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What follows is a most interesting if slightly convoluted conversation about whether there were women in leadership in the early Christian church. It is an excerpt of a much longer series of comments on the Blog Site of Rachel Held Evans, a young woman with a real knack for getting a conversation going. Below, each heading marks off a new comment on the blog. The original posts and 146 comments on the theme of Women of the Passion can be found at Rachel’s site: http://rachelheldevans.com/women-of-the-passion-links.

The comments branched out in a number of directions, including this branch which concerned whether women should be leaders, i. e., priests and bishops in the churches and especially in the Roman church.

A commenter made the following remark which started a new branch in which I eventually found myself in a truly strange conversation:


On the day in which Jesus chooses a woman to proclaim his resurrection, the pope sees fit to affirm that women will not attain the priesthood in his lifetime. Of the two proclamations, which one makes the most sense.

Then our own Jim Fisher spoke up: [just follow the comments down from this point]

Jim Fisher

Maybe someone will remind the Pope of the fifth century Episcopa (Bishop) Theodora and show him the 9th century mosaic in the St. Zeno Chapel of the Church of St. Praxedis in Rome with her name inscribed on it.


Theodora was not a bishop in the sense of the Episcopal office. The word Episcopos did not appear out of nowhere in the New Testament, it has an actual meaning in and of itself. To read her being a bishopress of the Church into the inscription is to make a very poor historical case. My priest’s wife is a presbytera, but not thus a priestess. An Episcopa would have been a bishop or overseer’s wife or sister or mother.

You can believe in women’s ordination without having to fudge history to make your case, just like the sectarians could have been against holidays without making up the idea of druids dancing around yule logs.


No one here is fudging the history. Take a look at the mosaic. Theodora is celebrating the eucharist and those who are receiving it from her are men. Take a look at the case: search on the book title, The Lady Was A Bishop. It is the Vatican and its apologists which are trying to obliterate the clear fact that in the early centuries women functioned fully in the offices of the Christian community. Many of us pray for the Roman church that it will cease to forbid marriage to so many of its servants and will begin to obediently open up all church offices to all of its members. We pray for justice/righteousness to replace centuries of intractable injustice and disobedience. All creation cries out and we groan with it.


I have no idea by what interpretive stretch you believe this mosaic implies that she is participating in the eucharist.


I suppose Empress St. Theodora, wife of Justinian the Great, is participating in the Eucharist in this mosaic too:


And St. Justinian himself:


If you had absolutely no idea about Byzantine iconography, trusted a non-scholarly popular source instead of experts, and cared more about being right than about adhering to the real, nuanced, grey area that we call history, one could make such a case. But is it worth one’s integrity? If women are ever ordained in, for example, the Catholic Church, would you really want an unfounded pseudoscholarly [sic] lie to be part of the basis for it.

An Aside

OK, I was getting a bit confused and even a little hot by this point. Why on earth was “Nicholas” coming on so strong? I tried his links but none of them went anywhere. I got up and got a cuppa’ and then settled down to respond to him: [back to the comments]


Well, Nicholas, your words are a bit heated. And you are so sure of your experts that you call the assertion that Episcopa Theodora was a bishop in the early church a lie. Strong language. You may, in fact be walking on the border of what our host, RHE, holds to be rude and unkind language. That is for her to judge and she does, I reckon.

I do not know your experts. The Wikipedia article only sites positive sources; none that refute the episcopal claim. Your experts, whoever they are, may be as true to their disciplines regardless of church dogma as you trust them to be.

I, however, was raised in a generation which learned that experts, just like everyone else, sometimes use their expertise to support the established status quo which pays their salaries. You become hot, at least in your language at the assertion that they may be doing their scholarship on the side of the bread the authorities have buttered. For me, I will withhold judgment and not call your experts liars or suppressors of critical evidence, people who know who sign their checks because in this specific case, I do not know enough to be as sure as you seem to be.

But I do know this: the creation norm for men and women, from the beginning, was that they should together fill the earth with good things, they should together multiply and together have care-filled dominion over all things. “Man” is a co-equal, bi-unity, constructed of males and females who need the wise rule of each other if creation is to ever be fruitful and find peace.

And I know this: a temporary piedagoGOS (servant/child-minder: Galatians 3:24) was established through law-bound covenants to keep creation more or less intact until King Jesus came, bled and died. In those covenants women were subordinated to men. Yet when Christ came and by his blood he eliminated the curses of creation’s hide-bound past, issuing a glad tiding that all creation was free to live as it had been intended to do from the beginning. In Christ, Greeks and Jews together have the spirit of God, one man no-longer lives in subordination to another and women and men again rule creation as God’s project managers, together.

And I know: with respect to women and teaching, the evangelist Luke alone includes the story of a woman who wanted to be a rabbi, who subversively chose to sit with Jesus in the men’s portion of the house, in the posture which had been traditionally used for rabbinical students with their supervising instructors. She sat at the feet of Jesus as surely as Saul had sat at the feet of Gamaliel. And when her sister sought to get her back into the women’s quarters “where she belonged,” doing “women’s work,” Jesus assured them both that Mary was right where she belonged, that she had chosen the right thing and that her vocation, beginning with sitting at the feet of a wise teacher so as to become a rabbi “would not be taken away from her.”

So this I know: it is simply not possible that women in the early centuries of the glad tidings did not assume the offices which Jesus had assured would not be taken away from Mary. That such female leaders of the early “way” existed I have no doubt. And that the stories of such female rabbis have been expunged and their monuments destroyed or “reinterpreted” I have no doubt. You, Nicholas, and your experts may or may not be correct about Episcopa Theodora. I do not have the time, expertise nor the inclination, nor the calling in this my short life to follow up on her. I surely do hope others will. Her story too, must be told.

Lastly, I know this: the experts began to plot to have Jesus destroyed from almost the moment he opened his mouth at the beginning of his ministry in Galilee. I’m sure their indignation was great at Jesus’ pseudo-scholarly approach and his lack of nuance when he expounded on the Scriptures. And Luther did not know a quarter as much as the great and sophisticated Dr. Ek. Yet, how happy is the thing we call history that Luther was not cowed by the convocation at Worms, Germany in 1521, the grand display of overwhelming power, the erudite disdain for his “crude opinions” on the Scriptures. I too am suspicious of authorities who calmly assert what all creation calls impossible. I am suspicious by calling, by generation and by temperament of pat declarations and conclusions that women had no part in the teaching ministries and rule of the early Christian assemblies.

Are you not also suspicious, Nicholas?

(A Somewhat Comical) Interlude

As of now, I have not heard back from Nicholas. (I will add his remarks here if he responds). However, independent of his failed links, I went searching for that old 70’s chestnut, The Lady Was A Bishop. I found it and I found an image which matched one of two images which Nicholas had inserted with his comment but which had been too small on-line for me to see clearly. It was not at all what I expected nor remembered.

After I did a bit more searching, including a visit to a web site which includes practicing “Women­priests,” I returned and wrote the following as a further response to Nicholas, et.al.: [back to the comments]


Having been to several web sites which bear the same image as Nicholas has included above in his hot comment, a picture of another mosaic altogether than the one to which I was referring, I can certainly see why Nicholas thought I had lost my mind – in his shoes, I would have thought so as well – given the mosaic he was looking at on-line and displaying: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Mosaic_in_Santa_Prassede_-_Theodora,_Agnus_Dei.JPG.

I will endeavor to locate the mosaic with which I became acquainted about thirty-five years ago which shows the good bishop on one side of a table, replete in long, female garment, serving the Eucharist to two or three men at the table facing her, all wearing shorter (male) tunics. What I saw at that time were actually two images, one with the name, “Episcopa Theodora” spelled out in tiles and arching across the top of the tiles with the images of the woman and the men below it. As I remember, that picture was said to have been taken just outside the entrance to the now subterranean entrance to a church which was dedicated to the “Episcopa” in Rome. The second image was of a post card which had been obtained in the Vatican gift shop, a picture of the same doorway, in which both the arched title and name and also the bishop’s long gown were dark and strangely hard to see…

I shall certainly see if I can find those images. The old adage about looking in the horse’s mouth rather than arguing interminably about what one might find there is certainly apt in this case.

As to the scholarship behind the book, The Lady Was A Bishop, I would not be so quick to call it names. Sure, much of what passes as theological work on all sides these days smacks of doctrinaire advocacy for one’s own point of view. Still, from what I read earlier today, the work of Joan Morris and others deserves better treatment than what it has gotten here, sight unseen. [end of the comments]

My Conclusion (for now: I Could Be Wrong!)

I have yet to find the image I saw so many years ago of Episcopa Theodora serving communion and although it is clear enough in my mind, that does no one else any good. Stay tuned on that one.

Any comments on my little adventure in confusion or on the topic of women in ministry are more than welcome.