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Published Date: January 31, 2005

Published Date: January 31, 2005

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Featured Articles

Cloistered Redemption: Exploring the Effects of Asceticism on Women in the Fourth Century

When Constantine became Emperor at the start of the fourth century, the entire course of Christian history changed. Under the leadership of prior Emperors Decius and Diocletian in the third century, Christians endured great persecution and thousands were martyred for their faith. However, following Constantine’s conversion to Christianity in ad 312, the Church and State became completely enmeshed. Because persecution ended, the ardent faith manifested by the martyrs waned, and, accordingly, the number of nominal Christians drastically increased. One ramification was that, in the fourth century, monasticism and its associated asceticism flourished, as Christian believers attempted to distinguish themselves in devoted service to Christ.

During this time, the bishop became the undisputed leader of a rigid organizational hierarchy. Hence, Cyprian argues that “the bishop is in the Church and the Church in the bishop, and that if any one be not with the bishop he is not with the Church.”1 By the fourth century, restrictions on women were being proposed by some male leaders.2

As the Church’s new political status gave rise to monasticism, so the monastic movement influenced Christian doctrine in several key areas, one of which is the Church’s view of women.3 According to the Church Fathers, the monastic life for women was positive because it ensured their virginity and protected men from temptation. In truth, we find that, for women, the greater benefits of monasticism were that such a setting afforded them freedom, education, and leadership that they otherwise would have been denied.

According to the Church Fathers: Redemption through Virginity

Many of the Church Fathers viewed a life of virginity as the highest form of spiritual purity; chastity came to be seen as inextricably linked with a life of holiness. As early as the second century, Athenagoras commended those men and women who had “grown to old age unmarried” and concluded that “to remain virgins and eunuchs brings us closer to God.”4 Even women who were already married were enjoined to remain celibate.5

Essentially creating a two-tiered spirituality,6 these ascetic leaders undergirded their own vows of celibacy by pointing to biblical examples of celibate men, such as Paul and Jesus himself. They also referred to biblical passages that call men not to “defile” themselves with women.7 This focus on the virtue of celibacy had an important psychological function, especially for men. In light of prevailing Platonic notions and Jesus’ teaching,8 both of which highlighted the physical body’s weakness, the ascetic lifestyle offered a tangible way to control feelings of spiritual inadequacy. Thus it is that monks were forbidden to leave monasteries without permission.9

Another manifestation of the desire to separate oneself from sin was that ascetic men often maligned the female gender. One second-century apocryphal work claims Jesus said only a “woman who will make herself male” will go to heaven.10 Women were viewed as weak, more prone to sinful living.11 This belief shaped the very foundations of the fourth century social order, informing each gender’s roles and responsibilities in society.

To many of the Church Fathers, declaring that women reflected the image of God “would mean that God is like a subordinate being, woman, which is impossible.”12 Such sentiments only grew more pronounced as monasticism gained popularity. Clearly, many Church leaders did not see Christian community as a replacement for the Roman hierarchy. Rather, these views underscore the social tensions of a society in which women were seen as innately inferior13 and in which many Christian men were eager to accept practices that might protect them from sexual temptation.14

As a result of such pressures, monasticism profoundly shaped the doctrines of celibacy and marriage. Eventually, many authors from this time period argued that only through celibacy could women regain the purity of pre-Fall Paradise, which was “lost by their original sin and their subsequent involvement in marriage and reproduction.”15

According to History: The Appeal of Monasticism and Asceticism for Christian Women

Whereas monasticism and its concomitant self-abnegation offered men a sense of control over their physical weaknesses, monasticism offered women a sense of control over their own lives. While a fourth century woman was expected to marry and live in sexual and social submission to her husband,16 monasticism and asceticism offered a spiritual reason to retain rights to her body, as well as the opportunity for advancement to leadership in a protected community.

Only a woman living in a convent was free to “find her identity in her relationship to Christ,”17 rather than in her husband. Poor women no longer needed to worry about provision.18 Not only this, but as part of a monastic community, noblewomen were able to maintain a large degree of authority over the distribution of their goods.19 Wealthy women were allowed to keep what otherwise would have become a marriage dowry, and “well-to-do Christian widows [were] enabled to keep their husband’s estate.”20 Furthermore, asceticism allowed women to avoid the hazards of childbearing21 and some of the toil of housework.22

In the fourth century, education was highly valued. Julian the Apostate (361-63) believed he “had been ‘saved’ by the gods,” because they “had provided him with a university education.”23 Accordingly, then, we find that:

…pagans and Christians fought so virulently throughout the fourth century as to whether literature or Christianity was the true paideia, the true Education: for both sides expected to be saved by education.24

Additionally, as a movement, monasticism specifically was characterized by deep intellectual inquiry, commitment to copying and learning the Scriptures, and responsible scholarship.25

Nevertheless, the high regard for education was decidedly male-focused. For centuries, women had been seen as intellectually inferior to men. Aristotle had perpetuated the belief that man “is by nature superior and ruler,” and woman “inferior and subject.”26 In the midst of a cultural return to classical values, the fourth century was “the great age of the Christian Apologists,” and the overwhelming majority of this “Christian intelligentsia” was male.27 Even in Christian circles, women usually were excluded from intellectual life. A convent was, however, “a community that combined deep devotion to Christ with scholarship to the glory of God.”28

Contrary to the prevailing views, the Gospels recount Jesus’ directives, not that women remain celibate, but that they learn and then share the gospel.29 Fortunately, we find that monasticism provided the opportunity for women to study and learn the Scriptures, which, in turn, afforded them a new level of independence.

In the late second century or early third, Hippolytus of Rome drew a distinct parallel, not between Eve and Mary, the mother of Jesus, but between Eve and Mary Magdalene (and, by implication, the other women as represented in Matthew)30:

Christ Himself sent [Mary Magdalene], so that even women become the apostles of Christ and the deficiency of the first Eve’s disobedience was made evident by this justifying obedience.…Therefore too the women proclaimed the Gospel.31

Whereas Eve disobeyed by taking and then sharing forbidden knowledge, these women are given privileged knowledge in order to share it. In this sense, the woman evangelist here becomes the anti-typical Eve, an agent of God’s redemptive plan through her obedient proclamation of the gospel. Interestingly, Hippolytus does not mention virginity at all; instead, he highlights Mary’s obedience through learning and proclaiming the truth.

Several of the great scholars from the fourth century were women, seeking to obey Christ, after the model of Mary Magdalene, through learning and proclaiming the gospel. For instance, Palladius recounts that on her travels the learned Melania met a Greek man, “taught him and made him a Christian.”32

The wealthy Marcella established the “Roman Circle,” a group of distinguished women committed to studying Scripture. Marcella convinced Jerome to teach them, and she became a first-rate scholar. Jerome writes of his astonishment:

What virtue I found in her, what cleverness, what holiness, what purity, I am afraid to say, lest I exceed what belief finds credible…if an argument arose about…Scripture, the question was pursued with her as the judge.33

Jerome also praises Paula, who, with her daughter Eustochium, learned Hebrew and partnered with him to begin a monastery in Bethlehem.34

Another well-known fourth-century ascetic was Macrina, who worked with her brother Basil to create parallel monastic communities for men and women.35 Macrina was lauded by Chrysostom for being “as well-educated as Basil himself.”36 In addition, the sister of the famous St. Benedict, Scholastica, founded a nunnery close to his monastery.


Paradoxically, the monastic movement negatively shaped Church doctrine regarding women, but also provided women an unusual opportunity to study Scripture and maintain personal independence. Such a huge influence on the Church in so many seminal areas could not but serve to further influence Church development in centuries to come.

As a Church, we must remember the deleterious effect of rejecting the biblical concept of the priesthood of all believers.37 We are to be one “body in Christ,”38 working together according to our spiritual gifts,39 in unity,40 and in service to Christ’s kingdom.41 As I minister, I pray that I would be able to encourage others to use their gifts for Christ in fellowship, as the monastic communities sought to do.

However, I also am aware of the unfortunate realities of the early cloisters. We cannot seclude ourselves from a world that needs Christ, as some monastics may have done, and we cannot allow prevailing social biases to shape our doctrine. The only protection against such mistakes is to seek guidance through prayer and Scripture and remain open to the lessons of history.

Christian men and women alike ought to look to the courageous women who, in the face of formidable limitations, remained faithful to Christ. As I minister, I hope to follow the examples of these women who did not waver, even when Christian leaders attempted to discourage or marginalize them. Their tremendous devotion to Christ led them to continue to study, learn, and proclaim the truth. I hope to do the same.

“Several of the great scholars from the fourth century were women, seeking to obey Christ… through learning and proclaiming the gospel.”


  1. Henry Bettenson and Chris Maunder, eds., Documents of the Christian Church (New York: Oxford, 1999), 81.
  2. Aída Besançon Spencer recounts that the Synod of Laodicea (ad 343-381) declared, “Women may not approach the altar,” and the Synod of Carthage (398) concluded, “A woman, however learned and holy, may not take upon herself to teach in an assembly of men.” Beyond the Curse: Women Called to Ministry (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1985), 63. The fourth-century Canons of Hippolytus reads, “Let [women] not be given ordination…since ordination is for men.” Qtd. in Ruth Tucker and Walter Liefeld, Daughters of the Church (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1987), 118-119. For a helpful discussion of the roles of widows, deaconesses, and virgins in the early church, see Mary McKenna, Women of the Church: Role and Renewal (New York: P. J. Kennedy & Sons, 1967).
  3. Peter Brown reflects on the influence of the monks in the fourth century: “The monks, of course, were never more than a tiny proportion of the population of the empire. Nevertheless, it was paradoxically just these eccentrics who turned Christianity into a mass religion.” The World of Late Antiquity: ad 150-750 (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1971), 107.
  4. “Athenagoras’ Plea” in Early Christian Fathers, Cyril C. Richardson, ed. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996), 337.
  5. Jerome spoke of the “honor of those women who remain with their husbands in sexual abstinence.” Elizabeth A. Clark, Women in the Early Church: Message of the Fathers of the Church, Vol. 13, Thomas Halton, ed. (Collegeville, Minn.: The Liturgical Press, 1983), 128.
  6. Theologians such as Gregory of Nyssa declared that virginity is “a power of a more divine kind of life” (italics added). On Virginity. Qtd. in E. A. Clark, Women in the Early Church, 120.
  7. 1 Cor. 7:38; Rev. 14:4.
  8. Mark 14:38.
  9. The famous Rule of St. Benedict reads, “There shall be no need for monks to wander outside. For this is not at all good for their souls.” Bettenson, Documents, 140.
  10. The Gospel of Thomas, trans. Marvin Meyer (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1992), saying 114, 65.
  11. Many ascetics echoed John Chrysostom’s belief that “it is the part of women to be deceived.” Homily XXIII, Philip Schaff, D. D., ed., Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church 1.12. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 384. It is telling that the vast majority of “extant treatises on virginity are addressed to women.” Gillian Clark, Women in Late Antiquity: Pagan and Christian Lifestyles (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), 131.
  12. John Chrysostom, “On Virginity; Against Remarriage,” trans. Sally Rieger Shore, Studies in Women and Religion 9 (New York: Edwin Mellen Press, 1983), 124.
  13. Laura Swan writes, “Unfortunately, women who had played significant roles in the ministry and leadership of Christianity found their participation dwindling as Christianity merged with the larger society and its male leaders grew increasingly uncomfortable with women in public roles.” The Forgotten Desert Mothers: Sayings, Lives, and Stories of Early Christian Women (Mahwah, N.J.: Paulist Press, 2001), 10.
  14. One specific example of ascetic Christians’ departure from cultural norms based on the possibility of sexual temptation is their abstention from bathing. Because the baths often mixed genders, many Christians “associated the public baths with lewd behavior, inappropriate for believers…Many believed bathing stirred sexual passions—presumed to be the demon of fornication—and would cause avoidable problems.” Ibid., 11.
  15. E. A. Clark, Women in the Early Church, 115.
  16. Under Roman law, marriage consisted of “an agreement to live together, the woman remaining faithful to the man and the man willing to acknowledge her children,” as well as “marital intent,” 31. Of course, this meant that, at times, it happened that “a woman of low social status had believed herself to be a wife but could not prove it.” G. Clark, Women in Late Antiquity, 33.
  17. Kari Torjesen Malcolm, Women at the Crossroads: A Path beyond Feminism & Traditionalism (Downers Grove, Ill.: Intervarsity, 1982), 96.
  18. During the second half of the fourth century, female asceticism became increasingly institutionalized. In return for enrolment in a tagma ton parthenon, an order of virgins, “all the virgin’s worldly concerns were taken care of, with her material welfare being ensured by the congregation…the financial support seems to have made it especially attractive for members of the lower classes.” Susanna Elm, Virgins of God: The Making of Asceticism in Late Antiquity (New York: Oxford, 1994), 158.
  19. Near the end of the fourth century, the Emperor Theodosius tried to coerce the wealthy Olympias into marrying one of his relatives and attempted to control her possessions. However, as an ascetic, Olympias was able to refuse marriage and give away most of her wealth. Her anonymous biography describes her great influence, saying, “She distributed her alms over the entire inhabited world.” E. A. Clark, Women in the Early Church, 225.
  20. Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1996), 104.
  21. Women had to face “the exposure of female babies, malnutrition due to inadequate diet, and childbearing at an immature age,” all of which resulted in a lower life expectancy for women than for men. Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), 78.
  22. The housewife was responsible for all domestic activity, including raising the children, keeping the slaves in order, provision of all clothes and food, cleaning, woolwork, entertaining, and most monetary accounts. In monastic communities, all the women shared this work in service to one another. When done alone and without a spiritual emphasis, such housework was seen as “a spiritually inferior form of life.” For a helpful synopsis, see G. Clark, Women in Late Antiquity, 98ff.
  23. Brown, World, 32.
  24. Ibid.
  25. Kenneth Scott Latourette notes that “study and memorization of passages from the Bible were required of all and the illiterate were taught to read,” 227. All work was honored, but “chief honour [was] paid to intellectual labour, especially the study of Scriptures.” A History of Christianity: Beginnings to 1500 (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1975), 229.
  26. Aristotle, The Politics (New York: Penguin Putnam, 1962), 68.
  27. Fourth century apologists such as Lactantius and Eusebius of Caesarea argued that “the best traditions of classical philosophy and the high standards of classical ethics could be steeled against barbarism only through being confirmed by the Christian revolution.” Brown, World, 84.
  28. Malcolm, Women, 96.
  29. For example, see Jesus’ directions to Martha in Luke 10:38-41. Here, as Mary sits at Jesus’ feet in the typical position of a rabbinic student, Jesus tells Martha that learning from him is more important than attending to her housework. In addition, Jesus first explicitly trusts his identity to a woman in John 4:25-26, and many “believed in him because of [her] testimony” (v. 39).
  30. After the Resurrection, while the men remain confused, Mary Magdalene brings the news to the others (see Matt. 28:8, 10; Mark 16:10; Luke 24:9; John 20:9).
  31. Quoted in Leonard Swidler, Biblical Affirmations of Women (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1979), 210.
  32. E. A. Clark, Women in the Early Church, 215.
  33. Ibid., 207.
  34. Jerome writes that “by fresh questions she would force me to say which [meaning] seemed…most likely to me.” Qtd. in Tucker, Daughters, 118-119.
  35. “Macrina was looked back to as the founder of women’s conventual life in the Greek portion of the Catholic Church.” Latourette, History, 229.
  36. Qtd. in Edith Dean, Great Women of the Christian Faith (New York: Harper & Row, 1959), 12.
  37. 1 Pet. 2:5, 9.
  38. Rom. 12:5.
  39. 1 Cor. 12:4 ff.
  40. Eph. 4:3.
  41. Rom. 14:17-18.