Women have been marginalized and oppressed for far too long, denied equal status and opportunities in society and even within religious institutions. But it doesn’t have to be this way. There is a rich history of women’s leadership and active participation in the early Church that we can look to as a model for moving forward.
Jesus’ Treatment of Women as an Example for the Church Today
If we examine the Gospel accounts, we see that Jesus himself treated women with respect and dignity, often going against the prevailing cultural norms of His time. He spoke to them directly, engaged them in theological discussions, and welcomed them as disciples. In fact, some of Jesus’ closest followers and supporters were women, including Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Susanna. These women played an active role in Jesus’ ministry, traveling with Him and supporting Him financially.
“In the earliest years of the Church, the love and respect shown to women by Jesus during his lifetime, together with his acceptance of them as his disciples and proclaimers, spilled over into the aftermath of his passion, death and resurrection, ensuring a positive place for them in the ministry of the earliest churches” (Jesus and Women, p. 119).
Women’s Leadership Roles in the Early Church as an Example for the Church Today
In the aftermath of Jesus’ death and resurrection, women continued to play a critical role in the early Church. They were leaders, preachers, teachers, and prophets, and their contributions helped shape the direction and theology of the early Christian movement. Women like Phoebe, Junia, and Priscilla are mentioned by name in the New Testament as respected leaders.
For example, “When Paul founds the church in Corinth, he meets Aquila and his wife, Priscilla, who become important co-workers involved in a teaching ministry for converts and who also run a notably warm house church (Acts 18:2 and 26; 1 Corinthians 16:19)” (Jesus and Women, p. 119).
How Medieval Women Mystics Paved the Way for Women in the Church Today
During the time when Thomas Aquinas formulated the doctrine of transubstantiation, which established the necessity of priestly mediation for access to God, many women mystics were asserting the availability of direct access to God, describing their mystical experiences of encountering God without the need for priestly intervention or mediation.
One such mystic was Marguerite Porete, whose book The Mirror of Simple Souls “declares that all people, whether male or female, rich or poor, professionally religious or members of the laity, can have equal access to a mystical relationship with God” (Jesus and Women, p. 125).
Writings such as this challenged the patriarchal structures of the Church, which limited women’s participation in religious life and restricted their access to spiritual authority. By claiming their direct access to God, women mystics were subverting the idea that only priests had the power to mediate between God and humanity. Therefore, “I would argue that the way forward for women in the Church can be inspired by the lifestyles and courage of the medieval women mystics” (Jesus and Women, p. 143).
A Vision for the Future Church
Jesus treated women equally, and women were active participants in the early Church. So why, then, have women been excluded from leadership roles and relegated to second-class status in many churches throughout history? The answer is complex and involves a range of social, cultural, and historical factors. But what’s clear is that this is not the way it was meant to be. We need to look to the example of the early Church and reclaim women’s rightful place as leaders and co-laborers in the Gospel.
This means creating space for women’s voices to be heard, recognizing and affirming their gifts and talents, and actively working to dismantle patriarchal structures that oppress and silence women. “In the future Church, an important pastoral duty should also be the discernment and encouragement of the charisms of individuals in the community. Women’s abilities for empathetic and compassionate service, as well as serving at the individual level, would have a great contribution to make to the ordained pastoral ministry” (Jesus and Women, p. 147).
This also means looking to the example of Jesus, who saw women as fully human and deserving of respect and dignity. It means embracing a vision of gender equality that is grounded in love, justice, and compassion.
“The new historical phase of Christianity, facilitated by science, will require an egalitarian, non-hierarchical Church, in which the focus will be on encouraging and providing Christian individuals with the means to develop close relationships of loving kindness with God. So how should the roles of women be defined in this future Church? In order to clarify the optimum use of female gifts in assigning roles to them in a new Church order, let us remind ourselves of Paul’s description of the Early Church community: ‘Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers; then deeds of power, then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues” (Jesus and Women, p. 144).
To continue this work, we must actively dismantle oppressive structures within the Church and create space for women’s voices to be heard and affirmed. If you are interested in exploring this topic further, I encourage you to read my book, Jesus and Women, for a deeper dive into the rich history of women’s leadership in the Church and how women can use these truths to regain their early church status in the Church today.