Women in Church History
Last week a friend told me that in one of her seminary summer school classes a fellow student insisted the existence of Christian women in public ministry started with radical feminism. And the professor did not seem to realize what the student said was untrue.
I hear such statements often. Here’s one from a Christian blogger: “It was the feminist teachings of the past few decades that first spurred Christians to try to argue for [women in public ministry]. Like it or not, the two schools of thought are intertwined.”
Maybe we get the idea that radical feminism started it all because we don’t realize how active women have been in past centuries and how much of evidence is being rediscovered. Time for an update.
Women Researching Bible Backgrounds
Also, our understanding about a lot of Bible backgrounds relating to passages about women is outdated. Now, sometimes when I say historians have great new info, people get suspicious. They worry that evangelical women are now rewriting history about ourselves. But history has already been rewritten about us, and our historians are helping us recover what actually happened.
Developments in archaeology have been providing better background information for a couple of centuries. For example, in Pompeii—rediscovered in 1748—the excavation of brothels with paintings and price lists has revealed that, contrary to what has been taught, prostitutes did not actually shave their heads. That information is taking a long time to make it into commentaries, but it certainly alters how we read 1 Corinthians 11:4–6. Add to that, nobody seems to be finding any evidence that Corinthian wives/women wore veils at any time other than on their wedding days. Veils were not apparently worn as signs of others’ authority. This too affects how we interpret the text.
Developments in technology are also expanding what we know. We’ve seen the accessibility of electric dishwashers (1920s), dryers (1937), clothes washers (1908), and even harvesting machines (1892), which have given many, especially women, more time to pursue learning. More recently, in the 1990s tremendous growth has taken place in the number and availability of sources as well as the explosion of new discoveries in epigraphy and papyrology. (We still have about one million pieces of epigraphic evidence, inscriptions that can influence our understanding of word usage, that our Koine/English dictionaries have not even taken into account. One million!) And as a result of such developments, the academy has seen the proliferation of new academic specializations and collaborative publications. So, if someone says “we now know this word means [XYZ] instead of [ABC],” such a statement is probably coming from the incorporation of new data, and not because liberal linguists set out to rewrite history.
New specialties, collaborations, and updates have become more accessible through the internet (since 1983) and Google Translate (since 2006). A few decades ago, when one of my siblings was working on his PhD, he showed me a letter he’d given to a scholar to have translated into French. Once this family member had the translation in hand, he sent it overseas and waited six weeks for a reply. He then got the reply translated into English before he could process the data and craft a response.
Fast forward to the last decade when I was writing my own dissertation. I could locate an obscure piece of research published in another language, run it through Google Translate, write a message to its author, get the message translated, research that scholar’s contact info on his university’s web site, and send him or her a message via email when I went to bed. I’d often have a reply by breakfast. So, access to more research coupled with the ability to collaborate with scholars across the world has exponentially increased the amount of data available and the ability to build on others’ research. And whereas my sibling often had to camp out in a library, I could sit at home in yoga pants and a t-shirt and search archives for Anatolian digests and scholars who specialized in Roman head coverings. And while he had to leave when the library closed, I could work long after my daughter fell asleep if I wanted to.
There’s just so much more information, new information about the contexts into which the earliest believers received sacred texts. And the influx of women into history departments has expanded the subject matter. The men before us tended to focus on political history and empires and troop movements, but women have steered some discussions more toward social-history questions like the average life expectancy, diet, apparel, and how long it took to walk from Galatia to Rome. And, as it turns out, the most amazing collection of first-century documents from everyday people, a veritable gold mine of social history info, is the New Testament. And understanding what was going on with apparel has helped us better interpret some texts.
Added to more women researching more social history is the reality that women are living longer. So, even if we stay home with kids, many of us can raise them, launch them, and still have decades-long careers. One of my male colleagues taught till he was 95. Consider that a woman with a similar constitution starting as late as age 45 might still have a 50-year career. If she worked while raising a family or if she never had a husband or kids—true of a growing number of women—she might have six or seven decades on which to build her knowledge. Add it all together and you have a lot more research available that’s focused on women and data about women in the Bible and biblical backgrounds. Don’t you want to know what they’ve found? Time for an update.
Take a Fresh Look
All of these factors point to the need to revisit the data. The primary documents reveal that the phenomenon of women standing side-by-side with our brothers, partnering to train and care for the church, has been happening for 2,000 years. And our understanding of backgrounds has exploded, affecting how we interpret texts, including some texts about women.
Wondering where to begin? If you don’t have $195 to start with the two-volume 2021 publication Women and the Polis, the first complete corpus of Greek inscriptions issued by city institutions in honor of their female citizens and foreigners (1131 women fulfill this criteria), you can check out Dr. Lynn Cohick’s more accessible book: Women in the World of the Earliest Christians. For women in early church history, her book Christian Women in the Patristic World: Their Influence, Authority, and Legacy in the Second through Fifth Centuries is great. Interested in epigraphic studies? Check out Clint Burnett’s Studying the New Testament through Inscriptions.
The texts of Scripture are timeless. But our data for interpreting them has expanded exponentially. Time for an update!
In the spirit of championing my readers’ education, I’m giving away a free copy of the 2021 release, Women in the Mission of the Church: Their Opportunities and Obstacles through Christian History (Baker Academic) by Dzubinski and Station. Both men and women are eligible. Who is a woman you admire in church history? Tell me in the comments. I’ll choose randomly from the entires. Drawing next Friday. US only, please.
Join the discussion 18 Comments
Favorite women in church history? Mary, Jesus’s mother, and Hanna More, the English abolitionist
So difficult to choose… but for the moment, Saint Macrina. And runner up goes to Hildegard of Bingen.
It’s hard to say just one! But the first to come to mind is Sojourner Truth because I love “Ain’t I a Woman”. I love that she challenged a white man in a court to secure her son’s freedom.
Wow! Favorite women in church history … that’s a tough choice. I’m voting for Christine de Pisan. She was one of the earliest feminists, writing about women, to women, and encouraging them to be activists to improve their cultures.
I’ve recently been introduced to Macrina, and she is fascinating. I’m so sad I went to Christian private school and Christian university and never learned about early church history.
I’m a fan of Macrina too!!
My favorite woman in church history is the single woman Bible translator for Wycliffe. In their 70+ year history, half of their translations into the languages of the world (approximately 2000 complete or in progress, I believe) would not have been done. Today 85% of Wycliffe’s translators are women. In other words, apart from these women many languages of the world would have no access to the written Word of God. She, the representative Bible translator, is my favorite.
My aunt Leni – not a famous woman, but a lifelong missionary in Brazil & Costa Rica. She led 1000s to the Lord and later in her life ministered to abused women and their children. She helped build the Church until her death at age 71.
Good question. In biblical history, I’ve fallen in love with Rahab in the Old Testament, and Phoebe in the new. Katharina Luther, wife of Martin Luther must also have been an amazing woman!
Macrina! She influenced her entire family—from assisting in humbling her brother Basil and basically changing the trajectory of how he served God to convincing her mom to change up the way they lived out their final days mentoring other women in the faith. She’s simply amazing.
Currently I am loving Thecla. Her story is a wild ride but one that impacted generations.
I think I love Abigail the most for her bravery, tenacity, and willingness to sacrifice herself and provide a “covering” for her household. Thank you so much for your work in this area!
Ok, changing my answer to be more about church history. I think I would have to say Elisabeth Elliott, even though she is more complimentarian than I. More than anything I appreciate the fact that she was willing to continue the work the men began, facing grave danger and yet answering the call of God on her life.
Rahab. She was a “woman of ill repute”, a foreigner, yet she resettled in a new home with strangers of a different culture and religion.
It’s hard to pick just one. So I choose all the women in Romans 16 who served the church and were recognized by Paul.
Today I’m learning about St Cecilia and I gotta say there are a couple people I’d really love to pinch super hard. Ha! She has gumption!
I don’t know many women in church history so I will have to say Lydia of Thyatira
Does pre-church history count? I keep thinking about the entourage of women who were funding Jesus’s ministry (Luke 8:1-3). It seems like Jesus was their patron, but on the other, they were acting as patroness in return. They were faithful to Him even after most of his male disciples hid. I’m sure these women must have been crucial in the early church if they were this important at the beginning.