The Role of Women in Early Christianity

The Role of Women in Early Christianity September 28, 2023

The Chosen Series Helped Me “See” the Women in the Synoptic Gospels

The Chosen S2E8: four of the women who followed Jesus, including Mother Mary and two of the unnamed women in the gospel material.
The Chosen S2E8: four of the women who followed Jesus, including Mother Mary.

From the first through the fourth centuries, how did women contribute to Christian leadership?
Why did Constantine or any of the Councils, like the Council of Nicea, keep women from Christian leadership positions?

A female reader of my Church History 101 website sent these questions to me. These are excellent questions…and deserve to be answered. So I am beginning a series to address this issue.

Immediately I must admit – this is not a topic I have ever focused on unless I was doing research on a specific biblical text. I have pondered various texts in the gospel material and I have done work on specific texts in Pauline letters dealing with women…but this is my first time to write on this topic.

Here is my plan:

  1. An overview of the women in the life and ministry of Jesus.
  2. Women in the ministry orbit of the Apostle Paul.
  3. The role of women from 70-200 AD as seen by the literature.
  4. Specific positive examples of women in the first 300 years.
  5. Conclusions: WHY are women under-represented in Christian leadership?

Both Jesus and Paul valued women and did not push them away.
There are examples of women serving in pastoral roles in Paul’s orbit. There are positive examples of women within the emerging Christian literature, the period usually associated with the formalization of church structure. By the third and fourth centuries there is a clear introduction of male authority structures imposed with the goal of enforcing orthodoxy. In this series I plan to present as much evidence as is practical, then I will offer some conclusions regarding the historical changes in women’s roles within church leadership and WHY this may have happened.

Regarding the Role of Women in First Century Judea

It is easy to overlook the importance of women in the gospel materials and in early Christianity. As a student of the NT for well over 40 years, I have just admitted this to be my first time writing on this topic. Why? Because I was never exposed to the solid NT evidence to support female involvement and leadership. While I had a basic idea that women can and should serve God pretty much the same as men, I had read right past the evidence for many, many years.

It is a well-known fact that the ancient world was “male-centered.” Most cultures have been patriarchal, but to simply condemn this fact by our 21st century standards does not seem helpful.

The Chosen Facebook: the woman at the well, S2E8.
The Chosen Facebook: the woman at the well.

The Chosen Series Portrayal of Women Around Jesus

Around two years ago I started watching The Chosen Series. Early on I was a bit disturbed with how they had Mary Magdalene traveling with the men. My fellow Chosen fans and friends grew weary of me saying this bugged me.

Then I started a series in my church through Luke’s gospel and I began to see that Jesus did have women around Him more than I had ever noticed.

In The Chosen Mary Magdalene is an important character. Obviously, Mary the mother of Jesus shows up as well. But there are others like Tamar, the Ethiopian woman and then Ramah, the young woman Thomas hopes to marry. Neither of these women are in the gospel material…that bothered me.

Yet in Luke 8:1-3 the text says that Jesus traveled around the region of Capernaum with the twelve, with some women (Mary Magdalene, Joanna and Susanna are named) “and many others.”

The Chosen S3E6: Mary and Tamar draw closer.
The Chosen Facebook: Mary and Tamar draw closer, S3E6.

We will go into more detail in the next article, but for now it is enough to mention that many, many women encountered Jesus in the gospels and were never named. The “woman at the well” is a good example. We are never told her name. Thus, having women in The Chosen that are never mentioned in the gospel material is accurate and should not surprise us.

It also bugged me that The Chosen came up with this idea of the women running an olive grove to support the ministry of Jesus. I knew that women helped Him by providing food and lodging sometimes, but it just seemed far fetched for these women to start a business.

Well, Luke 8:3, speaking about these women says:

“These women were helping to support them [Jesus and the disciples] out of their own means.”

None of this proves that women should serve in the ministry, or preach…right?
This question (and many others) deserves more than a “yes” or “no” answer right now. I have simply illustrated how we tend to read right past evidence in the biblical text.

To be clear, I am not writing these articles to discuss The Chosen. I am using my interaction with this popular series to illustrate my own bias. As I move forward I would ask the reader to do their best to be objective. Part of trying to be objective is acknowledging your presuppositions. As you may have noticed – I failed in part. My presuppositions kept me from seeing the texts clearly. It was not intentional, but this is how bias works. I have been formally trained, yet I still failed to keep an open mind. Be open and honest with the evidence from the biblical text.

As in my prior articles I will be using solid biblical scholars and I will continue to point to their works in footnotes. These are not full scholarly articles, thus I will not be attempting to review scholars on the other side of each and every passage or topic.

All fair questions and comments will be appreciated and I will respond to them. As on my website, if I receive excellent sourced comments I may use them in the articles.



Al Baker has served 20+ years as a pastor (university pastor and local church), was an adjunct then an associate professor of Philosophy and Religion at Saint Augustine’s University in Raleigh NC for six years.

After serving as the university pastor of Chi Alpha (Assemblies of God) at the University of Alabama for 11 years, he moved his family to St Andrews, Scotland. In 2001 Al Baker completed his Ph.D. in Early Church History at the University of St Andrews.
In 2005 he started, surpassing 1 million unique visitors in 2016. On that site there are several articles on different aspects of early Christianity and two PDF eBooks you can download.

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