Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Women Presbyters In The West, Part I: Tertullian

The time has come to begin our work on women presbyters in the church. Yes, it’s true—women did serve in this authoritative function in the church.
I will post on two writings of the church father Tertullian here, one called “Exhortation to Chastity,” and the other called “To His Wife” (Tertullian’s letter of instruction to his wife of what actions to take after his death).

Before I get ahead of myself, I will now give some introduction regarding Tertullian:

“Born in Carthage, North Africa, Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullianus (c. 160-225) was one of the most influential and brilliant of the Latin fathers. He could also be quite vituperative, especially on the subject of women, though most of all these abusive remarks need to be carefully contextualized and interpreted. A convert from paganism, Tertullian nonetheless became a prolific and effective apologist for Christianity. In his theological works, he did much (along with the Latin Bible, probably already available at the end of the second century) to augment and develop the theological vocabulary of the church, so much, in fact, that he is often designated ‘the father of Latin theology’” (Kevin Madigan and Carolyn Osiek, “Ordained Women in the Early Church: A Documentary History.” Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005, page 174).

Now, on to the two documents of Tertullian’s. The first document is titled “Exhortation to Chastity.” Madigan and Osiek give us an introduction to the context of the letter:

“Tertullian urges his friend not to remarry and recommends to him a life of continence. In the tenth chapter of the treatise, he dwells on the advantages of widowhood. Drawing on examples from the Hebrew scriptures and Paul on the desirability of purity, Tertullian then turns to what was revealed in an oracle of the Montanist prophet Prisca” (179).

On with Tertullian’s words:

“Again through the holy prophetess (prophetidem) Prisca is the gospel PREACHED IN THIS WAY [i.e., THROUGH PROPHECY], that THE HOLY MINISTER knows to minister sanctity. ‘Purity,’ she says, ‘brings harmony, and they see visions and, turning their face to the ground, they also hear distinct voices, as salutary as they are mysterious’” (179).

Madigan and Osiek note,

“While Tertullian generally, and often vehemently, opposes women exercising a teaching role, he does recognize here (as he does in ‘On the Soul’ 9.4) THAT SOME WOMEN (LIKE PRISCA), UNDER THE INSPIRATION OF THE HOLY SPIRIT, DO UTTER AUTHORITATIVE PROPHECIES. Tertullian PLACES PRISCA’S ORACLE AS AN AUTHORITY alongside the Hebrew scriptures and the Apostle. All are effected by the action of the Holy Spirit” (179).

First, I wanna say that even Wayne Grudem goes against church history. In Grudem’s book, “Evangelical Feminism and Biblical Truth,” which we’ve covered in quite a lot of detail here at Men and Women, I’ve quoted Grudem as saying that prophecy is “non-authoritative.” However, Tertullian the great church father would blatantly disagree with him; here, Tertullian says that it is authoritative and even considers Priscilla (“Prisca” for short) as a spiritual authority. Grudem needs to get a little more acquainted with his church history.

Notice that Tertullian writes here that “the gospel preached…” is “through prophecy.” Isn’t it funny how today, when an egalitarian goes to Joel 2:28 and says, “When Joel says that ‘your…daughters will prophesy,’ he is saying that women will preach,” what is the response? “oh, you’re delusional.” However, EVEN TERTULLIAN, one of the most adamant voices against women teaching publicly, believed that women COULD PREACH IN THE CHURCH! He believed that to prophesy meant “to preach,” and this is why he refers to Prisca (Priscilla) as “the holy minister.”

Here’s what I want you, the readership, to do: go to people who don’t believe Joel 2:28 and show them the statement by Tertullian above. If they know their church history, then they’ll be stunned that Tertullian, against women teaching, would advocate them preaching! The reason, though, why I’ve been doing this historical/archaeological series is because most conservative evangelicals have grown up with this idea that women have NEVER had any positions of ecclesiastical authority; and, since the Bible “supposedly” claims that women can’t have those positions, then women have never held them. But this isn’t true; and the near 20 posts we’ve done on the historical evidence here at Men and Women show clearly that women did hold such positions in the early church. I pray that Tertullian’s statement above will be one of your favorite statements to “whip out” on complementarians when they come telling you that your view of women in the church is wrong and disagrees with history. Chances are, you’ll shock them…and this is exactly the hoped-for response.

The next document I will quote is Tertullian’s letter, “To His Wife,” in which he gives her instructions regarding life after his death:

“How harmful to faith, and what an impediment to sanctity, second marriages are, the discipline of the church and the restriction (praescriptio) of the Apostle declare, since he does not allow twice-married men to preside [1 Tim. 3.11], and when he would not allow a widow into the ORDER (in ordinem) unless she had been married to only one man (univiram)…indeed, it is fitting that THE ALTAR OF GOD be presented pure (mundam)” (181).

Madigan and Osiek:

“Tertullian used the term ORDO to describe an OFFICIALLY RECOGNIZED SOCIAL CATEGORY within the church. In applying the use of the term here to women, Tertullian implies that WIDOWS ARE PART OF THE CHRISTIAN CLERGY, even if there is no explicit profession of widowhood. At the time of Tertullian’s writing, widows were in fact recognized by the entire Christian community as a special class of Christian, symbolized spatially in liturgical assembly by their occupying a place apart and by penitent sinners seeking reconciliation before them and the presbyters” (181).

Notice that Tertullian’s letter above to his wife discusses “widows,” and then goes on to discuss “the altar of God” being “pure.” Tertullian makes a connection between an order of widows and the altar. This tells us that women served at the altar—although we don’t know what functions they performed. Even in the time of Tertullian, and even with Tertullian’s bias against women teaching, he had no problem affirming women serving at the altar in this letter to his wife.

Although Tertullian was quite outspoken against women teaching publicly, we see that he did believe women had the Holy Spirit and that, being vessels of the Spirit, could possess the spiritual authority to prophesy (preach) and give words from God to God’s people. He certainly believed Priscilla had this spiritual authority and honors her as “the holy minister” (which means that she wasn’t just serving tables). I think Tertullian was right when he said,

“Those persons have but a poor knowledge of God, who suppose Him to be capable of doing only what comes within the boundaries of their own thoughts” (printed in “Quotable Quotes From The Early Christians” in “A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs: A Reference Guide to More Than 700 Topics Discussed By The Early Church Fathers” by David W. Bercot, Editor. Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1998, page 548).

I think both of these Tertullian quotes are in the egalitarian’s favor that you should print them off, frame them, and keep them close. You never know when the day will come that you’ll need them…


  1. Thank you for writing this blog. I finally came out from among the Evangelical church because of their false teachings and "good ole boy" network mindsets. God's word shows that there is the strength of a man, and the strength of a woman. Both are made in His image and both vessels of the Holy Spirit.

    If the work of the church is ALL about Jesus being the Head of His church, and the Holy Spirit doing the work, then what does it matter which sex He choose to use. He uses the yielded vessel as He wills. Thanks again.

  2. Prayerpost,

    My desire for you is that you would go to God in prayer for the evangelical church. I very much believe that God works even in what seems to be the most horrible of situations.

    Remember the book of Esther? It seemed that the Jews were doomed to death and God was absent...but He wasn't! He was there in the situation all the time! And He worked things out for His people even though it seems He did it "without making a sound."

    God is able to work in the hearts and minds of those who have attempted to forbid women from roles of leadership in the church. My desire has been for complementarians to read the material here at the blog and understand that there are some arguments (even those opposed to their own) that are valid and biblical. And, in addition, there are arguments against their "reconstructionist" view of church history. And it is my desire that they would start putting books like Madigan and Osiek's on display in seminary bookstores and teach classes on this subject matter. As long as we continue to shun arguments opposed to our own, we'll never come to the knowledge of the truth.

    Keep reading and keep lifting up this situation to our great and awesome God! May all we say and do in this situation (and every other) be for the glory of our God!


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