In their document “Women Elders: Called by God?” the Catherine (and Richard) Kroeger produce the names of women in the early Church whom they claim or imply were leaders and teachers. Most of these women, upon investigation, prove to be godly women but not leaders or teachers.
Tertullian (160-225 AD)
After claiming that widows were an important office in the NT Church (1 Tim 5:5-10), and that they exercised a significant role for the first three centuries, Kroeger writes, “Tertullian wrote that there were four orders of female church officers, all of whom were mentioned in the bible. These appear to be deacons, widows, elders and presiding officers…..early church history reveals that women assumed far more vigorous roles than was the case in later centuries” (page 9).
I’m unable to locate the place in Tertullian where he made this statement but I’ll accept that he did say it. However, it doesn’t support Kroeger’s contention that either widows or deacons were leaders or teachers in the Church. His view on this can be seen in the following two statements.
In the first, Tertullian describes the unbiblical and ungodly behaviour of heretics: “The very women of these heretics, how wanton they are! For they are bold enough to teach, to dispute, to enact exorcisms, to undertake cures – it may even be to baptize” (“On Prescription against Heretics” chap XLI; Ante Nicene Fathers vol. 3).
The second removes any hope they had that Tertullian would be a support for their case. “But the woman of pertness (footnote: Quintilla), who has usurped the power to teach, will of course not give birth for herself likewise to a right of baptizing, unless some new beast shall arise like the former; so that, just as the one abolished baptism, so some other should in her own right confer it! But if the writings which wrongly go under Paul’s name, claim Thecla’s example as a licence for women’s teaching and baptizing, know that, in Asia, the presbyter who composed that writing, as if he were augmenting Paul’s fame from his own store, after being convicted, and confessing that he had done it from love of Paul, was removed from his office. For how credible would it seem, that he who has not permitted a woman even to learn with overboldness, should give a female the power of teaching and of baptizing! ‘Let them be silent’, he says, ‘and at home consult their own husbands’” (“On Baptism” chap XVII; Ante Nicene Fathers vol. 3). (Emphasis mine).
John Chrysostom (347-407 AD)
Chrysostom writes “The divine law has indeed excluded women from the ministry, but they endeavour to thrust themselves into it; and since they can effect nothing of themselves, they do all through the agency of others; and they have become invested with so much power that they can appoint or eject priests at their will: things in fact are turned upside down, and the proverbial saying may be seen (actually) realized – ‘The ruled lead the rulers:’ and would that it were men who do this instead of women, who have not received a commission to teach. Why do I say teach? For the blessed Paul did not suffer them even to speak in the Church. But I have heard someone say that they have obtained such a large privilege of free speech, as even to rebuke prelates of the Churches, and censure them more severely than masters do their own domestics” (“On the Priesthood” Book III.9).
How the situation arose where apparently so many women could become priests, possibly even bishops, in the Greek Church I don’t know, but Chrysostom makes it clear that scripture forbids them to take this role; and he says that their rule was so bad that it had devastating effects on the Church.
Widows as Church Officers
Kroeger scatters with seeming reckless abandon women’s names across the page (page 9); names which supposedly prove her case for widows as church officers. But I’m left with mouth agape as I check for myself who and what these women were; and I am astonished that Kroeger, who has such good academic credentials, could present such sloppy, even deceptive, work. I can’t see how she can put forward these names in support of her cause, as simple checking proves the death of their argument. Did they think that nobody would bother? And even though she makes it look as though history abounds in worthy women who led the Church, the number presented here is just a drop in the ocean compared to the number of significant and influential male leaders. So let’s examine the women pillars of Catherine Kroeger’s case for post-Apostolic women church leaders.
“St Thecla, a missionary associate of the Apostle Paul, was also known as an apostle, and the remains of her teaching centre have been excavated near ancient Seleucia” (Kroeger).
St Thecla was revered as a saint in both Eastern and Western Churches. However, the only information we have of her is from an apocryphal writing called “The Acts of Paul and Thecla”; and as we’ve seen in the quote from Tertullian, the story of Thecla was a fiction invented by a presbyter “out of love for Paul” to make him look good! It contains unscriptural teaching which was widely taught amongst the churches of the day, which unduly magnifies virginity; and promotes the unbiblical idea of celibacy in marriage for those who came to the idea of virginity too late.
There are two versions of the story, and each has Thecla dying and buried in a different location to the other; one in Rome near Paul’s body; the other entombed in a rock in Iconium due to God’s intervention to save her from being raped and therefore defiled. She became a hermit and lived in this cave for about 70 years. The only people she is reported to have taught were the many women who resorted to her (the bible has no problem with this – Titus 3:2-5). So for the Kroegers to use her as a “proof” of women in ministry in the way they present her is deceitful because they present her as an historical person. It also shows the gullibility of the early Church, which made her a saint and an apostle, and that we can’t trust everything the early Church did just because they did it.
“Marcella was the foremost Bible interpreter of the fourth century” (Kroeger).
I must confess my ignorance because until I read this paper I had never heard of Marcella. So I searched my copy of Jerome’s works and found a letter he wrote to Principia, Marcella’s greatest friend; it is in effect a memoir of Marcella. He says she was married as a young woman but seven months after her wedding her husband died, so she dedicated herself to a celibate life and became the first highborn woman of Rome to do so; she taught other women to do the same. She loved the scriptures and drew as much knowledge from them as she could. Her knowledge was so acute that people came to her to settle disputes. Jerome writes “Consequently after my departure from Rome, in case of a dispute arising as to the testimony of scripture on any subject, recourse was had to her to settle it. And so wise was she and so well did she understand what philosophers call ‘to prepon’, that is, ‘the becoming’, in what she did, that when she answered questions she gave her own opinion not as her own but as from me or someone else, thus admitting that what she taught she had herself learned from others. For she knew that the apostle had said; ‘I suffer not a woman to teach’, and she would not seem to inflict a wrong upon the male sex, many of whom (including sometimes priests) questioned her concerning obscure and doubtful points”.
Sometime later Rome became the victim of a great heresy which caused havoc in the Church. Eventually Marcella took up the fight against the heretics and initiated steps to combat them; Jerome attributed the victory over the heresy to her. Does this make her the “foremost bible interpreter of the 4th century”? No. Jerome and Augustine, among many, towered over her. Did she hold office in the Church? No. She lived as a nun in seclusion and was influential only in Rome. Did she teach men? Yes. But Jerome points out that she did so being mindful of 1 Tim 2:12, and in submission to the scripture and Jerome’s teaching and authority (all information about Marcella taken from “The Letters of St Jerome”; letter CXXVII (“to Principia”); Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers vol 6 pages 253-258).
Marcella was a wonderful example of holiness and was totally devoted to God. Her life was so wrapped up with Jesus that she was used very powerfully by him. Her example of godliness is good for both women and men. Kroeger is right in using her as an example of a woman in the Church who had a vigorous role. But that’s all she was, a woman with a vigorous role; not a leader; not an ordained teacher; but a lovely, godly nun.
Incidentally, virginity was becoming more and more prized in the Church; it was regarded as a work of perfection, a way to ensure one’s salvation. Paul talks about it in 1 Corinthians chapter 7 but it had become distorted by the 4th century. Salvation by works was already corrupting the gospel, and Jerome and Marcella were caught up in this outlook. There were literally thousands and thousands of male and female virgins and celibates in the Church, and Egypt in particular was swarming with them. They often lived in caves and rocks, or huts they’d built themselves, withdrawing from the world to devote themselves to prayer and fasting. Most of them never washed, and they ate infrequently, and even then it was only basic items like bread and water, in order that the flesh be subdued. They were the hermits and monks and nuns. Marcella is revered as a saint in both Catholicism and Orthodoxy as the founder of monasticism. The bible teaching on the marriage relationship, and on the role of women, was becoming corrupted. Nuns, not even mentioned in scripture, were fulfilling the role of women deacons.
“Fabiola was the founder of the first Christian hospital in Europe” (Kroeger). So what?
“Paula acted as a major linguistic contributor in the translation of the Vulgate Bible” (Kroeger). So she was good with languages – so what?
“Pulcheria was a leading theological force in overcoming the Nestorian and Eutychian heresies and was so recognised by Pope Leo I, participating actively in the Council of Chalcedon…..” (Kroeger).
Pulcheria was unique because she was, at first, sister of the Emperor, and later, Empress of the eastern Roman Empire. She was a political more than a religious force, though her Christian faith governed her politics. As a Christian empress, she was perfectly placed to convene a council, which she did, at Pope Leo’s request. Her power exercised on behalf of the orthodox faith was very influential in overcoming the heresies, and Leo wrote and thanked her; however, it was the bishops who argued the theology.
By way of interest, Pulcheria didn’t oppose the Arian heresy, which denies Christ’s deity; she exiled Jews and destroyed synagogues in Constantinople; she built and dedicated many churches devoted to the Virgin Mary; and she married for political reasons, on the condition that the marriage be not consummated. She is not a model for women elders in a local church, nor for women priests or bishops, nor even for Christian women in general; she was the co-ruler of an empire.
“Proba wove fragments of Virgil’s poetry into the Gospel story for Christian young people, and her work remained the standard text book for a thousand years” (Kroeger).
That is, she corrupted the scriptures with pagan poetry! No wonder the Church went so far astray! And Kroeger uses her as proof for women having “vigorous roles” in the Church. I would have kept quiet about Proba if I was her.
“Macrina had a tremendous impact on non-Christian Asia Minor; founding a monastery, a hospital and a Christian teaching and social centre” (Kroeger).
I could add my own list of women who’ve contributed in similar ways. But what has this got to do with proving women should be elders in churches?
Macrina (the Younger) was born into a Christian family. She, along with her mother and grandmother, was responsible for the education and care of the younger members. They all owed their salvation and religious understanding to Macrina. Two of them later became very influential men. Macrina also founded a convent. She was devoted to the celibate life, as were her famous brothers. One of her brothers, Basil, was the architect of the present monastic system in the Orthodox churches. He and his brother, Gregory of Nyssa, are two of the Fathers of the Eastern Orthodox Churches.
Macrina was faithful to the scriptures in teaching her family. She was not a leader in the Church, neither did she aspire to it, but her influence in the Church continues to be felt to this day through Basil and Gregory.
“The walls of the catacombs are decorated with authoritative-looking women who stand with arms upraised in the posture of a bishop. Stone coffins also show carvings of women teachers and leaders and a mosaic in one of the oldest churches in Rome shows “Bishop Theodora” (Kroeger).
These “authoritative-looking women” are called “orante” (sing. “orans”). The praying figure with open arms symbolises the soul, which now lives in divine peace, praying for its friends on earth. The great majority of them are female, even when on a man’s tomb. There is a picture of St Lawrence under torture, while his soul, in the form of a female orans, is just leaving his body.
As for the stone coffins with the carvings of women teachers and leaders, I can’t offer any comment as I’m not familiar with these carvings; but in the light of Kroeger’s incorrect interpretation in the previous paragraph, and in the next paragraph, I am sceptical.
Theodora’s title is disputed, the feminist argument based on “episkopa” being the Latin feminisation of the Greek “episcopos” meaning “bishop”. “They also note that the ‘a’ in the word ‘episcopa’ was schemingly defaced in antiquity, leading to the conclusion that it was understood by contemporaries to indicate her ecclesial status” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Episcopa_Theodora. I have taken all my information about Theodora from this location).
When compared with the Catholic explanation, the feminist view seems very weak. The Catholics deny that Theodora was a bishop, saying that “the feminisation of clerical titles have traditionally been associated with the wives and widows of early Christian clergy since the Apostolic Age”. As this is also applied to the mother of a bishop, such as Pope Paschal I, the title “episcopa” was used for Theodora, a godly and pious woman and mother of a pope. Thus “episcopa” indicated her status in relation to her son, not as a bishop in the Church. It is also significant that the way Theodora is clothed in the mosaic indicates that she was not a bishop as she had no mitre on her head, which she would have if she was such, as this was the common way to indicate the rank of bishops in mosaics of the time.
The Catholic Church should know whether Theodora was a bishop – after all, it is their Church, and they know how it operates. They also have a long history of notable women saints, so they’re not hostile to women. And they have a long history of not allowing women in the priesthood, as also do the Orthodox; so I think their argument carries more weight than the feminists who can only base their case on a word whose meaning is disputed and uncertain. But this doesn’t worry Kroeger; she just presents “Bishop” Theodora as an accepted fact of history.
However, even if Theodora was a bishop she would have been an aberration, as seen by the fact that the writings of the Fathers, and the practice of the Church generally and consistently, uphold the biblical injunctions of 1 Cor 14:34 and 1 Tim 2:12. Just as today, contrary to scripture and the practice of the Church, there are gay and lesbian bishops and priests.
So although Kroeger has pieced her “data together painstakingly from letters, histories, church instructions, etc.” (page 9), taken from 800 years, she hasn’t produced anything whatsoever that goes anywhere near to proving her case; rather it proves the paucity of evidence.
When it comes to the bottom line it doesn’t matter how many examples from history we can produce to prove our point, it must still come back to “what does the bible teach?” That is our authority. “To the law and to the testimony: if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them” (Isa 8:20). Once we move away from revelation and from God’s commands we are vulnerable to anything and everything and we are left defenceless against wolves such as the Christian feminists.
The writings of the Church Fathers and the practice of the early Church can help us to interpret the scriptures correctly when we’re in doubt; and in this issue, the case for women leaders in the Church is shown to be a beat-up and totally insubstantial, both in scripture and historical church practice.
Council of Nicaea (325 AD)
Henry R. Percival, the editor of “Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers”, Second Series, Vol 14, “The Seven Ecumenical Councils of the Undivided Church” wrote an excursus on Canon xix concerning deaconesses in the First Council of Nice (Nicaea). It is quoted here in full as it has direct bearing on the issues discussed above, and it details the view of the undivided Church, East and West, on the role of deaconesses and widows. It should be noted that the decrees made by the Council reflected the long-held view of the Church, and were meant to clarify and correct abuses.
“It has been supposed by many that the deaconesses of the Early Church had an apostolic institution and that its existence may be referred to by St. Paul in his Epistle to the Romans (xvi.1) where he speaks of Phoebe as being a ‘diakonos’ of the Church of Cenchrea. It moreover has been suggested that the “widows” of 1 Tim v.9 may have been deaconesses, and this seems not unlikely from the fact that the age for the admission of women to this ministry was fixed by Tertullian at sixty years…..and only changed to forty, two centuries later by the Council of Chalcedon, and from the further fact that these ‘widows’ spoken of by St. Paul seem to have had a vow of chastity, for it is expressly said that if they marry they have ‘damnation, because they have cast off their first faith’ (1 Tim v.12).
These women were called diakonissai, presbutides, (which must be distinguished from the presbuterai, a poor class referred to in the Apostolic Constitutions (ii.28) who are to be only invited frequently to the love-feasts, while the presbutides had a definite allotment of the offerings assigned to their support, cherai, diaconissoe, presbyteroe, and viduoe (apologies – I don’t have a Greek font to write these names in Greek).
The one great characteristic of the deaconess was that she was vowed to perpetual chastity. The Apostolical Constitutions (vi.17) say that she must be a chaste virgin (parthenos hagen) or else a widow. The writer of the article ‘Deaconess’ in the Dictionary of Christian Antiquities says: ‘It is evident that the ordination of deaconesses included a vow of celibacy’. We have already seen the language used by St Paul and of this the wording of the canon of Chalcedon is but an echo (Canon xv): ‘A woman shall not receive the laying on of hands as a deaconess under forty years of age, and then only after searching examination. And if, after she has had hands laid on her, and has continued for a time to minister, she shall despise the Grace of God and give herself in marriage, she shall be anathematised and the man who is united to her’. The civil law went still further, and by Justinian’s Sixth Novel (6) those who attempted to marry are subjected to forfeiture of property and capital punishment. In the collect in the ancient office there is a special petition that the newly admitted deaconess may have the gift of continence.
The principal work of the deaconess was to assist the female candidates for holy baptism. At that time the sacrament of baptism was always administered by immersion (except to those in extreme illness) and hence there was much that such an order of women could be useful in. Moreover they sometimes gave to the female catechumens preliminary instruction, but their work was wholly limited to women, and for a deaconess of the Early Church to teach a man or to nurse him in sickness would have been an impossibility. The duties of the deaconesses are set forth in many ancient writings, I cite here what is commonly known as the XII Canon of the Fourth Council of Carthage, which met in the year 398: ‘Widows and dedicated women (sanctimoniales) who are chosen to assist at the baptism of women, should be so well instructed in their office as to be able to teach aptly and properly unskilled and rustic women how to answer at the time of their baptism to the questions put to them, and also how to live godly after they have been baptised’. This whole matter is treated clearly by St Epiphanius who, while indeed speaking of deaconesses as an order (tagma), asserts that ‘they were only women-elders, not priestesses in any sense, that their mission was not to interfere in any way with Sacerdotal functions, but simply to perform certain offices in the care of women’…..From all this it is evident that they are entirely in error who suppose that ‘the laying on of hands’ which the deaconesses received corresponded to that by which persons were ordained to the diaconate, presbyterate, and episcopate at that period of the church’s history. It was merely a solemn dedication and blessing and was not looked upon as ‘an outward sign of an inward grace given’. For further proof of this I must refer to Morinus, who has treated the matter most admirably (De Ordinationibus, Exercitatio X).
The deaconesses existed but a short while. The Council of Laodicea as early as A.D. 343-381, forbade the appointment of any who were called presbutides (Vide Canon xi); and the first council of Orange, A.D. 441, in its twenty-sixth canon forbids the appointment of deaconesses altogether, and the Second council of the same city in canons xvij and xviij, decrees that deaconesses who married were to be excommunicated unless they renounced the men they were living with, and that, on account of the weakness of the sex, none for the future were to be ordained.
Thomassinus, to whom I refer the reader for a very full treatment of the whole subject, is of the opinion that the order was extinct in the West by the tenth or twelfth century, but that it lingered on a little later at Constantinople but only in conventual institutions (Thomassin, Ancienne Discipline de l’Eglisse, I Partie, Livre III)”.
“Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law. And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church” (1 Cor 14:35-36).
Kroeger, Richard, and Kroeger, Catherine, 2004, Internet article “Women Elders: Called by God?”; no longer on net