Women in the Apostolic Fathers: Conclusions

This post is part of an ongoing series examining Women in the Apostolic Fathers.

Apostolic FathersThrough consideration of several pericopes from the writings of the Apostolic Fathers, this study has argued that these authors conceived of women as having properly ordered roles in the Christian Church, roles which could include familial and visionary functions. In First Clement, biblical women were employed as examples for the congregation at Corinth. Second Clement reinforced the Pauline idea that the relationship between Christ and the Church was akin to that of husband and wife, both of whom contain fleshly and spiritual components. The epistles of Ignatius and Polycarp reveal an emphasis on church order and ecclesiastical hierarchy which affects how all Christians—both women and men—should live their lives. These epistles also demonstrate that women held positions of some standing in certain Christian communities, including groups of “virgins called widows”, house-holding women, traveling (diaconal?) women, and individually outstanding women. In the Shepherd of Hermas, women serve as revelers of God’s truths, images of the Church herself, and teachers of women and children.

As noted above, the cumulative conclusions to be drawn from this study are necessarily limited by the disparate origins and purposes of these writings. Yet the overarching theme of ordered roles does seem to account for the particularities of how these writings conceive of women. Such roles could vary depending on who the woman in question might be: young virgins, celibates, married women, widows, householders, messengers, owners, fellow sisters, deaconesses, and visionary women all functioned somewhat differently and diversely fit into the social and theological ordo envisioned by these early Christian leaders. Women could also serve paranetic purposes: in the same way that the great male figures of the past could be viewed as worthy of emulation, so also biblical women could serve as encouragements and examples for Christian women and men. Perhaps most striking, the personification of the Church as woman in 2 Clement and the Shepherd of Hermas suggests that, at least in some sense, all Christians were to submit to the correction and instruction of a “woman.” At the heart of all of these ways of talking about women are concerns with order in the church.

Ancient Roman WomenFurther, other theological battles early Christians were waging shaped their views of male and female. In likely opposition to docetic and Gnostic interlocutors, Second Clement and Ignatius reveal a relatively high view of flesh as a necessary component of the human body and the created order. The body was not without its dangers, of course, but for the Apostolic Fathers it does not yet exist primarily as the basis for ascetic struggle. This could be because they were concerned with more pressing issues, because the Christian communities assumed a common moral or bounded character, or simply because these sources only reflect a select subset of the writings originally from this period. It is noteworthy, however, that the Apostolic Fathers (and their neutral/high views of the body) appear between two sub-collections of writings (the Pastorals/late New Testament literature and the Acta/apocryphal gospel/gnostic literature) which are more explicitly concerned with bodies, gender roles, and the place of women in the church.

Before concluding, a word ought to be said about potential future projects in the stream of what has been done here. Expanded study of women in the Shepherd of Hermas would appear to be a fruitful avenue forward, as would a comparison of women in the Apostolic Fathers and late New Testament literature. Another project could involve conceptions and portrayals of women in other second century literature, such as the Ad Autolycum of Theophilus of Antioch, the writings of Justin Martyr, and the Odes of Solomon. These projects may not be the most exciting or groundbreaking studies; however, they do appear to be worthy pursuits for those seeking to “fill in” the historical and theological gaps regarding women in early Christianity.

jesus_catacombChristine Trevett concludes that the writings of the Apostolic Fathers bear “witness to struggle for sites of power and against Roman imperium and the gods of the cities…. the writers’ concerns were with order, control, survival in a context of Christian caring and mutuality, opposition to error, and with a view to seeing God’s people triumphant.”[1] For these early Christian writers, women were expected to follow the proper way of performing and living faith in the Risen Jesus, ways which still varied depending on their station and position in the Christian community.


[1] Trevett, 271.


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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