With BiV and Hawkgrrrl discussing feminisim, female priesthood, and sexism, I thought I’d try to give a historical perspective on female priesthood in ancient Christianity.  I attended Sunstone back in August, and Bridget Jack Jeffries (who runs a blog called Clobberblog) gave a fascinating presentation on female priesthood holders in the ancient Christian church.  Following her presentation, I asked her if she would share her PowerPoint presentation, which she graciously did.  You can view them as well with this link to her website.

She noted that in the New Testament period and onward, there is evidence for

  • Women as apostles, bishops, elders, priests and deacons
  • Women performing baptisms and administering the Eucharist

She references Romans 16:7, which references Andronicus and Junia.  Some translators changed the name Junia (female) to Junis (male.)  Clearly Junia was an apostle.  Early Christian Father John Chrysostum (who lived from 347-405 AD) is quoted as saying, “how great the wisdom of this woman must have been that she was even deemed worthy of the title of apostle.” (In ep. ad Romanos 31.2)

Female Deacons are found in Romans 16:1-2 and 1 Tim 3:8-11.  Other women mentioned in the New Testament.  The following are definite or probable church house leaders.

  1. Lydia (Acts 16:14-15; 40),
  2. Nympha (Col. 4:15),
  3. Chloe (1 Cor. 1:11),
  4. Stephanas (1 Cor. 16:15-16),
  5. Priscilla (Rom. 16:3-5),
  6. and possibly the “elect lady” and her “chosen sister” in 2 John.
  7. Euodia & Synteche are mentioned in Philippians 4:2-3.  Theodore of Mopsuestia (c. 350 – 428) read this as a struggle between the two women for leadership.

Some may wonder if a deaconess is simply the wife of a deacon.  However, wives of male deacons were generally not given the title of “deaconess”.  She says that descriptions of their function don’t start appearing until the late second and early third centuries.  She also shows a painting possibly depicting women administering the Eucharist (LDS refer to this as the Sacrament.)  Archaeologists are split as to whether this truly represents the Sacrament.

In the 5th century, Testamentum Domini 2:20 states that if pregnant women could not attend church on Sunday, deaconesses could take the Eucharist to their home.  She also notes that in 511 AD, 3 Gallic bishops were chastised for allowing women to assist with the Eucharist.  This obviously indicates that women were involved in the practice. Canonical Resolutions 24 (6th century) states that deaconesses could distribute the Eucharist to their female companions who lived in convents in Edessa.

An ancient book called Acts of Paul and Thecla (2nd century) depicts the woman Thecla performing a self-baptism (similar to the story of Alma in Mosiah 18:13-14.)  Early church Father Justinian said it was acceptable for women to baptize as long as they met certain requirements.  In several texts as early as the first half of the third century, female deacons are described as assisting with baptisms and anointing the bodies of the female converts with oil before or after baptism.  In others, it is the women themselves performing the baptisms.

In her presentation, she said that “female priesthood” is a somewhat anachronistic term, but it is clear that women participated in ordinances that we would consider priesthood ordinances. I posted a longer version of this post on my blog, and John Hamer commented,

when the Christian church actually emerges with what we think of as priesthood and offices (bishop, priest, deacon), there isn’t female priesthood anymore, and that when women were in “priesthood” roles (as deaconesses and apostles) this was an era before you could really speak of a “Christian Church” and priesthood, but instead should think of multiple, non-systematized Christianities. In an actual, historical sense, Joseph Smith’s 1830s creations bear little resemblance either to the followers of the historical Jesus during Jesus’s life, nor any to the diverse, competing Christian communities that emerged after his death. In that sense, the Restoration was not an actual restoration, it was a conceptual restoration. The early Mormons believed they were reliving the New Testament, but they were actually doing something new.

So, there does appear to be ample evidence for female priesthood in the ancient Christian Church.  Women performed baptisms, blessed with oil, and many other ordinances that they are not allowed to do today in the LDS church.  I loved how Bridget ended her presentation.

  • Option 1 – We can Reject or Dismiss this information.  We can say things such as: “We don’t care if apostate Christian groups were ordaining women.”
  • Option 2 – We could offer a polemic attack against Joseph Smith. We can look at this data and say, “Look what Joseph Smith neglected to restore.”
  • Option 3 – We can accept this information.  Yes, women did hold a priesthood in ancient times.  The 9th Article of Faith allows that God still has things to reveal; gives Latter-day Saints room to be accepting of this data

She let me know of a couple of other links you might find interesting regarding female priesthood.

So, what do you make of Jack’s presentation?  Which option do you prefer?