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Sunday, May 8, 2011

Weren't there women priests/deacons in the early Church?

“Love the Lord with all your heart, and with all your soul,
and with all your MIND”--Matt 22:37

He is risen!  Alleluia!

Question: Weren't there women priests/deacons in the early Church?  Wasn't Phoebe identified in the book of Romans as a deacon?
I commend to you Phoebe our sister, who is (also) a minister of the church at Cenchreae,--Romans 16:1

The above passage in Romans does indicate that a woman, Phoebe, was a deacon in the Church.  (The word used in the original Greek text for "minister" is diakonos, from which we get the word "deacon".)  However, the role of a deacon in the early church should not be understood as an ordained role similar to the diaconate role we have in the church today.  Phoebe was a minister or servant who assisted the clergy in the liturgy, but was never ordained.

To be sure, women served a role in the early church, just as they do now. However, it was never the case that women served as priestesses, deaconesses or in any ordained capacity.

Modern day media portrayals of the Church in history usually fall into two categories:
-those that present the Church as oppressive to women with the male priesthood/hierarchy as the Eternal Oppressors.
-those that claim (as in the above question) that initially the Church had priestesses, but that elite, powerful and evil men usurped this role of women and started their own misogynistic agenda against women (ala The DaVinci Code).

Neither is true. 

Church teaching has always promoted the dignity and worth of women, especially in contrast to the pagan cultures in which they enculturated.  That Catholic men have, no doubt, oppressed women in the name of the Church is a sad testament.  However, how people in the Church have practiced their faith (or lack thereof) should not be confused with what the Church has taught.  It is the difference between orthopraxy (living out of the faith) and orthodoxy (the teaching of the faith.)  The orthodoxy of the Church has never promoted oppression to women.  In its orthopraxy, sadly, it has.

How has the Church promoted the dignity and esteem of women?  Starting in the Old Testament we have the examples of Miriam, Deborah, Ruth, Judith...New Testament models include, of course, the Blessed Mother--esteemed above all men--Mary Magdalene, Martha and Mary.  The early church venerated women martyrs such as St. Lucy, St. Agatha who gave their lives in the earliest days of Christianity.  There were Desert Mothers such as St. Syncletica, St. Theodora who were held in high admiration and whose theological opinions were sought.  Throughout church history we will see women abbesses of large monasteries, women who led hospitals and orphanages, women like St. Teresa of Avila who led successful efforts to reform the Church.  In relatively modern days we have the examples of women scholars such as St. Edith Stein.

Finally, the highest honor in Church hagiography is the title of "Doctor of the Church."  Those who have been declared a Doctor of the Church are those whose teachings and theological opinions are held in the highest authority and esteem.  In the 2000 year history of the Church, with thousands of saints being venerated, there are only 33 declared Doctors of the Church, and of those 33, 3 are women.

For more in-depth study visit these websites:

"On the Dignity and Vocation of Women" --Pope JPII's beautiful encyclical to women; no one can read this and claim that the Church oppresses women!
"Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect" - 1 Peter 3:15


  1. First, I would cite that you are just flat out wrong in your account of the early history of the church. In the Bible, there are mentions of women working in the church but also archaeology from this period reveals evidence of women in the role of priest. There are biblical scholars that are true apologists and not amateurs that would agree with me.

    Second, it is documented that through the 12th century there were women priests, bishops and deacons in the church. I would strongly suggest that you look up and closely examine the information that is on the internet and have an open mind.

    Third, I have always believed that when scared scripture butts heads with sacred tradition, one must lean toward scripture for the final answer. There is nothing in the Holy Word that would suggest that Jesus or the Early Church endorsed a male only hierarchy. It just isn't there. Also remember that we are justified by faith and not by works (the Law).

    1. If you could offer the evidence that you have that reveals that women served as priests that would be helpful. I am trying to imagine how "archeological evidence" would demonstrate this. Is there a pottery shard that depicts a picture of a Catholic priestess? Or a linen garment perhaps that belonged to a priestess?

      I would like to see evidence of these archeological treasures, please.

    2. You cannot actually be serious. At no time in the New Testament or in the early Tradition of the Church were there women priests. In fact, that was one area which showed a stark difference between Christianity and the other religious of the time, many of which had priestesses.

      For a discussion on the supposed role of "deaconesses" see here: Chapter 2, section IV.

      As for female bishops and or priests, you are even more far off. The words Presbytera and Presbyterissa which are often used by supporters of women's ordination, actually mean "wife of a priest" or "mother of a priest. The word, Episcopissa was used to denote the mother of a bishop.

      I also suggest you read these books:

      This presentation gives a solid break down of the reasoning behind a male only clergy.