Thursday, October 22, 2009

Women Presbyters In The West, Part II-A: Church Canons

For those of you who read Part I on Tertullian, let me add something to it: I am still in shock myself regarding Tertullian’s comments regarding women, as well as his respect for Prisca (Priscilla), whom he calls a “prophetess” as well as “the holy minister.” For those of you who haven’t read the post I put up last night, go back and read it. Let’s just say it’ll fire you up more about defending women and their work in Christian ministry.

Tonight I’m back to cover canons and Episcopal letters regarding women presbyters in the West. Before I get started though, I want Madigan and Osiek to give us something to look forward to:

“From the late fourth century, a movement was stirring in the West toward greater leadership roles for women, spurred on in part by the movement of Priscillian. The letter of Gelasius at the end of the fifth century requires some context. Not only Gelasius but also the three bishops of Gaul a few years later, and Fulgentius Ferrandus in Africa half a century later, suggest that the practice of women serving at the altars had happened in certain times and places in the West. Fulgentius connects the office of women presbyters with the Greek East, whose influence was strong in southern Italy, the destination of Gelasius’ letter. Finally, we give a later, tenth-century opinion of Atto of Vercelli that in the early church, women were ordained presbyters” (Kevin Madigan and Carolyn Osiek, “Ordained Women In The Early Church: A Documentary History.” Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005, page 183).

As these canons and church documents will show, women did serve as presbyters in the early church.

First, we have the “First Synod of Saragossa”:

“According to Sulpicius Severus (363-420), a contemporary of Jerome and Augustine and hagiographer for Martin of Tours, a synod was held in 380 in Saragossa and was attended by bishops from Spain and Aquitaine...the synod was convoked mainly to combat the errors of Priscillianism. Priscillianism was a movement that began in Spain around 370 and spread rapidly throughout the entire country and from there to southern Gaul. Among the followers it attracted were Instantius and Salvianus, two bishops. A strictly ascetical group, the Priscillianists had pronounced similarities to the Manichaeans, with whom they may be confused in the canons here...the execution had the effect of making Priscillian a martyr and of radicalizing the movement that traced itself to his name. Indeed, it became immediately more heterodox, as the Synod of Toledo (c.398) noted to its horror. In any case, none of the heretics, though invited, appeared at Saragossa. Nonetheless, the synod condemned them and threatened to excommunicate any who communed with them” (183-184).

Because of the Priscillianists, the Synod of Saragossa issued the following statement:

“Let all believing women who belong to the Catholic Church absent themselves from lectures and conventicles of foreign men, and FROM WOMEN GIVING LECTURES, EITHER OUT OF ZEAL FOR TEACHING OR LEARNING, since this is what the Apostle commands. [1 Cor. 14:34-35; and 1 Tim. 2:12: ‘I permit no woman to teach...’]” (184).

Madigan and Osiek comment,

“Of perhaps greater importance is the implication that women themselves were organizing and giving lectures for the purpose of teaching and instruction” (184).

Notice too, that the Synod of Saragossa uses two famous Scriptures noted by complementarians today on the issue of women in ministry: 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 and 1 Timothy 2:12. What this tells us though, is that women were teaching and instructing, and the councils were so against it that they began to organize and publicly condemn what the women were doing. Evidently, the Priscillians made such a stir before the councils with their meetings and “leading women” that the council saw no other way to address the issue. Still though, these women were considered to be “spiritual authority” in the eyes of many believers. If these women were not deemed spiritual authority, why would the Synod have even bothered to mention it?

Next we have the “Synod of Nimes, Canon 2.” According to Madigan and Osiek,

“...a Gallican National Synod occurred at Nimes in approximately least seventeen...Gallican bishops from seven provinces did. They produced only seven brief canons, most directed against the Manichaeans...and especially, the Priscillianists. Among the heterodox practices observed with alarm by the bishops assembled at Nimes, just a few years after the Synod of Toledo, was the elevation of women to clerical offices reserved, in their minds, for men” (184).

The Canon states as follows:

“The following was suggested by certain individuals, that contrary to apostolic teaching (apostolicum disciplinam), unbeknownst, WOMEN SEEMED TO HAVE BEEN ASSUMED INTO LEVITICAL SERVICE (in ministerium...leuiticum videantur adsumptae) in some place or another (nescio quo loco). Ecclesiastical discipline does not permit this because IT IS INAPPROPRIATE (indecens), and such ORDINATION should be undone (distruatur) when it is effected CONTRARY TO REASON (contra rationem). It should be seen to that NO ONE SO PRESUME IN THE FUTURE” (185).

We learn some things from Madigan and Osiek regarding this document. First,
“In the West at the end of the fourth century, ‘levitical’ and ‘sacerdotal’ often could be, and often were, used synonymously. So there are philological grounds for believing that these Priscillianist women were functioning as presbyters” (185).

In addition,

“the Synod is quite UNANALYTICAL in its rejection of female priesthood, noting only that it is not traditional, because indecens, and that it is unreasonable. Finally, the forceful recommendation that such ordinations be undone ties into the debate, occurring at almost the same time in North Africa, over the permanence of priestly ordination and Episcopal consecration. The ‘orthodox’ position worked out by Augustine in his conflict with the Donatists is that such ordinations could not be undone. Medieval scholastics developed this position with more philosophical texture, as those theologians insisted that ordination effects a character on the soul of the ordinand that can be neither reversed nor erased. The bishops assembled here assume not only that it can be reversed but that it must” (185).

What I think is noteworthy about this canon is what Madigan and Osiek note: that “the Synod is quite unanalytical in its rejection of female priesthood…” For three and a half years now, I have heard people talk about the issue of women in ministry and was told that, for some of the women I’ve met, they grew up with nothing but male preachers, male deacons, male pastors, male elders, and male teachers—so that’s how it should be...nothing but MALE leaders! But all that statement says is, “I’ve grown up in a certain tradition, and I’m COMFORTABLE with that.” It’s funny how so many women have grown up in a complementarian atmosphere, and yet, have NEVER questioned why things are the way they are (complementarian). I find that fascinating to believe. And the sad thing is that most of the women I’ve talked to in the last three and a half years haven’t even desired to question the “status quo.” They are content and happy just the way they are.

And I think I would still be the exact same way if I hadn’t stepped out of my comfort zone and done a study of women all on my own. So I do sympathize with these women and understand their background; at the same time, however, I still have to challenge the traditional view that God cannot call women to such wonderful gifts in His church. I believe that God gifts women to serve in ways that He has gifted men, and for the church to not allow women to exercise those gifts is the church’s way of “rebelling” against God. Now there’s the problem: the church, as the bride, is not submitting to her Husband. And yet and still, they can toss around passages for women to submit to their husbands. Sounds like we haven’t practiced what we’ve preached...

I will continue with Episcopal letters in my next post.


  1. What a breathe of fresh air in an atmosphere that has become stagnant indeed! What of the women who were martyred for their faith throughout the centuries? I questioned, agonized for years, and spoke often regarding this subject to God. I knew the truth because He showed it to me, but I used to say to Him what good is it if I know the truth? I am surrounded by men who rule and do not question. Thank you for your writings here.

  2. Prayerpost,

    Thank you so much for writing me in response to what you've read here. It's such a comfort to my heart to know that this post (and prayerfully others) has and will continue to bless you.

    Studying this material this summer was a shocker for me as well. I didn't realize that so many women had done so much for Christ throughout the centuries. It's sad to think that this type of research is very "uncommon" in our seminaries, and that very few seminaries have this archaeological research on their shelves. I think the scarcity of such resources testifies to our unwillingness to face the truth about our presuppositions and prejudiced beliefs. It's a sad situation...

    I pray that you would continue to read and be blessed by what you see here. Feel free to comment anytime. Continue to pray for the blog, that I would honor God with what I say and do. It's all for His glory...


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