At the beginning of the first century A.D. society was very much patriarchal and women played a background role, some were regarded as little else than chattels. Of course there were exceptions. However Christ changed all that. He gave to women a freedom hitherto unknown, expressed so aptly by Paul, "'In Christ there is neither bond nor free, Jew nor Greek, male nor female." So it is not surprising that amongst Jesus’ disciples were women – Mark’s Gospel, the first of the Gospels to be written tells us at the crucifixion, "there were also women looking on from a distance." It was this band of women who had provided for Jesus out of their means and who eventually followed Him to Calvary and watched Him dying. From Calvary they went to the Tomb to anoint the bruised and battered body of their Lord but had to wait until the Sabbath was over. Some of these women we know by name: Mary Magdalen, Salome and Mary, the Mother of James and Joses. On the Sunday they were heartbroken when they did not find His body. However they were rewarded! Christ appeared before them. It must never be forgotten that the Risen Lord appeared firstly to women, and Mary Magdalen is especially singled out in the Johannine Gospel. There must have been a reason for Our Lord first revealing Himself to Mary. Was it because she loved Him more than anyone else as hinted in the apocryphal gospel of Mary Magdalen? Christ uttering her name, "Mary", has its roots in the parable of the Good Shepherd, the shepherd " calls his own sheep by name " (Jn. 10.3). To this day she has been given the highest honour by the Church Fathers who described her as "the apostle to the apostles". What higher honour could she be given? In Paul's terms she would be an apostle as she saw the risen Christ (1 Cor. 9. 1-2).
Are there other women who are evangelists in the Gospels? I think we could see the Samaritan woman in John 4 fulfilling this. "Come and see a man who told me all things that ever I did, is not this the Christ?" The Samaritans believed her and invited Jesus into their village to listen to his teaching. They became believers (Jn. Ch. 4).
Another woman in Luke's gospel, Martha, on waiting on tables was performing a ministry of the Apostolic church (diakonein). Note too that the Johannine gospel tells us that Jesus loved Martha, Mary and Lazarus (11.5) and that Martha declares a similar belief in Christ as Peter does in Matthew, "You are the Christ, the Son of God (11.27). It is also to Martha that Jesus manifested Himself as "I am the resurrection" (11.25).
He also freed women who by the Law were outcasts such as the Phoenician woman suffering from permanent haemorrhaging, or those guilty such as the women taken in adultery. One would imagine that these would have become Christ's followers and could have been amongst the women who wept for Him on His way to Golgotha.
After Christ's Resurrection and Ascension, Mary, the Mother of Christ with His female disciples awaited alongside His male disciples for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in the breaking of bread and prayers in the home of one of Christ's followers. Perhaps it was the home of John Mark's mother. The mentioning of Mary present with the apostles and disciples meant that she too must have had an important role in the early Church. Of course she is the first disciple of her Son and during her life she would have grown in her understanding of what that discipleship meant. She and the beloved disciple allowed Christ’s mission to continue unbroken as they did not desert Christ at His death as the other male disciples did.
After Pentecost the history of ekklesia was to spread the news of Christ's crucifixion and resurrection with its offer of redemptive and eternal life for those who repent and are baptised into the new creation. Surely this was accomplished by both men and women. That women were bearers of the Good News after Pentecost was manifested when Saul held arrest warrants for women as well as men who followed the Way in Damascus (9.2). Indeed one of the choices offered to women from Christ's teaching was not to marry but to become part of a Christian inclusive community of discipleship in which through Baptism, men and women became brothers and sisters in Christ (syneisactism).
It is apparent that the earliest gatherings of Christians were in homes. From Acts and the Pauline letters it is clear that women were leaders within these gatherings, what we have termed "house-churches". In Jerusalem one house-church was the home of Mary, the Mother of John Mark as Peter went there after his miraculous escape from prison (Acts 12. 12) where "'many were gathered together praying." In modern day Turkey and Greece there are other examples of what were undoubtedly "house-churches". Probably the first European convert, Lydia (Acts 16.14-15,40) became the leader of the house-church in Phillipi. She was obviously a business-woman in the purple dye trade and of some financial means. When Paul arrives in Philippi she is already a "God-fearer", indicating that she is a Gentile-woman. She is quickly moved by Paul's preaching, which lead to her and members of her household being baptised. Afterwards she makes her home available to Paul and other Christians.
One of the outstanding women in Apostolic times must be Prisca who with Aquilla quickly became leaders in the church in Corinth as they previously had been in Rome (Rom.16: 3-5) and later on in Ephesus ((1 Cor. 16:19). This couple preceded Paul to Corinth, arriving A.D. c. 49 after having been amongst the Jewish Christians expelled by Claudius from Rome.
Without Prisca or Priscilla the early church would have been much poorer. A Christian before Paul, it is obvious that her evangelising and teaching capacity were enormous. She must have been one of the early Christian leaders in Rome. Claudius' edict against the "the followers of Chrestus" revealed that the Gospel had reached Rome very early, even before Paul's missionary undertakings. After Prisca and Aquilla's expulsion from Rome they went to the Roman capital in Achaia, Corinth, where they continue their trade as tent-makers and more importantly continued their church activities. They took Paul under their wing when he arrived in Corinth, bound together by religion and profession. Paul used their home as his base from which to earn his living and to preach in the synagogue, where he would 'try to convince' Jews and Greeks alike (Acts 18:4).
When Paul eventually left Corinth, Priscilla and Aquila went with him. They established another house-church at Ephesus where they revealed their ability to teach. When Apollos, an Alexandrian Jew, taught in the local synagogue, it was obvious to them that he had only been baptised into John's baptism. So they took him aside and explained the "Way of God more accurately" (Acts18:26). As a result Apollos' preaching 'greatly helped those who through grace had become believers, for he powerfully refuted the Jews in public, showing by the scriptures that the Messiah is Jesus' (Acts18:27-28).
After the death of Claudius this remarkable couple seem to have found it safe to return to Rome as Paul pays them a warm tribute at the end of his letter to the Church in Rome. "Greet Prisca and Aquila, who work with me in Christ Jesus, and who risked their necks for my life, to whom not only I give thanks but also all the churches of the Gentiles. Greet also the church in their house" (Romans 16:3-5).
Then there was Nympha. The writer to the Church in Colossae send greetings to Nympha and the church in her house"' (4.15). So clearly, she also a leader of the Church, and opened her house for the local church to meet.
Another is Chloe. From Paul's first letter to the Corinthians it would seem that she is partly responsible for the circumstances that led to the composition of this letter that Paul wrote from Ephesus (1Cor. 16:8) c. A.D. 54 "Chloe's people" had complained to Paul about divisions within the Corinthian community (1Cor l: 11). This is the only mention of' Chloe, but the very phrase "'Chloe's people"' offers not only a clue as to her status in the local community but also to an extended household of which she was the head that was typical of' the ancient world. "'Chloe's people"' may have therefore included her slaves, freed persons (slaves who continued to have obligations to their former owner after they had been freed), or dependent workers. It is also more than likely her home was also a house-church, and a centre for the converts to the Faith.
Yet another is Apphia. In his letter to Philemon, Paul sends greetings to her as his sister. This term as used by Paul can also refer to a fellow worker in Christ (see reference to Phoebe in Rom.16.1). She may indeed be a member of the household of Philemon where the Christian community meets, but the nature of the greeting suggests greater independence. As she is greeted on a seemingly equal footing with Philemon and Archippus she must have been a recognised leader within this community.
In Paul's letter to the Philipians he spoke of two women Euodia and Syntyche who must have had some disagreement as he urged them "to be of the same mind in the Lord". In the same breath he pointed out that these "women laboured with me in the gospel". Paul recognised their contribution alongside his own in their evangelising work to non-believers. They too may have led a "'house-church"' community.
At the end of his letter to the Romans Paul lists nine women as co-workers in various capacities, amongst whom are Tryphaena and Tryphosa, "workers in the Lord," the Mother of Rufus, and Julia, the sister of Nereus. What is clear from Acts and Paul's letters it was not he who first brought Christianity to Corinth or Rome. Nor did he initiate the house-churches but he uses them as his base during his missionary travels, which often were his lodgings.
It must be remembered that members of these house-churches included the head of the household, clients and even business partners as well as other local Christians. Even Jewish communities worshipped in homes as well. And so when the Jew, Stephanus and his household, were baptised by Paul, his home continued to offer worship but now according to the New Law. It became a centre for Christian worship.
Another woman singled out by Paul is Junia. He described her as an apostle a term not used lightly by Paul as he struggled always to justify his own calling as an apostle as illustrated in the opening of his first letter to the Corinthians. According to 1Cor. 9.1 Paul's definition of "apostleship" meant that she had also seen the risen Christ. More importantly Paul tells us that Junia was sharing his fate of imprisonment for the faith, in which she is the elder. Probably like Prisca she is one of the earliest Christians in Rome who laboured to spread the Gospel.
As well as women participating in the evangelising work of the early Church, they also were part of the recognised ministry: deacons, widows and virgins. Paul referred to Phoebe in Romans as a deacon. The Greek word used in Paul's letter is diakonia for Phoebe, and so it could simply imply "'one who serves"'. However what is significant is that Paul recognised her and other women as co-workers in preaching the Gospel. Most scholars have generally viewed Phoebe as a wealthy, independent woman who may even have moved in more elite circles than Paul, and as such she is often compared with Lydia. Phoebe' ministry was with the church at Cenchreae, Corinth's sea-port, and it is probable that she carried Paul's letter to Rome. The author of the first letter to Timothy (3.11) included this office in the Church's ministry. Writing in the early 3rdC Origen wrote of Phoebe as being officially ordained as did John Chrysostom, a century later. "'You see that these were noble women, hindered in no way by their sex in the course of virtue; and this is as might be expected for in Christ Jesus there is neither male nor female."'
From the Didascalia Apostolorum, written sometime in the 3rd C. we learn that part of the ministry for women deacons/deaconesses was to assist at baptisms. She went down into the water and anointed the female catechumen with oil. After the baptised came up from the water, the deaconess received her, and instructed her how to live in purity and holiness after receiving this seal of baptism. Afterwards she gave instruction in the faith to them. The deaconess also visited the sick, and administered to their needs such as bathing them. Justin Martyr writing in the 2nd C. tells us that deaconesses also helped their bishops in distributing Communion.
Gradually the office of deacon for women was replaced by the office of "deaconess", and gradually too her work was limited. In the Apostolic Constitution, which revised the Didascalia Apostolorum in the 4th C, limited the work of deaconesses. For example, "The deaconess does not make benedictions of perform any of the services for which elders and deacons are responsible. She simply guards the doors and, for reasons of decency, assists the elders in the administration of baptism."
The Council of Nicaea in 325 made it clear that women were no longer to be ordained along with the clergy but were to remain amongst the laity. Treatises began to be written against the ministry of women, often disparagingly. Epiphanius, bishop of Salamis wrote, "'These women repeat Eve's weakness and take appearance for reality. Never anywhere has a woman acted as a priest for God."' The Council of Epaon sealed the fate of the office of deaconess when it decreed that the only provision made for them hereafter was the blessing of penitents. For much of the ensuing years of Church History saw this ministry silenced, although not completely dormant. The office of deaconess in the Eastern Church lasted until the 12th century and was renewed in the Anglican Church in the 19th century.
Another order was that of widows. In 1Tim.5.3-16 outlined how one qualified. They were to be at least sixty years of age, had led a pure married life, had a reputation for good works: (a) had reared children, (b) had shown hospitality, (c) had washed the saints' feet (literally and figuratively), (d) had helped those in trouble, (e) had followed every kind of good work. It is apparent that they became an active group in the Christian community ministering to various needs, but before long we hear of "keeping them to their homes" and off the streets. So it is not surprising that after the first century a widow's ministry was confined to her home where she could teach simple parts of the faith such as there is one God, but she was strictly forbidden to teach on the doctrines of salvation. She was no longer able to baptise, nor to lay hands on the sick (Didascalia).
However the office of widows was still regarded as part of the official ministry illustrated in the early church when sinners prostrated themselves in the centre of the assembly before the widows and presbyters. Clement also referred to biblical commands to "chosen persons, some to presbyters, some to bishops, some to deacons, others to widows."
The office which gained early popularity in the early church was that of virgins, following the recommendation of Paul in 1Cor. 7.7 where he recommends the celibate life to both women and men. What is particularly striking about the advice Paul gives in I Corinthians 7 and its implications for women is that it is so unqualified as he extended his preference for celibacy to both unmarried men and women, young and old, irrespective of educational background. Paul referred to women who had chosen the celibate life as virgins (I Cor 7:28.34, 36, 37, 38; cf 7:25).
The role and importance of virginity in the early church was clearly seen in the apocryphal Acts of Paul and Thecla. It is probable that Thecla represented more than one historical woman of those first two centuries after Pentecost who preached and baptised. The importance of this writing whether strictly true or not was that Thecla became the model for women to imitate for many centuries, including Macrina. And it is easy to see why. In the Acts of Thecla, she baptises herself, and thus makes herself spiritually equal to Paul. Probably she would have baptised Tryphaena and her servants who had sheltered her in Antioch. After Thecla had heard Paul preach in her town Iconium she dedicated her life to God as a virgin, even though she was betrothed. As often happened in those first couple of hundred years of Christianity, when a young woman wanting to preserve her virginity for Christ refused to marry her betrothed the man betrayed her allegiance to Christ to the local Roman governor. Thecla was prepared to die for her virginity and faced the penalty of death. However she was miraculously saved from fire and beasts. After being spared by the Lord she became a hermit for the rest of her life.
This virgin life, consecrated to Christ, gave women a hitherto unknown freedom to be spared of so much servitude. Originally virginity was not necessarily bound to asceticism it was also an urbane phenomenon where women came together in homes for prayer, learning and hospitality. The Symposium, written in the early 4th C. by Methodius gives us some idea of how some virgins lived. He descried how ten virgins living in their own homes in a mythical city gather in the garden of Arete (virtue) to meet with the legendary Thecla and discourse in the manner of Plato's Symposium on the subject of virginity. Each woman gave a brief speech on some aspect of virginity. The evening closed with a hymn in praise of virginity. These women did not veil themselves and often boasted of their superiority over married women. It was the life led by these virgins that brought discredit to the ministry of women, and denouncement from bishops and others. Tertullian, towards the end of the 2nd C. saw their refusal to wear the veil as an effort to claim prerogatives of a sacerdotal nature associated with men alone. Hence he denounced women exercising a ministry of preaching and baptising.
The role of virgins changed in the 4th C. almost single-handedly by the famous Ambrose of Milan through his theology on Mary. It is he who defined the doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary. He transformed Mary into a 4thC aristocratic virgin who bore little resemblance to the Mary of the gospels. He particularly highlighted the physical aspects of Mary's virginity, rather than her obedience to do God's will. According to Ambrose virgins emulated Mary's model. To achieve this they had to be secluded from the world and live a life of asceticism and prayer in reciting the psalms seven times a day. In the basilica they had their special place, which was railed off in pure white marble. By consecrating their virginity to the Lord they made amends for being the daughters of Eve, and wearing a veil signified this. They were indeed the brides of Christ, as projected in the Song of Songs.
They were also the glory of the Church. Ambrose and after him bishops were surrounded by hundreds of virgins as they processed from one domain to another. The role of the consecrated virgin in the life of the church reflected a new trend in Christian thinking about women. The female body lured men into sin, and was the greatest danger for the Church, but the life of virgins redeemed these images. To a certain extent we are still stuck with this view, 20 centuries on!
Undoubtedly women performing one or more of the following offices of missionary, teacher, deacon, widow, virgin contributed to spreading the Good News of Salvation throughout the Roman Empire in those first centuries after Christ's Ascension to His heavenly Father.