Montantism and the Authority of (Female) Confessor-Martyrs

This post is part of an ongoing series reflecting upon Women and Gender in Early Christianity.

Holy SpiritIn “The Role of Martyrdom and Persecution in Developing the Priestly Authority of Women in Early Christianity: A Case Study in Montanism,”[1] Frederick Klawiter contends that from its beginnings Montanism enabled women to rise to ministerial status through their roles as confessor-martyrs. After offering a broad overview of the New Prophecy and its divisive influence in second century Asia Minor, Klawiter considers why the movement came to be viewed as heretical, suggesting that New Prophecy placed too great an emphasis on martyrdom. This Klawiter connects with the rise of martyr-minsters in Rome (ca. 190 CE), whose integrity before God elevated them to the rank of presbyter. It was this elevated status that Montanists extended to confessors even after their release, as with Alexander and Themiso, who called themselves martyrs even after their release from captivity.

The Passio of Perpetua and Felicitas clearly demonstrates this type of thinking, as Perpetua and Saturus both wield the power of the keys whilst imprisoned. In this view, Montanists believed that those destined for martyrdom—regardless of gender—were fully capable of bestowing the peace of the keys upon other Christians. Thus, women who held the status of confessor-martyrs were ministers of the Church, in no small part due to the authority of being baptized into Christ’s sufferings (which would not end simply because of one’s release from prison) and because of the coming end of all things. Thus, the liberation of the Spirit—both in gifting and ministerial position—extended to all who were baptized in the Spirit beyond whatever circumstances immediately led to that baptism.

Saint Perpetua
Saint Perpetua

Most important in this this article is Klawiter’s central argument concerning the importance of confessor-martyrs for the early Church and how contestations of these statuses may have impacted early Christian conceptions of ministerial authority. This conflict points—rightly, I believe—to the ongoing context for “authority” in the early Church, reflected elsewhere in the contexts of scripture, hierarchy, sacraments, liturgy, and canon. Furthermore, Klawiter rightly draws upon Irenaeus’s definitions of martyr and confessor, noting that for the orthodox, the release of the confessor ended their titular power over the keys. Also appreciated was the balanced use of Epiphanius’s testimony against Montanism, which stands in stark contrast to some other scholars’ portrayals of his blindly polemical rage.

My major critique of this essay involves Klawiter’s employment of contemporary non-Montanist sources to further develop and nuance his perspective. For example, in referencing Montanism’s apocalyptic overtones, Klawiter would have done well to draw on parallels between the New Prophecy and other early Christian writings, especially the Apocalypse of John. The most egregious occurrence resides with the consideration of why Montanism became viewed as heretical. Although he points toward the debate over the ministerial status of confessor-martyrs (including women), Klawiter overstates his case by suggesting that it was an emphasis on martyrdom per se—not the status of (possible) martyrs—which formed the basis for an orthodox critique. That is, Klawiter suggests that it was the willingness of Montanists to desire martyrdom which sent them down the path of no return, where confessor-martyrs were viewed as overly authoritative voices for the orthodox. Here too this analysis would have benefited from consideration of other writings contemporary to the situation, namely, the Epistles of Ignatius of Antioch, the Martyrdom of Polycarp, and even (though a bit later) Origen’s biography. These writings suggest that a zeal for martyrdom could credibly reside within orthodoxy, a perspective Klawiter could have further used as an opportunity to clarify the dividing lines between orthodoxy and the New Prophecy.


[1] Frederick C. Klawiter. “The Role of Martyrdom and Persecution in Developing the Priestly Authority of Women in Early Christianity: A Case Study in Montanism.” Church History 49, 3 (1980): 251-261. Though not the most recent piece, Klawiter’s article has proved formative for a number of contemporary studies.


Published by Jacob J. Prahlow

Husband of Hayley. Dad of Bree and Judah. Lead pastor at Arise Church. MATS from Saint Louis University, MA from Wake Forest University, BA from Valparaiso University. Theologian and writer here and at Conciliar Post. Find me on social at @pastorjakestl

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