Questions, Insights, & Responses

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Q&A #78 - Women's roles in early church -- real history, revisionism, and making things right

by Robert Nguyen Cramer

This BibleTexts website administrator has very much enjoyed questions and insights that have been emailed to him ever since this site was launched in September of 1996. On this page I share with BibleTexts browsers a few of the questions, insights, and responses, so that we all can further learn from and with each other.



[ note: The two insights immediately below are from fellow participants in an Ordination of Women email forum in which I participate.]


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[ note: Thanks to replies from observant readers, the current response below includes clarifications and corrections made after originally posting this Web page. The lengthy section on "anointing" stories that had been at the end of this webpage has been moved. The "anointing" webpage is devoted entirely to examining and comparing each of the four gospels' stories of a woman anointing Jesus. It can now be read by browsing]


Part 1. The Christian standard: Jesus' non-descriminatory treatment of women
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Some degree of prejudicial, sexist treatment of Christian women began to be considered as part of what became mainstream orthodoxy at least by the first quarter of the second century.

That Jesus' message included a liberated and liberating view of women and their equality with men may be seen in the both the gospel writings and in what we can consistently read between the lines in those writings. Some of the indications from the gospels of Jesus' recognition of and/or non-discriminatory treatment of women are the following:

In order to see how it became possible to offically perpetrate the marginalization of Christian women by at least the early second century, let's take a look at the Bible's record of the very earliest Christian church. Let's see if the "church leaders" even of that earliest period always did the right thing.


Part 2. An illustration of repeated need for correction of an early church leader
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For the earliest Christians, the Jerusalem church had a central role. In fact, it is sometimes referenced by today's scholars as "the mother church" of early first-century Christians. We know from Paul (Gal 2:9) that the "church leaders" were James (the brother of Jesus), Peter (also known by his Aramaic-equivalent name, Cephas), and John (the son of Zebedee). Yet, as an early Christian leader, even the venerable Peter apparently didn't always make the right decision or do the right thing.

According to the Gospel of Mark, we read that Jesus "rebuked Peter and said, 'Get behind me, Satan [Slanderer/Accuser]. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.' " (Mar 8:33, NAB. See also Mat 16:23.)

According to the Fourth Gospel, Jesus rebuked Peter for cutting off Malchus' ear in Peter's effort to humanly protect Jesus. (Joh 18:10. See also Mar 14:47; Mat 26:51,52; Luk 22:50,51)

According to all four gospels, after Jesus was arrested, Peter denied Jesus three times (Mat 26:69-75; Mar 14:66-72; Luk 22:56-62; Joh 18:25-27), about which Peter "wept bitterly" (Mat 26:75 and Luk 22:62. See also Mar 14:72).

Years later, as recorded by Paul in his letter to the Galatians, Peter was again chastised, this time by Paul in Antioch. At the time both Peter and Paul had been in Antioch, and both Peter and Paul had been eating together with the Gentiles, which was contrary to Jewish law. When the disciples of James (Jesus' brother) arrived in Antioch, Peter disassociated himself from his earlier unprejudiced acceptance of the Gentiles of the Antioch church. "He drew back and kept himself separate for fear" of the more Jewish-oriented followers of James. Paul then "opposed him to his face" for Peter's hypocrisy. (Gal 2:11-14, NRSV)


PART 3. Paul (a champion of women's participation) & later writings misrepresenting him
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It should be noted here that in addition to being a consistent champion of Gentile Christians, Paul was also a staunch advocate of women's active participation - including in leadership roles - in the churches of his day. (For a sampling of the history of this, browse

After Paul's freedom-championing voice for women had been silenced by martydom, it appears that there was a later Jewish and/or other cultural reversal of the acceptance of women's active leadership roles in the churches that Paul and others had established and nurtured.

For instance, in 1Ti 2:11,12 we read words attributed to Paul, saying, "Women should listen and learn quietly and submissively. I do not let women teach men or have authority over them. Let them listen quietly." (NAB) Since it is now widely concluded that the Pastoral Epistles were written around 115 AD, these words were written most likely about fifty years after Paul's martyrdom.

Considering the similarity between 1Co 14:35 and 1Ti 2:11,12, conclusions that I and others continue to draw are (1) that Paul wrote the bulk of what was in 1 Corinthians but that he did not write 1 Timothy, and (2) that around 115 AD, the writer of 1 Timothy or a group associated with him added the 1Co 14:33b-36 pericope to the body of letters that later became 1 Corinthians. In this scenario this would have been done in part to lend further authority to a later (or more culturally acceptable) teaching that marginalized.

On 1Co 14:34-35 even Jerome Murphy-O'Connor, O.P., in the outstanding New Jerome Biblical Commentary, comments (New Jerome Biblical Commentary, edited by Raymond E. Brown, S.S., Joseph A. Fitzmyer, S.J, and Roland E. Murphy, O.Carm., Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1990, pages 811-812):

Regarding 1Ti 2:11,12, Robert A. Wild, S.J., comments (Ibid., page 897):

I find "interpolation" arguments such as those in The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, Conzelmann's commentary on 1 Corinthians*, and in some other commentaries to be quite convincing.


Part 4. Conclusion regarding the fallibility of early church leaders
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What evidence do we have of the early "church leaders" wrongfully modifying their positions, whether to conveniently save their lives, to save face, or just to fit in?

As much as Jesus loved Peter and entrusted Peter with the calling to apostleship, according to the New Testament, Peter didn't always get it right and follow Jesus' teachings and example -- neither before nor after Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection, nor even years later. (Obviously other early Christians did not always follow Jesus' example either, including his teaching and life-example of God-derived, unconditional love, agape.)

How can we expect any of our church forefathers and foremothers always to have gotten it right? Do we ourselves always get it right and unwaveringly follow Jesus' teachings and example? When we don't, sometimes the ripple effect is quite enduring. It also appears to have been so with some of the early church leaders.


Part 5. What we can do to make things right
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It takes tremendous God-inspired humility, moral courage, and love to admit and correct our wrongs, especially if we have allowed ourselves or others to be held up as THE model of virtue. We can receive encouragement from the empowering facts that "there is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear," and that "we love because God first loved us." (1Jo 4:18,19)

Acknowledging those facts can give us the Spirit-derived courage to do the right thing, regardless of what may appear to be the negative consequences. In this regard we have Paul's encouragement, "We know that all things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose," and "God is always at work in you to make you willing and able to obey his own purpose." (Rom 8:28 and Phi 2:13)

In such cases, we can begin by shifting attention from ourselves to Christ Jesus as ultimately the ONLY model of virtue, truth, and love. We should encourage everyone to follow us (or other fellow Christians) only to the extent that we (or they) follow Christ. Ultimately it is Christ whom we all need to follow. As the 1 John tells us (1Jo 2:6, TEV),

We need to ask ourselves, "Is it the post-apostolic traditions, which included some degree of prejudice and sexism, that we need to continue to consult, OR are Paul's actual, apostolic-period words to the Corinthians a better guide on the issue of church leadership (1Co 1:11-13; 3:21-23, NRSV):

Regardless of any traditions that were developed and perpetuated after the apostolic period, we are called to follow Christ.

The exclusion of women from full participation in all aspects of church may be one of those instances where, if we listen closely enough, maybe we can hear Jesus saying to us today, "Get behind me, Satan [Slanderer/Accuser]. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do." (Mar 8:33, NAB)

It would seem that Paul articulated a standard for "thinking as God does" when he wrote (Gal 3:26-28, NRSV):

By late in the first century there were likely pressures to minimize women's roles that came (1) from the surrounding societal values, (2) from those who wanted to retrench to some of the more conservative Jewish-oriented ways (following the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem), and/or (3) from men's historical proclivity to dominate. This helps to explain why we ultimately were left with the revisionists' misrepresentation of Paul's teachings in 1Co 14:35 and 1Ti 2:11,12 that dated to the early second century, which was long before the first attempts to canonize those writings. The canon ultimately guaranteed the place of the interpolated dogma of marginalizing women. It was to become part of the accepted universal Christian practice. It became part of the orthodoxy. Teachings contrary became heresy.

Was it really possible that church leaders in the late first century or early second century "drew back" (see Gal 2:12, NRSV, as cited above) and officially distanced themselves from the earlier practice of women's active participation in churches? With the greatest of love and respect for dear Peter, we can see how the history of his 'drawing back' and other foibles of this earliest of "church leaders" shows how very possible this scenario is.

To explore even later revisionism of early Christian teachings and practices -- and codification thereof -- after 313 A.D., see and

Copyright 1996-2004 Robert Nguyen Cramer