There is a lot of debate between Roman Catholics and Protestants on if women can be reverends or pastors within the church and have and maintain a leadership role. What was the early church fathers' views on females having leadership roles within the church? (i.e. reverends, priests)

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What was the Early Church Fathers' view of female teachers in the Church?

Church Fathers indicate that women do play an active role in the Church and that in the age of the Fathers there were orders of virgins, widows, and deaconesses, but that these women were not ordained.

The Early Church never promoted women to leadership roles within the Church. Although some heretics allowed such.

There were deaconesses in the Early Church, but their function was mainly to help out with the administration of the sacrament of baptism, almsgiving, visitations. These women deaconesses were counted as lay persons and that they receive no ordination properly so called.

“Deaconesses should carry out the anointing of women in the rite of baptism, instruct women neophytes, and visit the women faithful, especially the sick, in their homes. They were forbidden to confer baptism themselves, or to play a part in the Eucharistic offering (DA 3, 12, 1-4). The deaconesses had supplanted the widows. The bishop may still institute widows, but they should not either teach or administer baptism (to women), but only pray (DA 3, 5, 1-3, 6, 2). - History of Deaconesses

The way the faithful lived and understood things would seem a like difficult for us to contemplate nowadays. For example baptism was at one point administered in the nude! Thus deaconesses performed an valuable help in the administration of this sacrament when women were being baptized.

Bishop Hippolytus of Rome:

21 1 At the hour in which the cock crows, they shall first pray over the water. 2 When they come to the water, the water shall be pure and flowing, that is, the water of a spring or a flowing body of water. 3 Then they shall take off all their clothes.The children shall be baptized first. All of the children who can answer for themselves, let them answer. If there are any children who cannot answer for themselves, let their parents answer for them, or someone else from their family. 5 After this, the men will be baptized. Finally, the women, after they have unbound their hair, and removed their jewelry. No one shall take any foreign object with themselves down into the water. ...

9 When the elder takes hold of each of them who are to receive baptism, he shall tell each of them to renounce, saying, "I renounce you Satan, all your service, and all your works." 10 After he has said this, he shall anoint each with the Oil of Exorcism, saying, "Let every evil spirit depart from you." 11 Then, after these things, the bishop passes each of them on nude to the elder who stands at the water. They shall stand in the water naked. A deacon, likewise, will go down with them into the water. (Hippolytus. "Apostolic Traditions" of Hippolytus, 21:1-11. Translated by Edgecomb, Kevin P. Derived from Bernard Botte (La Tradition Apostolique. Sources Chretiennes, 11 bis. Paris, Editions du Cerf, 1984) and of Gregory Dix.

(The Treatise on the Apostolic Tradition of St. Hippolytus of Rome, Bishop and Martyr. London: Alban Press, 1992)

Deaconesses, unlike male deacons did not preach publicly or publicly proclaim the Gospel. Their service within the Church was of a more subdued manner.

Most Catholic scholars incline to the view that it is not always possible to draw a clear distinction in the early Church between deaconesses and widows (cherai). The Didascalia, Apostolic Constitutions and kindred documents undoubtedly recognize them as separate classes and they prefer the deaconess to the widow in the duty of assisting the clergy. Indeed, the Apostolic Constitutions (III, 6) enjoin the widows to be obedient to the deaconesses. It is probable also, as Funk maintains, that in the earlier period it was only a widow who could become a deaconess, but undoubtedly the strict limits of age, sixty years, which were at first prescribed for widows, were relaxed, at least at certain periods and in certain localities, in the case of those to be appointed to be deaconesses; for example, the Council of Trullo in 692 fixed the age at forty. Tertullian speaks with reprobation of a girl of twenty in viduatu ab episcopo collocatam, by which he seems to mean ordained as a deaconess. There can again be no question that the deaconesses in the fourth and fifth centuries had a distinct ecclesiastical standing, though there are traces of much variety of custom. According to the newly discovered "Testament of Our Lord" (c. 400), widows had a place in the sanctuary during the celebration of the liturgy, they stood at the anaphora behind the presbyters, they communicated after the deacons, and before the readers and subdeacons, and strange to say they had a charge of, or superintendence over the deaconesses. Further it is certain that a ritual was in use for the ordination of deaconesses by the laying on of hands which was closely modeled on the ritual for the ordination of a deacon. For example, the Apostolic Constitutions say:

Concerning a deaconess, I, Bartholomew enjoin O Bishop, thou shalt lay thy hands upon her with all the Presbytery and the Deacons and the Deaconesses and thou shalt say: Eternal God, the Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the creator of man and woman, that didst fill with the Spirit Mary and Deborah, and Anna and Huldah, that didst not disdain that thine only begotten Son should be born of a woman; Thou that in the tabernacle of witness and in the temple didst appoint women guardians of thy holy gates: Do thou now look on this thy handmaid, who is appointed unto the office of a Deaconess and grant unto her the Holy Spirit, and cleanse her from all pollution of the flesh and of the spirit, that she may worthily accomplish the work committed unto her, to thy glory and the praise of thy Christ.

Comparing this form with that given in the same work with that for the ordination of deacons we may notice that the reference to the outpouring of Holy Ghost in the latter case is much more strongly worded: "fill him with the spirit and with power as thou didst fill Stephen the martyr and follower of the sufferings of thy Christ". Moreover, in the case of the deacon, prayer is made that he "may be counted worthy of a higher standing", a clause which not improbably has reference to the possibility of advance to a higher ecclesiastical dignity as priest or bishop, no such praise being used in the case of the deaconess. Deaconess (Catholic Encyclopaedia)

The Apostolic Constitutions:

“A virgin is not ordained, for we have no such command from the Lord, for this is a state of voluntary trial, not for the reproach of marriage, but on account of leisure for piety” (Apostolic Constitutions 8:24 [A.D. 400]).

“Appoint, [O Bishop], a deaconess, faithful and holy, for the ministering of women. For sometimes it is not possible to send a deacon into certain houses of women, because of unbelievers. Send a deaconess, because of the thoughts of the petty. A deaconess is of use to us also in many other situations. First of all, in the baptizing of women, a deacon will touch only their forehead with the holy oil, and afterwards the female deacon herself anoints them” (ibid., 3:16).

Since deaconesses were considered lay persons and the Rite of Baptism was changed over time due to issues such as modesty, deaconesses eventually disappeared.

Council of Laodicea

“[T]he so-called ‘presbyteresses’ or ‘presidentesses’ are not to be ordained in the Church” - (Canon 11 [A.D. 360]).

The following may be of interest to some:


Although a number of early Christian groups were quite open to women prophesying & teaching the Gospel, leadership positions in the clergy have been rather consistently occupied by men.

There were a few sects, labeled heretical by most early Christians, that had women presbyters, such as the Montanists or the Priscillianists. Though it should be noted that even the Montanists were divided among themselves on this matter.

Otherwise, the position of the early writers demonstrates a belief that God had appointed men & women to distinct roles & responsibilities.

In response to the Thecla controversy, Tertullian wrote:

But if the writings which wrongly go under Paul's name, claim Thecla's example as a licence for women's teaching and baptizing, let them know that, in Asia, the presbyter who composed that writing, as if he were augmenting Paul's fame from his own store, after being convicted, and confessing that he had done it from love of Paul, was removed from his office. For how credible would it seem, that he who has not permitted a woman even to learn with over-boldness, should give a female the power of teaching and of baptizing. (On Baptism ch. 17)

Regarding the power to baptize (an authority very specifically reserved for certain clergy), the Apostolic Constitutions report:

Now, as to women's baptizing, we let you know that there is no small peril to those that undertake it. Therefore we do not advise you to it; for it is dangerous, or rather wicked and impious (Book III, chapter 9)

Epiphanius of Salamis was particularly direct on this topic (see a compilation of a variety of Patristic quotes, including his, here):

From this bishop [James the Just] and the just-named apostles, the succession of bishops and presbyters [priests] in the house of God have been established. Never was a woman called to these (Against Heresies 78:13)

If women were to be charged by God with entering the priesthood or with assuming ecclesiastical office, then in the New Covenant it would have devolved upon no one more than Mary to fulfill a priestly function. She was invested with so great an honor as to be allowed to provide a dwelling in her womb for the heavenly God and King of all things, the Son of God. . . . But he did not find this [the conferring of priesthood on her] good (Against Heresies 79:3, as quoted here).


The role of a deaconess

There were women who were appointed deaconesses. The exact function & authority of a deaconess is a matter of some historical dispute. Canon 19 of the Council of Nicaea ruled that a deaconess was a member of the laity, not clergy.

Epiphanius of Salamis reported:

It is true that in the Church there is an order of deaconesses, but not for being a priestess, nor for any kind of work of administration (Against Heresies 78:13).

  • The scholarly consensus is that Tertullian wrote "On Baptism" prior to his conversion to Montanism. So, it's possible that he changed his view on the subject. In other words, it is not so clear to me that "the Montanists were divided among themselves on this matter."
    – Jess
    Jun 1, 2022 at 0:32
  • 1
    @Jess re the chronology of "On Baptism" that is probably correct. On the other hand, he probably wrote "De cultu Feminarum" after his adoption of (some) Montanist beliefs. I'm not aware of any writings showing he changed his mind on this particular issue, though I'd be interested if you have any recommendations. From what I've read, Montanism in Carthage & Montanism in Anatolia had sizeable differences, and the Montanism that interested Tertullian was closer to what we would call "orthodox" Christianity than were the more extreme claims of Montanus himself. Jun 1, 2022 at 1:08
  • @HTTR, While it is true that Tertullian was astringent about cultural modesty practices, he did write some pretty egalitarian stuff at times. This article explores some of the reasons why he may have written that way. margmowczko.com/tertullian-equality-in-marriage
    – Jess
    Jun 1, 2022 at 16:36

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