monasteries, transactions of the Royal History Society (London: Longman, Green and Co., 1899), vol. 13.
10. See Chapter Three.
11. The Jerusalem Bible (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1966) translates episcopus as overseers in Acts 20:28.
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