New Testament Scandals: Female church leaders

I just received by e-mail a link to an article by David Instone-Brewer, of Tyndale House in Cambridge, entitled New Testament Scandals: Female church leaders. This is part of a new “e-newsletter” from Christianity magazine. Regular readers of this blog will remember that I linked last year to Instone-Brewer’s teaching on divorce and remarriage – his site on this subject is now working.

Instone-Brewer gives interesting insights on the position of women in the early church. Here is a sample:

The guilty secret of the early Church was that it did rely to some extent on female leaders. In public women had to keep quiet, literally. Paul allowed them to attend teaching sessions (which would be frowned on by Jews and Romans) but he didn’t allow them to join in the discussion (1 Corinthians 14 vs34-35). Timothy was warned not to let women teach because, like Eve, they weren’t sufficiently educated (1 Timothy 2 vs12-14). But quietly, in the background, some women got on with leadership roles in spite of these restrictions.

Now I’m not sure that I agree with his understanding of 1 Corinthians 14:34-35; after all, elsewhere in the same letter Paul explicitly permits women to speak out loud in Christian gatherings. But he is surely right in interpreting 1 Timothy 2:12-14 in the light of the situation of women at that time.

It is interesting to see how he deals with the biblical material on women apparently in leadership positions in the church. Concerning how the names Junia and Nympha were changed to Junias and Nymphas, he writes:

Why did later scribes make these laughable attempts to hide the female leaders in the early church? Because it was a shameful – but true. The truth is confirmed by two other early documents. The heroine in a 2nd Century novel ‘Paul and Thecla’ is told to ‘Go and teach the word of the Lord’. Although this is a novel, the author assumed his audience would regard this as normal. He elaborated at length how Thecla was saved from execution by burning and by wild animals (which he expected his audience to be awed at) but he merely mentioned in passing that she became a Christian teacher, because he didn’t expect his readers to be surprised by this. The normality of female church leaders is confirmed in Pliny’s report about Christians in 112 AD. His report was for the emperor, so he collected information from the highest available source – he arrested two local church ministers and tortured them. The fact that he tortured them means they were slaves, and his word for ‘ministers’ is ‘ministrae’ – ie female. So two female slaves led the church in that area!

Instone-Brewer concludes with:

The whole world has now caught up with Paul’s teaching that all humans, however different, are equal. This teaching enabled the early church to do what it didn’t want to admit in public – it allowed some women to work quietly as leaders and teachers. It is therefore ironic that the few modern institutions that don’t follow this early church practice are mainly churches.


0 thoughts on “New Testament Scandals: Female church leaders

  1. This is a very interesting article indeed. I have a great deal of respect for David Instone-Brewer who comes to the text without any gender axe to grind. His analysis of divorce in the OT and NT is truly groundbreaking.

    As for the issue of women priests etc in the Anglican Church, then I think that the more fundamental issue is whether the whole concept of clergy, laity, and its associated organisational structure is really a God-given thing at all.

    Holy Orders Batman!

  2. i agree,i was wondering why these 2vs seem to address married women only,what about the singles and widows who dont have husbands to ask at home.

  3. Thandi, that confuses me too. It suggests to me that the main issue was with a particular group of married women who were causing trouble. But it may simply have been that nearly all the women in that particular congregation were married. It certainly makes it harder to argue that this was an absolute prohibition on all women saying anything.

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