Archaeology, Women and the Early Church

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Archaeology, Women and the Early Church

Editorial Note: This article is a news piece covering a noteworthy event related to the Seventh-day Adventist Church. However, the conclusions and implications presented during the event do not necessarily reflect the position of The Compass Magazine.

On Monday, February 27, 2017, at Andrews University, Dr. Randall W. Younker, professor of Archaeology at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, presented a lecture on the topic of “Archaeology, Women and the Early Church.”  Below is a summary of Younker’s findings, which he plans to publish later in a series of articles.

Initially inspired by excavations he is currently helping conduct at San Miceli, in Sicily, an early church site, Younker became intrigued with question of the status and role of women in the early church, that is, the years following the writing of the New Testament around 90 A.D. to primarily around 300 A.D., although some of the data extends beyond this time.  Working at the site of an early church building, he noticed that women appeared to be important to the church, with women buried in prominent places in the church, next to the altar, at the entrance, etc. This discovery led him to investigate further concerning the status and role of women in the early church and Roman society, both in general as well as in relation to leadership roles. Below I will summarize some of his key points.

Women Outnumbered Men in Early Christianity

In his presentation, Younker raised a number of important points that help shape the contours of the role of women in the early Christian church. First, he reviewed the work of sociologist Rodney Stark that shows that women outnumbered men in early Christianity for several reasons—1) the Church was anti-infanticide (including selective infanticide of females), 2) anti-adultery, and 3) took care of widows. In short, Christianity had many things to attract women—which bore fruit as women members grew to outnumber men by an estimated 60% to 40% during the second and third centuries. On the other side, pagan men outnumbered pagan women by about the same ratio, which leads to several natural consequences.

First, it appears to be the case that many women were more enthusiastic in their conversion to Christianity because it attracted them (primary converts), and then they later converted their less enthusiastic husbands into the faith (secondary conversions). Additionally, women would raise their daughters to remain in the faith, and such younger women, who would constitute the next generation of believers, also tended to be more committed to the faith. Conversely, pagan men, who found a shortage of pagan women, were often attracted to the growing surplus of Christian women and married them, as they were quality individuals and managed the home well. Women, who had few rights in the public sphere, often agreed to marry pagans, and later strove to convert their husbands.

This has an important implication when one is considering the role of women in the church. Namely, when secondary conversions (those converted through marriage) are factored in, the most logical potential church leaders would often be women, as they, as the largest category of primary converts, were likely the most fervent believers and those most committed to Christianity. Notably, this ratio diminished after the Tolerance of Constantine (313 A.D.) when men flocked into Christianity for several reasons related to the newfound status and power of church offices.

Women, Roman Homes, and House churches

Younker also noted that already in NT times (Rome) 15 out of 33 people singled out by Paul were women (45% to 55 %). Even though the men still outnumber the women, this is a high number of female leaders—so one must ask, why is this so? Intriguingly, Younker drew attention to a quote from the medieval Bishop Atto that explains that in the early days of the church there were not enough workers, so women necessarily helped with church leadership.

Another factor that led to the likely predominance of female leaders is that the small congregations seemed to have frequently met in homes. That is to say, the earliest churches were predominately House Churches. And likely the homes that were selected for meetings were likely larger homes (villas) of wealthier members who had greater space and means to support the congregation. And since women tended to manage households in Roman society (whether rich or poor), they naturally played a significant leadership role in the house churches. If the house church was located in the villa of a better-off member, the woman of that household was likely fairly well educated, could read, write, do calculations, negotiate, etc., and were responsible for teaching children and slaves, and at times even studied philosophy—these women would be natural leaders and even teachers in the early house-church model. Thus, it appears the female roles varied from being a patron, a chief leader (president), the dispenser of food and goods (episcope), an advisory elder (presbyter) or even a charismatic prophet or some combination of the above. In this respect it is important to note that the description and functions of offices was very fluid in the earliest church—there is no evidence that there was any set ordination procedure—different offices could be the leaders in different churches. Biblical texts were interpreted in a variety of ways, including ways that supported women in leadership roles.

Within the House Church model, widows would often become major patrons of the church, donating much if not all of their wealth to the church after their husbands died. They might also donate their property to the church towards the end of their life or leave it to the congregation after their death. In the city of Rome, 9 out of 25 of the original titulars (donated properties where churches were built) were donated by women.

Women who were married to clergy often assumed the title of their husband’s position—however, there is no evidence to view this as always merely honorary. There is evidence that they too were ordained and assumed responsibilities in the church. This role was diminished through time as celibacy became more and more emphasized.

Interestingly, Younker shared that there is evidence of women who held office on their own—that is, without being married to a clergyman.

According to Younker, the New Testament writers did not leave a clear pattern for establishing church leaders. It is generally assumed that three offices were established—episcope, presbyter, and deacon and that there was a set ceremony for installing individuals into these positions. A key element of the ceremony was the laying on of hands. However, a close reading of the texts used to support this understanding has revealed certain ambiguities and apparent inconsistencies. For example, Acts 6:1-6 is thought to describe a ceremony for the initial appointment of deacons. Seven men already “full of the Spirit and wisdom” are selected, and leaders lay their hands on these seven and pray over them. However, the text never uses the word “deacon, diákonos (διάκονος).” Rather, later readers have assumed that deacons are meant because the duties of these seven include “serving table.”

Archaeological Evidence for Female Leadership

Archaeological evidence actually supports the argument that women held a variety of leadership roles. Women are depicted as praying, reading, teaching, and preaching in a variety of media, including church mosaics, frescos and sarcophagi in catacombs. In later times when ordination became formalized, it is still possible that women served as leaders—even as ordained leaders.

The question then becomes, why were women were no longer accepted in church leadership in later times?:

1) As the church grew and some congregations moved into larger, public spaces (for example, renting a basilica like in Thessalonica), it became inappropriate for women to continue to lead out—public spaces came under the purview of men. Women were not appointed to office in large basilicas—especially after Constantine—whereas it appeared they did continue to function as leaders in rural areas where house-churches continued to be more common. Yet, nevertheless, from the archaeological evidence it appears women serving as ordained officers continued in various places until the 12th century. Even then, pressures and appeals for women to be ordained or re-instated have been found, and continue up to the present time in the Catholic Church.

2) Male church leaders, over time, eventually tightened the ordination and office procedures and regulations, and increasingly these procedures and regulations excluded women. These restrictions coincided with the rise of celibacy, and the elevation of the priesthood into a “higher” sphere than even that of kings—it seems a primary motivation of celibacy was to elevate the priesthood above that of kings as “spiritually” superior.

3) Problems with women in certain sub-sects of Christianity (e.g. Montanism) led to a general reaction against women in church offices. There is also plenty of evidence that Christian men viewed women in an inferior role. Roman men, of course, had seen a clear division of gender roles in society, with women’s proper role being domestic and men’s proper role being public.

Lessons for Today?

From a sociological perspective, Younker believes that the elevation of the status and importance of women in the Seventh-day Adventist church, toward a return of their role in the early church, became inevitable over 25 years ago—it is merely a question of time before the process is completed.  As the church today faces expanding challenges in relation to the public sphere, especially in the West, and the rise of women member ratios versus men continues, it is very likely that the church models we currently employ will be altered.  How this can be done in a productive way for the mission of the church remains an open question.

Dr. Younker has plans to publish a scholarly series detailing the above findings in the future.

(Disclosure: I, Michael, am related to Randall Younker.)


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About the author


Michael Younker is a consulting editor for The Compass Magazine. He is completing a doctoral degree in philosophical theology (2019) at Andrews University.