13 Christian Tradition  ▷  Govern­ment of the Com­munity

The previous chapter was a simple presentation of patristic teaching on the roles of men and women in family life. It demonstrated how Christian tradition confirms the teaching in the New Testament on this subject. The presentation was simple primarily because the subject was not at all controversial in the teaching of the early Christians. However, the issue in this chapter—the government of the community—is a somewhat different matter. Government of the community was a matter of some controversy in the time of the Fathers. No orthodox Father ever advocated that women be among the governors of the Christian community (elder or bishop), but some heterodox sects did hold that position. Furthermore, there was some unclarity concerning the place of the deaconess in the overall leadership of the Christian community. Even more significant, however, is the current controversy over this issue. Today, the ordination of women has become a major concern in various churches, and the controversy, sometimes furious, often makes extensive use of patristic and other traditional material. This is an important area, therefore, in which many issues connected with tradition and with what might be considered an argument from tradition have to be considered.

The concern of this chapter is specific. It does not attempt an overall presentation of the approach of the patristic age to women’s service and leadership in the Christian community. Chapter Five drew heavily upon patristic sources in describing the early Christian approach to this area, and that material will not be repeated here. This chapter simply investigates the conviction of the early Christian teachers that the choosing of the governors of the Christian community (elders/​presbyters, priests, bishops) from among the men was a practice founded in Christian teaching and tradition, with its source in the teaching of Christ and the apostles. Such a presentation runs the risk of making the Fathers sound negative toward the service and leadership of women in the Christian community. The opposite view is, in fact, true. The patristic age was a great period of active service by women in the Christian community. The widow and the deaconess, and later many women in the monastic movement, took an active part both in community service and in the service of caring for people—more so in this period than in many that followed. Nonetheless, women did not assume a role in the overall government of the Christian people because of a conscious, theological understanding of what was proper for women and proper for men.

The Evidence for Governing Positions

The primary evidence for the view that women were not the elders or heads of the Christian community is the positive presentation in the historical sources of the roles that men and women did take. The elders were men, and all the patristic literature on elders implies, when it does not explicitly state, that only men held this position. Women’s leadership is described, but when that leadership is expressed through recognized positions in the community, the positions are those of deaconess or widow with special responsibilities. Their “ecclesiastical rank” is that of deaconess or widow, and they do not exercise a governing role over the whole community or even over sub-groupings of the community (unless, as in the case of monastic women superiors, it is over sub-groupings which are all women). The patristic literature contains a fair amount of material on the roles of elders, deaconesses, and widows, and that material clearly establishes different roles for men and women in the leadership of the Christian community. This was brought out fully in Chapter Five.

The second most important type of evidence for the view that women were not governors of the Christian community is the lack of any certain instance until the nineteenth century of a woman holding such a position in an orthodox Christian community. Not only do the descriptions indicate that the leadership positions in the community were structured according to sex differences (with those who held the governmental positions being chosen from among the men), but the historical record provides no established instance of a woman holding a governmental position. Some rare instances occur in which the literary evidence could be interpreted as admitting the possibility of women elders, but the possibility is always dubious, and the cases are so rare that together they do not add up to a serious argument for a possible phenomenon. They are simply the kind of instances of ambiguity in the literary sources that one would expect. The absence of any single clearly attested instance is a weighty consideration, since it would not be totally unreasonable to find an exception to the rule; yet no exception can be clearly demonstrated. There apparently were women presbyters and bishops in some sects which were considered schismatic or heretical. There were also problems in understanding the responsibilities and functions of deaconesses and, later on, certain abbesses. The variations among the sects and the questions concerning the functions of deaconesses and abbesses make this area more complex than the discussion of the roles of men and women in the family. Nonetheless, there is no instance of an orthodox Christian woman elder or bishop.

There is, further, a third type of evidence which confirms the first two and underlines the fact that the absence of women elders and bishops was not accidental. A significant number of statements are recorded which teach that women may not be elders in the Christian community. The Fathers, with some consistency, taught this position for reasons grounded in Christian teaching. The literature containing canonical legislation also contains a number of explicit rulings against allowing women to serve as elders. This third type of evidence will be the concern of this chapter. This material lends greater authority to the view that the positive presentation of the roles of elder and deaconess, as given in Chapter Five, was not merely an accident, but was founded in the view of the roles of men and women held by the early Christian church and by those who taught with authority in the church.

The concern of this chapter is with government in the Christian community. The discussion can be complicated, though, by the significant change in the terminology used for describing elders which occurred between the New Testament era and the close of the patristic age. Toward the end of the second century, bishops began to be called “priests,” and subsequently this term was extended to include the elders or presbyters.1 The shift seemed to have corresponded to a greater concern for ritual and ceremonial matters, but the reasons for the shift are not relevant to this discussion. Partly due to the change in terminology, however, many Christians today understand the leadership of their church as being primarily a ritual matter. As a result, they do not equate “the priesthood” with a governing function among the Christian people. In fact, in some churches there are priests who perform ritual functions only and do not normally take an active part in the government of the Christians whom they serve ritually or sacramentally. For our purposes, however, it is important to understand that in the patristic period, even when the terminology began to change, there was not the same distinction between sacramental ministry and pastoral or governmental ministry that one sometimes finds today. The church in the patristic period viewed the head (bishop) or heads (presbyters) of the Christian community as the proper people to preside at functions that were the official acts of the community, functions such as the community assembly in which the eucharist was celebrated, the reception of new members, and the penitential discipline. In other words, the priest was either the presbyter or the bishop, and the canons and teaching about the priesthood concern those who are the elders or heads of the Christian community.

Writings of the Fathers

The first category of material which clearly teaches that women ought not exercise governmental functions in the Christian community comes from the writings of the Fathers. The earliest writers who deal with this topic are Tertullian and Origen. Tertullian, both in his Catholic and in his semi-Montanist period, excludes women from governmental functions in the Christian community:

We wish to consider whether the prescriptions on church discipline for the woman also hold for virgins. It is not permitted to the woman to speak in church, not to teach, to baptize, to present [the offering], nor to pretend to any kind of function reserved to man, to say nothing of the sacerdotal office (sacerdotalis officii sortem sibi vindicare). We wish to inquire however whether something of the above may be permitted to virgins. The answer is clear: Of course not! (De Virginibus Velandis 9.1)2

Origen likewise speaks against the permissibility of women teaching in church:

The widows have earned ecclesiastical honor for they wash the feet of the saints through the word of spiritual teaching—not however, the feet of holy men, but of holy women. For it is not permitted that women teach or rule over man. He desires that the woman teach good by training young women, but not young men, to purity; for it is improper that a woman be the teacher of a man. (Homilies on Isaiah 6.3)3

Firmilian (d. 268), the bishop of Cappadocian Caesarea, who was famous and authoritative in his century, likewise objects to woman presiding at the eucharist and baptism.4

The most significant material comes from the fourth century, which was the age of the great Fathers and also the period after the persecutions, when Christian writings are more abundant than they had been earlier. The Panarion, a work of Epiphanius, bishop of Salamis (d. 403), is a classification of all the heresies known to the author and his arguments against them.5 It contains material on early Christian sects which would otherwise be unknown. Two categories of these heresies are relevant to this discussion. The first is the forty-ninth heresy, a collection of sects that seem to have had a Montanist lineage (Quintillians, Priscillianists, Cataphrygians). According to Epiphanius, they had women bishops and priests and claimed Galatians 3:28 (!) as their justification. For Epiphanius this was unacceptable, as for Augustine and John Damascene after him, both of whom seem to have derived their information about these sects from Epiphanius. His discussion of the Collyridians (heresy seventy-nine) is even more interesting. The Collyridians seem to have been a sect which paid divine honor to Mary, and in which women seem to have been important in overall leadership. It was a sect which, in various ways, seems to have distorted the roles of men and women, a distortion which was reflected both in the approach to Mary and in the approach to community leadership. In arguing against this sect, Epiphanius states the following in regard to women leadership of the Christian community:

But as we come to the New Testament, if the priesthood is said to be a commission for women, or should there be a particular canon which would allow women to preside in the church, to no one else than Mary should the office of priest be committed. But, from her so great an honor was withheld, though from her womb and her bosom she took the King of all men, the Heavenly God, the Son of God. Her womb had been prepared by the singular kindness of God for the great mystery, as a temple or a dwelling place for the Incarnation of the Divine Word. (Panarion 79.3.14)6

In another passage, Epiphanius discusses deaconesses. He found it necessary to make clear that the deaconess was not to be equated with the presbyter. Her position in the community was different; her role was the care of women:

. . . in the church there is an order of deaconess. It was not, however, instituted for the function of the priesthood, or for any administration of this sort. But, in order that care might be taken for the respectability of the female sex, whether at the time of baptism, or when a woman was sick, she [the deaconess] would look after her. (Panarion 79.3.6–4.1)7

Contemporary with Epiphanius were two other Fathers who support the view that women should not teach publicly in the Christian community (a function of eldership): Didymus (d. 395)8 and Jerome (d. 420).9

Of even greater interest is the writing of John Chrysostom, who treated the role of women in the Christian community in some depth, much as he treated the role of women in the Christian family. Some of the strongest passages are in his work On the Priesthood where he states:

The things I have just mentioned [fasting, sleeping on the ground, vigils, defense of the oppressed, orphans, and widows] can be performed by many of the faithful; not only men, but also women. But when it is a question of the government of the church and of direction of so many souls, let the whole female sex withdraw from such a task—and likewise the majority of men. (2.2)10

In another passage which appears to be directed against the Empress Eudoxia, with whom Chrysostom (who was the Archbishop of Constantinople) had had several conflicts, he argues that women should not rule over men or teach.11

In three other places, Chrysostom takes up the question of what Paul means when he forbids women to teach (Tm 2:12):

But how is it, then, that writing to Timothy, he says, “I permit no woman to teach or to raise herself above man.” This refers to the case where the man is pious, professes the same faith, practices the same wisdom, but when it is the case of a man who is a nonbeliever, who is error’s plaything, Paul does not forbid the woman’s superiority here, even if it includes teaching. Writing to the Corinthians, he says: “Does any woman have a husband who is not a believer? Then let her not turn him away. For she may be the cause of her husband’s salvation.” Now how can the woman who believes save her husband who does not believe? By instructing him, obviously, by teaching, and by trying to bring him to the faith as Priscilla did for Apollos. It concerns another matter entirely when he says, “I permit no woman to teach.” This concerns teachings given from the tribunal, speeches made in public, which is a priestly function. But he does not particularly forbid exhorting or counselling. Indeed, if this were forbidden, he would not have spoken in praise of this woman, who behaved in that way. (Homily 1 on Priscilla and Aquila, sec. 3)12

[Concerning Mary of Romans 16:6:] For he says, “who bestowed much labor on us,” that is, not on herself only, nor upon her own advancement, (for this many women of the present day do, by fasting, and sleeping on the floor,) but upon theirs also, so carrying on the race Apostles and Evangelists ran. In what sense then does he say, “I suffer not a woman to teach.” What he is forbidding is for her to take the presiding seats at an assembly and the high seat of the tribunal, but he is not forbidding her from the word of teaching. Since if this were the case, how would he have said to the woman that had an unbelieving husband, “How knowest thou, O woman, if thou shalt save thy husband,” or how came he to suffer her to admonish children, when he says, “but she shall be saved by childbearing, if they continue in faith, and charity, and holiness, with sobriety.” (Homily 31 on Romans)13

[On Titus 2:3–4:] “Teachers of good things.” And yet thou forbiddest a woman to teach; how dost thou command it here, when elsewhere thou sayest, “I suffer not a woman to teach.” But mark what he has added, “Nor to usurp authority over man.” For at the beginning it was permitted to man to teach both men and women. But to women it is allowed to instruct by discourse at home. But they are no where permitted to preside, nor to extend their speech to great length, wherefore he adds, “Nor to usurp authority over the man.” (Homily 4 on Titus)14

Thus, Chrysostom understands that Paul, in Timothy 2:12, does not forbid a woman all teaching. Paul is only prohibiting the headship of women in the Christian community. Chrysostom, with all his respect for women and his friendship with a number of holy women, understood the Christian role of a woman to be different from that of a man. He taught clearly that the presbyterate was not for a woman.15

Two more Fathers, both associated with John Chrysostom at Antioch, provide helpful material. In his commentary on Timothy, Theodore of Mopsuestia (d. 428) takes an approach similar to that of Chrysostom in explaining the prohibition of a woman’s teaching:

It is plain that the text “I do not permit women to teach” refers to public situations; women must not teach in the assembly. For Paul certainly did not forbear to legislate their way of life at home, and he did not forbid women either to educate their unbelieving husbands in piety, or to guide those who shirk their responsibilities into virtuous works. (Commentary on Tm 2)16

Theodoret of Cyrus (d. 458), a pupil of Chrysostom and Theodore, makes the same point. Certain men have the responsibility for teaching in the Christian community; for a woman to take that role is usurpation:

“But I want you to know that Christ is the head of every man, and the head of a woman is her husband.” This is said to subordinate women to their husbands, and to teach that it is not fitting for women to undertake the service of teaching, which God from heaven set out as man’s right to perform. (Commentary on Cor 14)17

“Likewise also the women.” For grace has only one nature. But he also says the things that are fitting for them, “in modest apparel” [or in honorable conduct]. And by making this circuitous statement he informs of the reverent attitude of their lives, “to adorn [or order] themselves with modesty and self-control.” For this is a true adornment [order]. “Not with braided work, or with gold or pearls or extravagant piety through her works.” Piety, he says, you have displayed in your works, with virtue. Therefore, let everything else be yoked together to reach this goal.

“Let a woman have a quiet spirit, in all subordination. And I do not permit a woman to teach, or to rule over a man, but to keep a quiet spirit.” Since women also exercise the prophetic gift, he must legislate about this. He does not send off women as teachers to men who need teaching, as the writings to the Corinthians plainly teach: “For what do you know, woman, that you might not save your husband?” Then what he is teaching is good order, which also comes from nature itself. (Commentary on Tm 2)18

In summary,19 Epiphanius of Salamis and John Chrysostom are the two Fathers who treat the question of women elders most explicitly. Both clearly reject it as impossible for the Christian people. Other Fathers ruled that the exercise of public governmental functions, especially teaching, was not allowed for women. These questions are not among those most frequently addressed in patristic literature, but they are present and the viewpoint given about them is consistent.

Church Orders

The second category of material to be considered are the church orders and canonical sources, that is, the sources which stem from authoritative decisions on church order made by councils, synods, and occasionally by individual bishops. The church orders, treatises written to help church leaders, especially bishops, to order the life of a Christian community, contain considerable material on the leadership position of women in the Christian community. Church orders seem to have been used most extensively in Syrian and Egyptian churches. Many Christian churches seem to have regarded them as authoritative, although their authority was not as clear as that of a recognized council. Most of the material in the church order which bears on the leadership of women concerns the role of widows and deaconesses. The church orders, in fact, contain much of the most concrete and helpful material on what deaconesses actually did.

The earliest church order that speaks explicitly about women not fulfilling a function reserved to the bishop (or elders) is the Didascalia Apostolorum, which probably came from Syria in about 245. The following passage occurs in a section about widows and their authorization to teach:

It is neither appropriate nor necessary for women to teach, especially regarding the name of Christ and the Redemption by His Passion. For you women, and especially you widows, have not been installed to teach, but to pray and entreat the Lord God. Indeed, the Lord Jesus Christ our Master has sent us, the Twelve, to instruct the people and the nations; there were female disciples with us—Mary Magdalen, Mary the daughter of James, and the other Mary, but He did not send them with us to teach the people. If it were necessary for women to teach, our Lord would have commanded them to teach with us. (Didascalia 3.6.1–2)20

This passage is directed especially to widows and does not mention the position of deaconess. However, it also addresses in general the issue of woman in teaching positions. While the Didascalia contains some practical reasons for not allowing women to teach, reasons which had to do either with the social position or the education of women, this passage founds its approach on scriptural example, especially the example of Christ.

The next earliest extant church order is the Apostolic Church Order (ca. 325), which also prohibits women from presiding at the Christian assembly.21 Another church order containing useful material is the Apostolic Constitutions, written about 380. The Apostolic Constitutions clearly and fully reserves public teaching, presidency, and authority functions in the church to men:

Indeed, if “the head of a woman is man,” and if it is man who was designated for the priesthood, it is not lawful to upset the created order, and to abandon the head in order to go to one of the extremities of the body. For woman is the body of man, taken from his side and submitted to him, from whom she has been separated for the purpose of producing children. It is he, we are told, who will be her master. It is man who rules over woman, since he is her “head.” If in the preceding, we do not permit women to teach, how could we, in contempt of nature, assign to women the right to exercise the priesthood? It is the impious ignorance of the Greeks which leads them to ordain priestesses for their female gods; there is no question about this according to Christ’s ruling. If it were necessary to be baptized by women, our Lord himself would have undoubtedly been baptized by his own mother instead of by John. And when he sent us to baptize, he would have sent women with us for that purpose. But in fact, he never commanded that, no more than he ever had such an order written; he knew very well what is consistent with nature and what is suitable in this regard, since he is both nature’s creator and the author of this legislation. (Apostolic Constitutions 3.9.1–4)22

In summary, the church orders provide a consistent picture of the difference in leadership role between men and women in the life of the Christian people. Much of what they say is founded on the prescriptions of the passages of scripture that were studied in earlier chapters.

Canonical Literature

Next to be considered is the material contained in the canonical literature, that is, collections of canons from synods and councils which have been received as orthodox and authoritative. A number of canons concern deaconesses, but three synods deal more explicitly with the question of women as priests or presbyters. The first is the Council of Laodicea in Asia Minor (late fourth century), whose eleventh and forty-fifth canons read:

Canon 11: That women must not be installed as “elders” or “presiding judges” in the Church.23

Canon 45: That women must not enter the sanctuary.24

The second is the Council of Saragossa (379–381) in Spain, which dealt with the Priscillianists, a mystical sect originating in Spain in the late fourth century. While the council’s primary concern was to prohibit attendance at Priscillianist instructions, some of which were given by women, one canon bases the prohibition in part on Timothy 2:12:

It is prescribed to women who are faithful to the Church to take no part in meetings with strange men; neither let them join within order either to instruct themselves, or women who give lectures in order to teach, for such is the command given by the Apostle.25

Lastly, the first Council of Toledo in Spain (400) prohibits widows and possibly deaconesses—that is recognized women leaders—from acting in the place of a priest or bishop:

A virgin dedicated to God or a widow, may not, in the absence of the bishop, sing the Antiphons at home in company with her servants or a confessor.26

A further authoritative source, especially for Catholics, is the Decree of Pope Gelasius I in 494, sent to the bishops of Lucania, Brutii, and Sicily. In this decree the bishop of Rome states the position of the Christian people as follows:

Nevertheless impatiently we hear so great a number of divine things had suffered contempt, that women are taken to minister at holy altars, and the sex to whom it does not pertain exhibits all things which are only deputed to the society of men. Seen that every injury of all the delicts which we noted one by one and the crime concerns those priests who either commit those things or show that they favor depraved excesses by no means making public who commits [them]; if, however, they are still to be called by the word “priests,” who are so perverse to prostitute the office of religion delegated to them that inclined to everything perverse and profane without any regard for the Christian rule run after deadly ruin. Since it is written: “who despises the least things, little by little withers away” (Eccli. 19:1), what is to be thought of those who taken up with immense and multiple masses of grave things brought forth by many movements great ruin which is seen not only to bury them but to inflict disaster on the churches. Let them not be uncertain who dared to do these things, but also who kept silent about those things already known that they lie under the loss of their own honor if they do not hurry with as much speed as possible to cure the lethal wounds with proper medication. For by what right may they hold the rights of bishops who dissimulated those things enjoined by pontifical duties that they do things contrary to the house of God over which they preside? (Letters 9.26)27

A comparable decree, somewhat later than the period under consideration but of similar authority for the Eastern church, is that of Photius of Constantinople in Nomocanon 1.37:

About deaconesses, and that a woman may not become an elder (presbytera): Canon 19 of the Council of Nicaea; Canon 11 of the Council of Laodicea; Canon 15 of the Council of Chalcedon; Canon 14 of the Sixth Council.28

The Ascetic Movement

Another body of material which is relevant to this study comes from the early ascetic movement and its approach to the roles of men and women. Celibacy produces a very important change in the basic life patterns of men and women. In particular, there is no family structure in which one woman is linked with one man who cares for her and has authority over her. Thus it would seem quite possible that celibacy might lead to the abolition of social role differences between men and women. It is, in fact, among celibates that the possible exceptions to the approach of scripture and tradition are found (see pp. 316318). During the patristic period, however, and almost without exception until the nineteenth century, the basic pattern for celibates is one in which role differences for men and women were carefully respected.

The two basic patterns of celibate life for women during the patristic period were the order of virgins and the monastery. The order of virgins appears to have developed at an early date. It seems that the order of virgins was established for women without a corresponding order for men primarily because of the social order requirement that every woman should have a male head who was either her husband, father, or next of kin. The order of virgins provided a way for the woman to pass out of the authority of a family member. But the virgin did not become completely independent. Instead, at an early date in church history, she came under the authority of the bishop (or elders).29 The community as a whole, through its heads, took responsibility for her.

With the growth of the ascetic movement, women grouped themselves into monastic communities of their own. The governors within those communities were women. However, the celibate women in such communities were under the jurisdiction of a male elder, either a man from a monastery of celibate men that was linked with the monastery of women, or someone designated by the bishop.30 The woman governor was limited in what she was allowed to do in terms of governing the sisters, and a man always took responsibility for the monastery as an elder of the Christian community. In summary, a special element was introduced by celibacy, but it by no means led to a breakdown of roles for men and women. Rather, the female headship over women functioned in subordination to male headship, drawn from either a related male community or the Christian community as a whole.

Certain other materials from the patristic period could also be brought into the discussion. The question of the ordination of deaconesses, for instance, relates to the leadership status of women in the Christian community. However, neither the Fathers who seem to have accepted the ordination of deaconesses nor those who do not seem to have accepted it show any difference on the basic point of concern for this chapter. If deaconesses were in fact ordained, that did not give them a governing or presidential function within the community as a whole.

To sum up, there is ample material from authoritative Fathers and from canonical literature of the early church to demonstrate that the tradition of the early church recognized only men as the heads of the Christian people. The church held this position as a matter of principle because the early Christians understood that principle to have been authoritatively enjoined by the apostles. No orthodox voice from the first centuries held a contrary position. If one accepts an argument or even a confirming voice from tradition, the consensus of the early church on this issue is clear.


While the tradition from the first several centuries is consistent and clear, some people see a particular development during the Middle Ages as weakening the force of the argument from tradition—namely, the position held by certain medieval abbesses. Because the significance of the position of these abbesses has been misunderstood and misrepresented in recent years, a brief discussion of them and their role would be useful.31

Beginning in the early Middle Ages with the church of the British Isles, and in some isolated cases continuing even as late as the eighteenth century, certain abbesses exercised considerable authority over men. This authority has been described as “quasi-episcopal” in that the abbesses exercised some functions that were normally proper to bishops (such as participating in church councils, assigning priests to parishes, and receiving tithes), and in some rare cases were permitted to wear episcopal insignia (as were certain abbots as well). The fact that this occurred is clear, although the extent of the phenomenon is somewhat limited. And although it has long been known, the phenomenon has only recently, in certain feminist books, been considered as evidence that tradition is not consistent or clear in its teaching that women should not hold governmental authority over the Christian community as a whole.

It is important to see these abbesses in their own medieval context in order to understand the particular set of privileges and responsibilities they held. Some observations will help to explain the origin and significance of their position. The first observation concerns the authority structure in the church.

A real analogy existed between the position of an abbess in a monastery and the position of a bishop in the Christian community. Abbesses governed monastic communities of women, communities which did not take part in a daily, ongoing way in the life of a wider group of Christians. The abbess was therefore the overseer or supervisor of her nuns and, in this sense, the leader of a Christian community. The strength of this analogy could allow some “quasi-episcopal” functions and expressions without violating the basic pattern of the roles of men and women.32

The two positions were only analogous, however, for the abbess’s position was by no means the same as that of the bishop. What made an abbess an abbess—that is, what gave her claim to a Christian position—was her position as head of a community of women, and nothing more. She held no position of headship over the wider Christian community, for such overall positions were reserved to the presbyters (priests). The abbess was responsible only for a monastic community of Christian women that was subordinate to the larger community of the Christian people. Certain abbesses exercised special religious and secular powers, but they were not given such powers because they were heads of the wider Christian community.

Why then did these abbesses exercise special powers? This question leads to a second important observation, this one about the feudal system. Although the analogy given above between an abbess and a bishop is valid and significant, the role of these abbesses is explained primarily by the social structure of feudal Europe rather than by the structure of the Christian church. During the Middle Ages, communities of nuns, like those of monks, became feudal proprietors. They owned domains, and on those domains they had extensive authority. An abbess’s position was secular as well as religious and, like the secular lay lords, she exercised authority over church matters within her domains. Within her sphere of power she both supported and ruled over church life. It was, then, as the head of a community of women which held secular power—and with it, power in church life—that an abbess exercised her special privileges. All such privileges disappeared as the feudal system disappeared.

A final observation can help show how the position of these abbesses was understood within the context of the medieval social system. Within that system, abbesses were understood to possess a limited authority which did not permit their assuming the role or performing the functions of eldership in the Christian community as a whole. Whenever an issue arose as to whether the abbess might exercise a wider spiritual power or any sacramental power, the bishops or popes would quickly make clear that such an exercise was entirely out of place. Perhaps the most notable and authoritative example was Innocent III’s prohibition to Cistercian abbesses of Burgos and Palencia. These abbesses blessed their nuns, heard confession of their sins, and presumed to teach publicly when reading the gospel. He judged it wrong for an abbess to perform any of these activities.33

In some way, the position of these abbesses can be considered an exception in the area of women exercising headship functions in the Christian community. Yet the exception did not occur in the exercise of Christian (spiritual, religious) governing authority over the whole Christian community. When abbesses attempted that sort of exercise, they were curtailed. Thus, evaluation of their exceptional role does not concern Christian tradition on women in the presbyterate (priesthood). The issue of the priesthood always remained clear: Women were not to be priests/​elders, nor were they to exercise the functions of eldership over the Christian community. Evaluation of the role of the medieval abbess rests more upon an evaluation of feudalism and its ramifications in ecclesiastical life, for it was primarily the feudal system which accounted for the abbess’s special position of privilege and authority. One might wish to reinstitute the quasi-episcopal jurisdiction of abbesses, but in order to make sense of it one would also have to reinstitute the feudal system and give convents of women secular power over the neighboring domains (and the religious life of those domains). If the state or national legislatures could be persuaded to take such action, it might not be too difficult to persuade bishops to reinstitute mitered abbesses in such monasteries.

The position of the abbess with quasi-episcopal jurisdiction is the only significant data from Christian tradition before the nineteenth century that should be examined as possibly weakening the force of the argument, but is rather an illustration of how social structures in a particular society (in this case, feudal society) can affect the life of the Christian people without (at least in this case) causing them to abandon basic scriptural principles.

Objections to Tradition

Despite the absence of further significant data in possible contradiction to the argument from tradition, other points are also brought in by some writers in an attempt to weaken the force of that argument. Most of these points are “arguments from culture” and are identical with those made about scripture—namely, that with tradition, one is dealing with teaching that was heavily influenced by the surrounding culture (Greco-Roman society) or that was determined by a reaction against the surrounding society and was therefore an attempt to protect Christians from accepting pagan ways. The treatment of these views in relation to the scripture (especially in Chapter Eleven) applies to the area of early tradition as well. There is little evidence for such views. When the Fathers teach on why the governors of the Christian community should be chosen from among the men, they rarely give “cultural reasons.”

One new feature emerges in this discussion of possible objections to tradition: the view that the patristic writers were reacting against heretical sects and that in doing so they were attempting to keep orthodox Christians from accepting heretical doctrines by forbidding practices associated with sects. Once again, there is no evidence for such a view. When the Fathers argue against the heretical sects that have women presbyters, they do not say that Christians should avoid the practices of those sects in order to avoid contamination with their doctrine. In fact, their argument is precisely the other way around. They argue that the practices of those sects, so much at variance with the scriptures, are another proof of how wrong they are.

If anything, the existence of sects that followed a different pattern in regard to the position of women in the government of the church points in another direction than that which the proposed objection would indicate. It points to the fact that there was a real alternative, culturally speaking, open to the Christian Fathers. The world of their time knew of women in positions of power and leadership. There is even, in fact, some evidence for the view that the increased number of texts on the question of women’s role in the fourth and fifth centuries is related to a social disorganization in the Roman Empire and a tendency for women to take governmental roles in society. The Christian bishops had to cope with women, like John Chrysostom’s opponent Eudoxia, who attempted to direct matters in the Christian church. The Fathers were firm and clear in holding a position that was based on the scriptural position. Like the New Testament writers, they could have done differently if they had judged it right to do so.

Tradition and the New Testament

Deeply grounded as it is in the New Testament, the teaching of the Fathers and of the early tradition of the church adds little to the scriptural teaching that those who govern the Christian people as a whole should be chosen from among the men. Rather, it underlines the main points found in scripture. There are, however, some significant points of development in the writings of the Fathers. In fact, the most significant characteristics of the teaching of the Fathers in the area of the roles of men and women which distinguishes them from the New Testament writers is simply the fact that their great appeal is to the New Testament itself. They approach the area as people with a clearly canonical, authoritative norm by which they intend to abide.

The primary point of further development is undoubtedly the sketch which early tradition provides of the role of the deaconess and the possibility of a publicly recognized and honored position of women’s leadership in the church complementary to that of men. This sketch provides an understanding of something, probably referred to in the scripture, but not described. In addition, Christian tradition adds greater authority to the understanding of Timothy 2:12 as an apostolic regulation of great weight which represents an impediment to the functioning of women as presbyters (elders) or bishops. To a lesser extent, Corinthians 14:33–36 is similarly understood. In the writings of the Fathers and in the canonical literature containing the early canons, there is a consistent appeal to these two passages, especially the former, as the grounds for the teaching, on role differences in the choice of the governors of the community.34 To set aside these passages as having no relevance to the issue, and with them to set aside scriptural authority, would also be to set aside all patristic authority in the realm of scriptural interpretation.

A final point of development is early church tradition’s greater use of the idea of women’s “weakness” in establishing why it would not make sense for women to function as elders in the Christian community. Patristic writers state that women are weaker than men as though this were a commonly accepted fact which required no arguing.35 They do not generally make this point as an observation on what scripture teaches, but as their own observation on women. They probably have in mind women’s comparative physical weakness and some of men’s qualities of greater aggressiveness and “toughness” (see Chapter Sixteen). Some writers seem also to feel that men are more virtuous than women, although this is not clearly included in the idea of weakness, and many patristic writers expressly declare men and women to be equal in virtue. Perhaps the most that can be said in way of a summary of patristic consensus in this area is that they believe men to have more of the strength needed for strong leadership that includes discipline and government of people.

This patristic view of women’s weakness must be kept in context. First, it is normally not the primary reason which early writers give for their position that only men should be elders. The primary reason is almost always scriptural teaching. Secondly, the idea of women’s weakness can in some way be found in scripture (see Chapter Eight), Finally, the acceptance of “women’s weakness” in patristic writing did not mean that the Fathers expected women to be what we might term “weak people.” The early church very clearly recognized and celebrated the full share taken by its women in undergoing persecution and martyrdom as Christians. The Fathers commonly note that Christian women, although not as physically strong as the men, underwent torture and death with equal zeal, faith, and endurance. Basil of Caesarea (d. 379), in his homily on the martyr Julitta, said:

Still, she told the women surrounding her not to shudder weakly in the face of suffering for the faith, not to hide behind the frailty of their nature. “We are,” she said, “of the same stuff as men. Like them, we are created according to the image of God. The female sex is made receptive to virtue by the Creator, just as the male is. How? Are we not related to men in all things? It was not merely flesh that was taken from him for the creation of woman, but also bone of his bone. For this reason we owe the Lord as much constancy, robust courage, and patience as do the men.”36

Such instances testify to the great strength of character of the women in the early church. Far from being the weak, dependent, “mindless” people that many predict must result from such a family and community social structure, the early Christian women demonstrated tremendous personal strength, heroic faith and endurance, and great holiness. It is important to recognize this perception of women’s strength, which operates throughout patristic writing, in order to reach a balanced understanding of the patristic notion of “women’s weakness.”

Yet even when this notion has been put in its context, one notes in some patristic writers certain culturally formed ideas on the capacities of women that are simply not true. While such misconceptions are at times present (for reasons that will be considered later in the chapter), they are not of primary importance in forming the patristic understanding of the role of women or of “women’s weakness.” For our purpose at this point, it is enough to observe that the Fathers sometimes founded their position not only upon scriptural and apostolic authority, but also upon an observation about woman’s nature that (probably) is also found in scripture, but not with the same development.

To sum up this discussion, while tradition in some significant ways does develop the scriptural teaching that women should not be elders in the Christian community, it serves primarily to provide very strong confirmation of that teaching. The witness of tradition is consistent in teaching both that women should not be elders and that the reasons for this are Christian rather than cultural. The patristic writers approach the matter as one of obedience to God’s directives for his people. The tradition is quite consistent for seventeen hundred years. And, in fact, there are very few areas in all of Christian teaching that have as clear a consensus. If this teaching can be dispensed with considering its backing in scripture and tradition, then there is no prescription of the government of the Christian people that cannot likewise be put aside. If such teaching in the area of order and government can be dismissed despite the fact that tradition considers it to be so binding, then only an arbitrary delimitation of the authority of tradition (or scripture) to doctrinal belief and moral norms can keep the rest of Christian teaching from being dismissed in the same manner. If this teaching can be changed by Christians, there is very little that cannot be changed.

The Strength of Tradition

The evidence from tradition on the roles of men and women is clear and strong, but certain arguments have been advanced against viewing it as authoritative. Two such arguments are important for consideration here. The first argument states that since early church tradition contains so many bad or unacceptable views on women, one cannot accept anything it says as authoritative. The second argument suggests that since there is a lack of unanimity in early church tradition concerning many points of the woman’s role, the tradition as a whole has no authority; text can be set against text.37 Both of these views are worth considering, more because of what they highlight about tradition in the area under discussion than because of their own intrinsic force.

In order to properly evaluate these two objections, however, the nature of an argument from tradition must be understood. There are two ways of drawing upon tradition in the area of the roles of men and women. The first could be termed an overall evaluation of the teaching tradition on the subject. One could approach the Fathers, for instance, as great Christian teachers standing in the succession of Christian teachers and attempt to learn from their instruction. One could determine whether their teaching has the coherence, insight, and fidelity to Christian revelation that would give it weight, and if there is some consensus among the Christian teachers on the subject.

On the other hand, there is a second approach—the one that has been taken in this chapter. In this approach, one is simply looking for a witness from early Christian teachers as to what had been handed on to the early church from Christ and the apostles. The concern is not with a Father’s personal greatness as a Christian teacher, but with the reliability of his writing as a witness to tradition. One therefore makes some attempt to distinguish between those points at which the Father seems to be giving evidence of the Christian tradition he has received, and those points at which he is adding his own thought as a theologian or apologist. If, in the process, a discrepancy is discovered between what one has discerned in scripture and what one finds in tradition, there are two choices: either reconsider one’s interpretation of the scripture passages involved, or conclude that the early church lost sight of the scriptural teaching. The method of this chapter has been simply to ask whether the early Christian writings confirm the view that the apostles taught that only men could be chosen as Christian elders. The concern, therefore, is not primarily to evaluate the teaching of the Fathers, but rather to discover whether there is evidence that the early Christians held a tradition handed on from the apostles, and to see at what point there is a sufficient consensus to indicate a universal tradition.

Writings from the early Fathers contain a great deal of teaching on men and women and not all of it is the clear handing on of a tradition going back to Christ and the apostles. Much of the Fathers’ teaching on men and women concerns the nature of men and women and the nature and role of sex in the Christian life, points which have drawn much interest in recent years. They are also the points which were most influenced by Greek thought, precisely because the questions posed were not so easily answered from scripture and universal tradition alone. The concern of this book, however, is with social roles, and the concern of this chapter is to determine whether a tradition existed among the early Christians about Christian teaching in a particular area of social roles, namely, whether or not women could be chosen as elders. The broader questions of patristic teaching on men and women are to be taken up insofar as they bear on this issue.

The purpose of the preceding discussion has been to clarify the nature of the argument from tradition on this subject, and to recognize that the argument’s strength is based primarily on the role of the Fathers as witnesses to a tradition received from Christ and the apostles. This clarification can help in understanding and evaluating the two objections to the authority of tradition mentioned above.

Unacceptable Views of Women

The first of these objections holds that Christian tradition contains a great deal that is bad or unacceptable concerning women and which should simply be dismissed. One has to begin anew, either by using only scripture or, more commonly, by using only selected portions of scripture that are deemed acceptable. Books can be cited which highlight quotations from Christian tradition that contemporary people would find offensive.38 Those quotations normally reflect views that woman is inferior or defective in relation to man or views which seem to express misogyny (hatred or dislike of woman). If Christian tradition is permeated with such bad and unacceptable material, it is argued, how can it be acceptable in any way, at least in this area?

It cannot be denied that some elements of Christian tradition concerning women are unfortunate and this fact must be understood and approached in the right way. It should be noted, however, that the case constructed by many authors is seriously overdone. Much of the case is founded upon quotations which state that women are inferior to men.39 However, as was seen earlier (pp. 4345), that statement can mean many things. For the contemporary mind, it normally means some kind of inferiority in value, worth, or dignity. Yet in most of Christian tradition, as in the scripture, it had no such meaning, but referred to position within a social structure. To say that the women were “inferior” in some situation, or in society in general, meant that they were in a subordinate position. Most (perhaps all) of the statements about women’s inferiority are simply referring to social position and not to worth.

Many of the offending quotations refer to some defect in women, but these too are often misunderstood. For example a commonly quoted statement of this kind is that of Aquinas (which he borrowed from Aristotle) where he says that a woman is a misbegotten male.40 Some writers have gone so far as to found their analysis of Aquinas’s whole view of the roles of men and women upon this statement. To a modern mind, the quotation sounds outrageous and misogynistic. However, it merely refers to a view of human generation which held that female babies are born by intervention in the normal process of generation, which otherwise produces males. To say that a woman is a misbegotten male is simply to say that a female is produced instead of a male in the process of generation when something is absent from the normal process. The theory is actually fairly close to the modern understanding of the generation of males. Male characteristics are produced in a fetus when the normal sequence of producing a female fetus is interrupted by the secretion of male hormones. To use Aristotelian terminology, according to modern science, the male is a misbegotten female. Aquinas, while admitting a generally accepted scientific theory of his day (the current scientific theories often produce difficulties for orthodox theologians), was quick to point out the misleading nature of the phrase “misbegotten male.” His own conclusion on the subject was that it would be a major mistake to understand the phrase to mean that woman was not created according to the express purpose of God.

This is not to suggest that there are no statements in the Fathers which assert defects in women in comparison to men. There are such statements. Some of them are explainable solely on the basis of the comparative lack of education which women received. Some of them are interesting in that they reverse what our contemporary culture seems to manifest (for instance, the patristic view that women are more inclined to sexual activity than are men).41 Some statements undoubtedly reveal prejudice. Yet prejudice, though present, is not as common as some modern writers would have one believe. In short, it seems possible that some of the defects noted in women had an empirical basis at the time (such as less education for women), and statements that clearly exhibit genuine prejudice against women are not common.

However, even after the above clarifications, one might label some statements from the Fathers as misogynistic in a certain sense of the term. But to move from finding some misogynistic statements in a certain Father to the conclusion that the Father is misogynistic should not be lightly done. The following two passages from Tertullian illustrate something of the difficulty of this transition:

You give birth, O woman, in sorrows and anxieties; and your turning is to your husband, and he will rule over you. And do you not know that you are Eve? God’s judgment over this sex continues in this generation; its guilt must also continue. You are the gate of the devil, the traitor of the tree, the first deserter of divine law; you are she who enticed the one whom the devil would not approach; you shattered so easily the image of God, man; on account of the death you deserved, even the Son of God had to die; and is it in your mind to adorn yourself over your enticing tunics? (De Cultu Feminarum 1.1)42

Handmaids of the living God, my fellow-slaves and my sisters, by whatever right I am sent to you—ultimately by my right of fellow slavehood and brotherhood—I dare to speak with you indeed in affection but acting with affection as your advocate in the matter of your salvation. This salvation—not only for woman but also for man—has been decreed to consist namely in charity. (De Cultu Feminarum 2.1)43

One could label the first statement “clearly misogynistic.” It would make a great quotation for a pamphlet entitled “Can you trust such men?” However, the author of the second quotation could hardly be called a misogynist. Here, one must distinguish between a “misogynist” (who actually holds women in contempt or dislike) and a writer who makes unfortunate, even “misogynistic,” statements for other reasons. The origins of most such statements in the Fathers are not to be found in their fundamental attitudes toward women, but in a number of other sources. For instance, the first quotation from Tertullian is explained somewhat by its literary context, which was a discussion of a fault in the women of his congregation—a tendency toward overadornment—which he was vigorously trying to correct. It is even better explained by its cultural context. The Fathers in general, and Tertullian in particular, were often not as measured or balanced in their exhortations as people today would find acceptable. Their denunciations, in other words, are often not necessarily to be taken as being their measured statement on a subject. Furthermore, Tertullian’s (and most of the Fathers’) treatment of women is merely incidental, most of it having been designed primarily to address another topic. Such passages from the Fathers do not consider the whole subject of woman, nor do they present a balanced picture.

There are two other sources of “misogynist passages” in the Fathers. One is the tendency for the Fathers to work within a typological and symbolic mode of thought which at times leads them to use a woman as a symbol of weakness or, sometimes, as a symbol of the body in relation to the soul.44 The second source is an occasional tendency among the Fathers to think about or discuss women predominantly in terms of sexual temptation (to men, which the Fathers were). In some circumstances, it is legitimate for men to approach relating to women as primarily a matter of relating to that which is the source of sexual temptation. In short, there are statements in the Fathers which are misogynistic according to our standards, but it is a mistake to interpret most of these statements as misogynistic according to standards appropriate to the Fathers’ own milieu. It is an even greater mistake to conclude from certain apparently misogynistic statements that some or all of the Fathers were misogynists. Thus far, no balanced, unpolemical study has appeared which would indicate that any Father was a misogynist.

The above discussion is not intended to deny the fact that there is unfortunate material in the Fathers on men and women. The discussion, however, is intended to put that material into its proper context. Most of it is more attributable to a very different cultural approach than it is to a genuinely bad view. Yet even when all this is clarified and cultural aspects are given their proper context, there still remain some teachings and views that few authors today would wish to explain or defend. It is especially at this point that the first objection to the argument from tradition arises: How can one accept a church Father’s authority on the issue of, for example, the ordination of women to the presbyterate, if (two pages further on, or even in the same sentence) he goes on to say something which not only fails to represent authoritative Christian teaching, but is actually wrong and bad?

The correct response to this objection requires that one recall the important distinction made above (pp. 322323) between acknowledging a Father as a witness of tradition and acknowledging him as a theologian or apologist in his own right. To affirm that a Father is a witness of tradition is to declare that there is evidence in his writings which indicates the belief among the early Christians that a practice to which they held had been passed on to them from Christ and the apostles, that is, from the highest authorities. On the other hand, to state that a Father is a theologian or an apologist is to state that he reflected upon what he had received, and that what he taught included his own understanding and his own arguments to defend the traditions he was passing on. This distinction is extremely important, because the reasons and reflections which a Father offers do not bear as much authority as the actual practice to which he witnesses.

Any evaluation of the Fathers as Christian teachers who are witnesses of tradition is complicated, however, by the fact that there are very few (if any) patristic writings which were simply intended to be statements of the tradition of the early Christian church as received from Christ and the apostles. Practically all the patristic writings which have been preserved were composed for a particular purpose, and contain authentic Christian tradition inextricably mingled with the Fathers’ own thought. Only occasionally does a Father explicitly indicate that a given point was handed down to him rather than being his own idea. Fortunately, for the topic at hand it is not necessary to attempt a complete analysis of each of the Fathers’ writings in order to ascertain what practices had been received by the church of the patristic age as genuine and authoritative tradition. When one discovers that no patristic writer or canon ever denies or in any way opposes the view that the father should be the head of the family and that the elders of the Christian community should be men, and when one finds that many Fathers hold these views explicitly and use the example of Christ and the teaching of the apostles as a basis for holding these views, one has an argument which uses the Fathers as witnesses of tradition. Even if a statement of the view that women are not to be ordained presbyters were to be found in the same sentence as an erroneous teaching on women, that statement would still qualify as a valid witness to tradition because it represents another positive instance of the fact that early Christians considered the view that the presbyterate was only for men to be authoritative teaching handed down to them.

Beyond his authority as a witness of tradition, a Father may bear a certain authority as a Christian teacher, this is, in fact, one of the things it means to call him a “Father.” Therefore, in his teaching, in which are mingled the authentic tradition he is passing on and his own theological reflections and justifications, one may encounter various erroneous statements and unacceptable views. Yet a great Christian teacher may be allowed certain unacceptable views without denying or calling into question his basic worth as a teacher. Furthermore, despite some unfortunate comments and reasoning, few of the Fathers rely so heavily on cultural notions which are not scriptural that one would want to reject their teaching on men and women in its main outlines.

Taking all of the preceding considerations into account, one can say in summary that the first objection to the argument from tradition noted above is answered by distinguishing between the Fathers’ authority as teachers in their own right and their authority as witnesses of tradition. While certain questions and problems may arise in evaluating their attempts at theological reflection on men and women, their witness to tradition is clear, consistent, and unquestionable. It is upon the authority of this witness that the argument from tradition is founded.

A Lack of Unanimity in Tradition

The second objection to the argument from tradition states that within the Fathers and canonical tradition there is a lack of unanimity on various points concerning women and their role in the church; therefore one cannot accept their authority as firmly established about anything in this area. This view is put forward by van der Meer, who, in the following quotation, argues against the authority of tradition as a basis for the Catholic position on the ordination of women:

In any case one thing is clear: there was not much accord either in the Patristic period itself or later on. The Fathers, for example, in their battle against the Montanists rejected several notions which we today hold as justified and which even in their own day had long existed legitimately elsewhere in the church. And that refers not only to certain customs concerning woman, but also to ideas on woman. Thus even on that there was no unanimity.

We must confront the various opinions with one another in a fairly explicit manner, in order to show that it can scarcely be said that there was moral “unanimity” among the Fathers on the questions of what a woman is, what she may do in the Church, and what her essence is. And on some points on which a moral unanimity seemed to exist among the Fathers, their concepts were abandoned in later times.

Of course there was one point on which there has been unanimity through all times and in all places: a woman should not be a priest.45

Several observations about this position are in order. First, there need not be a moral unanimity among the Fathers on all questions of what a woman is and what her essence is in order to establish a valid, authoritative tradition on the roles of men and women. Theologians may prefer to base the teaching concerning the roles of men and women on the nature of man and woman, but this complete theoretical foundation has not been part of the witness from tradition. This issue is not the only one in which Christian tradition (and scripture) does not provide the theoretical completeness that many desire. The absence of such theory, however, does not invalidate or diminish the authority of the witness from tradition. Second, if Christians looked for a theological consensus on the essence of human beings as a necessary condition for accepting any teaching on how human beings should live, they would have to abandon most Christian teaching, both in scripture and tradition, as unfounded. It is revealing to observe precisely where the lack of unanimity exists on questions concerning what a woman may do in the church. The lack of unanimity proves to be in such matters as whether a woman may ever baptize, whether she may approach the altar, whether she may sing in choir, and in more recent centuries, what kind of teaching she may do. No lack of unanimity exists (at least none did before a century or two ago) on the position that men should be heads of the family, or on the position that the elders of the Christian community should be drawn from among the men. In other words, to use a distinction made earlier in this book, differences among the Fathers can be found in their views on the expression of social roles, but no differences occur in their teaching on the basic provisions of social structure.

This distinction is a key to understanding many of the current discussions about ministry and ordination for women. One can note certain differences throughout Christian tradition concerning which functions should be reserved to the head of a Christian community. An earlier example from this book is applicable here. Some forms of teaching are the sort which only a head should do, while other forms may be done by others without usurping the role of headship. Some kinds of teaching, for example, teaching catechism, may be considered differently in one age than in another. Again, questions about who should preside over the eucharist, penitential discipline, and rites of initiation (baptism, etc.) are of significance in many contexts primarily because these functions are understood to be related to the role of authority over the people of the Christian community.

To state the point in terms of the distinction mentioned above between the expression of social roles and the basic provisions of social structure, these practices function as expressions of the basic social role of headship in the community. The understanding that men should be the heads in the family and the community is a matter of basic social structure, and this understanding did not change or vary with time and place. On the other hand, questions about who should perform various teaching and liturgical functions in the community are in the realm of the expression of social roles, and the answers to these questions varied with time and place depending upon how each practice was viewed in relation to the position of headship in the community. If a practice was understood to be an expression of headship over the community, women were not permitted to perform it. If, in another locality, the same practice was not considered to be an expression of headship, men and women other than the elders might perform it. The primary reason why women in the early church did not do certain kinds of teaching, or preside at the eucharist, or baptize was not incompetence to perform these functions, but the fact that these functions were reserved for the head of the Christian community (the presbyter or bishop), and women were not chosen to be the heads of the community. In many churches recently, as the link which joined both sacramental and teaching activities with the headship of the community has been weakened, the question of whether women might perform these functions without also governing the lives of the people has been raised.46 More often than not, the solution to such a question depends upon a judgment about the particular activity and its relationship to governmental functions (an issue of expression) more than it does upon a judgment about the basic structure of the roles of men and women.

There is, then, more to understanding what a practice signifies about the roles of men and women than simply observing whether that practice is reserved to men or to women. The mere fact that something may be forbidden to women at one time and permitted at another does not necessarily indicate that the understanding of the roles of men and women has changed. Rather, it often indicates that the understanding of the particular activity has changed. For instance, the following is a list of medieval canons which no longer apply in any contemporary Western church:*

The touching of holy vessels and blessed cultic linens, entrance into the sacrarium during sacred service, removal of the altar linens for laundering outside the service, presenting the priestly vestment—all of this is now permitted without objection.47

Something has changed. Some would view the understanding of the role of women as having changed. However, it is not the role of men and women that has changed as much as it is the understanding of how Christians should approach ritual situations. At one time in the Western church there were very strict rules about touching items used in liturgy, and one had to be specially consecrated to approach them. That set of rules has changed. The above canons on women reflect an understanding of liturgical items from a period that was strict in enforcing ritual separation and such practices were often forbidden also to the laymen. The canons have been changed, however, not because of a change in the understanding of the role of women, but because of a change in understanding of the liturgy.

The “lack of unanimity” objection does not bear up under closer scrutiny. Any argument from tradition is going to be somewhat uneven. While some clear lines of unanimity can be traced in the orthodox Fathers, there is also a fair degree of divergence. For example, John Henry Newman, in the introduction to An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, presents an excellent sketch of the difficulty encountered in arguing from the Fathers on so central a doctrine as the Trinity.48 The existence of disagreements among the Fathers, then, is no indication that an argument from the early church teachers cannot be made on a particular point. Even were there lack of unanimity in any area, that lack would not automatically indicate the lack of a witness from tradition. Furthermore, the lack of unanimity on certain points of canonical tradition and patristic teaching is not an argument against valuing those points on which there is unanimity. In fact, precisely the opposite is the case. The more one encounters a lack of unanimity among the Fathers on particular questions relating to men and women, the more impressive is their basic unwavering understanding of men’s and women’s roles. Their unanimity on this point demonstrates the Fathers’ role as witnesses to a clear tradition which had come to them from the apostles. As has been noted previously, few teachings are as solidly established in scripture and tradition as those of the headship of the husband in the family and the elders of the Christian community being chosen from among the men.

“Tradition” is not popular nowadays. It is seen as the enemy of progress, and, indisputably, it can be. It is also possible that “tradition” can be the tradition of men that makes void the commandments of God. But tradition can also be both a witness of God’s faithfulness to his people in preserving his Word among them, and a witness of his people’s faithfulness in guarding his Word. In reading the documents of the early church on the roles of men and women, one can certainly perceive many worldly and cultural currents at work among the early Christians. But one can also perceive a fidelity to a pattern of relationships that was sketched out in the scripture. Tradition adds little that is new to what scripture teaches in this area. But, insofar as tradition reveals the steady conviction of the first generations of Christians that the scriptural teaching is indeed the apostolic directive for the life of the Christian people, it offers a strong confirmation of that teaching.

331*Eastern churches in Western countries would have to be considered Eastern.