Ask anyone—liberal or conservative, Baptist or Catholic, patriarchal or feminist—and they will probably tell you that the subordination of Christian women was codified by Paul. For exactly this reason, many of my more progressive colleagues in ministry resent Paul and consider him out-of-touch and bigoted. Some might go so far as to say that Paul’s supposedly stodgy, uptight conservatism turned the egalitarian “Jesus movement” into puritanical, misogynistic “Christianity.” This is unfortunate because in reality, Paul’s theology is vibrant, cosmic, and joyful—a radically inclusive vision rooted in renewed creation.
Paul’s uncompromising zeal for the gospel can come across as rigid and intolerant. This creates the image of a rude and perhaps arrogant killjoy. Paul is mediated to us, of course, through the written word, and vivid as his personal correspondence is, it is impossible to know exactly what Paul was like in person. I often invite Paul skeptics to think of him as the gentle, earnest guy who is passionate and sometimes acerbic on Twitter (we all know one, right?). Paul’s intensity is directly related to his conversion experience, a revelation of the risen Christ. Who could settle down after that? Paul is, in my opinion, the Bible’s most endearingly authentic writer. Though his occasional combativeness may rub us the wrong way, Paul’s lively insistence on the truth of the good, good news is a gift to the church.
Among CBE’s many resources, and in this issue of Mutuality, you will find plenty of information about Paul’s enthusiasm for women in ministry and the many individual women he partnered with to share the gospel. I am firmly convinced that women served in all types of ministry in the Pauline churches of the New Testament, and there is evidence in extrabiblical writing of early conflicts about this. This indicates that in the decades after Jesus’s first followers died out, women were leading in some places and not in others. The question that sticks with me is, “what happened?” How long did the ministry of women last and why was it finally suppressed? There is very little information about this. Though tantalizing and uncertain clues exist as to ministry leadership exercised by women well into the Middle Ages, especially in isolated places, it is difficult to construct a reliable historical narrative on the evidence available. Documentary evidence of early Christian worship practices is already sparse, and it is unsurprising that a minority viewpoint would not have survived in literature meant to give practical guidance for churches.
While references to women’s ministry leadership are sprinkled throughout the Bible (both the Old and New Testaments), they become harder to find in the second century and beyond. Were there Pauline churches whose tradition of female leadership outlived Paul? A recent anthology chapter suggests the answer is yes, with one example found in a group called the Kuintillians.1
Who Were the Kuintillians?
The Kuintillians were highly charismatic Christians, whose movement developed in the second century in a place called Phrygia under the leadership of a woman named Kuintillia. To understand what made Kuintillians stand out, however, we need a bit of historical context.
Christianity in Phrygia at this time was closely bound up with a church movement called New Prophecy, also known as Montanism. New Prophecy Christians started in the catholic (meaning universal and orthodox) church, but they are remembered as being on the edge of orthodoxy. They were highly ascetic and preached the imminent end of the world, and they believed that the Holy Spirit spoke through their leaders in a direct way.
The major threat to Christian orthodoxy at this time was Gnosticism. Debates over the Trinity were just beginning. The eyewitnesses to Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection were receding into history. This meant that in the melee of sects claiming a Christian identity, the authority of both the apostolic texts and those ordained to the apostolic succession was important to the preservation of apostolic faith. New Prophecy’s strong emphasis on ongoing revelation posed an obvious threat to the quest for universal unity on the essentials of the faith.
Those who attacked the movement as heretical, however, were often focused on a different threat: the explicit leadership of women.
Responses to the Kuintillians
The New Prophecy movement had presbyterae (female priests or elders) and women served in the role of bishops.2 Kuintillia herself may have been a New Prophecy priest, but this connection is uncertain. Kuintillia claimed that her authority, not unlike Paul’s, came from a direct revelation of Christ.
The Kuintillians also ordained women and seem to have appealed to Paul for justification. We have no writings from the group itself, but Epiphanios of Salamis, criticizing them in the late fourth century, writes that the Kuintillians appeal to Galatians 3:28 to justify women priests, bishops, and prophets. They also cite, he says, the Prophet Miriam, the four daughters of Philip (Acts 21:9), and Eve.3 Context is important here again, as the “wisdom” of Eve’s disobedience and her superiority over Adam was a theme in Gnostic teachings (also likely the focus of the harsh rhetoric in 1 Timothy 2:8–15).
Though Epiphanios’s proof texts are badly exegeted (and it is not always good practice to rely on polemicists for information about their targets) his objection to the appeal to Eve is reasonable. The New Testament is clear in its rejection of this Gnostic interpretation of the Genesis creation story. However, he has no answer to the other arguments—even though we hear of them only through his negative characterization! Miriam and the daughters of Philip, of course, are only a few of the multitude of women in ministry in the Bible. But then as now, the long tradition from Israelite religion to Pauline Christianity of Spirit-gifted women is ignored in favor of shaky inferences from a couple of passages that continue to stump scholars on all sides.
Ultimately, Epiphanios’s opinion of Kuintillian women’s leadership is not all that interesting. What is interesting is that the practice existed, especially in a place like Phrygia, which was off the beaten path and far from the emerging centers of church authority. Luis Josue Sales characterizes Phrygia as an “isolated time capsule” and rehearses the compelling evidence that Pauline Christianity was completely egalitarian.4 It is not unreasonable to think that women’s leadership in Kuintillian and New Prophecy groups hearkens back to Phrygia’s first missionary contact. According to Acts 16:6, this would have been Paul in the early 50s, just a few years before he sent the letter to the Romans with Deacon Phoebe (Rom. 16:1), which also greets a female teacher (16:4) and apostle (16:7), among other women working in the Lord. Sales contends that an apostolic practice lasting longer in isolated Phrygia than elsewhere makes more sense than a patriarchal church evolving in just over a century to ordain women to all levels of ministry.5 It would be especially surprising in a patriarchal church trying to survive persecution in an even more patriarchal society.
Paul, Kuintillia, and Us
The question of the Kuintillians’ orthodoxy is still important. Were Phrygian Christians simply led astray by charismatic leaders? I do not know. The eventual excommunication of the New Prophecy movement suggests they subscribed to at least a few unorthodox beliefs. You do not have to look far today to find charismatic pastors—even well-meaning ones—brought down by the grandiosity of their personal vision. To me, the sparse evidence of Kuintillia smacks of this, but it is equally possible that my gut is wrong.
Ultimately, however, the personal motives of a leader are only so relevant. Phrygian Christian congregations were ordaining women to all levels of leadership 130 years after Paul wrote to their Galatian neighbors, “nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28b). These early egalitarians appealed to many of the same texts, biblical figures, and theological logic that we do today, and to me, that is a powerful encouragement. Our brothers and sisters from hundreds of years ago provide a witness to the truth we are rediscovering and exploring today. I think Sales is right to think they were preserving, not ignoring, Paul’s teaching on women’s leadership.
1. Luis Josue Sales, “Galatians 3:28 and the Ordination of Women in the Second-Century Pauline Churches,” in Women and Ordination in the Orthodox Church: Explorations in Theology and Practice, eds., Gabriel Thomas and Elena Narinskaya, (Eugene: Cascade Books, 2020), 58-78.
2. Dale T. Irvin and Scott W. Sunquist, History of the World Christian Movement Volume I: Earliest Christianity to 1453, (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2004), 144–146.
3. Sales, 60–63.
4. Ibid., 64ff.. Ibid., 64.
This article appeared in “Making Peace with Paul,” the Spring 2021 issue of Mutuality magazine.
Read the full issue here.