Women in Early Christianity and the Institutionalization of Charisma

Resources »Eapr »East Asian Pastoral Review 2007 »Volume 44 2007 Number 2 »Women In Early Christianity And The Institutionalization Of Charisma

Herbert Schneider, s.j.

Herbert Schneider SJ holds an STL, an MA, and an STD from the Leopold-Franzen Universitat, Innsbruck, Austria.  He is professor of New Testament Studies at Loyola School of Theology, Ateneo de Manila, University, Quezon City, Philippines, where has  served as dean. A former faculty member of the East Asian Pastoral Institute, he continues to offer courses there on Transformational Christian Leadership. He is presently the executive secretary of the Catholic Biblical Association of the Philippines.  His workshop papers are published annually in the Proceedings of the conventions.



It seems that women participated equally with men during the phase of first expansion of the Church into the Greco-Roman world, i.e., as depicted in the genuine Pauline letters. It also seems clear that toward the end of the first century women’s participation in the life and mission of the Church communities became more and more restricted. This raises the question about the forces in society and the Church communities that brought about this change.

The workshop paper attempts to describe first the situation of women in the Pauline communities against the background of the situation of women in the wider society. It will then sketch how the participation of women became more and more restricted in the period from the Pauline letters to the Pastorals. Finally, the question will be asked about the social forces at work in bringing about this change.

Women and the Time of the Early Empire

Two spheres of influence can be distinguished in the society of those times: the sphere of the city and that of the household. The city was the sphere of men and the house that of women. Yet the sphere of "city" and "house" do not correspond simply to the modern concepts of "public" and "private." Women were not excluded from public life nor was the house considered "private." It was the building block of the city state and thus of political importance (Stegemann and Stegemann 1999:364). Philo describes concretely how the two spheres were supposed to be allocated to men and women:

Market places, council meetings, courts, social organizations, assemblies of large crowds of people, and inter-action of word and deed in the open, in war and in peace, are suited only for men. The female sex, by contrast, is supposed to guard the house and stay at home, virgins are to remain in the back rooms and regard the connecting doors as boundaries, married women, however, should regard the front door as the boundary. For there are two kinds of urban spheres, a larger and smaller. The larger ones are called cities, the smaller ones households. Of these two, on the basis of the division, the men are in charge of the larger one, which is called municipal administration; women, over the smaller one, which is called the household. Thus, women are not to concern themselves further with anything but the duties of the household (Philo, SpecLeg. 3,169ff).

The above text really only shows us how things should be, not how they actually were. Women did participate in public life in various ways. They did appear before courts and they were members of social organizations. Yet, only men participated directly in what Philo refers to above as municipal administration (Stegemann and Stegemann, 364-5).

Women had already been active for a long time in business, the arts, and sports. Quite a number of women owned racing stables in Sparta. In fact, Cynisca, the sister of Agesilaos was victorious with her race horses at Olympia 400 BCE (Xenophon, Ages 9,6; Pausan 3.8.1; 3.15.1; 6.1.6).1 There were a good number of poetesses. Women not only wrote cookbooks, books on cosmetics, but also on more esoteric subjects like philology. Plato had women students. Young women competed in sports professionally, e.g., the three daughters of Hermesianax of Tralles, who competed in the years 47-41 BCE in foot races, chariot races, and music (Thraede 1970:204). According to Thraede, women owned and ran a variety of businesses: shipbuilding and manufacture of tiles. They owned and managed estates, were store owners, tailors, hair dressers. Some worked as private secretaries (ibid., 223). Another area in which women fully participated was in the various pagan cults. This fact was never contested in Greco-Roman culture. Pagan women routinely exercised the full range of religious offices with respect to both female and male deities (Kraemer 1992:191-92).

In summary, we may say that a great number of inscriptions recording the activities and positions of women throughout Asia Minor, inform us of women as benefactors, holding office, performing liturgies, and receiving public honors. They show us that women were often prominent and had successfully entered that sphere supposedly reserved for men alone: the market place, gymnasium, and with it, of course, public life and politics (Bremen 1983:234-35). It can be stated that both on top and the bottom of society, women were taking an increasingly active part in the common business of the city.2

Women in the Pauline and Post-Pauline Communities

The New Testament witnesses not only to the fact that many women belonged to the early Christian communities, but also to their active participation in the spread of the faith (Thraede 1970:229-30). This central role of women in evangelization and their active participation in worship is recognized generally by scholars. There is, however, no general agreement about the roles and function of women in the mission of the early Church (Weiser 1983:158). The names of many women who were active in this way are mentioned in Paul’s letter to the Romans.3 We will begin, therefore, by examining the list of people to be greeted in chapter 16 of that letter.

In Rom 16:1f. Paul writes the following about Phoebe:

I commend to you our sister Phoebe—a deacon of the church at Cenchreae, so that you may welcome her in the Lord as fitting for the saints, and help her in whatever she may require from you, for she has been a benefactor of many and of myself as well.

What do we learn about this woman? Paul writes an official recommendation for her. He recommends her, because she has already helped many including himself. She is προστάτις. This word can mean protectress, helper, advocate, but also presider and patron. Was she the leader of a house church? Lohfink wants to understand the word not as a technical term for a leadership position, but simply as helper; but because of what he says about her being a deacon, the term seems to point to her leadership position in the church at Cenchrea (Lohfink 1983:324-27).

Paul seems to understand the term "deacon" (note the masculine form of the word here applied to Phoebe) in Rom 16:1 as designating a specific office in the church at Cenchrea. Lohfink’s reason is that the participle ousan combined with a noun, in this case διάκονον (deacon) signifies a title, "Phoebe is a deacon." Also the kai before deacon should be translated "moreover." It serves to emphasize the importance of her position. The following genitive seems to signify an ongoing and recognized service in the community of Cenchrea (ibid.). Weiser understands this as the first step towards the later Church office of deacon (Weiser, 175-76). On the other hand, L. Schottroff seems to be too black and white, when she states categorically at that time that there was not yet an office of deacon whether for men or women (Schottroff 1990:238-39).

Apparently deacons existed at that time in a number of local churches. We know of their existence from Paul’s letter to the Philippians. The Roman Christians that Paul is addressing in Romans must know what a Christian deacon is. It is important to note that Paul is not using the feminine form "deaconess," which is actually found only in the second century CE. There may, thus, have been women deacons included in the greeting of the Philippian community (Phil 1:1).

Unfortunately, Paul does not inform us about the responsibilities of Phoebe in the church of Cenchrea. There is no reason to limit her service to charitable work. Similar to other co-workers of Paul, she probably was active in the proclamation of the gospel. We know this for sure of another woman, who was possibly the most important co-worker of Paul, namely Prisca (Acts 18:26) [Schottroff, 338-39; cf also Stegemann and Stegemann, 395-96].

In 16:3 Paul writes the following of Prisca and Aquila. Note that the woman is mentioned first:

Greet Prisca and Aquila, who work with me in Christ Jesus, who risked their necks for my life…

Acts 18:26 informs us that Prisca and Aquila instructed Apollos more fully in the ways of God. Although it is not possible to prove the historical nature of this text, nevertheless it is noteworthy that Luke saw no problems with women involved in the exercise of Christian instruction of a man, which becomes a problem in the Pastoral letters (cf. 1 Tim 2:15) [Weiser, 173].

From Romans 16:5 we learn that the household of Prisca and Aquila functioned as a house church in Rome. Paul also sends greetings to the church in their house in 1 Cor 16:19. Other women as well, had churches in their houses. Paul calls Prisca and Aquila co-workers. He stresses the commitment and hard labor of women for the gospel: Prisca in Rom 16:3, Euodia and Syntyche in Phil 4:2f. Maria, Tryphania, Tryphosa, and Persis are singled out for their labors for the gospel in Rom 16:6-12:

Greet Mary, who has worked hard among you… Greet those workers in the Lord, Tryphaena and Tryphosa. Greet the beloved Persis, who has worked hard in the Lord (NRSV).

According to Weiser the underlined words in the New Testament often refer to Christian efforts and work to build up the community and to work on behalf of the community (1983:178). Paul is thus saying that these women were actively engaged in mission work similar to himself (ibid., 177-78 and Dautzenberg 1983:184-85).

In Rom 16:7 Paul sends greetings to two apostles:

Greet Andronicus and Junias, my relatives who were in prison with me; they are prominent among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was.

Are we dealing here with two men or a man and a woman? Iουνίαν is masculine. Bauer has the following entry:

ουνίαν, Junias (not found elsewhere, probably short form of the common Junianus; cf. BI-D §125, 2; Rob. 172), a Jewish convert to Christianity, who was imprisoned w. Paul Ro 16:7; s. on Aνδρόνικος -. The possibility, from a purely lexical point of view, that this is a woman’s name Iουνία, ας, Junia (Mlt.-H. 155); ancient commentators took Andronicus and Junia as a married couple (Arndt et al. 1979:380).

A good number of English translations, however, have Junia, the feminine and not Junias, the masculine form, e.g., the KJV, NKJV, NRSV, NEB, NAB. To find a solution three questions need to be asked: How are the names Junia and Junias attested to in antiquity? Are they both found and were both found with similar frequency? How did the Greek Fathers, whose mother tongue was Greek, understand this name? Lohfink quoting B. Brooten states that the man’s name, Junias, is not found in antiquity. It does not appear in literature, lists of names, papyri, or inscriptions. The woman’s name, Junia, is quite common and found often. The Greek Fathers read Junia as a woman’s name. In fact, until the late Middle Ages there is not one exegete who read Iounian (Junian) of Rom 16:5 as the name of a man (Lohfink, 327-29).

John Chrysostom will speak for all the Fathers: "How great must have been the wisdom of this woman, that she was deemed worthy to bear the title of apostle" (Epistolas ad Romanos Homilia 31,2, PG 60, 669f.). According to Lohfink, Aegidius of Rome (1245-1315) seems to have been the first author who reads Iounian as a man’s name. It is only from the time of Martin Luther onward that the interpretation of Iounian (Junian) as a man becomes commonly accepted. The reason for this was not greater knowledge of the language, but theological. Only men were chosen to be apostles, thus Iounian had to be a man, since he was an apostle. Even more recently the feminine form was removed totally. The 26th edition of Nestle-Aland does not even present the possibility of a different accentuation of Iounian contrary to earlier editions (Lohfink, 329; see also Klauck 1981:30).

If Paul is greeting Iounia (Junia) and not Iounias (Junias), we may need to change our perceptions. Not just the 12 and Paul were apostles, but a much wider group. We also need to change our perceptions that only men were apostles in the early Church. The mission of an apostle as an envoy of the gospel goes back to a commissioning appearance of the risen Christ. Probably Andronicus and Junia belonged to that larger group, which according to 1 Cor 15:7 experienced an appearance of the risen Lord. Paul distinguished this group carefully from the circle of the 12. He himself, too, belonged to those who had seen the risen Lord and was, therefore, an apostle sent on mission by Christ (Lohfink, 330). Luckily, the form Junia has made a reappearance in most recent translations of the New Testament.

Junia was one of the earliest itinerant missionaries, even before Paul himself. She was Jewish. Her call to be an apostle goes back to earliest Christianity, maybe the years 30-32 CE. Probably she and Andronicus were among those Greek-speaking Jews in Jerusalem who had to flee Judea in conjunction with the lynching of Stephen and who subsequently proclaimed the gospel in Samaria and Syria, and, thus, began the mission to non-Jews (Acts 8:1-4; 11:19f.) [ibid., 331]. Since she apparently worked with a man, Andronicus, her wandering existence is also socially plausible (Stegemann and Stegemann, 395). Andronicus may have been her husband. They functioned similarly to Prisca and Aquila and even Peter and his wife (Lohfink, 329). The women played an important part in missionary activity. There were social spheres in those times that were closed to men (ibid.).

Women participated in community gatherings by actively praying and prophesying (1 Cor 11:5) and exercising other charis-matic gifts in the performance of missionary duties or responsibilities in the community. This indifference to gender with regards to leadership in the communities seemed to have resulted from the equality of charismatic giftedness of men and women. The charismatic element made for equal sharing of tasks for men and women (Stegemann and Stegemann, 387). The equal involvement of men and women is not simply something unique to the Pauline communities. Prisca and Aquila had converted to Christianity independently from Paul and had engaged in mission—at first independently of Paul. They had led an itinerant existence similar to that of Paul’s. The prominence of women in the sphere of Hellenistic Jewish-Christian missionary activity needs to be seen against the background of the emancipation of women in the Greco-Roman world. Prisca seems to have been the more important missionary in comparison with her husband (cf. Rom 16:3; Acts 18:26 with 1 Cor 16:19; Acts 18:2).4 This, however, is not only true of women, who are more or less successful in business; it is also true of Persis, who was either a slave or freed woman. What is important is the engagement for the gospel (cf. Phil 4:3). This service needs to be seen as empowered by the charisms of the Holy Spirit, and this transcends gender divisions (cf. 1 Cor 12:28-30; Rom 12:6-8) [Dautzenberg 1983:185-6].

Dautzenberg summarizes well when he states that with the exception of 1 Cor 14:33-36, the Pauline communities reveal a community order which allows the participation of women in worship, community leadership, and mission. The Deutero-Pauline letters, Colossians and Ephesians do not offer information about the participation of women. They are concerned with the position of women in the household, demanding the subordination of women to their husbands. The Pastoral Letters together with 1 Cor 14:33-36 continue with the tradition of the household codes and expand the demand for the subordination of women to the community order. The understanding of leadership offices of the Pastoral letters is patriarchal in orientation (Dautzenberg, 183). This brings us to the next part of the paper, namely, a description of the gradual limitation of women’s participation in the life and mission of the Christian community in terms of exercising leadership functions.

The Gradual Loss of Women’s Leadership Functions in the Early Church

We shall begin this section with a discussion of 1 Cor 11:2-26 and Gal 3:28 to be followed by examination of 1 Cor 14:33-36 together with the instructions for women in Timothy and Titus. 1 Cor 11:2-26 and Gal 3:28 are instructive, because they reveal how Paul struggled to deal with the tension between the norms of society and the new reality brought about by the resurrection of Jesus and the gift of the Holy Spirit.

1 Cor 11:2-16: Women and Veils

In this passage Paul argues for women being veiled during community assembly. There is no question in this passage about the equal participation of both men and women in prayer and the exercise of the charismatic gifts like prophecy (1 Cor 11:4-5). The passage does not limit a woman’s participation in community worship in any way. 1 Cor 11:2-6 reveals that the ladies of Corinth had long ago abandoned an older tradition to appear only veiled in public similar to many Muslim women today. The women of Corinth could expect that this emancipated fashion would also be accepted in worship services in the community. This seems to have been the case, otherwise Paul would not have written the way he did. It is strange that he tries to bolster a mere cultural tradition with all the exegetical weapons at his disposal, inclusive of the differences of men and women hair styles (1 Cor 11:14f), which are, of course, mere fashion and convention. In this passage, he also stresses the equality of the sexes. Man and woman together represent humanity (1 Cor 11:11f).5

In 11:3 and 7-9 Paul tries to show that a woman’s place is at the end of the line of subordinations and, thus, tries to demonstrate the dependence of woman on man. This argument, however, is in a way undermined by verses 11 and 12, which state the mutual dependence of man and woman and their equality in the Lord, from whom everything comes (Dautzenberg, 211-12). 1 Cor 11 retains the gender differentiation of man and woman, but emphasizes their equal dignity under the Lord. Gal 3:28, on the other hand, declares the gender differences abrogated in the framework of the eschatological new creationers to the relationship of man and woman in the community. There is no inferiority between men and women in Chris in Christ (ibid., 212). 1 Cor 11 is tied to its context and relativises the statements in 11:3 and 7-10. The eν κυρίw  refers to the relationship of man and woman in the community. There is no inferiority between men and women in Christian relationship. We discover in Gal 3:28 and in 1 Cor 11:11f. a theology and anthropology emphasizing the new role of women in the community under the lordship of the Kyrios, while 1 Cor 11:2-10.13-16 corresponds to the traditional concept of the patriarchal order (ibid., 213).

Gal 3:28 compares three groups: Jew with Greek; free person with slave; and man with woman. The series begins with "Jew," the representative of the people of God. To him correspond the other privileged groups: the free person, and the male (aρσεν). Female (qhlu) belongs to the underprivileged groups of Greek and slave. In the context of ethical discussion of the position in society the differences between man and woman, slave and children are emphasized. By proclaiming the abrogation of these oppositions, Gal 3:28 proclaims as well the raising up of those who were up-to-now underprivileged (ibid., 217). Gal 3:28 proclaims the abrogation of apparently immovable boundaries and old privileges and the foundation of a new unity, which is connected with entrance into the community of the Lord Jesus Christ and the experience of a real break with the past, which reaches as far as the most fundamental social relationships (ibid., 218).

1 Cor 11:2-16 reveals initial conflicts about the role and position of women in the Christian community. Paul tries to counter these conflicts first by the traditional concepts of order in patriarchal society. At the same time he wants to assure the essential unity and equality of men and women and the active participation of women in the life of the community. His concern is that the new expressions of community life be integrated into the norms of correct behavior according to the wider society. In the light of the different options for the relationship of men and women in the society of Paul’s time, the actual situation in his communities manifests itself as a transitional stage, which would have to be settled in one direction or the other, i.e., equality of men and women in all areas of community life and mission, or through the old patriarchal order of the subordination of women to men (ibid., 221-22). Post-Pauline Christianity chose the patriarchal concept of order, first in the domain of marriage. Basing itself on the patriarchal concept of order, it demanded the subordination of women to their husbands and interpreted the relationship of husband and wife in the sense of a love-patriarchalism (ibid., 222). This chosen position necessarily affected community life. The participation of women in community leadership and mission is perceived as a threat to patriarchal order. Gal 3:28 and 1 Cor 11:11-12 are no longer emphasized, although these texts function as correctives of the patriarchal order. The reasserted patriarchal order has had a far-reaching impact on the shape and experience of church and community (ibid., 222-23).

The Pastoral Letters

The household codes in Colossians, Ephesians, and 1 Peter need to be distinguished from the Pastorals. The household codes do serve, however, as a kind of transition to the teachings of the Pastoral letters.

In the Pastorals we find a more negative picture of women, which is more than just an expression of the common patriarchal concept of order in the relationship of men and women whether in the house or wider society (Stegemann and Stegemann, 405). For example, Titus 2:2-8 admonishes various groups: older men, older women, younger women, and younger men. The admonitions to men contain, for the most part, positive virtues. For the older women, however, we find mostly vices to be avoided (cf. also 1 Tim 5:13 and 2 Tim 3:6-7).







Tit 2:2

Older Men

Temperate, serious, prudent, and sound in faith, in love, and in endurance

Tit 2:3

Older Women

To be reverent in behavior, not to be slanderers or slaves to drink; they are to teach what is good.


Younger Men

To be self-controlled, be models of good works, and in teaching, show integrity, gravity, and sound speech that cannot be censured


Younger Women

To love their husbands, to love their children, to be self-controlled, chaste, good managers of the household, kind, and submissive to their husbands


2 Tim 3:6-7

Some Women

Are silly, overwhelmed by sin, enslaved by all kinds of desires, always instructed but never arriving at knowledge of truth


1 Tim 5:13

Younger Widows

Want to marry, break commitment, are driven by sensual desires; learn to be idle, gadding about, gossips, busybodies

The author of 1 Tim 2:9-15 provides comprehensive rules for the correct behavior of women, beginning with a dress code and moving on to behavior in community and home. The author of 1 Timothy stresses the subordination of women due to their inferiority, resulting from their place in creation and falling for the deceits of the serpent in the garden (ibid., 402). 2 Tim 2:11 stresses that women are to learn in silence and with all submissiveness. Under no circumstances are they to teach or have authority over men (2:12).

L. Schottroff reminds us that it is very important to distinguish what the author of 1 Timothy wants to see happening and what the actual situation was (1990:241). The rules and negative comments may give us a glimpse of very active participation of women in community life. In fact, women deacons seem to be still active, since it is most likely that the comments about women in the midst of the instructions concerning deacons, do not refer to the wives of deacons, but to women exercising the function of deacons. The author most likely wants to restrict this service to men only in the sense of the order of the patriarchal household (1 Tim 3:11) [ibid.]. Stegemann quotes R. S. Kraemer and states that she too, like Schottroff, assumes that the real background of these prescriptions is the exact opposite of the behavior asked of women.

Good Christian women keep their mouth shut, exercise authority only over their households and children and never over men, and generally confine themselves to the private, domestic sphere (1999:403).

Contrary to the earlier Pauline communities, the Church presupposed by the Pastoral letters no longer allows women to participate in leadership functions (ibid., 396). The sharp opposition between speaking and subordination (1 Cor 14:34) and the close connection, which exists between teaching and having authority over men (1 Tim 2:11) show that active participation of women in worship and community leadership and the maintenance of the patriarchal structures of family and society were irreconcilable over time (Dautzenberg, 205).

We can summarize the above sketched development from the Pauline communities to the Pastorals as follows. The Letters of Paul witness to women being prominent in the life of communities and mission, but not limited simply to the Pauline communities, going beyond those to the circle of Christian communities derived from Hellenistic Judaism and converted Gentiles. It is possible that this involvement of women was encouraged by the growing emancipation of women throughout the Greco-Roman Empire. The fundamental reason for it, however, must be sought in the gift of the Spirit of the end time bestowed equally on men and women. This made possible the development of a community structure that contradicted the patriarchal vision of the subordination of women and their exclusion from active participation in the life and mission of the community. Gal 3:28 shows that the new understanding of community was seen as an attack on the patriarchal order, and interprets this experience as the in-breaking of the new creation, which abrogates the old discriminations (ibid., 221).

The Social Forces at Work

In this final section, we want to ask why such a promising beginning like Gal 3:28 had no lasting impact in the development of Christian communities beyond the time of Paul’s missionary work. Was the insight of Paul too revolutionary? Perhaps Paul himself did not grasp the revolutionary character of his insight (Bussman 1983:261). Why do we find at the end of this development a prevalent community order based on the patriarchal roles for men and women and the distribution of social position? Why was it not possible that the prominence that women achieved in the first generation not be received more positively by subsequent generations of Christians? (Dautzenberg, 206)

Max Weber’s Concept of the Charismatic Movement

To grasp the social forces at work in the development of social structures, we need models. Of course, models are simplifications of the situation in society, but precisely as simplifications they allow us to grasp more easily the forces shaping the observed development. One must always keep in mind that no model can adequately describe any particular social situation. Applying the model of the charismatic movement and the movement from charisma to the institutionalization of the same, can give fresh insight into and understanding of the development from the position of women in the earliest Christian communities to those behind the Pastorals sketched above.

Weber points out that charismatic movements as such are short-lived unless the charismatic dimension changes fundamentally and is either traditionalized or institutionalized (Weber 1976:142-43). The reason for this is that the charisma of the leader needs to prove itself through miracles, successes, the good fortune of the retinue or subjects. These are proof that the leader is graced by God. His charisma is valid only as long as he can demonstrate it (Whimster 2004:140-41, see also Eisenstadt 1968:213-14). This makes it clear that most charismatic movements die with the death of the leader unless the process of traditionalization or institutionalization sets in.

The Jesus Movement did not die with Jesus on the cross. A process of institutionalization of his charismatic power, begun during his lifetime, continued by the itinerant charismatics and community organizers, reached its completion in the reestablishment of traditional patriarchal rule in community and church offices in the early second century. It is the thesis of this paper that the charismatic endowment empowered women to participate fully in community life, leadership, and mission, but as the charismatic dimension was more and more institutionalized it also disenfranchised women and relegated them to a subordinate and limited participation in community life structured along patriarchal lines.

From Jesus to the Early Communities

Jesus himself had already begun the process of handing on his own power of exorcism and healing to this followers during his own lifetime (the choice of the 12 and the transfer to them of the authority to cast out evil spirits: Mark 3:16; the sending out of the disciples: Mark 6:7.12-13 and par.). The charismatic movement led by Jesus continued and at the same time was transformed in the visionary experiences of the followers of Jesus immediately after his death (Stegemann and Stegemann, 213-14). Further, institutionlization happened at Pentecost with the gift of the Holy Spirit for all who were baptized. The baptismal rite was the same, of course, for men and women, and both men and women experienced the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and empowerment with charismatic gifts. Subsequently, women, just like men, participated in community worship by praying and prophesying (1 Cor 11:5-6). They participated fully in the life and mission of the church communities as was shown above. Stegemann and Stegemann write:

This indifference to gender with regard to the spiritual leadership of the communities apparently resulted from the charismatic equality of Christ-confessing men and women which found its social expression in baptism. Thus the charismatic element was egalitarian (1999:397).

According to Schluchter, Paul wanted Spirit-led communities (1988:219). This means a community in which the gifts of the Spirit are recognized whether in men or women, and the bearers of these gifts are authorized to use them on behalf of the community: "for the common good" and "for the building up of the community." Giftedness by the Spirit brings about equality. The gifts are independent of social position in household or community. Traditional role definitions lose their importance vis-à-vis the empowerment by the Holy Spirit (ibid., 227, 229-30).

The Ecclesia and the Household

A second important social factor was that the household became the locus of the ecclesia (Klauck, 101). These house churches are not transitional or temporal units, but understood as permanent groupings (cf. 1 Cor 6:2-3; Phil 3:18-20; Tom 2:6-7; 8:22-23) [Cotter 1994:371]. When early Christian community organizers used the word ecclesia it reminded the inhabitants of the Greco-Roman cities of the citizens’ assembly. In the eyes of converts from paganism, ecclesiaconnoted civic seriousness. They knew they belonged to a civic and political entity, irrespective of the religious context (Cotter, 370).

The fundamental unit of the ecclesia was the household and Christian mission was directed to households and not first of all to individuals (Schluchter 1988:224). In ancient times "household" meant more than family. It is not the private sphere as contrasted with the public sphere of the city. The ancients did not think of their home as "their castle" that allows them to shut out the world. The household was the smallest political unity of the city state. The mere fact that the citizens’ assembly (ecclesia) of the new people of God took place in the household created a place for the full participation of women that was also acceptable to the society of the times.

The women and men, who made their houses available to the church, did not simply make rooms available and whatever else was needed for worship. As a matter of course, they probably also led the church worship in their house with prayer, proclamation, prophecy, and whatever else was demanded by the liturgical celebration (Weiser, 173-74). This is also the opinion of Klauck:

We do not know for sure, who presided over the early Christian Supper of the Lord. We have to free ourselves of thinking of ordained presbyters for the Pauline communities. Suggested are among others the prophets, the charismatic leaders of the communities. Jesus acts at the last Supper similar to a Jewish father, to whom belonged the pronouncement of the words of blessing. I want to assume that in analogy to Jewish and partially also pagan meal customs in the house churches, the one offering his house to the community, took over this role. With respect to the ancient symposium, the symposiarch, who presided over it, was chosen on a case-to-case basis, or the presider was a special guest, who was honored in this way. Things could have been handled in a similar way when the entire church came together, or when the apostle was present.6

Could it have been that the women in whose house a house church met, also presided at the Lord’s Supper at that assembly in their home? In any case, the full participation of women in the life and mission of the community including its leadership would imply a counter cultural activity (Cotter, 370, 372). Fander, too, comes to the conclusion that within this milieu women were given a wider sphere for contribution than traditional society would want to allow (Fander 1990:180). In addition, the fact that the church met in a home fits in well with Paul’s ideal of the members forming a new family, and being brothers and sisters of one another (Rom 8:14,19,20; 9:26; 2 Cor 6:18; Gal 3:26; 4:6,7,31). This would have made the leadership of women less problematic for the men. We know from Paul’s letters that he did "not hesitate to affirm the women who appear in the letters as leaders in their ecclesia" (Cotter, 371).

One more important aspect must be mentioned. Charismatic movements of necessity imply the construction of a new social reality, i.e., one governed by the in-breaking of divine power. This also implies of necessity the "destruction" of the old social structures (Ebertz 1987:34-35). The empowerment of the Spirit brings with it new roles, functions, relationships, in short, new social structures. This deviation from accepted norms brought about in the Spirit-led communities, becomes the special area of concern in making the communities permanent through further re-institutionalization of the charisma (ibid.).

Further Institutionalization of the Charisma in the Pastorals

Bendix points out that Paul and other community organizers wanted to found Christian communities that would endure. Thus, they seek to reintegrate the communities into the wider society (1985:414). Schluchter characterizes this step as objectification of the charisma and which means in its transposition into institutions. The charisma of the original members is not transferred to the next generation of members, but to social structures. Weber’s most important example of this process is the charism of office (1976:239-40). Bendix asserts that this process can be traced through an examination of the gospels and the texts dealing with the community organizers (1985:415). Eisenstadt has described this process well:

Such transformation of the great charismatic upsurge and vision into some more continuous social organization and institutional framework constitutes the first step in the routinization of charisma. But routinization of charisma does not necessarily imply only the process through which a great upsurge of charismatic vision loses, as it were, its initial impetus and becomes flattened, defused, and in a sense obliterated. There is another equally important aspect to this process, the key to which lies in the concepts of "charisma of the office," of kinship, of hereditary charisma, or of "contact charisma." As is well-known, these concepts, especially that of the charisma of the office, have been used by Weber to denote the process through which the charismatic characteristics are transferred from the unique personality of the unstructured group to orderly institutional reality (1968:xxi).

Some examples must suffice. In 1 Cor 11:2-16, Paul reaffirms the basic equality of men and women, and their equal right to participate in the community’s life and worship. He desires, however, that their participation be in line with the rules of respectable behavior, which for him includes veils for women in the assembly and the right hair style for men, even if Corinthian society did not observe such rules. The Deutero-Pauline letters (Colossians and Ephesians), manifest in the so-called household codes an emphasis in the relationships between spouses, parents and children, masters and slaves. The household codes prescribe a headship of the man in the household that is informed by love for the other.

The patriarchal rules of behavior are reasserted in 1 Cor 14:33-36. The text presupposes that both the husband and the wife are Christians; otherwise the instruction makes no sense. A similar context is presupposed for 1 Tim. 2:11-15. Remaining silent in the public assembly of the ecclesia, learning from the husband at home, and not teaching/speaking in the assembly go together. But this presupposes that the husband is a believer (Stegemann and Stegemann, 400).

By the time of the Pastorals the process of integrating the communities into the wider Greco-Roman society involved the re-introduction of the patriarchal code of behavior on community relationships, life, and mission (Bendix, 433). This happened contrary to growing emancipation of women in secular society and possibly as a reaction to the perceived dissolute lifestyle of women of the leading families in Roman society. Many of these women, especially the wives of Roman emperors, were described as leading a dissolute life while exercising real influence on public affairs (Stegemann and Stegemann, 366-67). The Annals of Tacitus describe these women as jealous, vain, immoral, unbridled, plotting, superficially virtuous but in truth wanton, beautiful, and flattering, enticing honest men to adultery only to divorce them to marry a richer one, etc. (Tacitus, Annals 11-14) [ibid., 367]. Similar passages can be found in Juvenal and Valerius Maxmus (ibid., 406-407). The quote from Minucius Felix, Octavius, although from the third century CE still gives us insight into the slander raised against Christians and can help us understand, why communities in reaction went back to the type of men and women relationships praised by pagan authors and characteristic of the "good old days."

They (the Christians) have collected from the lowest possible dregs of society the more ignorant fools together with gullible women (readily persuaded, as is their weak sex); they have thus formed a rabble of blasphemous conspirators, who with nocturnal assemblies, periodic fasts, and inhuman feasts, seal their pact not with some religious ritual but with desecrating profanation (8.4) throughout the world uniting in the practice of a veritable religion of lusts. Indiscriminately, they call each other brother and sister, thus, turning even ordinary fornication into incest by the intervention of these hallowed names. On a special day, they gather for a feast with all their children, sisters, mothers - all sexes and all ages. There, flushed with the banquet after such feasting and drinking, they begin to burn with incestuous passions (9.6). In the shameless dark with unspeakable lust they copulate in random unions, all equally being guilty of incest, some by deed, but everyone by complicity (9.7).7

In order to avoid accusations similar to those of Minucius Felix and, more importantly, in reaction to the dissolute lifestyle of the emancipated women of the upper classes, it seems that the Christians went back to ideals that were little adhered to in everyday life (Thraede, 239-40). Kraemer states:

Many scholars have seen this as the inevitable consequence of the increasing desire of Christians, perhaps both male and female, to win acceptance in the Roman Empire by minimizing any appearance of social and political deviance (1992:191).

Stegemann and Stegemann are of a similar opinion to Kraemer, although they see the process already beginning with Paul, but determining especially the approach in the times after him (Stegemann and Stegemann, 405).

Because of the above described reaction together with the receding of the importance of the charismatic giftedness of the individual and the growing importance of organization and structure (cf. the rules for the various positions in Church leadership), the free participation of women in the life of the community—its worship service, leadership, and mission—becomes questionable and recedes. Patriarchal structures are reaffirmed and re-instituted. This development, it must be asserted, was not inevitable, nor the only direction early church communities could have taken.

Possibly this was the only way for the Church to survive the attacks from within and without in subsequent centuries. Survival, however, came with a price. As a consequence the Church lost a tremendous resource for evangelization and community building. The next generation of women like Phoebe, Junia, Appia, Persis, and many others were silenced and shackled in the Church, while women continued to play important leadership roles in heretical and syncretist groups (Thraede, 238-39). The Church limited the participation of women more and more. In the third century, for example, Tertullian opposes prophecy by women; any teaching by women is, for him, a sign of heresy. Orthodoxy demands the exclusion of women from any sacerdotalia officia (priestly office) (Tert. Cult. Fem. 1,1,1) [Thraede, 240-41].


* Paper delivered at the Catholic Biblical Association of the Philippines, 2005.

1. Pomeroy mentions besides Cynisca also Euryleonis and a courtesan, Bilistiche of Argos, all of whom raced horses victoriously at Olympia. In fact, many women were very wealthy in Sparta. They owned two-fifths of the land and resisted successfully any attempts at land reform, see Pomeroy 1975:130.

2. MacMullen 1980:210. The positions of the authors cited thus far are more positive about the status of women in Greco-Roman society than, for example, Lefkowitz 1983:56–57.

3. The question is raised about Romans 16:1-23 whether or not it belongs to Romans. Could it be a separate recommendation letter for Phoebe, or a fragment of a letter to the Church at Ephesus, where Prisca and Aquila were last according to 1 Cor 16:19 and Acts 18? See Klauck 1981:25.

4. Klauck points out that naming the woman first breaks convention. It also shows that gender distinction did not seem to matter, giftedness was the important thing, cf. Klauck 1981:26.

5. Thraede 1970:231–32. Concerning the tradition of women being veiled in public in the east of the Greco-Roman Empire see MacMullen, 1980:217.

6. The translation is mine. The German text is here quoted in full: Wir wissen nicht genau, wer beim urchristlichen Herrenmahl jeweils den Vorsitz führte. Von der Vorstellung ordinierter Presbyter müssen wir uns für die paulinischen Gemeinden der Frühzeit frei machen. Vorgeschlagen werden u.a. die Propheten als charismatische Gemeindeleiter. Jesus handelt beim Letzten Abendmahl wie ein jüdischer Hausvater, dem das Sprechen der Segensworte zukam. Ichmöchte annehmen, daß in Analogie zu jüdischen und teilweise auch heidnischen Mahlbrauch in den Hausgemeinden der gastgebende Hausherr diese Aufgabe wahrnahm. Beim antiken Symposium um diese Analogie noch einmal zu bemühen, war es so, daß der Symposiarch, der den Vorsitz übernahm, von Fall zu Fall gewählt wurde, oder man übertrug das Amt einem Ehrengast als besondere Auszeichnung. Das könnte bei der Vollversammlung oder bei Anwesenheit des Apostels ähnlich vor sich gegangen sein (Klauck, 43).

7. The Octavius is a debate between Octavius, a Christian, and Caecilius, a pagan. The quote above is part of Caecilius’ objection to Christianity. Minucius Felix, also a Christian, acts as arbiter between the two debaters, which is localized at Ostia. In the end Octavius convinces Caecilius and he converts to Christianity. The value of Caeclius’ speech is that it gives us insight into how Christians were evaluated by the pagan society around them. Felix 1974:62–63, 64–65.


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