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16. The early church

16-1 A Taste Of The First Century: The Positive : 16-1-1 " With one accord" || 16-1-2 The Early Church Our Example || 16-1-3 Prayer Meetings || 16-1-4 Christ-centredness || 16-1-5 Radical Preaching || 16-1-6 Women In The Early Church || 16-1-7 The Joy Of Faith || 16-2 A Taste Of The First Century: The Negative: 16-2-1 Division In The Church || 16-2-2 Politics In The Church || 16-3 Unity And Division In The First Century : 16-3-1 Unity And Division In The First Century Church || 16-3-2 Oikonomia And Household Fellowships || 16-3-3 Rich And Poor In The First Century || 16-3-4 Unity In The Church || 16-4 The Obstacles : 16-4-1 The Obstacles To The Growth Of Christianity || 16-4-2 The offence of the cross || 16-4-3 The rejection of Caesar || 16-4-4 Women And Slaves In The First Century || 16-4-5 The Roman Empire And Christianity || 16-4-6 The Attraction Of Judaism || 16-4-7 Other First Century Objections To Christianity || 16-5 How They Succeeded: 16-5-1 Why Christianity Spread In The First Century  || 16-5-2 The Example Of The Community || 16-5-3 House Meetings In The First Century || 16-5-4 Witness In The Workplace || 16-5-5 The Witness Of Christian Unity In The First Century || 16-5-6 The Role Of Women   In The First Century || 16-5-7 Style Of PreachingIn The First Century || 16-5-8 Christian Ethics In The First Century || 16-5-9 The Exclusivity Of Christianity || 16-5-10 Early Christian Doctrine || 16-6 Where Things Went Wrong: 16-6-1 Doctrinal Apostacy || 16-6-2 The Rise Of Traditions || 16-6-3 Legalism In The Church || 16-6-4 Social Tensions In The Church || 16-6-5 Wealth In The Church || 16-6-6 Worldliness In The Church || 16-6-7 Lost Emphasis Upon Grace || 16-6-8 Loss Of Faith In The Church || 16-6-9 Poor Church Leadership || 16-6-10 Dogmatism And Legalists


16-1-6 Women In The Early Church

The reasons why the early believers witnessed as they did apply to both men and women. As we understand 1 Cor. 14:34; 1 Tim. 2:12 and basic OT precedent, a sister was not to teach brethren in ecclesial gatherings. However, it is evident that women did possess the gift of teaching by 'prophecy'. Because they are forbidden to use it to teach men and in church gatherings, there seem to have been only three possible uses for the gift: 

- To teach other women after the pattern of Elizabeth teaching Mary, and Miriam the women of Israel- both by the gift of prophecy (cp. Tit.2:3,4). The reference in 1 Tim. 2:9 to how women should “also” pray publicly in an appropriate way suggests that there was an organised ‘sisters class’ movement in the early church. It has been observed: “Where women were kept secluded in Greek society, sisters would be the only ones who could teach them. Teaching by brethren would be difficult in such circumstances”.

- To teach in 'Sunday Schools' (there is ample Old Testament precedent for women teaching children).

- To teach unbelievers. This clearly occurred in the early church. Euodia and Syntyche had “laboured side by side” with Paul in the work of the Gospel (Phil. 4:2,3 NIV). Priscilla helped Aquila teach Apollos the Gospel (Acts 18:26). At least eight of the sisters mentioned in Romans 16 are described as workers / labourers. Philip’s seven daughters were prophetesses- presumably not speaking the word to baptized brethren, but either to the world or to other sisters.  

There's even evidence that there was an organized women's missionary movement in the early church. Clement of Alexandria commented: "The Apostles, giving themselve without respite to the work of evangelism... took with them women, not as wives but as sisters, to share in their mnistry to women living at home: by their agency the teaching of the Lord reached the women's quarters without raising suspicion" (1).

All these references to women in the early church teaching would have been anathema to many of the surrounding cultures in which the Gospel spread in the first century: “Not only the arm, but the voice of a modest woman ought to be kept from the public, and she should feel shame at being heard…she should speak to or through her husband” (Plutarch, Advice to Bride and Groom 31-32). Likewise the encouragement for a woman to “learn in silence” was a frontal attack on the position that a woman’s duty was to follow the religion of her husband and concern herself with domestic duties rather than religious learning. The way the Lord commended Mary rather than Martha for her choice to learn and her rejection of domesticity similarly challenged the prevailing gender perception. There is no doubt that a 1st century Christian woman was far more liberated than in any other contemporary religion. In our societies too, our sisters mustn’t  concern themselves only  with domestic duties. Some Asian and African cultures demand this, but it is for our sisters to reach out in witness to the world, to strengthen each other, to take responsibility for this and not just rely on ‘the brethren’. And it is for sisters living in European and American societies shaped by a Godless feminism to likewise break out of the mould that is pressed upon them by their societies.

(1) Quoted in Stephen B. Clark, Man And Woman In Christ (Ann Arbor, MI: Servant Books, 1980) p. 116.