The Decline of Women's Roles in Early Christianity
"Suddenly Jesus met them and said, `Greetings!' And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him." (Matthew 28:9)# Near the end of each of the four Christian gospels, it is women who first discovered that the body of Jesus was missing and who were the first to report seeing him after his death. Certainly then, this is a major indication of the high involvement of women in early Christianity. With such high status undoubtedly must have come power, influence, and important positions in the early Church. But by approximately 750 C.E women had lost these major roles in the Church, and the power and influence they once had. This essay will examine the decline of women's roles in early Christianity, and argue that this loss of power was a direct result of the canons of early Eastern and Western Church councils, which were founded on patriarchal notions.
Before delving into why women lost positions in the early Church, it's best to first discuss what roles or positions they held. To begin, there were the wives of priests and various other church officials, who functioned as respected co-workers along side their husbands.# It is important to state though, that wives did not carry out the duties of their husbands. Next, was the order of widows, normally older women who had been married to only one man, and who had consecrated themselves to the church, after the death of their husbands, in order to pray for the clergy and congregation.# Deaconess was yet another position held by women. Although a deaconess did not have the same responsibilities as a priest, their specific role was to instruct female catechumens in the doctrines of the Christian faith, help to baptize women, look after the poor and sick, and serve at the altar. # Additionally it is highly probable that women also held the office of presbyter, an example being an inscription on a woman's tombstone found in Asia Minor that reads, "Bishop Diogas in memory of Ammion the Presbyter"#. A presbyter was one who would have taught Christian doctrine, had the authority to baptize, consecrate the communion, and perform whatever other religious rites were necessary, which is why the title is equivalent to that of priest or elder. Although it is hypothesized that women may have held the title of bishop, it is not known for certain. Therefore only the positions of deaconess, widows, and wives of clergy will be considered for this essay.
The Council of Carthage, circa 390 C.E. is one of the first to take influence away from Christian women. Canons IV and XXV state that clergy, specifically sub deacons, deacons, and presbyters should either separate from the wives they may already have had, or not get married, whichever the case may be. Furthermore canon LXX states that any clergyman unwilling to do this would be removed from his office.# Wives, having been influential in helping their clerical husbands within the Church...