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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.”[1] 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.[2]

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.[3] Even so, we cannot deny “the domestic flavor that would have permeated Christian meetings.”[4] 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.”[5]

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.”[6] 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.”[7] Likewise, Peter Lampe elucidates, “That Christianity found a hearing predominantly among women in Rome and elsewhere is sufficiently known and testified.”[8] 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).[9] 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.”[10] 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.[11] 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.[12] 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.

[1] Osiek and MacDonald, Woman’s Place, 3.

[2] See Susan Hylen, “Public and Private Space and Action in the Early Roman Period,” NTS 66 (2020): 534–53.

[3] See Cohick, Women, 322-323.

[4] Osiek and MacDonald, Woman’s Place, 246.

[5] Osiek and MacDonald, Woman’s Place, 163.

[6] 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.

[7] Stark, Triumph, 159.

[8] Peter Lampe, From Paul to Valentinus: Christians at Rome in the First Two Centuries (Philadelphia: Fortress, 2003), 146.

[9] Stark, Triumph, 141–159.

[10] Stark, Triumph, 159.

[11] Osiek and MacDonald, Woman’s Place, 2.

[12] Judith Leiu, “The Attraction of Women In/To Early Judaism and Christianity: Gender and the politics of conversion.” JSNT 72 (1998), 5-22.