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Did the Early Christians Agree on Women Leaders? – Shawna R. B. Atteberry
Jun 072012

This post is for the Week of Mutuality, the incredible brain child of Rachel Held Evans.

Eight little verses. Eight verses out of 31,103 verses in the entire Bible have been used to screw women over for 2,000 years. Eight little verses. These eight little verses somehow negate all of the verses we have that tell of women leaders in the Bible. This minority witness of two groups of early Christians somehow trumps the majority witness of the Bible that Godde uses women to be judges, prophets, deacons, evangelists, and apostles. Many of these women appear in the New Testament. Phoebe is a deacon and patron of the church. Lydia is the first convert to Christianity in Europe, and her home hosts the first Euporean church. Junia is an apostle. But it seems as Christianity grew there were communities of Christians who started to limit women’s leadership in order to blend in with their Greco-Roman culture.

The early Church did not have one set of beliefs or practice that all the groups scattered across the Roman Empire agreed on. There were many different groups:

  • The Ebonites who believed Gentiles had to become Jewish in order to follow Jesus, the Jewish Messiah (this is the group Paul railed against in Galatians). There is historical evidence that the leader of this group was James, the brother of Jesus, so this group was headquartered in Jerusalem.
  • Then there were the churches Paul founded who believed that to become a Christian one had to believe and confess Jesus as the Messiah and Godde’s only Son who had come to save the world from its sins. Obeying the Torah and being circumcised were not required: only faith in Christ.
  • The early gnostic churches believed that Jesus did not become human, but only appeared to be human because Godde, who was pure spirit, could not take on material flesh, which they viewed as sinful. Therefore, Jesus could not have been fully human and fully Godde.

We see from these three examples that there were various beliefs in the early Church before Constantine legalized Christianity in the mid 4th century and required there to be one central doctrine and belief that governed all churches. For the first three centuries of the church what Christianity looked and how Christianity was practiced was different from one region of the Roman empire to the next. As we discover in 1 and 2 Corinthians different churches in the same city couldn’t agree on their beliefs and practice.

As I said before as churches began to grow and catch the interest of those in power in cities and regions, some churches opted to enforce cultural Greco-Roman household codes in the churches (which met in homes). They wanted to appear as good citizens, and they could not do that with women leaders within the church. Therefore, we get the eight little verses from a group of churches who thought it best to put women in their “proper” place of submissive servitude under their husbands.

Here are the eight verses:

As in all the churches of the saints, women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.– 1 Corinthians 14:33b-35, NRSV

Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through childbearing, provided they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.– 1 Timothy 2:11-15

But one group of Christians had a problem with this. The Johannine churches who traced their origin back to John the Apostle. Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza has a fascinating argument that the Gospel of John was written to refute those communities that were trying to limit women in leadership positions (see In Memory of Her, pp. 323-333). John’s community did not agree with the churches who were trying to silence women and keep them from leading local churches, so they collected early stories of Jesus and the women Jesus surrounded himself with, and produced the Gospel of John: 879 verses to refute the eight little verses.

Here are the strong women leaders Jesus’ own life and ministry:

Mary of Nazareth aka Jesus’ mother

In John 2 Mary goaded Jesus into his first miracle. There’s no other way to put it. Mary noted the wine at the wedding is running out. Jesus replied: “That has nothing to do with me. My time has not come.” Probably right in front of Jesus, Mary told the servants to do whatever Jesus told them to do. Then she waited. Jesus did what she wanted: he provided wine for the rest of the wedding feast.

Mary not only appears at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in John, she is also at the end at the foot of the cross. This implies that she was with Jesus through his whole ministry. On the cross Jesus told the beloved disciple (who represents the Johannine community) that Mary was now his mother. John’s community is saying that Mary, Jesus’ mother, was part of their community, which gives significant weight to this community’s story and their witness of women leaders in their tradition.

The Samaritan Women at the Well

In John 4 Jesus met a Samaritan woman coming for water. What started as a request for water turned into a theological discussion with Jesus about the pressing issues of her time. When Jesus told her he knew she’s had five husbands, and the man she lives with now is not her husband, her response was that Jesus was a prophet. Jesus told her he was the Messiah. Something he didn’t tell Nicodemus in John 3. A woman was the first person Jesus told he was the Messiah, the one she and her people had been waiting for. When she left to tell her people about Jesus, it wasn’t because Jesus commanded her and sent her to bear witness. This woman went to her people on her own. She convinced her entire town to come and meet Jesus. The first evangelist in the Gospel of John is the Samaritan Woman. (For more on The Samaritan Woman see Meeting God at Wells.)


In John we meet Martha in chapter 11, and she is not happy. She had sent a message to Jesus that her brother Lazarus was sick, and asked him to come and heal him. Jesus waited until Lazarus was dead before he set off for Bethany where Martha lived. Martha met Jesus on the road and accused him of letting Lazarus die. But in her anger and grief, she still believed that Godde would do what Jesus asked. When Jesus asked her if she believed that Jesus was the resurrection and life her answer was:

Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world. –John 11:27

In John Martha made the confession that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of Godde, not Peter. In John Martha’s confession is the rock the church is built on. So my question is this: Pope Martha anyone? (For more on Martha see The New Testament Church: Built by homemakers like Martha.)

Mary of Bethany

After Jesus raised Lazarus, there was a feast at Simon the Leper’s house where Martha was busy serving, and Jesus and Lazarus were reclining at the table. Mary knelt at Jesus’ feet broke open a jar of ointment and anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. When Judas began to berate her for the waste Jesus defended her saying, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me” (John 12:7).

Mary listened when Jesus said he was going to Jerusalem to die, and she prepared Jesus for his burial. Her act also foreshadowed Jesus washing the disciples’ feet in John 14. This was a prophetic act of compassion and service. Mary was a prophet of the new community who would serve each other out of love and not lord it over each other as the pagans did. (For more on Mary’s prophetic act see Stories of Redemption: God Really Does Keep Doing New Things, scroll down to last third of sermon.)

Mary Magdala

In the Gospel of John we meet Mary Magdala at the cross with Mary of Nazareth and the Beloved Disciple. She watched Jesus die, and she saw where Jesus was buried. She went to the tomb before dawn to complete Jesus’ burial. On finding his body gone, she ran to Peter and the Beloved Disciple and told them what happened. The two disciples went to the tomb, but didn’t stay long. Mary remained. Her grief was so great two angels didn’t phase her. When she saw Jesus she thought he was the gardener. She recognized Jesus when he called her name, showing she was a true disciple (My sheep know my voice, John 10).

I think it’s interesting that Jesus did not appear while Peter was there. Jesus waited until Mary was alone. Then Jesus commissioned Mary to go tell his disciples he had risen.

This makes Mary the first apostle.

The eleven do not become apostles until they’ve seen the risen Christ. That’s one of the requirements to be an apostle: to see the risen Lord. Mary Magdala was not the Apostle to the Apostles. Mary Magdala was the first apostle. (For more on Mary Magdala see Career Women of the Bible Sneak Peak: Mary Magdalene.)


In response to those eight little verses that attempt to limit women’s leadership within Christian communities the Gospel of John replies that’s impossible because:

  • Jesus’ mother was responsible for his first miracle.
  • The first evangelist was a woman.
  • The confessor of faith was a woman.
  • A woman prophet prepared Jesus for his burial.
  • A woman was the first apostle.

According to John’s community women have always been active and strong leaders in the Jesus movement from the very beginning. May be it’s time for Christians to take the 879 verses of John as seriously as they take those eight little verses that are obviously a minority opinion in the early Christian church.

This is a summary of my workshop, Women in the Gospel of John: The Johannine Community’s response to other Christian Communities’ limiting women leaders. If you would like me to speak at your church, retreat, or women’s group, please email me.

Did you know there are only eight verses in the Bible that discourage women from speaking and holding leadership positions in the church? Did you know there are thousands of verses in the Bible that tell the stories of women who were leaders in their homes, towns, and religious circles? Meet the women in the Bible who were religious & civic leaders, business women, & women who challenged both Jesus and Moses in What You Didn’t Learn in Sunday School. What else didn’t you learn in Sunday School? Find out when you buy What You Didn’t Learn in Sunday School: Women Who Didn’t Shut Up & Sit Down from Wipf and Stock Publishers or Amazon.com today.

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  2 Responses to “Did the Early Christians Agree on Women Leaders?”

  1. Thanks a lot Shawna, very well put. The biblical record on female leaders of the early Christian movement is overwhelming, and it’s quite clear why many of the male leaders felt compelled to respond to traditionalist accusations that the Christians were a cult of women. I think we can detect the events leading to the reversal in Paul’s letters — from proudly praising the movement’s female leaders to demanding that women shut up in church. I try to explore how it happened, as the church sought “respectability” in a chapter of my book Correcting Jesus: 2000 Years of Changing the Story. Here’s a bit about that, in support of your work:

    The “Sister-Brother” Teams

    In the synoptic gospels, Jesus commissions a “further” seventy or seventy-two disciples, who go out teaching “two by two.” Were Jesus’ many female followers among them? Many scholars feel it’s likely that some or all of these two-person teams were male/female pairs. Paul suggests it in asking, “Have I no right to take a Christian wife about with me, like the rest of the apostles and the Lord’s brothers, and Cephas [St. Peter]?” (I Corinthians 9:5) Why else would he need to raise that defense of himself and all the disciples? Later, Bishop Clement of Alexandria (c. 150–215) said the first preachers went out two by two, as male-female pairs, so that the women could speak to women, while the men spoke to other men. Since early Christianity was often called a cult of women, and since the society was highly segregated by sex, it seems there was a lot of woman to woman teaching going on. And since it was dangerous for women to travel alone, it was logical and traditional for them to go with “brothers” or “husbands in Christ.” The book of Acts suggests these male-female teams by using the term “brothers and sisters” 32 times, interchangeably with the word “disciples” And of course one of these women, Tabitha, is directly named as a disciple (9:36–42), which should end the question of whether there were female disciples.

    Paul named five male-female teaching teams: Prisca and Aquila (Romans 16:3), Andronicus and Junia (16:7), Philologus and Julia (16:15), Nereus and his sister (16:15), and Peter with his wife (I Corinthians 9:5). He introduced Prisca and Aquila as “fellow workers in Christ, who risked their necks for my life, to whom not only I but also all the churches of the Gentiles give thanks.” Junia and Andronicus “shared my background and my imprisonment, highly distinguished apostles who came before me to Christ.” Later churchmen denied the implications of Paul’s letter, claiming that Peter’s wife could not have shared in his teaching role because she was female. Some copyists also corrected Paul for describing a woman as “distinguished apostle,” by changing Junia’s name to “Junius.” A more subtle modification concerned Acts 17:4. The earliest texts say that in Thessalonica “a great number of God-fearing Gentiles and a good many influential women” joined with Paul and Silas. But some later manuscripts modified this to say, “a great number of pious Greeks, along with a large number of wives of prominent men.”

    Concerning female priests, Paul’s letters addressed a series of women leading the first house-churches. In Philippi, Paul’s first European convert was a businesswoman named Lydia, who made her home into a local church. (Acts 15) In Colossians the church was Nympha’s house (4:15); in Corinth it was Chloe’s house (I Corinthians 1:11); in Philemon’s town it was Appia’s home. (Philemon 1:2) In Philippians, Paul urged an end to rivalry between two female church leaders named Euodia and Syntyche. (4:2) In all these cases we hear of women opening their houses to a new religious sect, and serving as its local leaders. We hear no mention of what the men of their families thought about it.

    So the scriptures mention female apostles, female priests, apostles’ wives, and priests’ wives. But later the Roman church rejected all these kinds of holy women as abominations to God, and the notion of male-female teaching teams grew unthinkable. In the early 300s, the Council of Nicea banned a tradition of “spiritual marriage” between monks and nuns, as if such partnership was impossible between people of different sexes. St. Jerome would pour contempt on it: “From what source has this plague of “dearly beloved sisters” found its way into the church? Whence come these unwedded wives? These novel concubines, these one-man harlots? They live in the same house with their male friends; they occupy the same room, often the same bed; yet they call us suspicious if we think anything is wrong?”

  2. […] Did the Early Church Agree on Women Leaders? by Shawna R. B. Atteberry […]

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