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Pelagius on Women

ca. 354 – ca. 420

by John Wijngaards

Pelagius was a Celt probably born in Britain. Around 380 AD he moved to Rome. There he settled in the role of being a spiritual adviser and theologian. Pelagius left an interesting record about what people knew at the time regarding women deacons (see below), but he never refers to the existence of a comparable ministry among his native Romano-British Christians.

This would seem to confirm that the function of Bean-tighe exercised by women in the homes of Christians may not have been a permanent ministry, but rather a service to which prominent women in a household were invited by the priest who came to administer the sacraments or celebrate the Eucharist in their homes. More information here.

Pelagius and women

Pelagius was condemned as a heretic by a number of church councils because of his teaching on human will. However, it is clear that Pelagius was more open to women than many of his contemporaries. He talked to women and considered them worthy of theological dialogue. He also encouraged women to study the Scriptures. Pelagius’ desire to educate women grew from his conviction that God’s image is found in every person including women. Pelagius spent time in Rome and there drew the scorn of more “orthodox” leaders like St. Jerome who was offended by Pelagius’ practice of teaching women to read Scripture.

In December of 415 a second synod was held against Pelagius in Diospolis at which certain sentences were read from a book he had written. The synod was investigating whether or not Pelagius had strayed into heresy with what he had written. After examining his book the synod declared him to be orthodox, finding no fault with his theology. These were two of Pelagius’s statements:

No 9. “Even women ought to have a knowledge of the law.”
No 10. “Women also should sing unto God.”

Pelagius on women deacons

 Comm. in ep. ad Rom. 16 (MPL 30,714) 
  “Commendo autem vobis Phoeben sororem nostram quae est in ministerio ecclesiae quae est in Cenchroeis.”
Sicut etiam nunc in orientalibus diaconissae in suo sexu ministrare videntur in baptismo, sive in ministerio verbi, quia privatim docuisse feminas invenimus, sicut Priscillam, cuius vir Aquila vocabatur.
 “I commend to you Phoebe our sister who has a position in the ministry [= diaconate] of the church [= community] of Cenchreae.” [= Romans 16,1].
Just as now itself in Oriental regions the deaconesses can be seen to minister to persons of their sex in baptism, or in the ministry of the word, since we find that women have taught in private as Priscilla whose husband was called Aquila.
 Comm. in ep. 1 ad Tim. 3 (MPL 30,880)
 “Mulieres similiter pudicas.”
Similiter eas ut diaconos eligi iubet. Unde intelIigitur, quod de his dicat, quas adhuc hodie in oriente diaconissas appellant.
 ‘Women similarly should be pure.’ [= 1 Tim 3,11]
He orders that women should be chosen in the same way as male deacons. From which we can understand that he is talking about those women, who until today one calls deaconesses.
 Comm. in ep. 1 ad Tim. 5 (MPL 30, 883)
 “Vidua eligatur non minus sexaginta annorum, quae fuerit unius viri uxor.”
Tales voluit eligi diaconissas, quae omnibus essent exemplo vivendi.
 ‘As widow should be chosen a woman of not less than 60 years old, who has been the wife of one husband.’ [= 1 Tim 5,9]
He [Paul] wants those women to be elected as deaconesses who would be examples of life to all.