A wall painting (c. 5th century) depicting a scene from the "Acts of Paul and Thecla" wherein Paul and Thecla's mother, Theocleia are both exhorting Thecla, their hands raised in a teaching gesture. Theocleia's eyes and hand have been vandalized.
A wall painting (c. 5th century) depicting a scene from the “Acts of Paul and Thecla” wherein Paul and Thecla’s mother, Theocleia, are exhorting Thecla, their hands raised in a teaching gesture. Theocleia’s eyes and hand have been vandalized. [1]
(Part 1 of 4)

I am a Christian egalitarian. I believe that God calls women as pastors, elders and deacons so that we should be ordained as such, and I believe that leadership of a Christian household should be shared between husband and wife with neither having final authority over the other and Christ being regarded as the head of the household. My position stands in contrast to Christian hierarchist [2] positions which restrict women from certain church leadership and teaching roles (usually pastor, elder, and sometimes deacon) and teach that the husband possesses some kind of final authority or leadership role in the home.

I arrived at this position through years of prayer, study, and personal experience. Here are 12 reasons why I am a Christian egalitarian today:

(1) Because the Creation narrative teaches that, before the Fall, men and women were created equal.

In the first Creation narrative in Genesis 1, both the man and the woman were created in the image of God (1:26-27). Both were commanded to have “dominion” over the earth (1:28). There is no trace of hierarchy in the text here. The man and the woman are equals in paradise, and God calls it “very good”  (1:31).

When people want to argue that women were created inferior to men, they usually turn to the second Creation narrative, where they argue that things like Adam’s naming of Eve (2:23, 3:20) or his having been created first (2:7) signal that he was meant to be in authority over Eve, but the text doesn’t actually say that. Rather, these interpretations ignore the weight of the remainder of the biblical evidence [3] as well as the evidence from antiquity. The Mesopotamians, for example, had a creation narrative where men were created last, yet they still regarded men as superior to women, demonstrating the subjectivity of such interpretations (indeed, I have no doubt that had the biblical narrative had men being created last, hierarchists would be arguing that men were God’s “crowning jewel” of Creation, rather than the other way around!). [4] As for naming, did Hagar exercise authority over the Lord God when she named him “the One who sees me” (Gen. 16:13)? Of course not. If anything is indicative of Eve’s status relative to Adam, it’s the way that the second Creation narrative has her being created from Adam’s side. Being created from his feet would have suggested inferiority while creation from his head would have suggested superiority. Instead, she was created from his side, suggesting equality. Finally, it is the man who is said to have to leave his parents and “cleave” unto his wife (v. 24), not the other way around. This runs counter to the many patriarchal cultures where it is the woman who is viewed as leaving her family and joining to her husband’s family, sometimes symbolized by the taking of her husband’s name (America) or the expectation that a woman will care for her husband’s parents in old age and not her own (China). Whatever the case, this verse certainly does not suggest that the woman was a subordinate party in the marriage relationship.

Ironically, the most persuasive argument I found against gender hierarchy in Creation comes from Genesis 3:16. That Eve was cursed with the prediction that her husband would “rule over” her in the Fallen world is a tacit acknowledgement that he wasn’t doing this before the Fall.

Since harmonious equality between the sexes is what an unfallen world looks like, it’s something we should all seek to emulate.

(2) Because women in the Bible exercised authoritative leadership roles over both men and women.

Women in the Bible are called by every spiritual leadership title that men are called by save “elder” [5] and “priest” (we’ll get to priesthood in the second post in this series). Deborah was a prophet and judge over Israel (Judges 4:4ff), an authoritative function that was clearly not limited to leadership over women, as shown by her summoning of Barak in v. 6. Miriam was another prophet who co-lead Israel alongside her brothers, Moses and Aaron (Micah 6:4), and whom God spoke through (Num. 12:1-2). When King Josiah wished to purify Judah and needed to hear the Word of the Lord, it was the prophet Huldah he turned to that she might teach him the Book of the Law (2 Ki. 22:11-20; 2 Chr. 34:19-28), even though male prophets like Jeremiah and Zephaniah were active during that time.

The only named individual in the New Testament who is called a “deacon” is Phoebe of Cenchreae, putting to shame all of the churches that have historically barred women from their diaconates and continue to do so (Romans 16:1-2). Phoebe is also called a prostatis, which literally means “a woman set before others” but has the colloquial meaning of “patron” or “benefactor.” A woman by the name of Junia was called, not just an apostle, but “outstanding among the apostles” (Romans 16:7). John Chrysostom (ca. 344/354 – 407) wrote of Junia, “To be apostles is a great thing, but to be distinguished among them—consider what an extraordinary accolade that is! They were distinguished because of their works and because of their upright deeds. Indeed, how great was the wisdom of this woman that she was thought worthy of being called an apostle!” [6] Finally, the Bible makes numerous references to female house-church leaders (1 Cor. 16:19, Rom. 16:3-5; Acts 12:12; Acts 16:14-15, 40; Col. 4:15; 1 Cor. 1:11; possibly 2 John 1:1), a role that may have been very similar to that of pastor or bishop [7], while an order of ministering widows is discussed in 1 Timothy 5:9-10. These widows had to be “the wife of one husband,” a mirror phrase to the qualification that elders be “the husband of one wife” in 1 Tim. 3:2.

Many Christians use 1 Timothy 2:11-15 to argue that a woman should never be in a position of ecclesiastical authority over a man, but it only takes one example of a woman being called by God to a position of spiritual authority to prove that interpretation wrong. As it turns out, we have many biblical examples of women exercising such authority over men. Which is to say: I arrived at my position through careful study of the Bible, and I earnestly believe this is part of God’s Word to women.

I will freely admit that there are no examples of women in the Bible being called directly by the church office of “elder,” but I’m not sure why there would have to be when God appoints women to the “first” and “second” offices of apostle and prophet (1 Cor. 12:28), which are given more preeminence than other “forms of leadership.”

(3) Because evidence from antiquity indicates that women in the early Church served as deacons, elders, priests, and bishops.

An abundance of evidence testifies to the existence of female deacons and/or deaconesses in the early centuries of Christianity. This evidence is epigraphical, written, and literary in nature, and often included the function of baptism. In spite of this abundance of evidence, women deacons were still phased out in every major branch of Christianity from the middle ages onward, serving as a strong testament to the ancient prejudices against female ecclesiastical orders—and while it’s nice that a number of hierarchist churches are finally bowing before the weight of this evidence and re-admitting women to their diaconates, it must be kept in mind that what happened with female deacons could have just as well happened with other, less common orders of ordained women.

Less plentiful is the evidence for women as elders, priests, and bishops, but it does exist, and there are places where we see that female overseers had the same function as their male counterparts. This evidence is deserving of its own post, but a thorough summary of it is found in Ordained Women in the Early Church: A Documentary History, edited by Kevin Madigan and Carolyn Osiek.

What I wanted to focus on in the limited space of this post is a much-later discussion of this evidence (but one that still predates modern-day feminism by centuries). This is a 10th century letter from Bishop Atto of Vercelli to a priest by the name of Ambrose. Ambrose, having come across the evidence for ordained women in ancient texts, was apparently troubled and wrote to Bishop Atto about it. This was Bishop Atto’s response:

Because your prudence has moved you to inquire how we should understand “female priest” (presbyteram) or “female deacon” (diaconam) in the canons: it seems to me that in the primitive church, according to the word of the Lord, “the harvest was great and the laborers few”; religious women (religiosae mulieres) used also to be ordained as caretakers (cultrices ordinabantur) in the holy church, as Blessed Paul shows in the Letter to the Romans, when he says, “I commend to you my sister Phoebe, who is in the ministry of the church at Cenchrea.” Here it is understood that not only men but also women presided over the churches (sed etiam feminae praeerat ecclesiis) because of their great usefulness. For women, long accustomed to the rites of the pagan and instructed also in philosophical teachings, were, for these reasons, converted more easily and taught more liberally in the worship of religion. This the eleventh canon of the Council of Laodicea prohibits when it says it is not fitting for those women who are called female presbyters (presbyterae) or presiders (praesidentes) to be ordained in the churches. We believe female deacons truly to have been ministers of such things. For we say that a minister is a deacon (diaconum) from which we perceive female deacon (diaconam) to have been derived. Finally, we read in the fifteenth canon of the Council of Chalcedon that a female deacon is not to be ordained before her fortieth year—and this was the highest gravity. We believe women were enjoined to the office of baptizing so that the bodies of other women might be handled by them without any deeply felt sense of shame . . . just as those who were called female presbyters (presbyterae) assumed the office of preaching, leading, and teaching, so female deacons had taken up the office of ministry and of baptizing, a custom that is no longer expedient. [8]

I agree with Bishop Atto. The evidence shows that women served as deacons, elders, and other leadership positions in the early church, a pattern that repeats itself in modern-day persecuted Christian communities (more on that in a future post in this series). Where I disagree with Bishop Atto is that this is a “custom that is no longer expedient.” Because of complementarity between the sexes and because women bring different gifts to the leadership table than men do, the “custom” of ordaining women to leadership positions is more expedient now than it ever has been.

To be continued . . .


[1] In Acts of Paul and Thecla, Theocleia opposed Paul’s message to Thecla and exhorted her to keep her engagement. As such, several possible interpretations of this painting (and its vandalism) exist. It may be a now-lost alternate version of AP wherein Theocleia did not oppose Paul’s teaching, but supported it, so that the vandalism would constitute a rejection of Theocleia’s apostolic co-teaching with Paul. It may be that the vandal was rejecting Theocleia’s opposing exhortation to Thecla. It may also be that the vandal simply did not understand the scene and vandalized Theocleia as a knee-jerk reaction against a woman teaching. Regardless, it is an interesting scene from an extra-biblical work that features a strong female minister in the character of Thecla.

[2] I use the term “hierarchist” because not all groups that seek to establish some form of male headship and bar women from church leadership identify with terms like “complementarian” or “patriarchal.” Nevertheless, this series is primarily in response to the arguments of evangelical complementarians.

[3] I will discuss 1 Tim. 2:13-14 in a later post.

[4] Richard S. Hess, “Equality With and Without Innocence: Genesis 1-3,” in Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity Without Hierarchy, edited by Ronald W. Pierce, Rebecca Merrill Groothuis, and Gordon D. Fee (Downers Grove, Ill.: Intervarsity Press, 2005), 85-86.

[5] A female term for “elder” is used, but only in contexts where it clearly means “older woman” and not a church office.

[6] In epistulam ad Romanos 31.2; PG:60.669-70, translation mine.

[7] For a discussion of the pastoral role of house-church leadership, see Karen Jo Torjesen, When Women Were Priests (San Francisco: Harper, 1993), 76-82.

[8] As cited in Madigan and Osiek, 192.


2 Comments on Why Egalitarian

  1. Bridget, this was a very interesting article. I agree with you that a wife and a husband are equally responsible for making decisions for their family, and that neither one has final authority over the other one. On the other hand I have accepted what the LDS Church teaches, that, at least in the current day, priesthood is reserved for men only. I don’t know why God wants it that way, but I am willing to accept that God may have a reason for it that God hasn’t revealed to us yet.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.