Thursday, August 24, 2006

Early church

Recently, Jim West posted on women teaching in the early church. I don't intend to interact with that post. But, in it he makes the following statement:

Part one is easily enough explained when one recalls that in the first century church, women and men sat apart from one another. If women sitting across the room asked their husbands what this or that meant as the speaker spoke, nothing but mayhem would ensue. So, women are advised (as they are in Corinthians) to listen quietly. In Corinthians they are further admonished to wait until they got home to ask their husbands questions. In sum, v 11 is a practical bit unconnected to what follows. It is erroneously linked to what comes after instead of what comes before.

This is not the first time I have heard the assertion that women and men sat apart from one another in the early church. I have heard it several times in the last year. My question is: Where is the evidence that this was so? It seems to me that this is reading later practices back into the 1st & 2nd century church. According to Winter in Roman Wives, Roman Widows, one of the problems for the early church was the emancipation of women being taken too far. I understood that to include non-separation of women and men.

We should not assume that the early church was like our current mainline denominational churches or megachurches, where everyone files in nice and quiet and watches a carefully scripted show from their seats/pews. Nor should we assume it is like a charismatic/pentecostal one with a greater degree of interaction. The texts related to the church in the New Testament seem to imply that there was a good deal of chaos with too many people trying to get their say in, too much drinking and eating, too many people speaking in tongues, too many prophecies, too much of everything except order! I just don't see this fitting the description that Jim describes above. They met in homes, probably of the wealthier members so that there would be enough room, not in "churches." The building wasn't called a "church" until much later. In fact, the earliest church to date, found last year at Megiddo, has been renamed a "prayer hall," see A Christian Prayer Hall of the Third Century CE at Kefar `Othnay (Legio). It is time we drop our eisegesis and start doing some exegesis instead.

So, I repeat my question: Where is the evidence that men and women sat in different sections of the building during the church meeting?


Dr. Joseph Ray Cathey said...


What I have seen of the little archaeology that we have on the subject tends to support your post. I believe as you do - for the most part churches met in homes rather than buildings. My guess is that "churches" per se did not come into vogue until the 3rd century A.D.


Jim said...

I'll try to track down the source. In the meantime, I would point out that all the chaotic and disorderly behaviour you mention is found only in Corinth. A Church steeped in problems. I mean, it seriously was the worst example of a community of faith portrayed for us in the NT. We can't extrapolate from their behavior that every church was so disorganized.

Quite the contrary I imagine.

Anyway, i'll get back to you!

Jim said...

Joe, I'm not talking about buildings- I'm talking about arrangements of persons within houses (at that early stage). No one in their right mind would argue that "Church buildings" existed as early as the first century.

Jim, I've done some checking and some asking around and it seems my notion is based on presumption rather than hard facts. I'm more than happy to stand corrected- though that correction will also require hard facts.

At this point I can't track down any hard evidence but I do have enquiries out to some of the most learned folk in early NT christian history and when I hear from them I will pass it along.

jps said...


Thank you for checking. I am looking forward to any references.

I, too, will have to look around for references to defend my assumptions :)