Women today have proven themselves successful in medicine, law, and virtually all other professions. Why, then, do certain churches refuse to ordain them? Some churches claim that ordaining women would be contrary to tradition and Scripture. Men, they say, have led the church for centuries, but female clergy are a relatively new phenomenon, one that reflects the influence of secular humanism and modernism, not orthodox teaching. However, this argument ignores the facts. Indeed, a Roman Catholic—hence complementarian—commission recently acknowledged a long history of women deacons in the church,1 and their findings merely echo conclusions previously published by several researchers. A consensus of scholars concludes that women were ordained deacons, presbyters, and bishops in the church through the Middle Ages.
This paper will discuss the ordination of women deacons and presbyters in the Eastern and Western churches from the second century through the sixth. The continued ministries of female deacons, presbyters, and bishops in the West through the eleventh century will be studied, and the meaning of “ordination” will be examined briefly, as the ordination of men and women in the early and medieval church was not necessarily defined in the same way it is today.2 Finally, the question of why women’s ministries were curtailed will be addressed with a short survey of the views of various scholars on the subject.
Ordained Women in Scripture
The first woman in church history to be called “deacon” is Phoebe in Paul’s letter to the Romans. Paul writes that Phoebe was a deacon of the church at Cenchreae (16:1). The Greek word for deacon is diakonos; it means “helper” or “minister.”3 In Paul’s general usage, the term describes the ministry of Jesus (Rom 15:8), Paul’s fellow servants, and Paul himself (Rom 15:25), all of whom preached and ministered to others. Paul attributes the same role to Phoebe.4Diakonos also refers to a specific function, and in the Pastoral Epistles it denotes a church office,5 similar to the office of episkopē or bishop6 (1 Tim 3:1). Paul uses the term diakonos as a title to describe Phoebe’s function or office in the church.7
Several early Christian writers commented on Rom 16:1, affirming that Phoebe was an ordained deacon in the early church. According to Origen (second and third centuries), the passage “teaches that there were women ordained in the church’s ministry by the apostolic authority. . . . Not only that—they ought to be ordained into the ministry, because they helped in many ways.”8 John Chrysostom (fourth and early fifth centuries) notes that Paul honored Phoebe by naming her first in Rom 16 and mentioning “her rank of deaconesses as well.”9 In his commentary on Rom 16:1, Pelagius, a contemporary of Chrysostom, writes that “women deaconesses in the East are known to minister to their own sex in baptism or even in the ministry of the Word.”10 Theodoret, a fifth-century theologian and bishop of Cyr (a prominent city in northern Syria), remarks that the church at Cenchreae was so large, “it even had a woman deaconess, and one who was famous and well-known.”11
Female Deacons in the East
The works of the Patristic fathers illustrate the widespread acceptance of female deacons, and in the Eastern church, several canons, literary texts, and inscriptions confirm that women deacons were members of the clergy. The Didascalia Apostolorum (DA), a third-century text, and the Apostolic Constitutions (AC), a fourth-century editing of several church orders including the DA, contain many details about women deacons. For example, both documents put forth a Trinitarian model of church offices in which the bishop represents God, the deacon Christ, and the female deacon the Holy Spirit: “the deacon stands in the place of Christ . . . let the deaconesses be honoured by you in the likeness of the Holy Ghost.”12 The AC instructs bishops on the ordination (cheirotonein) of deaconesses: “Ordain also a deaconess who is faithful and holy.”13 Cheirotonein means ordination to ministry as a member of the clergy, a clear indication that female deacons were ordained members of the church.14 A non-ecclesiastical witness to the existence of deaconesses is found in the Codex Theodosianus, compiled between 429 and 438, which deems that a woman may be “transferred to the association of deaconesses at age sixty.”15 The Council of Chalcedon (451) states that “a woman shall not be ordained as a deaconess before the age of forty,” and it exhorts her to persevere in ministry.16 The word for “ministry” here (leitourgia) usually connotes eucharistic ministry.17
Numerous letters and literary texts add to the evidence of a female diaconate in the East. Basil of Caesarea addressed a letter (dated 372) to the deaconesses who were daughters of Count Terentius.18 As Gregory of Nyssa discussed the details of his sister Macrina’s funeral in 379, he wrote, “there was one in the diaconal rank . . . Lampadion by name, who said she knew exactly what Macrina wanted for her burial.”19 John Chrysostom ordained three female deacons (diakonous) for the monastery of his friend Olympias, and Olympias herself was an ordained deacon.20 Theodoret of Cyr’s Ecclesiastical History refers to a woman who is both a deacon and a teacher.21 In addition to the above examples, Carolyn Osiek and Kevin Madigan cite no less than sixty-one inscriptions mentioning female deacons, many of which are funerary inscriptions listing the woman’s name and her title, diakonos.22
Female Deacons in the West
The office of female deacon was more prominent in the East than in the West.23 Female deacons were considered members of the clergy in the East, but the Council of Orange, convened in 441, hoped to avert this practice in the West: Canon 26 stipulated that “female deacons (Latin diaconae) are by no means to be ordained.”24 In 517, the Council of Epaon repeated the prohibition against ordaining female deacons, probably because the Council of Orange was not successful. These laws curtailed practices that were actually taking place in certain locales.25 A ban on female deacons was issued again by the Second Council of Orange in 533, but not all Western councils condemned the ordination of female deacons: the ninth-century Council of Rome, for example, merely forbade certain illegal marriages with them.26
A number of literary allusions to deaconesses in the West prove the office existed in some areas. The eighth-century registry of Pope Gregory II contains two letters addressed to deaconesses at the church of St. Eustachius in Rome and one to a deaconess named Matrona. Le Liber Pontificalis records Pope Leo III’s return to Rome in 799, where he was greeted by the entire population, including “holy women, [and] deaconesses.”27 In 1017, Pope Benedict VIII wrote to the Bishop of Porto, on the northwestern coast of Portugal, saying, “We concede and confirm to you and to your successors . . . every episcopal ordination, not only of presbyters, but also of deacons or deaconesses. . . .”28 Despite efforts to eliminate deaconesses in the West, this eleventh-century pope acknowledged them.
Osiek and Madigan describe five epigraphical records of female deacons in the West, noting this small number is not surprising considering the effort Western councils made to suppress the female diaconate. Female deacons—from the third to the seventh centuries and in both the East and the West—assisted in the baptism of women and were liaisons between laywomen and bishops. They may have had additional duties, including some form of service at the altar.29
Female Presbyters and Bishops
Evidence of female presbyters is the subject of scholarly debate. Some authorities claim that only deviant groups ordained women presbyters, but the evidence is not confined to heretical movements.30 Several medieval women were called presbyterae (the feminine form of the Latin word for “priest”). Some of these presbyterae may have been the wives of priests, but they were the subject of several laws so it is more likely they performed the function of priests.31 The First Council of Laodicea (364) states, “Concerning those who are called presbytides or female presiders, it is not permitted to appoint them in the Church.”32 Gary Macy cites a ninth-century collection of laws by Bishop Haito of Basle that denied women access to and participation in any ministry at the altar. Macy notes that the Council of Paris in 829 objected to the fact that women were still ministering at the altar, perhaps as deaconesses or presbyterae. Whether these women were actually saying Mass is uncertain because the Council claimed their activity was too “shameful to mention,” but it is clear that bishops in some areas allowed it.33 These laws were “only enacted to attempt to end an established practice,” Osiek and Madigan assert.34
Adding to the evidence of presbyterae are several letters that condemn women’s ministry at the altar. In 494, Pope Gelasius I wrote to bishops in southern Italy, complaining that “women are encouraged to serve at the sacred altars and to perform all the other tasks that are assigned only to the service of men. . . .”35 Giorgio Otranto believes this letter was meant to “stigmatize and condemn” women presbyters who administered sacraments and performed liturgical service.36 Osiek and Madigan concur: Gelasius’s letter, when understood in the context of contemporary inscriptional evidence (see below), constitutes “very strong evidence that some women in the south Italian dioceses were functioning as fully fledged presbyters,” and they were not members of heretical sects, but part of the orthodox Roman Church. Apparently women were serving at altars in Gaul as well, which prompted three Gallic bishops to write to the male priests involved, forbidding them to continue allowing women to co-minister the Eucharist.37 A letter from Pope Zachary to the Frankish ecclesiastical authorities in 747 condemned the fact that “women have presumed to serve at the sacred altars” and that they “perform all the things that are assigned exclusively to the male sex.”38
In addition to these canonical and literary examples, epigraphical evidence of women presbyters exists. Ten inscriptions referring to presbyterae have been found and three of them have direct bearing on Gelasius’s letter because they appear at roughly the same time and in the same region his letter was written: (1) A fourth- or fifth-century funerary inscription on the tomb of Kalē in Sicily states, “Here lies the presbyter Kalē. She lived fifty years without reproach.”39 This inscription could refer to the wife of a presbyter, but it is unlikely since no husband is named.40 (2) A fourth- or fifth-century inscription on the tomb of Leta “the presbyter[ess]” in Calabria suggests she may have been a true presbyter (not a presbyter’s wife) because although her husband is mentioned, he was not a priest.41 (3) A fifth-century graffito from Poitiers in Gaul commemorates “Martia the presbyteress [who] made the offering together with Olybrius and Nepos.” Martia was probably a minister who celebrated the Eucharist along with the two men named. Thus, “the claim that women . . . never functioned as presbyters in the ‘orthodox’ church is simply untrue,” Osiek and Madigan conclude.42
Evidence of women bishops includes a fourth- to sixth-century inscription on a tomb in Umbria dedicated to the “venerable woman, episkopa Q.” A ninth-century mosaic of “Theodora episkopa” graces the chapel of St. Zeno in Rome; because her husband Bonosus had no clerical title, it is unlikely Theodora was a bishop’s wife.43 The Bethu Brigte records the life of Brigid, an ordained bishop in Ireland.44 Macy notes that several women in the Middle Ages received the title of bishop; they were administrators of church property who exercised jurisdiction and shared in the ministry of the episcopate.45
The history of Christianity is “replete with references to ordained women,” Macy remarks,46 yet some scholars deny women were ordained or they insist women’s ministries involved something less than “real” ordination. The word “ordain” came into use in the late 1300s. It stemmed from the Old French ordener, in turn from the Latin ordinare, “to put in order, arrange, dispose, [or] appoint.”47 Ordination today generally means to “invest with ministerial or sacerdotal functions or to confer holy orders upon,”48 but its meaning has evolved over time, and there is a significant difference between ancient and modern concepts of ordained ministry.
Ordination was originally a way of life, a form of ministry in which one performed a particular function within a particular congregation. The role of the priesthood in the early church was simply service to the community. A priest was a minister who led the community and who naturally assumed the duty of presiding at the Eucharistic meal. But by the twelfth century, a significant shift in the definition of ordination had taken place, and women were excluded from participating in the communion ritual and other cultic functions. Nevertheless, women were ordained from the time of the early church through the Middle Ages “according to the understanding of ordination held by themselves and their contemporaries,” Macy insists.49
If this is the case, why do some historians claim women’s ministries in the early church declined by the end of the second century, at which time leadership was assumed exclusively by men? Why did church law and theological opinion in some parts of Christendom oppose practices that flourished in others? If women were ordained until medieval times, how and why were they subsequently excluded from ministry? The answers to these questions are complex, and it will be helpful to briefly examine the views some scholars put forth.
Women’s Exclusion from Ordained Ministry
Justo González acknowledges that women were leaders in the early church, but he claims their leadership roles were eliminated by the end of the second century due to the influence of Gnosticism and the prominence it awarded women.50 In her book, This Female Man of God, Gillian Cloke suggests that Christianity adapted to Greco-Roman social mores when it became the official religion of the Roman Empire. While some of the early male church leaders affirmed women’s ministries, others accepted women only to the extent that certain women were like men. Women were caught in the middle of the orthodox/heterodox debate, Cloke maintains. She believes women’s ministries were sometimes deemed heretical and the sects they were involved in were quickly condemned.51 Karen Jo Torjesen also cites the impact of Greco-Roman culture which often equated men with honor and women with shame. Aristotelian thinking was incorporated into Western doctrines of sin and sexuality, distorting perceptions of women’s nature, concepts of “self,” and even ideas about the gender of God. Like González and Cloke, Torjesen believes women’s leadership in certain sects was condemned as heretical.52
Osiek and Madigan agree that some of the historical evidence associated with ordained women, especially presbyters, is deemed “heterodox,” but ample evidence of women’s ordination exists within the orthodox community. However, when the church began to baptize infants, deaconesses (whose duties included baptizing adult female converts) were no longer needed, and increased cultic sacramentalism in medieval Christianity resulted in women’s gradual exclusion from ordained ministry.53
Macy insists that women’s ministries thrived in parts of the East and the West until widespread clerical corruption in the Middle Ages prompted reforms. These reforms were designed to enhance the power of the priesthood and the papacy and to separate the clergy from secular authorities and from the laity. Toward these ends, clerical continence and, later, celibacy were imposed. One of the tactics used by the reformers to “encourage . . . continence and then celibacy was to denigrate women,” Macy remarks. The revival of Roman law and Aristotelian thinking in the scholastic age supported the notion that women are, in Aristotle’s words, inferior to men. As efforts were made to exclude women from ministry, the meaning of ordination was changed. The priest who presided at the Eucharistic meal was now said to possess the “power” to “make present the risen Christ” (the alter Christus) during communion. By the late Middle Ages, canonists and theologians came to define ordination as imparting special powers that only men could receive. Women were gradually excluded, many records and canons concerning ordained women were expunged, and the laws denying women ordination were preserved and promoted as the “true and only tradition.” “Scholarly discourse simply wrote ordained women out of the history of the church,” Macy concludes.54 Indeed, as recently as 1976, Pope Paul VI claimed that in the “uninterrupted tradition of the Church” women were never ordained.55
This article has provided a summary of the abundant canonical, literary, and epigraphical evidence that proves women were ordained leaders in the church for centuries. Christian communities that deny women ordination cannot claim to do so in observance of sacred tradition; rather, their refusal to ordain women is an affront to centuries of church tradition and practice. It is the hope of this writer that women who aspire to ordained ministry today find that the rich heritage of their past serves to illuminate their present course and inspire their confidence in the future.
1. Peter Feuerherd, “Members of papal commission on women’s diaconate make first public comment,” at NCR Online (17 Jan 2019), https://ncronline.org/news/parish/members-papal-commission-womens-diaconate-make-first-public-comments.
2. Carolyn Osiek and Kevin Madigan, Ordained Women in the Early Church: A Documented History (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011) 5–6.
3. Barclay Newman Jr., A Concise Greek-English Dictionary of the New Testament (Biblia-Druck, 1993) 42.
4. Florence Morgan Gillman, “Phoebe,” in ABD, 5:349.
5. Craig S. Keener, Romans: A New Covenant Commentary (Cascade, 2009) 183.
6. Newman, Concise Greek-English Dictionary, 70.
7. Osiek and Madigan, Ordained Women, 12–13.
8. Origen, Commentary on Romans 10.17.
9. John Chrysostom, Homily 30.
10. Pelagius, “Pelagius’s Commentary on Romans,” in Gerald Bray, ACCS (InterVarsity, 2005) 356.
11. Theodoret of Cyr, Commentary on Romans.
12. Didascalia Apostolorum 9; Apostolic Constitutions 2.4.25.
13. AC 3.2.
14. Osiek and Madigan, Ordained Women, 111.
15. Theodosius, Codex 16.2.27.
16. Francis Schaefer, “Council of Chalcedon,” The Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. 3 (Robert Appleton, 1908), http://newadvent.org/cathen/03555a.htm.
17. Osiek and Madigan, Ordained Women, 122.
18. Basil of Caesarea, Letter 105.
19. Gregory of Nyssa, Life of Macrina.
20. Life of Olympias.
21. Theodoret of Cyr, Ecclesiastical History 3.10.
22. Osiek and Madigan, Ordained Women, 67–96.
23. Osiek and Madigan, Ordained Women, 25.
24. First Council of Orange, Canon 26.
25. Council of Epaon, Canon 21.
26. Gary Macy, The Hidden History of Women’s Ordination: Female Clergy in the Medieval West (Oxford University Press, 2008) 67–9.
27. Macy, The Hidden History, 69.
28. “Pope Benedict VIII to Benedict, Bishop of Porto,” in Osiek, Ordained Women, 147–8.
29. Osiek and Madigan, Ordained Women, 6, 140–44.
30. Osiek and Madigan, Ordained Women, 9.
31. Macy, The Hidden History, 65.
32. First Council of Laodicea, Canon 11.
33. Macy, The Hidden History, 62.
34. Osiek and Madigan, Ordained Women, 164.
35. Pope Gelasius I, “Letter 14, to bishops in Southern Italy,” in Osiek, Ordained Women, 186.
36. Giorgio Otranto, “Priesthood, Precedent and Prejudice: On Recovering the Women Priests of Early Christianity,” trans. Mary Ann Rossi, JFSR 7 (1991) 73–79, at Women Priests (2012), http://womenpriests.org/traditio/otran_1.asp.
37. “Letter of three Gallic bishops,” in Osiek and Madigan, Ordained Women, 188.
38. “Letter from Pope Zachary,” in Ute E. Eisen, Women Officeholders in Early Christianity: Epigraphical and Literary Studies (Liturgical, 2000) 133–34.
39. Eisen, Women Officeholders, 128–29.
40. Osiek and Madigan, Ordained Women, 171.
41. Eisen, Women Officeholders, 129–31.
42. Osiek and Madigan, Ordained Women, 9, 196.
43. Eisen, Women Officeholders, 199–205.
44. Bethu Brigte, ed., Donncha ÒhAodha (Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1978) 6, see CELT: The Corpus of Electronic Texts © 1997–2012 (UCC), https://CELT.ucc.ie.
45. Macy, The Hidden History, 58.
46. Macy, The Hidden History, 4.
47. “Ordain,” Online Etymology Dictionary, at https://Dictionary.com.
48. “Ordain,” Dictionary.com Unabridged, at https://Dictionary.com.
49. Macy, The Hidden History, 23, 86.
50. Justo González, The Story of Christianity (HarperCollins, 2010) 1:73.
51. Gillian Cloke, This Female Man of God: Women and Spiritual Power in the Patristic Age, AD 350–450 (Routledge, 1995) 9–10, 212, 220–21.
52. Karen Jo Torjesen, When Women Were Priests: Women’s Leadership in the Early Church and the Scandal of their Subordination in the Rise of Christianity (HarperSanFrancisco, 1993) 7, 37–46, 117, 137, 249.
53. Osiek and Madigan, Ordained Women, 205.
54. Macy, The Hidden History, 31–32, 50–51, 104, 111–13.
55. Pope Paul VI, Inter Insigniore at EWTN (15 Oct 1976), at https://ewtn.com.