When we talk about women and the church, the conversation usually descends into a discussion of gender roles. While I’ve discussed women and the church before, I didn’t get into some of the fascinating history we have during the early stages of our faith. Women had a pivotal role in the spread of the gospel after Jesus’ ascension! Today, I want to share four things you may not have known about women in the early church.
1. The early church was largely populated by women.
There are several reasons why the early church attracted women. The church was known for taking in widows and orphans—especially abandoned female babies. There were many women already following Jesus who would evangelize their sisters and friends. For wealthy married women, faith could be isolating; some of their husbands were in government and would not risk losing their status to follow Jesus. These women supported the church financially. Historians, both secular and Christian, affirm there were many women in the early church.
2. Women weren’t forbidden from having a role in the church.
In reaction to third-wave feminism and the secular revolution, a strict approach to women in the church developed in the 1970s and ’80s. By 1990, complementarian views were considered orthodox doctrine in most mainstream, biblically based denominations. In some complementarian circles, women are not permitted to take any teaching or leadership role in the church at all. This is not consistent with the early church practice, where women like Mary, Martha, Priscilla, Junia, Lydia, the daughters of Philip and many more actively contributed to the body. While Paul articulates that senior leadership should be male (more on this here), historically and Scripturally, women were serving in every other capacity.
3. Paul’s command to “remain silent” did not mean women could never pray or speak.
In 1 Corinthians 14, the apostle Paul says, “Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says.” Today, people read this passage and want to throw out the entire Bible. But what did Paul mean in context? Corinth was a Greek city. The church Paul wrote to was made up of a group of Greek Jews. As the Gentiles (non-Jews) converted and began to attend, there was likely a disruption of the usual service structure (which at the time was usually divided into teaching and observing the sacraments). Paul had to teach the new converts—probably Greek women—to keep peace so the teaching could remain undisturbed.
Second, women in that day were not permitted to be theologically educated. If the women were to speak up in service, they would have misled many of those attending, just as any uneducated teacher would. Paul’s command to be silent was not an insult. He follows it up reminding them to “ask of their husbands at home,” which was a command to husbands to theologically educate their wives! This was counter-cultural! And because we see elsewhere in Scripture women like Priscilla rebuking Apollos, Junia serving alongside the apostles, and the daughters of Philip prophesying, we know women were not completely silent. Context is important to understanding passages like these!
4. The Great Commission was fulfilled by both men AND women.
Over and over in his epistles, Paul thanks the brothers and sisters who supported him on his missionary journeys. The people leading the church after Jesus ascended were not worrying over who was in the correct role; they were actively sharing the gospel with everything they had.
In Acts 2, both men and women were praying in the Upper Room when the Spirit-empowered them to share the gospel with everyone within earshot. Men AND women. This is still our call today: to let the Spirit teach us what to say and to actively fulfill the Great Commission right where we are.
The early church women are an inspiration to those of us still carrying the torch of faith thousands of years later. Many of them died for what they believed. They sacrificed their financial well being, the loyalty of family and so much more to follow Jesus. Let us learn from them, and be motivated to press into the truth of God and the love of Christ, carrying on their legacy for years to come.