Women in the Early Church

All Christian history up to modern time is mainly written by men and as a consequence tells about men and even in the cases, when it tells about women, it does it from male perspective. The role of women in the development of Christianity if often underestimated. But the role of women in early Christianity is much more important than just accompanying men and serving for them. The history of women in Christianity is complex and diverse. It’s a subject of a deep study because the vision of a woman presented by the Bible is not complete and doesn’t reflect the real state of events. In the Bible a woman is depicted as a reflection of a man and we know about any events where women took part only connected with male characters of the narration. That is the reason why works by Elizabeth Clark and Patricia Cox Miller are so important. They give us not only additional information and many historical data about the place of women in early Christian society, their role in making of the Christianity, but also very interesting conclusions made by the authors. Before these notable researches only few works written by women during the period of Early Christianity have been presented to the public. So, readers didn’t have an opportunity to make an opinion of their own about the role women played during the epoch of early Christianity.
Women in Early Christianity
Miller’s work presents text written by women themselves and this gives us a unique opportunity to get the reality from their perspective and share their vision on many important issues. Different kinds of data collected by Miller help us to compare the information from different sources, such as Church orders, narrative orders, and descriptions of the lives of saints and their biographies, and theological treatises on marriage. The portray of the woman created by Miller is colorful and alive and we can not only read historical data, but also feel the way these women felt and perceive the reality through their eyes.
Patricia Cox Miller did a perfect job by collecting, sorting out and presenting in the right order information from ancient texts, which show different roles women had during the period of Early Christianity. She managed to show different dimensions of their lives. Women presented by her are mothers, sisters, wives, prophets, hermits, deaconesses, martyrs and symbols of Christianity. Miller doesn’t let reader to guess about the meaning of historical data but provides her comments, which help the reader to understand the meaning of ancient writings. Her comments become a very helpful tool, which helps not to get lost in the variable data.
Elizabeth Clark is another scholar and founder of the Department of Religion at Mary Washington Collage, who dedicated a lot of time and effort to the study of the theme of women in early Christianity. The attitude of the male representative of the Christian Church has always been double-faced. From the one side they regarded women as an object given to men by God, as a source of evil and temptation. From the other side women incarnated the purity of Virgin Maria who gave birth to the Son of God and could show people the way to real faith. Clark’s work “Women in the Early Church” presents different views and attitudes to women in the period of early Christianity. So, her books represent the complicated gender roles and relations during the period when Christian faith had been establish and widespread. Such a study is very important as the types of relations established during those distanced time were voluntary or involuntary transmitted through all the history of Christianity and had important influence on the role of women there and still do. The kind of relationship established between a man and a woman inside the religious teaching can tell a lot about the foundations of this teaching and main principles it is based on. That is why I think that Clark’s work is very important. It gives us information not only about the different roles women played during Early Christian Church, but also about the basement of Christianity in general. The book is interesting for both – for those who want to know about the history of female and their place in the history of the mankind and those, who are interested in the history of Christian religion.
The society of the time when Christian Church was established could be characterized as patriarchal one. The status of women was considered lower than the status of men. From the other side in the Bible there are a lot of scenes where Christ is depicted with different women. This may be explained by the wish of Christ to underline the equality of men and women. Women were treated like lower race at the time Christ started his mission on the Earth and tried to change this situation.
Women extracted from the Church by the patriarchal society sill can’t find equal place there. That is one more reason why the works of feminist scholars, such as Elizabeth Clark, are so important. Clark goes much deeper than the study of the Bible. In her book, she presents the pieces of writing of Augustine, Tertullian and John Chrysostom. The sources used by the author prove negative perception of the women by the Church. For example, in his Literal Commentary of Genesis Augustine expressed his view on women. According to his opinion the women have been created as helpers for men and for the purposes of recreation. In his other work called On Paradise he talks about Eva, who was give as a helper to Adam and who later caused him to commit a sin.
The movement for the rights and freedoms of women, which started on the West and became widespread all over the world nowadays, raised great interest to the role of women in early Christianity.
The role of woman in early Christianity was mainly determined by their roles in social structure in general. Clark states: “I think part of the activity in the early period, that is the New Testament period itself, perhaps is related to women’s role in the house churches. The earliest Christian communities met in people’s houses; they didn’t have churches yet for quite some time, and throughout the New Testament, particularly Paul’s letters in the Book of Acts, we find out that women owned the houses in which the early Christians met.”(Clark, 78) Women’s activity grows starting from the late 4th century. During this time Christian religion came to a new level. Churches and Monasteries had been built in great amount and women obtained new ways to realize themselves inside the Christian religion. Many women occupied important positions in the monasteries and some of them even became the heads of the monasteries.
But the role of women was much more important than church house holding. Women of those times also possessed their own personalities and the power to express them. That is one of the main ideas, expressed by Elizabeth Clark in her book: “This I think is significant because I don’t think the women who owned the houses were simply providing coffee and cookies, in effect, for the Christian community. I think that this probably gave them some avenue to power… in the church.” (Clark, 78)
Nowadays so-called Church Fathers have occupied all the dominant positions of the church structure. Their unwillingness to let women take active role in the religious life they explain by the historical realia, which shows that women were not represented in the church during the period of the becoming of Christianity. Women did occupied high positions in the church hierarchy and Clark gives us evidence of this. Clark has collected a lot of data sources, which prove the women’s active participation in the life of the church. What is notable, their roles were not reduced to serving the men and creating comfort for the “Church Fathers”. “In the New Testament, we find many women mentioned, some by name, some not… They are named as co-workers, some of them seem to be part of missionary couples that go out and help convert others to Christianity. We find less evidence of this as you move into the 2nd century and the 3rd century; as Christianity becomes more established, and a male hierarchy of the clergy is developed, women tend to get more and more excluded” (Clark) For example Thecla, a literal character mentioned in the Christian writings of the second century appeared to be a real historical person. She is mentioned in The Acts of Paul and Thecla, which belong to the category of apocryphal acts. Thecla occupied high position in the Church structure. She is described as a young aristocratic woman, who leaves her family and noble position and follows Paul in his missionary activity. Soon she becomes a missionary herself and spends long life popularizing Christian teaching. It’s only one of several stories, which describes women sacrificing their love and noble position for the sake of Christian teaching. Clark gives a lot of examples of women from early Christianity, who abandoned the pleasures of secular life and dedicated themselves to Church. She gives her own comments, in which she lights the relations between women and church: “We hear many stories from the fourth and early fifth century, particularly, of aristocratic young women who decide they’re not going to be obey their parents’ command to marry. At this [time] … aristocratic girls marry very young, in young teenage years probably, and their refusal to do this, and concordant with that their control of enormous sums of money devolving upon them, was a very great asset to the Christian church, and these women were much celebrated and written about and praised by the male authors of this period” (Clark, 124) Personally I enjoyed the deep survey of the character of Mary Magdalene made by the author. Mary Magdalene is one of the most controversial Biblical characters. Elizabeth gives us the idea about the way this character has been transformed and developed through the centuries. She appears as a repentant prostitute but later her character is transformed. Mary Magdalene is one of rare examples of women personages describe in the Bible, which appears several times in different parts of the narration. “She’s represented as being a witness to the resurrection in the gospels, and this is an important point that here you can see the difference in Paul’s letters. Paul does not have the women as witnesses to the resurrection whereas all the gospels have women as witnesses to the resurrection and Mary Magdalene very prominent among them.” (Clark, 131)
Growing interest to the history of Christianity and feministic movements, which struggle for the rights of the women all over the world inspire a lot of feminist scholars for new researches. The works by Elizabeth Clark and Patricia Cox Miller present historical data about the role of women in the development of Christianity and possible consequences this data can have on the place of woman in the modern Church.


1. Clark, Elizabeth A. (1983). Women in the Early Church. Minnesota: Liturgical Press.
2. Women in Early Christianity: Translations from Greek Texts, edited by Patricia Cox Miller (Washington, D. C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2005)

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