Some supporters of women's ordination have asserted that there have been ordained female priests and bishops in antiquity. The church's position is that, although "a few heretical sects in the first centuries, especially Gnostic ones, entrusted the exercise of the priestly ministry to women: this innovation was immediately noted and condemned by the Fathers who considered it as unacceptable in the Church." In response some supporters of women's ordination argue those sects were not heretical but orthodox, and that in fact the Catholic Church itself had become heretical.
There is evidence that women were deacons within the Christian community. For example, Paul's letter to the Romans, written in the first century CE, mentions a woman deacon:
I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church in Cenchreae.
— Rom 16:1,
Pope Gelasius I apparently condemned the practice of women officiating at altars; inscriptions near Tropea in Calabria refer to "presbytera", which could be interpreted as a woman priest or as a wife of a male priest. Furthermore, a sarcophagus from Dalmatia is inscribed with the date 425 and records that a grave in the Salona burial-ground was bought from presbytera Flavia Vitalia: selling burial plots was at one time a duty of presbyters. There have been some 15 records so far found of women being ordained in antiquity by Christians; the Catholic Church, as well as the Eastern Orthodox, the Oriental Orthodox, and the Assyrian Church of the East, as noted, all agree that those ordinations were by heretical groups, while the Women's Ordination Conference contends those same groups were orthodox and that the Catholic Church and Orthodox Churches were in fact heterodox.