Home > Apostolic Christianity, Christian Beliefs, Christianity, Complementarianism, Doctrinal Disputes, Doctrine, Egalitarianism, Historical Christianity, New Testament, Orthodoxy, Orthopraxy > Was the role of sisters in 1st century ecclesias revolutionary or restricted by society?

Was the role of sisters in 1st century ecclesias revolutionary or restricted by society?

The Claim

Egalitarians typically claim that the roles available to 1st century Christian women were restricted by the prevailing Jewish and Roman attitudes.[1]

The Facts

Jewish and Roman 1st century society was far more flexible than egalitarians typically claim. Stoicism was widespread,[2] and even had an egalitarian influence on Roman law.[3] The Stoics were the most egalitarian of the 1st century Roman philosophical groups.[4] [5] [6] [7] [8]

Musonius Rufus is one 1st century example. [9] [10] Unlike Paul, Musonius Rufus did not make any call for women to be subject,[11] opposed explicitly a range of misogynist prejudices,[12] and challenged the view of any form of gendered division of tasks,[13] with a statement which has no Biblical parallel.[14]

Egalitarian views were also present in 1st century Jewish society; women enjoyed active religious participation,[15] [16] and some even held leadership positions.[17] [18] [19]

Among 1st century Jewish religious communities, the Essenes,[20] [21] and the Therapeutae[22] [23] are considered groups with egalitarian values and practices.

Voluntary Associations

Contrary to egalitarian claims, 1st century ecclesial organization and roles were neither revolutionary nor restricted by social attitudes. Ecclesias developed and operated in the same way as the contemporary Roman ‘voluntary associations’.[24] [25] [26] [27]

Even the very language of ecclesial fellowship is borrowed from these groups,[28] within which social norms could be transgressed without penalty[29] (though acknowledging the norms[30]). Slave and free mingled together,[31] and slaves could even be leaders.[32] Men and women fraternized without the restraints of social convention,[33] [34] and ethnic and family loyalties were set aside.[35]

The ecclesias therefore could have appointed women as leaders and elders or provided them with authoritative speaking roles without fear of social reprisal. The culture of the day empowered them, rather than restricting them. [36]

Where Is The Controversy?

Where is the evidence that the ecclesial roles of 1st century sisters were restricted or opposed by Jewish, Greek, or Roman attitudes? Why is no such controversy mentioned in the entire New Testament?


[1] ‘Texts in the New Testament that emphasize only the wife’s subordination are to be understood as reflecting the patriarchal social order of the times, a system that the church was concerned not to offend outwardly because it would hinder its gospel mission priority.’, Johnson, ‘A Christian Understanding Of Submission: A Nonhierarchical-Complementarian Viewpoint’, Priscilla Papers (17.4.20), 2003.

[2] Not merely restricted to the elite classes.

[3] ‘The overall development of Roman equity law was influenced by the Stoic natural law principle of the equality of the sexes’, Hill, ‘The First Wave of Feminism: Were the Stoics Feminists?’, History of Political Thought, (22.1), p. 20 (2001).

[4] ‘Perhaps they are better understood as failed proto-liberal feminists’, Hill, ‘The First Wave of Feminism: Were the Stoics Feminists?’, History of Political Thought, (22.1), p. 40 (2001).

[5] ‘when compared with the attitudes toward women that prevailed in the days in which these arguments were put forward, the arguments are, occasionally, downright astounding.’, Engel, ‘Women’s Role in the Home and the State: Stoic Theory Reconsidered’, Harvard Studies in Classical Philology, (101), p. 273 (2003).

[6] ‘Stoicism is the only ancient philosophy that provides a sufficiently egalitarian concept of human beings to suit a liberal ideology.’, Long, ‘Stoic Communitarianism And Normative Citizenship’, Social Philosophy & Policy Foundation, p. 242 (2007).

[7] ‘That Stoicism is fundamentally egalitarian and universalistic is well established.’, Hill, ‘The First Wave of Feminism: Were the Stoics Feminists?’, History of Political Thought, (22.1), p. 15 (2001).

[8] ‘The Stoics condemned discrimination against people based on class, gender, ethnicity or any other contingent facts about them.’, ibid., p. 17.

[9] ‘Musonius is probably the most enlightened Stoic in his attitude to women, sex and marriage.’, ibid., p. 27.

[10] ‘Musonius tells us that husbands who commit adultery are just as culpable as wives, and it is extremely objectionable for them to have sexual relations with their slave-girls.’, ibid., p. 28.

[11]  ‘There is no demand on his part for subordination of the woman‘, ibid., p. 28.

[12]  ‘C. Musonius Rufus challenged Roman prejudices about women head on.’, ibid., p. 32.

[13] ‘Musonius now questions the reasonableness of a gender-based division of labour in the first place, noting that, apart from the relatively insignificant differences in physical strength and personal bent, no other rationale stands up to close scrutiny as a relevant basis for discrimination’, ibid., p. 33.

[14] ‘[A]ll human tasks’, he says, ‘are a common obligation and are common for men and women, and none is necessarily appointed for either one exclusively.’, ibid., p. 33.

[15]  Hove, ‘Equality in Christ? Galatians 3:28 and the Gender Dispute’, p. 91 (1999).

[16] ‘Jewish women in Rome were active participants in the religious life of their communities, both at home and in the public religious life of the synagogue.’, Kraemer, ‘Jewish Women in Rome and Egypt’, in Juschka, ‘Feminism in the study of religion: a reader’, p. 227 (2001).

[17]Other women more clearly singled out for their roles as leaders in the synagogues, include Sara Oura, called presbutis, or elder… Gaudentia is called hierisa, the feminine equivalent of the Greek word for priest.’, ibid., p. 227.

[18] ‘The women called πρεσβύτερα appear to have been members of a synagogue council of elders.27’, Crawford, ‘Mothers, Sisters, and Elders: Titles for Women in Second Temple Jewish and Early Christian Communities’, The Dead Sea Scrolls as Background to Postbiblical Judaism and Early Christianity: Papers from an International Conference at St. Andrews in 2001, p.184 (2003).

[19] ‘Bernadette J. Brooten argues that ’the inscriptional evidence for Jewish women leaders means that one cannot declare it to be a departure from Judaism that early Christian women held leadership positions.’’, Hove, ‘Equality in Christ? Galatians 3:28 and the Gender Dispute’, p. 92 (1999).

[20] ‘the Essenes and the Therapeutai show evidence of influence by Hellenistic utopian thinking (including the egalitarian aspects of such thought)’, Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion (23.2), p. 46 (2007).

[21] Evans, ‘Ancient texts for New Testament studies: a guide to the background literature’, p. 86 (2005).

[22] ‘No barriers can be placed around the women Therapeutae that would exclude them from any functions in the community.’, Taylor, ‘The Women “Priests” of Philo’s De Vita Contemplativa; Reconstructing the Therapeutae‘, in ‘On the Cutting Edge: The Study of Women in Biblical Worlds: Essays in Honor of Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza’, p.118 (2003).

[23] ‘the division of labor between elders and juniors is emphatically not along gender lines’, ‘membership of this community was gender-inclusive, since women participated as both seniors and (implicitly) juniors’, Taylor & Davis, ‘The So-Called Therapeutae of “De Vita Contemplativa”: Identity and Character’, The Harvard Theological Review (91.1), pp. 23, 24 (1998).

[24] Sometimes called ‘private associations’, known in Latin as sodalitates, or collegia.

[25]It is in this larger cultural context that the early Christian associations emerge.  The cultural readiness and modeling of individuals gathering voluntarily to explore new identities and a sense of belonging within a religious frame allowed the early Christian groups to form.  The larger context of voluntary associations provided a cultural pattern in which nascent early Christian community could come into being.’, Nerney, Nerrny, & Taussig, ‘Re-imaging life together in America: a new gospel of community‘, p. 13 (2002).

[26] ‘In other words the notion of a diverse group coming together for the sake of a special sense and spirit of belonging was already going on in many different ways.  That early Christians did this fits the larger social momentum of the day.’, p. 13.

[27] ‘’Early Christian communities need to be seen then as a kind of voluntary association.  Their quick and strong development rides on the momentum of the larger Hellenistic momentum of the associations.  Their interest in social experimentation is in keeping with the way the associations developed.’, p. 13.

[28] ‘When the Greek literature of this time refers to a wide variety of voluntary associations, the terms often used are, in fact, koinoinia, or koine, meaning “community,” “that which is held in common,”, “friendship,” or “fellowship“.’, ibid., p. 12.

[29]Transgressive commensality, according to Donahue, is characterized by temporal, porous group boundaries in which there is “a relationship of exchange between parties of a different social or economic status” (2005:106).’ Ascough, Forms of Commensality in Greco-Roman Associations: draft paper for the SBL Greco-Roman Meals Consultation, p. 7 (2008).

[30] ‘According to Grignon (2001:30) transgressive commensality “plays upon oppositions between social groups and the borders which separate them.” Such borders, while recognized, are “temporarily and symbolically transgressed” and thus establish, in the context of a meal, a relation of exchange. Nevertheless, “it is by transgressing them that it contributes to recognizing and maintaining” social distinctions (2001:31).’, ibid., p. 19.

[31] ‘The mix of slaves and free in this protected environment was frequent.’, Nerney, Nerrny, & Taussig, ‘Re-imaging life together in America: a new gospel of community‘, p. 12 (2002).

[32] ‘Slaves could be leaders in such groups.’, ibid., p. 12.

[33] ‘Similarly men and women associated in these settings far more than in public.’, ibid., p. 12.

[34] ‘Both the joy and stress around this new mix of people and traditions evident in the Hellenistic literature indicates that the voluntary associations were places of social experimentation.’, ibid., p. 12.

[35] ‘the general family and ethnic loyalties of former times were breached in the associations’ acceptance of many different individuals.’ ibid., p. 12.

[36] ‘Whereas in the larger outside world, both Roman control and residual customs mitigated against mixing men and women, slave and free, foreign and religious practice; in the voluntary associations there was a lively atmosphere in which these mixes could be tried out and experienced without threat of larger social catastrophe or consequences‘, ibid., p. 12.

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