After I spoke with a group of church leaders once on the topic of discipling men and women in the church, one pastor took me aside. He didn’t want to make this comment during the Q&A session we just finished. He told me that my message had merit, but he was concerned about the feminization of the church and he wanted my thoughts on that. Wasn’t I worried that investing in more women would lead to this? Anecdotally, he said that he’s noticed that women were eager to learn; and the more churches invest in them, the more they will rise in leadership over the men. Or in influencing the men. Which feminizes the church.
Have you heard something like this before? I’m guessing so, because I hear it often. When someone starts talking about the feminization of the church, it is an instant red flag for me. I talk about this some in The Sexual Reformation. Here is an excerpt:
I don’t see anywhere in Scripture where there are warnings about the growing number of women joining the church over the men. I don’t see Paul worried that Timothy was brought up in the faith by his grandma and mother, so he might be too soft. No, he is thankful for Lois and Eunice passing down the faith (1 Tim. 1:5). We read nothing about Timothy being feminized because of it.
We seem to be forgetting that the first churches met in households. Talk about feminizing! And in Scripture we see mainly women hosting these house churches: Prisca (1 Cor. 6:19; Rom. 16:3–5), Chloe (1 Cor. 1:11), Nympha (Col. 4:15), Apphia (Philem. 1:2), Lydia (Acts 16:40), Junia (Rom. 16:7 NIV), and Phoebe (Rom. 16:1–2 NIV). Despite attempts to polarize the influence of women as purely domestic and never public, Carolyn Osiek and Margaret MacDonald note how these “categories are overdrawn and often too rigidly applied.” Furthermore, Susan Hylen demonstrates that scholars have often read anachronistically when imposing a division in gender roles in Greco-Roman societies based on modern notions of private and public. While today we closely associate “public sphere” with “public action” (whereas everything “private” belongs in the home), in the first century, such association did not exist. “Private” often signified proprietary interest and did not necessarily delineate location. Many more activities were classified as “private” than we may think, including commerce, education, and business, and many of these were conducted in public spaces. Sacred spaces were distinguished from public spaces, and household spaces often held public functions, depending on the occupant’s social status. Women were not confined to merely “domestic” activities, but freely moved around and participated in public spaces in judicial, commercial, sacred, and political spheres.
We see what is written about women (or not) by those who want to influence society. But we also need to take in consideration historical evidence from everyday living, such as personal letters, receipts, legal documents, invitations, or even architectural or burial inscriptions. These historical finds reveal women’s public agency and influence is more complex than what we find in “published” writings. We have evidence of women interacting and contributing in the home, society, and even in the synagogue, as factors such as location and needs of the community factor into a woman’s opportunities for education, commerce, and religious service. Even so, we cannot deny “the domestic flavor that would have permeated Christian meetings.” The everyday cares of household life are part of the beautiful, busy matrix of gathered worship. Osiek and MacDonald go as far as to say that since women managed all that went on in the household, “to step into a Christian house church was to step into women’s world.”
What if a larger percentage of women in the church was a good thing? What if their contributions and influence were fruitful, and not feared? What if the very presence of female bodies spoke something glorious to God’s people? Rodney Stark argues that “the rise of Christianity depended upon women.” Like it or not, “the early church drew substantially more female than male converts, and this in a world where women were in short supply.” Likewise, Peter Lampe elucidates, “That Christianity found a hearing predominantly among women in Rome and elsewhere is sufficiently known and testified.” Stark argues that women made up around two-thirds of the early church, although we really do not have concrete evidence for these demographics. This was at a time, according to Stark, when more than two-thirds of the population were men— around 70 percent! He attributes the shortage of women to their devaluation, shown in high levels of female infanticide. Even large families usually only kept one daughter. On top of that, the mortality rate was high for women during childbirth. And yet the church valued women. And women responded. Because of the Christian value for life, abortion and infanticide were condemned in the church. Exclusive, covenantal love in marriage was promoted. Husbands often converted to Christianity via their wives, what Stark calls “secondary conversions.” Even when the husbands didn’t convert, their children were still raised in the church and considered holy (1 Cor. 7:14). Stark concludes, “Having an excess of women gave the church a remarkable advantage because it resulted in disproportionate Christian fertility and in a considerable number of secondary conversions.” No one was complaining about the feminization of the church.
But we don’t need merely to conclude that women outnumbered the men because they were valued more there. Osiek and MacDonald argue that there was a simultaneous movement in Roman society, not in the modern sense of liberation for women, but one that did begin opening doors for of some social freedoms for women. There were other options. Women were valued in Christianity, but even more so, they began to see what is most valuable. As Judith Lieu observes, women may have converted for intellectual reasons as well. To take it a step further, the intellectual stimulation and contribution is sparked by the grace of God. Providentially, Christ was given to and received by many women, and they responded with their bodies, minds, and souls. What matters most is Christ preached and Christ nurtured in his people. Imagine that.
 Osiek and MacDonald, Woman’s Place, 3.
 See Susan Hylen, “Public and Private Space and Action in the Early Roman Period,” NTS 66 (2020): 534–53.
 See Cohick, Women, 322-323.
 Osiek and MacDonald, Woman’s Place, 246.
 Osiek and MacDonald, Woman’s Place, 163.
 Rodney Stark, The Triumph of Christianity: How the Jesus Movement Became
the World’s Largest Religion (New York: HarperCollins, 2011), e-book, 159, emphasis added. In contrast, Larry Hurtado says a contributing factor to the demise of the cult of Mithras was the exclusion of women. Larry W. Hurtado, Destroyer of the Gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2016), 84.
 Stark, Triumph, 159.
 Peter Lampe, From Paul to Valentinus: Christians at Rome in the First Two Centuries (Philadelphia: Fortress, 2003), 146.
 Stark, Triumph, 141–159.
 Stark, Triumph, 159.
 Osiek and MacDonald, Woman’s Place, 2.
 Judith Leiu, “The Attraction of Women In/To Early Judaism and Christianity: Gender and the politics of conversion.” JSNT 72 (1998), 5-22.
13 thoughts on “The Feminization of the Church?”
Reblogged this on Talmidimblogging.
In order to arrive at the feminization of the church, we would need to define “feminine.” And if we are speaking of abstract categories called “femininity” and “masculinity,” then we would need to support those categories with Scripture. The only other option is to derive “femininity” from natural revelation apart from Scripture, making it a mere construct of autonomous human reason even though we were made to live by every word proceeding from the mouth of God. If we see natural revelation as the stage, backdrop, or “playground” for the outworking of his decree revealed in Scripture, we might also see that all of nature subserves his covenant. We might come to consider that male and female are living symbols pointing to something glorious and enduring beyond what we call “nature.” Male and female point to God’s plan to bring an elect people to a holy realm by means of a covenantal head that they might glorify and enjoy him forever. Man represents earth in its heavenward press toward Sabbath rest . And woman represents the realm toward which earth presses through covenant. We do not need to look to the lower creation to discover who we are as male and female, but to the One above who made us for union and communion with himself and who has embodied his master plan for us in the way he made us. We can never escape him and his purposes for us because we give shape to them. If we understand that, how can we even begin to speak of the “feminization of the church”? God has feminized the church both as his people and as their final destiny, the heavenly temple dwelling of God, the New Jerusalem. How can the church be too feminized when her final and enduring identity is bride? The whole question of the “femininization of the church” reveals that we have not yet come to rightly love our neighbor because we have not fully set our hearts on things above, where our Bridegroom awaits us.
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Great point. Worth taking further to add the biblical truths about other aspects of ‘glory’ and ‘mystery’, which gives us then, a more complete theology of how we bring Glory to Christ, that our maleness and femaleness to fit into…
Took me a while to understand fully what you wrote, Anna. Love to share further thoughts-if you’re interested-ask aimee for my email and jot me a note.
What could be more perfectly feminine than The Bride of Christ? As male leaders relinquish fear and embrace the importance of women in all aspects of life and leadership – and women take their places – the church will arise and shine. Every tongue, tribe, nation is drawn to a place of love and unity in the Holy Spirit. Division and hierarchy are not of Jesus, a servant leader who spoke and acted as the Father. Let’s get over our individual power trips, submit and move forward! God has waited long enough for our cooperation.
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I did a brief study recently of demographics among Puritan churches in New England. Here is a quote from a study by Amanda Porterfield: “Women comprised 84 percent of new communicants in the New Haven church in the 1660’s, over 70 percent of new communicants in the Charlestown, Boston Third, and New London churches in the 1670’s, 70 percent or more of new communicants in the Salem, Beverly, Boston First, and Hartford Second churches in the 1680’s, and 76 percent and 75 percent of new communicants in the Salem and Boston Third churches during the 1690’s… In fact, female admissions to communion in each decade from 1660 to 1700 never dipped below 54 percent in any church in Massachusetts or Connecticut.”
Many of the people who worry today about excessive numbers of women in the church are great admirers of the Puritans–who had a majority female membership in many locations.
Wow, Caroline, thanks for those numbers!
In light of your writing how did you or how would you now reply to this male church leader?
I would just be really interested to know what specifically he meant by feminisation of the church? assuming he did not mean numerically more women, what did he mean?
He said that more women would become leaders in the church. That was the threat.
Oh right, thanks. When I have heard feminisation of the church I had always got the impression it was meaning more like overly emotionally driven worship or an overfocus on feelings, or something.
‘don’t confuse things with the facts’…comes to mind.
There’s a great history, and a long standing ‘tradition’ of women embodying what ‘love made tangible’ looks like, that is visible when you consider these facts, too.
Bruce Lowe taught a class on Romans that I audited, in which I learned several historical truths about the cultural tradition of Rome that enabled the gospel to spread, in God’s clear Providence. One of them was the cultural expectation that those who were blessed by being prosperous, were expected to share their wealth by exercising hospitality well. And so we have several examples of prosperous Roman women opening their homes which were designed for hospitality, thus fostering the gathering of christians together; which enabled the early church to ‘continue in the apostle’s fellowship, and breaking of bread together’ as they ‘met from house to house’.
what a rich heritage we have, because so many women have become active in ‘ministry of the gospel’ in ways that are vital and essential to the essential ‘community’ we share as the ‘Body of Christ’.
Thanks for the history lesson, Aimee.
Its not the numbers of women in church or in leadership, it is the effect it may have on the missions and programs of the church. If those become mostly feminine and move significantly away from the interests of the men in the church, participation of men will decline even more. There are traditional male activities and female that attract those groups. Do not make the mistake of leaning one way or the other with your programs.