Yearning for Complementary Companionship: Virgins Subintroductae and Male-Female Relations in the Early Church

The following piece is adapted from a paper I wrote while a student at Wheaton.  It is quite long for a blog post, but – for those who ponder the proper boundaries of male-female relationships in the context of Christianity – I think you will find it to be of some interest.  Enjoy!

ImageAsceticism, and especially female asceticism, was a defining feature of the Early Church – including a requisite commitment to celibacy.  Although reminiscent to the modern, or even medieval, notions of nuns and monks, Christian men and women of the first centuries of Christendom often practiced this celibacy in a different form than latter adherents to the virginal lifestyle.   Just as the ecclesiastical structure of the church was still forming, these early ascetics existed without the regimented organizational structure of monasteries and orders.   Social historian Peter Brown notes, “These informal structures meant that ascetic women were free to seek protection and spiritual guidance from males of any kind – from relatives, from ascetic soul-mates, and from men of exceptional insight and learning.”[1]  These newly granted freedoms were occasionally used in ways that pushed the limits of social and spiritual convention.  One such example is the phenomenon of the Virgins Subintroductae, also referenced by patristic experts as the Agapetae.  Called “one of the most fascinating groups of women encountered anywhere in the annals of church history”[2] by esteemed scholar Elizabeth Clark, the controversy which surrounds these virgins provides unique insight into the role of women and their interactions with men in the Ancient Church.

As Gillian Cloke explains, the Virgins Subintroductae were women who “set up a virginal lifestyle, [but] lived in conjunction and cohabitation with a member of the opposite sex in what amounted to a partnership.”[3] A male celibate would agree to live with an avowed virgin, while both claimed to maintain their respective chastity within the confines of this cohabitation.  In the late 4th century, Church Father John Chrysostom described the practice in the following way:

There are certain men who apart from marriage and sexual intercourse take girls inexperienced with matrimony…and keep them sequestered until ripe old age, not for the purposes of bearing children (for they deny that they have sexual relations with the women), nor out of licentiousness (for they claim that they preserve them inviolate).[4]

The exact origins of the practice and term remain unknown, however, the cohabitation of male and female celibates was eventually called syneisaktism, (suneisaktai in Greek)[5] and represented a spiritual marriage, although this facet was never thought to supplant the spiritual marriage of the celibate virgin to Christ.[6]  Also unknown is the full scope of the Subintroductae, however, the practice appears in documents as early as the second century and was addressed by Church Fathers and other church letters in multiple cities.  As best as we can deduce, syneisakitsm was practiced widely throughout the Roman empire and likely continued well into the 6th century.

Patristic scholars point to passages in both the Shepherd of Hermas and the apocryphal Acts of Paul and Thecla as early examples of syneisaktism in Christian tradition and literature.  It is known that Thecla was highly revered by early female ascetics as a model for pious living, and some scholars, including Clark and Cloke, have asserted that the example of Thecla influenced the persistence of syneisaktism, even after it had been formally banned by church leadership throughout the empire.  Condemnation of the practice can be traced throughout the early councils and decrees, beginning with the council of Antioch in 268 A.D., and a ban on the practice was even included at the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D.[7]

Rampant disapproval from church leadership failed to eradicate the phenomenon, suggesting that there were enduring advantages of the arrangement for celibates, both male and female alike, which outweighed any threatened discipline by the Church.  Cloke suggests that some of the primary benefits included material assistance, mutual inspiration, “and, ideally, [to] avoid the pitfalls open to those who became tired or deceived or lonely through isolation in their struggle.  This system may have proved vastly more attractive to many than more orthodox methods of asceticism.”[8]

Interpretations of motive are hard to validate due to the lack of primary sources actually from the Subintroductae.  Much like the problems encountered in scholarship of heretical movements, most of the accounts of syneisaktism are found in documents which condemn the practice and are written from the perspective of their detractors.  As Clark expounds, “no other treatises provide us with comparable information concerning the practice or manifest as clearly as the reasons given by church authorities for censoring it.”[9] Therefore speculation as to reasons for the survival of celibate cohabitation is limited to the realm of guesswork and secondary interpretation.  Weak as the primary evidence may be, these restrictions have not silenced commentary on the seemingly scandalous behavior of the Virgins Subintroductae.

Although syneisaktism is referenced in the works and letters of several Church Fathers, John Chrysostom gave the most thorough treatment of the phenomenon in his two treatises, “That women under vows should not cohabit with men” and “Against those men who cohabit with virgins”, each addressed to their respective gender.  In speaking to men, Chrysostom points to the primary motive of sexual pleasure fulfilled in the arrangement.  It is important to note that unlike other Church Fathers, such as Jerome, Chrysostom gives these men and women the benefit of the doubt that their claims to chastity are true.

Yet his trust in their sustained chastity did not mean that Chrysostom believed sexual desire was removed from the relationship, for “the men who live with them are stirred by a double desire: they are not permitted to satisfy their passion through sexual intercourse, yet the basis for their desire remains intensely potent for a long time.”[10]  In speaking to the virgins, he makes a similar claim, “The practice exists for no other reason than to satisfy unnatural pleasure, both his and yours.  I am not talking about sexual intercourse, for what would be its advantage when even the communion of eyes accomplishes the very same thing?”[11]  His concern over the motives of the cohabitants leads into his true reasons for writing, namely, the offenses of the practice to their celibate vows.

Chrysostom’s belief was that cohabitation negatively harmed their avowed state of chastity and – in effect – degraded what he believed to be the highest state of Christian existence in this world, that of sexual purity.  For the men, he was very concerned that their relationship with the virgins not only led them into sinful lust, but that it upset the perceived rightful order of human sexuality as the men began to assume effeminate qualities and tasks, such as running errands for the virgins and choosing to sit with the women as they weave.  Labeling friendship between the sexes as an “intoxication”[12] he goes on to worry of the virgins’ affect on their male protectors:

They render them softer, more hot-headed, shameful, mindless, irascible, insolent, importunate, ignoble, crude, servile, niggardly, reckless, nonsensical, and, to sum it up, the women take all their corrupting feminine customs and stamp them into the souls of these men.[13]

Corruption by the feminine crucially meant for the man that “he becomes unfit for any of the splendid deeds of virtue.”[14]  Similarly, “When a virgin learns to discuss things frankly with a man, to sit by him, to look at him, to laugh in his presence, to disgrace herself in many other ways, and does not think it dreadful, the veil of virginity is destroyed, the flower trampled underfoot.”[15] Although Chrysostom offers the possibility of marriage to the virgins, he reminds them of the “slavery” entailed and implores them to remember their commitment to Christ.[16]  In both documents Chrysostom is primarily concerned with maintaining the purity of the servants of God and preserving their effectiveness in ministry and worship.

Modern scholarship has interpreted the motives of the Subintroductae in crucial ways that differ from Chrysostom’s emphasis on physical pleasure.  A typical feminist (or perhaps this could also be labeled as the liberationist) interpretation asserts that these women chose celibacy to be freed from their societal constructs and then used the practice of syneisaktism to avoid negative or more difficult consequences of the ascetic life.  Cloke, as her above quote implies, could be categorized under this interpretation.  She notes that syneisaktism “seems to have been a means whereby Christian women again liberated themselves from family restrictions and preoccupations, but with more than a suggestion that it was for their own ends rather than to free their minds for praising God.”[17] Feminist scholar and social historian Luise Schottroff echoed this theme with the claim that female celibacy was practiced “as liberation through the gospel.”[18]

Claims of liberation focus on the ability of women to fulfill roles as a virgin that would otherwise be denied to them based on their gender.  In denying their sexuality they were denying the inherent weaknesses of femininity.  Freed from the shackles of womanhood, these virgins were now able to be virtuous, and, quite literally, manly.  This is the premise of the patristic phrase Cloke chose as a title to her book, This Female Man of God.

Yet these scholars also point out the difficulty for women to be “liberated” in their own social and cultural contexts.  Cloke suggests that the popularity of syneisaktism among women “demonstrates an attempt to wean themselves from their subjection equally to their families and the regard of the church.”[19]  According to this logic, the Subintroductae found a middle ground wherein they could exist as spiritual and vocational equals to men yet continue to reap the benefits of male protection and companionship.

Clark, although making many of these points herself, focuses more on the relational benefits of syneisaktism over the liberation emphasis of the feminists.[20]  In her introduction to the translation of Chrysostom’s treatises she acknowledges “the fact that it solved a practical problem: how and where could female ascetics of the early Christian era live if they did not remain in their parental homes or take to the desert?”[21]  By recognizing this concern Clark reinforces some of the reasons Chrysostom lists as common defenses of the practice made by offending celibates.

Now to the most interesting part of this study.  Clark goes on to offer a second reason for syneisaktism, that “it gave an opportunity for spiritual and emotional intimacy with members of the opposite sex which must have been somewhat unusual, even in marriage, in the society of late antiquity.”[22]  The lack of historical precedent for genuine friendships between men and women explains, for Clark, the difficulty Chrysostom had in understanding the practice and suggests why he was so perplexed as to the possible benefits of this living arrangement if not for fulfilling some form of sexual desire.

Clark’s description of friendship within syneisaktism is more platonic in nature and therefore detached from the issue of physical attraction.  This does not mean that Clark denies the reality of the occasional acquiescence to temptation for the cohabitants or the accounts of births connected to the Subintroductae.  Instead, she focuses on the possibility that for many, if not most, an attraction of syneisaktism lay chiefly in a form of friendship that redefined relations between men and women in late antiquity.  For instance, Clark indicates that the rare usage of philia (as opposed to eros) to describe the love of the cohabiting celibates for one another  is a sign that the Subintroductae represent a vital shift in the history of inter-gender friendship.[23]

Examining the variant interpretations of syneisaktism leads to further possibilities for analysis regarding male-female relationships in the Early Church.   A new freedom for women and men to form friendships can be attributed to specific benefits gained from the practice of celibacy.  As Cloke summarizes, “If women were essentially sinful because essentially sexual, the first and most obvious need was to negate that aspect of their nature – or to stand it on its head.” [24]  Celibacy was not only a viable option because of it’s ability to liberate women, but also because it was a form of obedience to the church and therefore offered women a viable and respectable way to demonstrate their faith and earn equality with their male counterparts.

An unfortunate contextual consequence of the rise of female asceticism was a continued devaluing of marriage.  As Brown commentates, “Attacking the Catholic clergy, a Manichaean polemist in North Africa pointed out that while they claimed that marriage was instituted by God, what they preached most fervently was virginity.”[25]  Even though marriage was given some renewed value with the spread of Christianity, the emergence of celibacy as the higher of the two callings meant that an emphasis on the pure and virginal spiritual life dominated the church teachings of the time.

The critiques of Chrysostom, seen through modern eyes, still hold true, for we can understand why there would be concerns over men and women living together outside of the commitment or covenant of marriage.  It also remains true that there is dignity in his defense for the purity of the spiritual life.  This includes his fear that the bondage of marriage and worldly concerns might distract those, who through their devoted pledge to celibacy, ought to be free from these constraints and fully devoted to the work of the Church.

After surveying the current interpretations of the Subintroductae there remains one tentative thought to propose which may explain the persistent practice of syneisaktism in the early years of Christianity.  As already mentioned, Christian women were given many incentives to be chaste.  Clark, among others, asserts that female asceticism, a feature mostly unique to Christianity, allowed women and men to form friendships.  Speaking to the interactions of male and female ascetics, Brown highlights how “deep spiritual friendships, based on elective affinities, were free to develop.”[26]  The Subintroductae through syneisaktism sought a way to merge two developing realities of Christian life – celibacy and inter-gender friendship – in a practice that offered the possibility of a “spiritual marriage but without sexual sharing.”[27] In this way, it might be possible to think of syneisaktism not only as a foreshadowing of platonic friendship between the sexes, but also as a means for newly conceiving the divine purpose of Christian marriage.

After discovering the benefits of true friendship between the sexes, the ascetics had no formal way of properly expressing and living out such affection given the cultural constraints of their time.  To marry would mean losing the basis of the friendship, for their spiritual equality would be obliterated.  To follow the advice of the Church Fathers like Chrysostom would mean ending the friendship entirely, for to them (and Chrysostom in particular) friendship between the sexes would not be possible until heaven where believers would finally be free of the particular constraints of gender and sexuality.

Therefore, many men and women may have opted to live as close as they could to their friends of the opposite gender – thus receiving mutual benefits of protection and companionship – while still attempting to be pious (in their renunciation of sexual desire).  The Church was growing quickly and, as the feminists choose to emphasize, the liberating power of the gospel was radically changing cultural norms across the empire, perhaps too quickly for even the Fathers to fully understand or embrace.  We might fairly conclude, albeit speculatively, that the Subintroductae and their male cohabitants mutually yearned for the benefits of an equal and complimentary companionship at a level of intimacy that is only accessed through the little graces of a shared and common daily life.  A companionship that God has ordained through healthy and holy marriages.

The persistence of syneisaktism could be interpreted as just one symptom of an inadequate articulation by the Early Church regarding the implications of the Gospel for gender relations and the spiritual significance of the estate of marriage.  Such a proposition ought not read as a harsh criticism of the fore-bearers of the faith, as the contextual limitations of their time more than accounts for their own hesitations to embrace these new social and relational patterns.  Rather, this critique is an attempt to explain, just as Cloke and Clark have done before, why this banned practice of cohabitation was so appealing to otherwise holy men and women.

The power of the Gospel message far exceeds the cultural mores of any particular place and time and the healing work of the Spirit often calls forth new norms and desires that challenge the evils or injustices of each era.  Gender inequality harmed not only women, but also men, as it denied both sexes the opportunity to learn from one another and to grow together as we traverse our limited time on earth.  Although the practice of syneisaktism was (and is) outside the bounds of righteous living, the desire to seek out companionship with those who compliment our strengths and weaknesses – particularly through the mysteries of the opposite gender – honors the whole schema of God’s creation.

To acknowledge that we were created man and woman, that the unique beauty of each gender calls out to the other for mutual comfort and strength, fulfills our natural desire to work together as brothers and sisters for the advancement of His Kingdom.  Just like the early practitioners of the faith, we continually yearn for refined teachings on how best to live out these inter-gender relationships, both in platonic forms and in the grace giving challenges of marriage.  May God bless his Church with wisdom and discernment on these vital issues of gender and sexuality; transforming our societies one relationship at a time.


[1] Peter Robert Lamont, Brown. The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity. Lectures on the history of religions, new ser., no. 13. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988), 266.

[2] Clark, Elizabeth A. Women in Late Antiquity: Pagan and Christian Life-Styles. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993), 265.

[3] Cloke, Gillian. This Female Man of God: Women and Spiritual Power in the Patristic Age, AD 350-450. (London: Routledge, 1995), 77.

[4] Chrysostom in Clark, Elizabeth A. Jerome, Chrysostom, and Friends: Essays and Translations.  Studies in women and religion, v. 2. (New York: E. Mellen Press, 1979),  165

[5] Brown, 267

[6] Clark JCF 158

[7] Castelli, 80.

[8] Cloke, 78.

[9] Clark, JCF, 158

[10] Chrysostom in Clark, JCF, 166.

[11] Chysostom in Clark, JCF, 220-21.

[12] ibid. 196

[13] ibid. 197

[14] ibid..

[15] ibid. 242

[16] ibid. 219, 242.

[17] Cloke, 80.

[18] Schottroff, Luise. Lydia’s Impatient Sisters: A Feminist Social History of Early Christianity. (Louisville, Ky: Westminter John Knox Press, 1995), 215.

[19] Cloke, 80.

[20] Most of the feminists write after Clark, and often cite her as a primary source.  Therefore, she “agrees” with them in the sense that on certain points her arguments line up with their concerns.  Cloke draws many of her conclusions directly from Clark.

[21] Clark, 158.

[22] ibid. 159.

[23] Clark, AP, 280

[24] Cloke, 33.

[25] Brown, 260.

[26] ibid. 266.

[27] Witherington, Ben. Women in the Earliest Churches. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 185.

One thought on “Yearning for Complementary Companionship: Virgins Subintroductae and Male-Female Relations in the Early Church

  1. This was a very informative essay; thank you!

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