Women in the Early Church: The “Devil’s Gateway?”

Last year I did some study on the role and value of women in the early church.  I have had numerous people ask me to post my findings, so here you go!  Couple important notes: I am highlighting the Early Church Fathers of the Patristic Period (100AD-600ADish), NOT the early church of the Apostles in the N.T. after Jesus.  Also, this is NOT an opinion piece (that can be saved for the comments!), but an exceedingly brief synopsis based on original sources.

This past summer I had the opportunity to study in a class that consisted of roughly 40 students from very different church backgrounds and traditions.  The reality of our varying traditions culminated when one of the women in our class was asked to read a Scripture passage relevant to the site we were visiting and one of the men walked away from the group in disgust.   A few minutes later he came back and began to argue that women don’t have the right to read or teach the Holy Scriptures in public. In studying and reading the writings of the Early Church Fathers, it is evident that their perspective continues to shape some current church leaders’ view of woman.

In the estimation of most Early Church Fathers the primary way for woman of the Patristic period to gain esteem, credibility and value was by embracing a life of asceticism, which included perpetual virginity and the willingness to die as a martyr.

Starting Point: Women are the “Devil’s Gateway”

To understand why asceticism was the primary way for women to gain value in the eyes of the Early Church Fathers, we must first examine why woman inherited such a low value to begin with.  Such a value originated out of the ECF’s interpretation of The Fall (to use their language) and specifically Eve’s roll within that narrative.  Referencing 1 Tim. 2:14, Ambrose argues, “The woman, therefore, is the originator of the man’s wrongdoing, not the man of the woman’s.” on of his commentary on Genesis, he says, “She even dragged her husband along with her into sin and showed herself to be an incentive to him.”  Before Ambrose, Tertullian made the argument that blame for Eve’s first sin extended to all woman and that God’s judgment and guilt will live in each one forward. In his treatise, On the Dress of Women, Tertullian says, “You are the Devil’s gateway; you are the unsealer of that tree; you are the first foresaker of the divine law; you are the one who persuaded him whom the Devil was not brave enough to approach; you so lightly crushed the image of God, the man Adam.” In Tertullian’s last line, he makes mention of Adam being the carrier of the image of God.  While not thought by all Early Church Fathers, some believed that women did not contain the image of God because of their order in Creation as being subject to men.

Recovering Value: Procreation, Virginity & Martyrdom

With women carrying the blame for sin, what then shall the role of women be in future generations?  The Early Church Fathers would argue that they are to be man’s helper by populating the world. While this thinking was most likely influenced by Aristotelian reasoning that argued women not having a rational spirit, the ECF used Scripture to make their point.  In his Literal Commentary On Genesis, Augustine gives his perspective on women being man’s “helper” in reference to Gen. 2:18.  He believes God creating another man would have made a much better helper, but another man would not have allowed for children to be born and new generations to begin.  It is for that reason that Augustine finds the only reason for the creation of women, “I cannot think of any reason for woman’s being made as man’s helper, if we dismiss the reason of procreation.”

Virginity. The value of virginity was primarily found in the example the Blessed Virgin Mary.  In his work, Against Heresies, Irenaeus argues that “the knot of Eve’s disobedience was loosened through the obedience of Mary.  For what the virgin Eve bound through unbelief, this the Virgin Mary loosed through faith.” While each woman was born into the curse of Eve, the ECF offered them a chance to redeem their esteem, value and freedom in emulating the Virgin Mary.

It is clear that the women who pursued lives of asceticism were able to find esteem, value and credibility in the Patristic period. Jerome has a close relationship and is outspoken in affirming the ascetic lives of Paula and Marcella.  Marcella was a student of Jerome’s and became a great scholar who carried authority in the church.  Arguing Aristotle’s argument that women don’t have a rational spirit and thus can’t be learned, Jerome says that women can become like men because their asceticism keeps them from temptation.  Having lived as a devout ascetic and after being tortured to death after the sack of Rome in 410AD,  Jerome said this in her eulogy, “She left you as the heir of her poverty, or rather, the poor through you.  Closing her eyes, she was in your arms; breathing her last, it was onto your lips; amid your tears, she smiled, conscious of a good life and future rewards.”

While it is often argued that Christianity benefited woman in general, there is not much evidence of that being true in the writings of the Patristic period.  Do you have anything to add to this retelling of the Early Church Father’s view of women?  Do you see a negative perspective of women still finding its way into the Church?

NOTE: All of quotes are from original writings of the ECF’s.  If you want them, feel free to contact me.  Also, I am not trying to paint the ECF’s in a bad light as there were so many ways they were a positive voice in the Christian story.  Although their view of women was more nuanced than I have the space or capacity to articulate, I believe it is a perspective and part of our story that deserves our attention.

5 Responses to Women in the Early Church: The “Devil’s Gateway?”
  1. Josh Kerkhoff

    Over dinner on Sat night, I was sharing with some friends the theological tension I have felt between people who, while they don’t communicate like the Patristics, still think (and show through their actions) women are secondhand citizens of the Kingdom.

    As we live into and pray God’s Kingdom here on earth as it is in heaven, how can we continue to belittle humans created in God’s image?

  2. Jon Huckins

    Amen, Josh. In light of Jesus actions towards women and the central role they played in the development and leadership of the early church, I have a hard time with Patristic and modern voices that lessen their significance in God’s Story. Tony Campolo offered some interesting thoughts on the feminine characteristics of God on his blog today: http://www.redletterchristians.org/embracing-the-feminine-side-of-god/

  3. Linda


    So interesting how people can follow Jesus, yet be so far from him in certain areas!!

    I have felt the tension as a woman who feels the calling to lead and influence people when some believe that it’s not biblical.

    Thanks for at least opening up the discussion. I am glad that I am part of a denomination that allows women to fully participate in all aspects of ministry.

  4. Jon Huckins

    “Opening up the discussion” is definitely my goal…I’m not trying start a battle that has been part of a war which has been fought for centuries. With that said, I think it is really important that we do have an understanding of our history. So much of our church tradition didn’t start with Jesus, but with later church fathers.

  5. […] Tertullian’s On the Apparel of Women as misogynistic. Jon Huckins provides an example of a typ... purplemotes.net/2015/08/16/devils-gateway