Women’s Equality in Early Sects of Christianity


Much of my writing speaks to the subordination and denigration of women by organized religion. This blog explores early individuals and groups of Christians that viewed women as the equal of men. While some mention of independent women and their important roles remain in the Bible that was canonized, church doctrine eventually excluded women from leadership roles. It is interesting to ponder what life today would have been like if gender equality had become part of the mainstream of Christian teachings. Most of the information for this post is drawn from Patricia Cox Miller’s work Women in Early Christianity and When Women Were Priests by Karen Jo Torjesen.

Torjesen outlines the Biblical references to women’s roles as leaders that made it into the Bible. As an example, she references the passage in Acts 21:8-9 where Luke mentions the four daughters of Philip who effectively served as leaders of the church in Caesarea.[1] She also points out that Jesus “challenged social conventions of his day: He addressed women as equals, gave honor and recognition to children, championed the poor and the outcast, ate and mingled with people across all class and gender lines, and with bold rhetoric attached the social bonds that held together the patriarchal family.”[2]

Because the early followers of Jesus were starting a new movement, first within the Jewish milieu, and then later apart, they often met in houses. Women often served as the hosts of these meetings and several of them held prominent roles. Women like Mary Magdalene, Mary of Bethany, Lydia, Prisca, and Phoebe must have played important roles in this fledgling movement to be mentioned in a text that eventually excluded them from the priesthood and other important roles in the church. Paul even referred to a woman named Junia as “outstanding among the apostles” and even “in Christ before I was.” (Romans 16:7) Women often served to give assistance to widows which was an important function of these early groups, carrying on the tradition of Jewish congregations. Listed below are some specific examples of women and groups that promoted gender equality that were excluded from the canon.

It is important to resist our first tendency to judge this woman who became an ascetic in a negative manner. From our modern point of view, equality of women does not involve the commitment to remain a virgin and live alone in a cave. What is important to understand however, is the social disruption she caused by her actions.

The earliest reference to Thecla, who became canonized as a saint by the Catholic Church, is found in the apocryphal New Testament (books that did not make the final canon of the church) entitled the Acts of Paul and Thecla. This book, possibly dating from the first or second century, was widely disseminated in the eastern part of the Roman empire. In this text, she is portrayed as a noble virgin who was captivated by the teachings of Paul and allegedly travelled with him. While most of this story must be viewed as a fanciful tale (sentenced to be killed, the female beasts protected her), the important point is that she decided to remain a virgin and live an ascetic life, supposedly in a cave. As a noble woman, she was expected to marry and continue her family’s line. Thus, she certainly went against society’s expectations of her. It also appears that she likely was a preacher of the gospel with Paul. Later, the Catholic Church forbid women preachers.

It may well have been very liberating not to accept the social norms of marriage. With no birth control, women had many children and often died in childbirth. They were not allowed in most cases to pursue a vocation, education, or other personal desires.

Marcellina was the leader of a group of Christians in Rome in the mid-2nd century CE called the Carpocratians.[3]  According to Miller, she taught a form of Christianity that “emphasized equality among men and women.”[4]  She also was thought to reject the notion of private property and marriage. Again, it is the disruptive nature of her teachings that is important. She went against the grain of the teachings of many other early Christian sects.

We often learn more about someone from this time period from those who later denounced her. Irenaeus, who was an early church leader in the second century CE, accused her of being a Gnostic, a sect that was rejected by the Catholic Church as heretical. Irenaeus, in his work Against Heresies, stated the following.

Others of them employ outward marks, branding their disciples inside the lobe of the right ear. From among these also arose Marcellina, who came to Rome under [the episcopate of] Anicetus, and, holding these doctrines, she led multitudes astray. They style themselves Gnostics. They also possess images, some of them painted, and others formed from different kinds of material; while they maintain that a likeness of Christ was made by Pilate at that time when Jesus lived among them. They crown these images, and set them up along with the images of the philosophers of the world that is to say, with the images of Pythagoras, and Plato, and Aristotle, and the rest. They have also other modes of honouring these images, after the same manner of the Gentiles.

Disciples of Marcus
The early Christian Church was composed of many diverse groups who differed significantly in what it meant to be Christian. Most of us who grew up in a Christian church never heard of these controversies. We were taught that the disciples were the original followers of Christ and that the gospels all tell the same story about the teachings of Jesus.

One of these groups, who followed a man named Marcus, taught that “there was a feminine dimension of God and he had seen a vision of God in the form of a woman.”[5] It is remarkable that the history of this person has come down to us today as his views are so antithetical to what the Catholic Church eventually claimed as doctrine. Women who followed Marcus “both functioned as prophets and performed the priestly office of consecration.”[6]

Once again, Irenaeus tells us this story through his diatribe against those who followed Marcus.

When this has been done, he himself produces another cup of much larger size than that which the deluded woman has consecrated, and pouring from the smaller one consecrated by the woman into that which has been brought forward by himself, he at the same time pronounces these words: May that Charis [Grace] who is before all things, and who transcends all knowledge and speech, fill your inner man, and multiply in you her own knowledge, by sowing the grain of mustard seed in you as in good soil.</

Montanus Movement
Another early sect of Christianity in the second century treated women differently as well. The leader of this sect, Montanus, had at least two women prophets who worked with him – Priscilla and Maximilla.[7]

Some of Maximilla’s purported oracles survive in a work by Epiphanius, Panarion 48.[8]

For the one they call Maximilla, the prophetess, declares: “After me there will no longer be a prophet, but the end.”

For hear, O children of Christ what this Maximilla who belongs to such as are thus called Cataphrygians says in a straightforward manner: “Hear not me, but hear Christ.”

Once again, we learn of this movement through the writings of later church officials, in this case Eusebius who wrote Historia Ecclesiastica, 5.16 in the fourth century.

Thus by artifice, or rather by such a system of wicked craft, the devil, devising destruction for the disobedient, and being unworthily honored by them, secretly excited and inflamed their understandings which had already become estranged from the true faith. And he stirred up besides two women, and filled them with the false spirit, so that they talked wildly and unreasonably and strangely, like the person already mentioned.

Emperor Constantine called together the bishops of the church for several councils in order to settle differences among them regarding key doctrines. One of the major ones, the council of 325 CE, had several references to women that enforced their lower status. They could not be priests, if they had been deaconesses in another sect, they had to be re-baptized and were to be considered part of the laity (i.e. not the priesthood), etc. By this time, most sects that differed from these doctrines had already been marginalized. Some, however, did survive for centuries.

You might want to point out at this juncture that several Protestant denominations now allow women to serve as pastors. In one sense, it seems encouraging to give women these roles, but the religion they are pastors of is still a myth, created mostly by men.

Karen L. Garst

The Faithless Feminist

July 22, 2017


[1] Karen Jo Torjeson, When Women Were Priests: Women’s Leadership in the Early Church and the Scandal of Their Subordination in the Rise of Christianity (San Francisco, CA: Harper, 1995), 28.

[2] Ibid., 4.

[3] Patricia Cox Miller, Women in Early Christianity (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2005), 17.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., p. 31.

[6] Ibid., p. 32.

[7] Ibid., 34.

[8] Ibid., 34.

About the Author Karen Garst