Women in Church Leadership
Women in the Earliest Churches
Introduction and Background Women in the Gospels
Women in the Gentile World Women in the Earliest Churches
Women in Palestinian Judaism References

The early female disciples of Jesus assumed leadership in the earliest Christian Churches alongside their brothers. This is reflected in Paul's letters, the Acts of the Apostles, and other early Christian writings. In the last chapter of Paul's letter to the Romans, ten of the 29 church leaders whose favor he seeks, are women.  Phoebe, Paul's patroness at Cenchreae, and Prisca, (who, with her husband Aquila, was a prominent missionary) head the list.  Paul's letters, (excepting Timothy and Titus which were not written by him), are the earliest Christian manuscripts we have, and constitute strong historical evidence for gender balanced leadership in the infant church. This equality is reflected in the Galatian baptismal hymn: “There does not exist among you Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female. All are one in Christ Jesus.”(Gal. 3:28).

The Book of Acts refers to “Phillip's prophetic daughters” (Acts 21:9-10). The early church historian Eusebius, attributes the apostolic origins of the provincial Asian churches to their ministry, thereby acknowledging that at least some women were transmitters of apostolic tradition. What a pity that their names are lost to us!  The Didache, an early worship manual, names prophets as the normal leaders of Eucharistic celebrations, which were often held in the homes of prominent women. The catacombs of Priscilla in Rome contain a second century fresco portraying such a Eucharist.

By the end of the first century the leadership of women was already meeting resistance: “A woman must learn in silence and be completely submissive.  I do not permit a woman to act as teacher, or in any way to have authority over a man; she must be quiet..”(1:Tim).  Nevertheless, archaeological, literary and epigraphical evidence confirm that female leaders flourished alongside male leaders well into the fourth century.  By this time, Constantine had succeeded in using Christianity to unify the crumbling Roman empire. As Christianity became more mainstream, worship moved from the private space of house churches to public spaces. The leadership of women in public spheres violated honor-shame cultural customs of the Greco-Roman world.  The inclusive, charismatic discipleship of equals which enhanced Christianity's rapid early growth slowly disappeared, only to re-emerge in the rise of religious communities which continued the prophetic tradition in Catholicism for over 2000 years. It is in this tradition that church reform organizations walk today.


Brooten, Bernadette. Women Leaders in the Ancient Synagogue. Chico, California: Scholar's Press, 1982.
Eisen, Ute E.  Women Officeholders in Early Christianity: Epigraphical and Literary Studies. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2000.
Fiorenza, Elizabeth S.  In Memory of Her.  New York: Crossroad. l983.
Frederiksen, Paula. Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews: A Jewish Life and the Emergence of Christianity. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000.
J O'Collins,G. and Kendall, D. “Mary Magdalen as Major Witness to Jesus' Resurrection.” Theological Studies. 48: l987.
Jensen, Anne, God's Self-Confident Daughters, Early Christianity and the Liberation of Women. Westminster John Knox Press, 1996.
Kraemer, Ross S. and De'Angelo, Mary Rose, ed.  Women and Christian Origins. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Meier, John P.  A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, Volumes I, II, III. New York: Doubleday,                   1991, 1994, 2001.
Pagels, Elaine.  The Gnostic Gospels.  New York: Random House, l979.
Sanders, EP. Jesus and Judaism. Minneapolis: Augsberg Fortress Press, 1987.
Winter, Bruce W., Roman Wives, Roman Widows: The appearance of New Women and the Pauline communities. Eerdmans, 2003.
Witherington, Ben.  Women in the Ministry of Jesus.  Cambridge 1984.

Written by Sr. Christine Schenk

<< back to Women in the Gospels