I’m back to continue the series on “Ordained Women in the Early Church.
The church fathers had interesting thoughts regarding women in ministry in the early church. Phoebe served as a biblical case for women, but the church fathers had differing ideas about Phoebe and her role.
Origen (185-253) commented regarding Phoebe:
“This passage teaches by apostolic authority that WOMEN ALSO ARE APPOINTED (constitui) IN THE MINISTRY OF THE CHURCH (in ministeria ecclesiae), in which office Phoebe was placed at the church that is in Cenchreae…therefore this passage teaches two things equally and is to be interpreted, as we have said, to mean that WOMEN ARE TO BE CONSIDERED MINISTERS (haberi…feminas ministras) in the church, and that such OUGHT TO BE RECEIVED INTO THE MINISTRY (tales debere assumi in ministerium) who have assisted many; they have earned the right through their good deeds to receive apostolic praise” (Kevin Madigan and Carolyn Osiek, “Ordained Women in the Early Church,” page 14).
Madigan and Osiek write,
“It is regrettable that the text survives ONLY in Latin translation, which makes it more difficult to arrive at any definitive interpretation. It may well be true that the exact juridical status of the female ministers, their relationship to male hierarchy, ritual induction, and qualifications (other than a record of charity and assistance) are left unclear here. It is even unclear whether ‘ministra’ should be here translated ‘minister’ or ‘deaconness.’ Likewise ‘ministerium’ could signify ‘diaconate’ rather than ‘ministry.’ The most literal translation is presented here simply on the principle of caution. But it is not impossible pace Martimort, that Origen had the institution of deaconesses and the ministry of the female diaconate in mind” (14).
While we can’t be sure of what “ministry” and “ministers” meant, at the basic level, we can assume that Origen allowed for the possibility of women to serve in the church.
The church father John Chrysostom (c.347-407) had this to say:
“See how much he[Paul] distinguishes her, for he mentions her before all the others and calls her ‘sister.’ It is not a small thing to be called Paul’s sister, and he adds her status by calling her ‘deacon.’…how can she not be blessed, WHO ENJOYS SUCH A WITNESS FROM PAUL, who is able to help him who set the whole world straight? This is the finishing touch on her good deeds, since he goes so far as to say ‘and of me as well’ (e.g., that she is patron, ‘prostatis’). What is this ‘and of me as well’? Of the herald of the world, of the one who suffered so much, of the one who satisfied countless numbers of people. BOTH MEN AND WOMEN, LET US IMITATE THIS HOLY ONE!” (15).
According to Madigan and Osiek,
“Chrysostom acknowledges Phoebe’s rank of deacon, probably equating it with the office of deaconess that existed in his day, and with which he was quite familiar (see his relationship, for instance, with Olympias)” (15).
At the end of Chrysostom’s quote above, he states, “both men and women, let us imitate this holy one!” We can see how much Chrysostom prized Phoebe here in Romans 16:1-3.
The heretical monk Pelagius wrote regarding Romans 16, verses 1 and 2:
“Just as even now in the East, deaconesses (diaconissae) are seen to minister in baptism to those of their own sex, or in the ministry of the word, so we have found women who have taught in private (privatum docuisse feminas invenimus), as did Priscilla, whose husband was named Aquila” (Pelagius, quoted by Kevin Madigan and Carolyn Osiek, “Ordained Women in the Early Church,” page 17).
Madigan and Osiek tell us,
“This text can be interpreted in two ways. First, one might suppose that Pelagius presumes that the female diaconate in the West, once extant, no longer exists. This may well be an indication that it no longer existed in Rome…alternatively, Pelagius might presume that the office had never existed in West. If this is true, the text could be interpreted to mean that Pelagius was not yet aware of the existence of the office in the West” (17, 18).
There were far more women in the diaconate in the East than in the West (but there were far more female presbyters in the West than in the East).
In my next post, I will tackle the comments of the church fathers regarding another passage on women: 1 Timothy 3:8-11.