Early Church Fathers Women's Ordination

Hello All,

I’m doing some private research on women’s ordination in the early church, specifically how the earliest church fathers (before the Council of Nicea) viewed the role of women in the church.

So far, I’ve been unable to find anything that specifically explains why women cannot be priests, and the few times the fathers do make mention of it (that I have found), the women are often involved with heretical groups and it’s hard to tell whether they are being criticized because they are women or because they are heretics (usually gnostics).

I have no doubts that women were not allowed to be priests in the early church, but I’m trying to find any evidence at all that explains why the church fathers held this view. Does anyone have good information to provide? Thanks!

And by the way, yes, I’ve seen this post: catholic.com/tracts/women-and-the-priesthood

The tract doesn’t really give any explanation for why they oppose the practice, and as I said before, in many of these examples, they are dealing directly with heretics (usually gnostics). One exception may be one of the quotes from Tertullian, but that’s all.

I think that Sara Butler’s book, The Catholic Priesthood and Women: A Guide to the Teaching of the Church addresses your question. Here is an excerpt from a review to give you some idea of what she covers:

Sr. Sara also explains the “fundamental reasons” behind the Church’s “unbroken and unanimous” tradition of reserving the priesthood to men. As far back as the third century, Irenaeus and Tertullian denounced gnostic and Marcionite heretics for letting women perform priestly functions. In the fourth century St. Epiphanius of Salamis condemned the Montanists for claiming that the difference between the sexes had been abolished in Christ, and for consequently ordaining women as presbyters and bishops. St. Epiphanius pointed to our Lord’s deliberate choice of twelve men as Apostles and added that if a woman could be ordained, “it would have been more proper to Mary than to anyone else in the New Testament to exercise a priestly role.” Not only did our Lord include no woman among the twelve, but the Apostles did not appoint one among their successors. The tradition of the Church is unbroken, and the fundamental reason behind it is the will of Christ.

In the third and fourth centuries the Didascalia and Apostolic Constitutions also justified reserving priestly ordination to men as “the will of Christ” and the “law of the Gospel.” It was noted that the Virgin Mary and the holy women in our Lord’s company were not sent to teach because the Lord “knew the arrangement of nature…being as he was the architect of nature.” As the “author of human nature” and “giver of the law,” our Savior knew best how to assign responsibilities. Likewise, in the Middle Ages, the Scholastics were “unanimous” in saying that women could not be ordained, some adding that any attempted ordination would be invalid. The point about the Virgin Mary found its way into the canonical collection of papal decretals, to emphasize that the exclusion of women from the priesthood was not related to their dignity but to “determination by Christ.”


The “why” is based on who instituted the sacrament of Holy Orders in the first place.



In fact the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles attest that this call was made in accordance with God’s eternal plan; Christ chose those whom he willed (cf. Mk 3:13-14; Jn 6:70), and he did so in union with the Father, “through the Holy Spirit” (Acts 1:2), after having spent the night in prayer (cf. Lk 6:12). Therefore, in granting admission to the ministerial priesthood,(6) the Church has always acknowledged as a perennial norm her Lord’s way of acting in choosing the twelve men whom he made the foundation of his Church (cf. Rv 21:14). These men did not in fact receive only a function which could thereafter be exercised by any member of the Church; rather they were specifically and intimately associated in the mission of the Incarnate Word himself (cf. Mt 10:1, 7-8; 28:16-20; Mk 3:13-16; 16:14-15). The Apostles did the same when they chose fellow workers(7) who would succeed them in their ministry.(8) Also included in this choice were those who, throughout the time of the Church, would carry on the Apostles’ mission of representing Christ the Lord and Redeemer.(9)

  1. Furthermore, the fact that the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God and Mother of the Church, received neither the mission proper to the Apostles nor the ministerial priesthood clearly shows that the non-admission of women to priestly ordination cannot mean that women are of lesser dignity, nor can it be construed as discrimination against them. Rather, it is to be seen as the faithful observance of a plan to be ascribed to the wisdom of the Lord of the universe.

The presence and the role of women in the life and mission of the Church, although not linked to the ministerial priesthood, remain absolutely necessary and irreplaceable. As the Declaration Inter Insigniores points out, “the Church desires that Christian women should become fully aware of the greatness of their mission: today their role is of capital importance both for the renewal and humanization of society and for the rediscovery by believers of the true face of the Church.”(10)

The New Testament and the whole history of the Church give ample evidence of the presence in the Church of women, true disciples, witnesses to Christ in the family and in society, as well as in total consecration to the service of God and of the Gospel. “By defending the dignity of women and their vocation, the Church has shown honor and gratitude for those women who-faithful to the Gospel-have shared in every age in the apostolic mission of the whole People of God. They are the holy martyrs, virgins and mothers of families, who bravely bore witness to their faith and passed on the Church’s faith and tradition by bringing up their children in the spirit of the Gospel.”(11)

Moreover, it is to the holiness of the faithful that the hierarchical structure of the Church is totally ordered. For this reason, the Declaration Inter Insigniores recalls: “the only better gift, which can and must be desired, is love (cf. 1 Cor 12 and 13). The greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven are not the ministers but the saints.”(12)

[RIGHT]St. John Paul the Great, ORDINATIO SACERDOTALIS (emphasis mine)[/RIGHT]

one good Explanation I heard from a theological point of view is:

  1. Jesus restored the Priesthood of Melchizedek
  2. The Law of Moses stipulates that only the **male descendants **of Aaron be commissioned to serve as Jewish priests before the God of Israel and the Jewish nation. This commission is believed in Judaism to be “a covenant of everlasting priesthood” (“Brith HaKehuna”) and not eligible for replacement by other tribes of Israel.
  3. Obviously, Jesus adjusts it so any man called who is called can be a priest, but he doesn’t remove the male requirement.


Pope John Paul II gave the explanation:



In the OT, women talk directly to God and get gifts from Him.

In the OT, men act as priests and get smote left and right. Best case, they have to be away from their family for weeks talking to God and having their faces turn into glowsticks.

Which would you rather be? :slight_smile:

Seriously, though, just look at the entire spirituality of the OT and NT. Women make sacrifices of their own preferences, and they do stuff and give stuff. But you don’t see women taking any chickens out back and doing a blood sacrifice to God.

(Heck, there’s not much of that going on even with pagan gods. Raisin cakes, getting drunk, and sex with strangers is the pagan women’s thing.)

Adam, Abel, Cain, Seth – they all are right there doing sacrifices. It’s a men’s spirituality thing. The firstborn son or the husband is the one who offers sacrifices for the family, even if the woman is the pious one or the wise one. Healthy women don’t want to be out there burning grain or slitting animals’ throats for God. Why? I don’t know. I just know that’s how it is, because I’m a woman and that’s how women think.

But sure, let’s go further.

If Mary had actually become a priest, instead of just being a member of a priestly people, her relationship to her Son would have been radically different. The story of Abraham and Isaac is harsh and scary, but how much scarier would it be if Sarah had been ordered by God to be an Abraham? It’s hard enough to think of the Father offering up His Son, Himself; but how could Jesus’ mom do that, or re-present that as the priest? She couldn’t.

(There is an obscure late medieval title of Mary as “Mary the Priest” but artists apparently never liked it much. The only way they do it is to show Toddler Jesus as an altarboy, and basically that seems to be their excuse for using the title at all. The title got banned for being confusing and icky about as soon as it showed up. “Mary, Mother of Priests” is a lot friendlier.)

When a mother is set up to sacrificially kill a son, you get into religions that the ancients feared, like Atargatis the cannibal goddess or Cybele getting her male priests to castrate themselves.

Thanks for this. If I get the chance, I’ll read it. However, I have read many of those sources referenced there, and again, I didn’t see any reasoning for why it would be prohibited prior to the Council of Nicea.

Thanks for these sources Steve. I’ve read through each, and neither addresses the question. I understand why the Catholic Church teaches women cannot be priests. My question is, where in the early church fathers prior to the Council of Nicea is this specifically addressed and an explanation given? I don’t see that and that’s what I’m looking for.

Thanks, but this doesn’t address the question at all. I would like to know where the early church fathers prior to Nicea discussed the reason for it not being allowed.

Interesting. I haven’t heard that one before.

This is all very interesting, but it wouldn’t be very helpful if trying to explain this to a Protestant, none of whom believe Jesus is actually being sacrificed in the Lord’s Supper.

If Jesus did not make Mary, His very own mother and arguably the holiest woman to ever live, a priest, then He definitely did not intend to make women priests. I had a pamphlet from years ago about why women are not allowed to be made priests. I don’t have it on me now, but I know that many MANY early Church Fathers wrote on the matter. They never allowed women priests in the Early Church. Women deacons? yes. but not priests.

I’ve a hunch that it may not be written anywhere. In the early Church, writings were typically letters from one place or person to another and they addressed whatever the concern was. It was taken for granted that men were the presbyters and it wasn’t challenged except by heretics. The why from the Early Church Fathers would likely be scripture. Jesus ordained the 12. He didn’t include anyone else. In explaining it to a protestant you could say “This is how Jesus did it, and that’s how we continue to do so. Maybe it’s a tradition we hold too tightly, but we believe this is instituted divinely.” Of course give all the usual explanations about in persona Christi, etc. but I don’t know that you’ll find a “why?” in the writings of those Fathers pre-nicaea.

You should check historical texts that may talk about when communion was still held in the home in the early years…I think men and women shared performing the rituals of breaking bread and passing wine. I remember reading this.

Also…take note of the restored frescos in the catacombs of Priscilla that depict women in priest-like robes, celebrating the eucharist.


I think does not make it fact. Anything can be written, there is no historical facts only speculation.

Also…take note of the restored frescos in the catacombs of Priscilla that depict women in priest-like robes, celebrating the eucharist.


According to the Vatican, what is being depicted is a deceased person now in paradise, and that the women sitting at the table were taking part in a “funeral banquet” and not a Eucharistic gathering.

Well…it could be that Mary didn’t want to be a priest.
After all, there’s that scene in the gospel called Matthew where Jesus is preaching near home in Nazareth and Mary and his siblings rush out, worried he’s gone mad.
And by that time, she’s nearing fifty…and perhaps she had others at home to take care of.

But since neither Mary nor Jesus have ever been quoted on the issue (that we know of) we can’t claim to know or project what was going on in their minds.
That would be hubris.

But this is another topic, for another thread.


Yeah…but we can say that about anything in the bible, as well.
I wish I could remember which historians were writing about it–they were scholars of early Christianity and they were indeed basing it on historical evidence. I will look around.

I wonder what makes them think that.
Do you know?

In a fresco separate from that one, we see a woman wearing liturgical garments and a vestment, with arms outstretched.


What makes you believe it is the Eucharist?

If you think that Jewish ideas about priesthood are so important, what do you think about these other conditions that bar someone from being a priest in Leviticus 21?

16 The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: 17 Speak to Aaron and say: No one of your offspring throughout their generations who has a blemish may approach to offer the food of his God. 18 For no one who has a blemish shall draw near, one who is blind or lame, or one who has a mutilated face or a limb too long, 19 or one who has a broken foot or a broken hand, 20 or a hunchback, or a dwarf, or a man with a blemish in his eyes or an itching disease or scabs or crushed testicles. 21 No descendant of Aaron the priest who has a blemish shall come near to offer the Lord’s offerings by fire; since he has a blemish, he shall not come near to offer the food of his God. 22 He may eat the food of his God, of the most holy as well as of the holy. 23 But he shall not come near the curtain or approach the altar, because he has a blemish, that he may not profane my sanctuaries; for I am the Lord; I sanctify them. 24 Thus Moses spoke to Aaron and to his sons and to all the people of Israel.

So do you also believe that anyone with a “blemish” such as “crushed testicles” or who is blind or lame or is a hunchback or a dwarf or has a broken foot or a broken hand or a mutilated face or a blemish in his eyes should be barred from becoming a Catholic priest? As Leviticus says, God does not want such people to profane His sanctuaries. :rolleyes:

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