This post is part of a proposal for approaching theology from the perspective of history.
Women in the Apostolic Fathers
As an application of this approach, I want to quickly examine conceptions of women which appear in the early Christian writings known as the Apostolic Fathers. To keep this example as brief as possible, consider one instance where a female character appears in the apocalyptic account known as the Shepherd of Hermas (c. 100-150 CE).4 In Vision 2.4.3, Hermas records being told by an angel the following: “And so, you will write two little books, sending one to Clement and the other to Grapte. Clement will send his to the foreign cities, for that is his commission. But Grapte will admonish the widows and orphans. And you will read yours in this city, with the presbyters who lead the church.”
The first step in reading this passage historically to inform our theology involves looking at what this meant for the initial audiences of the Shepherd of Hermas. In wider context, this passage reveals that Grapte stood in a position of authority: she was tasked with instructing the women and orphans of the Roman church, in much the same way that Hermas himself was tasked with teaching the presbyters of the church. For Hermas’s community, then, it seems as if a woman could rightly hold some form of teaching office in the church.
The second step is to reflect on what contemporary Christianity says about women teaching in the church. This is, of course, a hotly debated topic, one which transcends denominational and cultural lines. To summarize the situation, readers of the Bible must wrestle with the tension between what women do and say in the narratives of the Old and New Testaments (e.g., Rom. 16:1-5 and Acts 2:16-18) and passages that demand that women keep silent in the church (e.g., 1 Cor. 14:34-35 and 1 Tim. 2:11-15). Churches committed to the traditions of the church or the supernatural gifting of the Holy Spirit add further layers of complexity to this situation.
4 For an introduction to the Shepherd, see Carolyn Osiek, Shepherd of Hermas: A Commentary, ed. Helmut Koester, Hermeneia (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1999), 1-20.