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Contexts of Women’s Leadership in the Church (40-200 AD)

Four Social Contexts where Women could Lead

The Greco-Roman world was patriarchal and highly stratified, and women were typically thought to be less capable than men. So how is it that some Christian women were able to exercise their ministry gifts, including speaking and leadership gifts, in churches?

There were a few contexts within broader Roman society where women could function as leaders. Some of these contexts shared similarities with the church. These similarities helped to minimise difficulties for gifted Christian women to lead and minister in Christian congregations. This article looks at four social contexts of the wider Greco-Roman world where women could lead.

1. Household and Business 

Generally speaking, the public sphere was the domain of men, but the domestic sphere belonged to the women. It was in the home that women, especially wealthy women who were in charge of large households, could exercise authority and leadership.

Households could be sizeable communities consisting of immediate family, extended family, slaves, servants, and employees. Furthermore, businesses were often run in households. Women’s experience as managers of these households established their leadership in other domains in Greco-Roman society, including house churches and synagogues.[1]

The New Testament identifies several women who were householders: Mary of Jerusalem, Lydia in Philippi, Prisca with Aquila, Chloe of Corinth, Nympha of Laodicea, and the Chosen Lady in Asia Minor, etc. These women, some of whom may have been independently wealthy widows, would have exercised leadership within their own households, managing the running of their homes and home-based businesses and industries. They maintained their position when they hosted church meetings in their homes, especially as most of the church members would have included their family members, slaves, and clients.[2]

That is not to say that all Christian householders functioned like senior pastors or priests today. In the early decades of the church, ministries were shared within congregations, and all could contribute (1 Cor. 14:26). Moreover, householders made room for the ministries of visiting apostles, prophets, and teachers. Nevertheless, the householder was usually the person responsible for the welfare of the congregation that met in his or her home, and controlled who was, and who wasn’t, welcome (cf. 2 John 1:10).

Contexts of women’s leadership in the church (40-200 AD) (Part 1)

Livia Drusilla, wife of Caesar Augustus (Museo Arqueológico Nacional de España)

2. Wealth and Patronage 

Some of the more wealthy women in the church were also able to exercise leadership in ministry due to the social system of patronage.[3] Patronage was an important part of Roman society. Seneca, a prominent Roman statesman, described it as “the chief bond of human society” (De Beneficiis 1.4.2). Livia, the wife of Caesar Augustus, “invented new ways of extending patronage”[4] and, after her husband’s death, she “developed a more overt presence in a wide variety of public forums.”[5] Other high-status Roman women followed Livia’s example. They began exercising more influence through patronage, and gained a greater public presence.

We know that Christianity attracted wealthy women who were prominent in their communities (e.g. Acts 13:50; 17:4, 12). The system of patronage gave these women a high level of influence in their congregations. This was especially true if the patron was also the host of the church.[6] Lydia was a wealthy business woman, as well as being a householder. It is likely that she was a patron as well as the host of the church that met in her home in Philippi, a congregation which included her entire household and others (Acts 16:15, 40). Phoebe of Cenchrea is specifically called a patron (prostatis) in Romans 16:2b. Here Paul wrote that Phoebe “has been a benefactor (prostatis) of many and of myself as well.” (NRSV) Phoebe was not only a patron, she was also a deacon, or minister, of her church (Rom. 16:1-2).

While being wealthy gave a few, elite women an advantage, wealth was not, and should not be, a prerequisite for ministry or leadership. Nevertheless, wealthy women who acted as patrons continued to be influential in the church even when other ministerial functions and positions were increasingly denied to them. In many churches, male clergy “welcomed women as patrons and even offered women roles in which they could act as collaborators. By 200 AD, the role of women [as patrons and collaborators] in Christian churches was quite unmistakeable.”[7] Like the apostle Paul, some of the “great” men of early Christianity, such as Clement of Alexandria (b.150), Origen (b.184/5), and Jerome (b. 347) were supported by wealthy female friends and patronesses.[8]

3. Voluntary Associations

There was still another social context that allowed women and people in lower sectors of Roman society to exercise leadership.

It has been noted by several scholars that some of the very early churches functioned like the many voluntary associations and trade guilds that proliferated in the first century.[9] These associations and guilds were a subset of society, with their own “highly developed constitutions with an established pattern of selecting and appointing leading officials. Many of these groups included non-citizens or slave members who earned positions of leadership within this limited context.”[10] Lydia who dealt in expensive purple cloth, Prisca who was a tentmaker, and women like them, could well have belonged to a professional guild where they may have exercised leadership.

The activities of guilds, like most institutions in Roman society, included rituals of worship to pagan gods and to the emperor. So it is difficult to see how men and women, after conversion to Christianity, could have remained in these associations with a clear conscience. Nevertheless, some customs of voluntary associations seem to have been adopted by at least some house churches, including the acceptance of leadership and ministry by people from the lower echelons of society, apparently even from female slaves.[11]

4. Pagan Cults

It is widely documented in ancient literature and inscriptions that some pagan women were priestesses and prophetesses, and held some of the highest offices in the cults of the Greco-Roman world.[12] The women and girls who were eligible to hold these ministerial positions typically came from elite, wealthy families. The Vestal Virgins of Rome are a notable example of wealthy women who held esteemed religious offices. These women tended the sacred hearth of Rome and presided over religious festivals, including the festival of the Bona Dea (“good goddess”) held in December each year.

Religious offices often came with civic, as well as religious, responsibilities. Vice versa, people with important civic responsibilities often had priesthoods. Many high ranking senators and statesmen were priests. This was also true for the emperor. The highest office in the state religion of ancient Rome was the Pontifex Maximus. From Augustus onwards, the title and office of Pontifex Maximus was bestowed on all Roman Emperors. Women priests could also exercise both civil and religious authority. For instance, the priestess of Hestia, called a prytanus, functioned like a town mayor. Paul Trebilco writes, “In Asia Minor twenty-eight women were known to have held the position of prytanus (a position of very high rank involving the finances and cultic life of the city) in eight cities of the first three centuries of the Common Era.”[13]

Contexts of Women’s Leadership in the Church (40-200 AD) (Part 1)While a few elite first-century women could be priestesses, and even high priestesses, ordinary women could play certain roles in religious rituals held within the home. This broader social acceptance of women ministers in the pervasive religious culture of the Roman Empire meant that many in the church would not have baulked at Christian women ministering in Christian congregations. Some of the problems in early Christian congregations in cities such as Corinth, Ephesus, and Thyatira, however, may have been caused by newly-converted, upper-class women bringing elements of pagan religion into the church, along with a disruptive and problematic boldness.


Despite the patriarchal culture of the Roman Empire, the setting of the Early Church, there were ways for women to have influence and be leaders, particularly in the four social contexts of household, patronage, voluntary associations, and some religious cults. These accepted cultural contexts spilled over into the church.

Apart from the four social contexts that allowed some women to be leaders, there were three much more important devotional contexts which enabled Christian women from all strata of society to be leaders and ministers in their congregations. These contexts, will be discussed in an upcoming (pending) post.


[1] Deborah M. Gill and Barbara Cavaness, Barbara, God’s Women—Then and Now (Springfield, MO: Grace and Truth, 2009) (Kindle Locations 862-870)

[2] Many congregations saw themselves as families, or households, of brothers and sisters (Eph. 2:19; 1 Tim. 3:15), with the responsibilities of church overseers (episkopoi) often being “the same as, or at least modelled upon the manager of a household” (cf. 1 Tim. 3:4). Damien A. Casey, “The ‘Fractio Panis’ and Eucharist as Eschatological Banquet, Theology@McAuley Issue 2 (August 2002) (Source)

[3] “Leadership, wealth, and patronage were inextricably intertwined  . . .  This is the context for understanding the status of wealthy widows as patrons. . . . The possession of wealth itself created the expectation of leadership.” Katherine Bain, Women’s Socioeconomic Status and Religious Leadership in Asia Minor in the First Two Centuries CE (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2014) 124.

[4] Beth Severy, Augustus and the Family at the Birth of the Roman Empire (London: Routledge, 2004) 234.

[5] Ibid., 236.

[6] “Because patronage was ‘in many ways gender-blind’ women could deliberately, or as a by-product of their benefaction, increase their honor and presence in the public arena. . . . Women patrons thus won for themselves liberty to speak and act in political and religious affairs.”
Greg W. Forbes and Scott D. Harrower, Raised from Obscurity: A Narratival and Theological Study of the Characterization of Women in Luke-Acts (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2015) 32. (I’ve posted a review of this outstanding book here.)

[7] Peter Brown, The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988) 144-145.

[8] Jesus was also supported financially by female patrons who were also disciples (Luke 8:2-3).

[9] For example, Philip Harland, Associations, Synagogues and Congregations: Claiming a Place in Ancient Mediterranean Society (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress Press, 2003)

[10] Andrew D. Clarke, Serve the Community of the Church: Christians as Leaders and Ministers (Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2000) 4.

[11] Some male and female slaves in the early church appear to have become bishops (Ignatius, Eph 1:3, etc) and deacons (Pliny, Letters 10:96).

[12] See chapter 5 of Lynn H. Cohick’s book Women in the World of the Earliest Christians: Illuminating Ancient Ways of Life (Baker Academic, 2009) 159ff, for more on the religious activities of Greco-Roman women.

[13] Paul Trebilco, Jewish Communities in Asia Minor (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991) 120.

Related Articles

The First Century Church and the Ministry of Women
The Prominence of Women in the Cults of Ephesus
Women Church Leaders in the New Testament
Phoebe as Patron
Working Women in the New Testament: Priscilla, Lydia & Phoebe
Female Masters, Male Slaves and the NT Household Codes

Posted September 22nd, 2015 . Categories/Tags: Equality and Gender Issues, , , ,

Unkind, judgemental, bizarre, and off-topic comments will be deleted.

One comment on “Contexts of Women’s Leadership in the Church (40-200 AD)

  1. Marg says:

    I’m not sure why you say the church has no power to overturn any custom. The church has the authority to interpret Scripture and to change, and it has indeed changed its beliefs and customs many times on various points. I know many women who lead the eucharist or communion. Myself included.

    Who do you think led the church meetings in Philippi when Paul left (Acts 16:40)? Who do you think led the church meetings in the house of the Chosen Lady? Or in Nympha’s house (Col 4:15 NIV)? It is most likely that these churches were cared for and served/led by Lydia, the lady, and by Nympha, with others helping them.

    The New Testament nowhere indicates that women are to be less involved in the Eucharist. It also doesn’t indicate that you need “Holy Orders” to serve the Eucharist.

    Also, in the first century there seems to have been two main traditions of the Eucharist. In the second century there were many heated debates about dates and customs of the eucharist. More on this here. There was diversity in the first two centuries and there is diversity now.

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