Sadly, many women we talk to have been disrespected by Christian men in authority, especially in the local church context.
Some years ago Kristi and I were leading a midweek seminar at a Bible church. Our topic was discipleship to Jesus and personal soul care. There were about twenty people attending. I opened our meeting with prayer, introduced our topic, and made some comments from the Bible. Then Kristi shared her insights with a personal example.
Right after she stood up to speak a man abruptly got up from his chair and left the room in a fuss, shaking his head and muttering under his breath.
As Kristi continued speaking, the man’s wife kept turning around to see if he was coming back. Soon she picked up her purse and left too. Later she contacted us, “I’m sorry we left your talk. My husband believes it’s not Biblical for a woman to teach in church when men are present.”
This was quite demeaning of Kristi and women in general. Though I don’t imagine that any of the church’s elders or pastors would’ve walked out on Kristi, their official church doctrine supports the belief behind doing that. They do not allow women pastors, elders, or preachers/teachers; they limit women to roles like pastor’s wife, admin staff, hostess, women’s ministry leader, teacher of children, or deaconess.
These elders are sincere and not intending to be sexist or disrespectful of women, but that’s the affect they’re having.
We’ve heard from many women who have been discriminated against in church leadership. When a church doesn’t welcome qualified women into leadership it’s damaging to the identity and dignity of women and girls and it affects how they’re treated by men and boys. Furthermore, it can damage the whole church or organization.
Women bring the spiritual depth, nurture, relational skill, integrative thinking, and tender-courage that often are lacking in all male leadership groups. Women tend to be high in emotional intelligence, which is key to success in any endeavor, especially in ministry.
In my experience of working with pastors and church leadership the absence of qualified women at the leadership table has also contributed to unjust terminations of pastors, harmful church splits, and dysfunctional team dynamics.
Typically, churches that hold women back from eldership or other leadership roles cite two controversial New Testament passages to support their view: 1 Corinthians 11:3 and 1 Timothy 2:11-12. But they take a narrow view on those verses and don’t give adequate weight to a number of other Scriptures that do support female leadership in church and elsewhere.
Increasingly, women and men are simply refusing to attend churches that hold women back. It makes no logical sense that a woman could lead the board of a Fortune 100 company, be the President of the United States, or be endorsed as a high-level spiritual leader in the Bible, but not serve as an official leader in a church.
To be clear, there are many Christian men and women who have high regard for women and yet believe the Bible teaches that church elders/leaders should be restricted to men. Kristi and I have participated in churches like this. Many of the pastors we engage with and respect currently hold this view.
We don’t want to disparage these men in authority, but our hope and prayer is that they will prayerfully re-consider their position and make room for godly and gifted women in the board room and executive staff.
It’s powerful when a Christian leadership team models shared male and female leadership. This is a key value of Soul Shepherding because it greatly amplifies the person and message of Christ.
Thankfully, many Christ-honoring churches and ministries do a great job of honoring women in leadership.
Why Many Churches Don’t Let Women Teach or Lead
In 1 Timothy 2:11-12 Paul says, “A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent.” (NIV)
Similarly, in 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 he says, “Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the Law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.” (NIV)
How do you interpret these verses? A straightforward, literal reading of these texts, does seem to support the a church should not have women pastors or elders. On this matter I’ve heard elders say, “This is the Lord’s commandment!” or “It’s the clear teaching of the New Testament.”
But there are many evangelical Christian church denominations that do not interpret these Bible passages to restrict women from leadership; they ordain women as pastors and install them as elders or overseers: Presbyterian, Methodist, Assemblies of God and other Pentecostal traditions, Friends (Quaker), certain Baptist and Lutheran groups, some nondenominational churches, Evangelical Covenant, and the Reformed Church in America (RCA). In fact, a number of years ago I was blessed to serve as a Spiritual Formation Pastor at an RCA church under the leadership of a woman Senior Pastor.
Soul Shepherding, Inc, the 501c3 nonprofit ministry to pastors and leaders that my wife Kristi and I started in 2009 is in the later camp. Currently, three of the seven members on our Board of Directors are women. Their leadership gifts, wisdom, courage, discernment, empathy, and prayerfulness, along with those of the men, has been essential to the stability and growth of our ministry. Also in our Soul Shepherding Institute for pastors and leaders Kristi and I co-lead all aspects and we train as many women as men.
Throughout our lives Kristi and I have been thankful to affiliate with Bible-based, evangelical Christian churches. Also, I’ve taken seminary classes at the conservative Talbot Theological Seminary (as part of my training toward a doctorate in psychology). But on the issue of women in leadership we disagree with the churches who don’t give qualified women equal access to serve as pastors, elders/overseers, and leaders in other capacities. (To reiterate what I said above, we respect there are intelligent and compassionate evangelical Christian leaders and Bible scholars who are following their understanding of the Bible and their conscience by limiting the church leadership roles for women.)
This article draws on the evangelical Christian Biblical scholarship of Dallas Willard, N.T. Wright, Scot McKnight, and others to suggest that spokespersons for Christ who use 1 Timothy 2 and 1 Corinthians 14 to block women from church leadership may be misinterpreting these texts and/or neglecting to give sufficient weight to other relevant Bible passages. These scholars make a strong case that by studying the Biblical and cultural context of those verses, along with drawing on the whole counsel of God’s Word, we find significant support for qualified women being given opportunities to serve in church leadership.
Before we investigate some key Bible passages, let’s consider some philosophical, cultural, and hermeneutical issues.
Male and Female Roles: Complemenatrian or Egalitarian?
There are two main camps of Christians in the gender battle over leadership in the Church (also as it relates to marriage and family).
In the complementarian view the Bible teaches that men and women are unique and designed differently by God. They are considered of equal value and status but they have different functions in the family and church. Men are created by God for headship (which they define as leadership) roles and women for submissive (supportive) roles. While women may assist in a decision-making process the ultimate authority rests with the man. In these families typically the father is the wage-earner and the mother is more focused on the children.
In most conservative Bible churches the complementarian paradigm is on display. The pastors and elders are all men because women are not eligible to serve in these roles. Even the guest speakers are always or almost always men. Or if a missionary couple is introduced or makes a report at the church the man is the designated leader and does all or most of the talking. Wives are in a supporting role.
For qualified men to lead in ministry and their wives to support them is a beautiful and godly thing! Along these lines, a special focus of Soul Shepherding is to care for pastors’ wives.
The main contrasting view to complementarian male and female roles is the egalitarian view. Here the belief is that God’s plan and the Bible’s teaching is that men and women are equal not only in value and status but also in the work they can do. They have equal authority in decisions and any role in society, including church, is open to either. Male and female distinctions are still honored, but that doesn’t limit either’s opportunities to serve in particular leadership roles or to exercise authority.
For churches operating with an egalitarian paradigm you’ll regularly see gifted women preachers bringing the Word of God to the church. The lead pastor may be a woman and in larger churches some of the pastors, executives, and elders will be women. When a missionary couple is invited onto the church stage to be prayed over the women might be a co-leader with her husband, or the called leader who is being supported by her husband.
We understand Peter’s teaching on spiritual leadership in church ministry (“overseers”) in 1 Peter 5:1-11 to apply to men and women humbling themselves under Christ and being servant leaders for the sake of the church and it’s ministry to the surrounding community. An important point is that Peter focuses elders not on governing or ruling the church, but on ministry to people. In some churches elders run the church like the Wizard of Oz behind the curtain. They have power over the pastors and the governance of the church (and possibly micromanaging the church staff and operations), even though they’re not directly involved in servant ministry to people in the church and community. Their qualifications for leadership are mostly about giftedness, business success, money, and powerful personalities.
Dallas Willard on the Need For Women Leaders in Church
Dallas Willard, a longtime distinguished USC philosopher and a thought leader in Christian spiritual formation who was a personal mentor to me for a decade before he died in 2013, has some common sense wisdom to offer on this issue. When he was asked to write a chapter in the book How I Changed My Mind and Women in Leadership he declined because he said he’d always believed in women as church leaders. He did write the foreword and in it he shared:
All through my young life [growing up in Baptist churches in Missouri] those who had taught me most “at church” were women. Actually, I knew that, in many cases, there would have been no church at all if it hadn’t been for women; and, beyond church, life in my environment was mainly anchored in strong and intelligent women who — often with little or nothing in the way of “credentials” — simply stood for what was good and right and directed others in the way of Christ.
Of course I knew that in my church the “official” pastors were men, but the issue of women teaching men and “preaching” had not hardened in that time and place, and, if need required — as was frequently the case — certain women could do very well at “bringing the message.” Also, I was fortunate to be in significant contact with Wesleyan and Holiness tendencies where women were in leadership roles — quite “officially.”
Dallas indicated that as he grew older and studied the Bible it became clear to him that the Biblical passages that seemed to prohibit women from preaching were not giving general principles for us today. He said it is “a very weak hermeneutic” to use these passages to deprive women of leadership opportunities. Instead, in these texts Paul is primarily teaching that Christ-followers are to be “all things to all people” (1 Corinthians 9:19) in order to bring salvation to as many people as possible.
Dallas lamented that he was “saddened at how much hurt and harm can be imposed through warping the Gospel and its ministry into cultural legalism in the name of God.”
He cautions, “What we lose by excluding the distinctively feminine from ‘official’ ministries of teaching and preaching is of incalculable value. That loss is one of a few fundamental factors which account for the astonishing weakness of ‘the Church’ in the contemporary context.”
Dallas gives three reasons why he believes that it’s good for women to serve as leaders in churches:
1. God Gives Ministry Gifts to Women
“There is no suggestion whatsoever in scripture or the history of Christ’s people that the gifts of the Spirit are distributed along gender lines.” He says that if this idea had been on the mental horizon of the inspired authors they certainly would’ve made that clear. Tragically, sometimes women have gifts that are needed in the body, but they’re not free to use them while men are allowed to serve in leadership roles that they’re not supernaturally gifted for.
2. The Issue is Not Rights and Equality, but Obligation
“People simply are not equal when it comes to their talents, to their ministerial gifts, or to their experiences with God.” He believes that to proceed as if everyone is equal is a secular model that reduces God’s power to equip particular people in special ways. Actually, what establishes the terms for women to be leaders in serving God and their neighbors “is their obligation to do so… which derive from their human abilities empowered by divine gifting. It is the good they can do… which impels them to serve in all ways possible.”
3. Excluding Women Implies Something is Wrong With Them
“If God indeed excludes women from leadership of the Church, there must be some reason why he does. What could it be?” he asks. “And if leadership, speaking, etc. is good work, and work manifestly in need of good workers, what, exactly, is it about a woman that God sees and says: ‘That won’t do.’ Or did he just flip a coin and men won? This line of questioning of course affects all women.”
(Dallas Willard, Article/Foreword to How I Changed My Mind About Women in Leadership by Alan F. Johnson, Zondervan, 2010)
A Young Woman in Saudi Arabia Becomes a Jesus Follower
To help us understand the cultural backdrop of Paul’s teaching on the role of women in the first century Church let’s consider pastor Mike Eerie’s “thought experiment” on what it’s like to be a woman in Saudi Arabia.
In Saudi Arabia in ancient times, and to a lesser extent in modern times, the customs are that a woman is supposed to wear clothes that fully cover her body whenever she goes out in public. When she goes to a restaurant she’s required, not just by custom, but by law to have a male guardian accompany her. If she wants to go to her job, go to college, or travel away from her home town she needs official permission from her male authority or she can be arrested!
Now, imagine a wealthy Saudi young woman who goes to a Christian small group and becomes a follower of Jesus. She learns that the Bible says to her: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28) She discovers that as a woman God has set her free from oppressive Muslim laws. She has equal opportunities as men. She can dress and move about as she wants.
For her to start dressing in a freer way is not a crime in her country and so she begins to do that. But it’s offensive to people and so the religious police correct her. They say that she’s undermining traditional Islamic values because she became a Christian! They fear that other young women will follow her bad example.
If you were her pastor writing a letter to her and her Christian community how would you counsel them? What would you say about her freedom of dress bringing disrepute to the name of Christ?
You’d ask her and the other women to submit to the restrictive dress code for the sake of the gospel. You’d exhort her that it’s actually an honor to hide her beauty in order to display the glorious beauty of Christ Jesus. At the same time you’d tell Saudi fathers not to oppress their daughters and Saudi husbands to love their wives sacrificially and to value them as equal partners. (For instance, Paul in Titus 2:5 teaches wives “to be subject to their husbands, so that no one will malign the word of God.”)
That’s what it was like in first century Rome. They had household codes that were culturally enforced and to disobey them was to be anti-family. There was a lot of fear about the “new Roman women” who wanted to prove that they could have sexual freedoms like men and that this would destroy family and culture. Christian freedom could be seen as divisive.
So Paul and Peter in their shepherding of female followers of Jesus asked them to follow the household codes, even though that restricted their God-given freedom, so that their behavior and appearance would not detract from their witness for Jesus. Yet at the same time they planted the seeds of overthrowing the culture that oppressed women and children by challenging the men (which was not done) to restrict their desires out of love for their wives and children. Paul actually spends more time admonishing the husbands than the wives, calling them to be submissive and sacrificial in their love for their wives. (Ephesians 5:21, 25-33)
The bottom line is that in first century Rome letting Christian woman assert their freedoms tended to hinder the gospel, but today it’s the opposite! If women are restricted from influence or leadership in any way it makes Jesus and God look bigoted and oppressive. Giving leadership opportunities to women is a matter of loving and honoring them, equal to men, and as we’ll discuss further, this is the truth that the Bible teaches.
(Mike Eerie, VOC podcast on “How to Read the New Testament on Women in Ministry.”)
Does the Bible Say Women Can’t Teach in Church Today?
In The Blue Parakeet Scot McKnight, an American New Testament scholar and professor of New Testament, says it’s a contradiction when in our churches we take one point in 1 Timothy 2:8-15 as a rule — women can’t preach or lead in church but must be silent — yet treat the other points as cultural. He says if the whole passage was taken as teachings for the church today then we wouldn’t allow men to attend church services without lifting up their hands in prayer and we’d enforce men not getting angry or having disputes in church meetings! And we wouldn’t let women have their hair styled and to wear gold or pearls as they worship God in church!
Thankfully, most Christians understand rightly that what’s essential in prayer is not raising hands, never being angry, or how we dress — it’s the attitude of our hearts toward God. We know that in other Scriptures the Bible permits expressions of anger and disputes, as long as this is done in loving and respectful ways. We also realize that the standards on how women dress changes in different cultures and historical time periods. In these cases we don’t apply Paul’s instructions as a general commandment so why do we when it comes to women speaking in church or giving leadership to men?
Or in 1 Corinthians 14:26-40 when Paul is talking about the need for orderly worship, before he says women are to remain silent in churches, he says, among other things, “When you come together, everyone has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation.” (verse 26, NIV) Probably most of us have never even attended a church service that implements each of those elements that Bible passage so why would we elevate the one about women not serving as teachers, pastors, or church leaders as if that’s a law but the other items are not?
In these two Bible passages Paul is offering pastoral instructions about particular situations that relate to that group of people in that time and culture. In contrast, each passage also teaches a general principle that’s throughout the Bible and is clearly meant to be applied to everyone in any situation: 1 Corinthians 14 teaches on the importance of orderly worship in church services and 1 Timothy 2 exhorts men and women to be godly and holy. In these Bible passages Paul is addressing specific examples of problem behavior that needs to be corrected — he’s not giving a general rule that all women in all churches should always be quiet and never serve in church leadership.
Paul’s Teaching on Women in the Church
N.T. (Tom) Wright, a bishop in the Church of England and an internationally renowned evangelical New Testament scholar, says in a paper he presented at the International Symposium on Men, Women, and the Church “we have seriously misread the New Testament passages” that frame the debate on women in church leadership. Before unpacking those passages, he uses Galatians 3:28 to introduce Paul’s theology as it relates to gender.
Paul’s theses in this Scripture passage, and elsewhere, is that all people can be part of God’s family through faith in Christ Jesus. Galatians 3:28 is the most commonly cited bellwether verse to assert this. “Many Bible versions actually mistranslate this verse,” according to Tom, “to read ‘neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female.’ That is precisely what Paul does not say.” That “flattens out” the translation. “What he says is there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, no male and female.”
By calling for “no male and female” he’s not integrating or obliterating gender distinctions, rather he’s eliminating the privileged position of men in the true family of Abraham, the Christian society. He’s insisting on male and female equality while retraining the essential and glorious uniqueness of each.
The cultural context helps us understand what Paul means when he asks women in church services to be silent and to inquire of their husbands at home (1 Corinthians 14:34-35). Citing Ken Bailey’s work, Tom Wright explains that in the ancient Middle East (and still today in some places) men and women sit on separate sides of the church and the minister speaks in formal or classic Arabic, which the men know, but most of the women do not since they speak only the local dialect. They get bored and talk amongst themselves, getting louder and louder. Finally, the frustrated preacher bellows, “Women, please be quiet!” They turn their volume to a whisper, but slowly get louder and the cycle repeats. Then after the church service wives ask their husband to share what the pastor taught on.
This scenario fits Paul’s main message in 1 Corinthians 14 which is urging there to be order and decency in church worship services. This is the general principle which he applies to the specific situations of disorder in the Corinthian churches in which there was public speaking in tongues without interpretation and women in the congregation speaking out of turn during the minister’s message. As it relates to church services, the principle of order and decency transfers to churches in our culture today, but the concrete instructions on interpreting tongues and women being silent probably do not. (1 Corinthians 14:40)
Earlier in this same letter, Paul also seems to put down women by saying, “Now I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of woman is man, and the head of Christ is God” (1 Corinthians 11:3, NIV).
Wright says there are two reasons why we misunderstand this verse. First, the word “head” does not refer to authority but to source, like the headwaters of a river. He’s referring back to the creation story in which woman was made from the side of man (Genesis 2:20-23). Secondly, “[Paul’s] main point is that in worship men should follow the dress and hair codes [in their culture] which proclaim them to be male and women the codes which proclaim them to be female.”
In other words, it’s essential to worship of God that we bring our authentic self, including our gender, and that we do this in a way that honors the Lord. In that culture, for women to “let their hair down” in church would’ve been like women in our culture wearing bikinis to church! Disciples of Jesus don’t draw attention to themselves but to God.
In part of Paul’s discussion about dress and hair etiquette he makes a comment that really helps us understand his later instruction to women during church services being silent and submissive to their husbands. He says, “And every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head.” (1 Corinthians 11:5, NIV) He’s acknowledging that it’s a normal practice for women to speak out loud in church services by praying and prophesying. So we can be sure that three chapters later he’s not making a blanket prohibition from women speaking in church.
Furthermore, Gilbert Bilezikian, a leader in the establishment of the Willowcreek megachurch near Chicago, IL, teaches that Paul in his catalogs of spiritual gifts to be used in the churches ranks prophesy ahead of teaching so we can say that if he blesses women to speak prophecies in church then he certainly blesses them to teach from the Bible (Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12, and Ephesians 4).
1 Timothy 2
Tom (NT) Wright recalls a time that he was preaching in a church and read Paul’s words in 1 Timothy 2: “A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent.” (verses 11-12, NIV). A woman near the front of the sanctuary was so offended that she exploded in anger, disrupting the whole service! It’s no wonder: she heard an oppressive God saying to her: “You can’t teach or lead in church. Don’t even speak!”
The Bible seems to be degrading women into second-class citizens. And the chapter seems to get even worse! Women aren’t allowed to dress attractively, they’re daughters of Eve, the original troublemaker, and mostly what they’re good for is having babies! This Scripture is the one that has most often been used to say that women should not teach or lead in a church.
Actually, Paul’s main point here, according to Tom Wright, is that women should be allowed, along with the men, to study and learn so that they can become teachers and leaders. The “full submission” in this verse is usually taken to mean to men, but it’s probably to God, to the gospel, or to learning. Paul is actually elevating women who usually weren’t given opportunities to be educated. (This is still a great need as according to Christianity Today only one in five students at evangelical Christian seminaries in America today are women.) But in first century Rome it was a dangerous message that needed to be qualified because it would naturally be associated with the widespread cult of Artemis, a Greek goddess with an enormous temple in Ephesus. All the priests were women and “sacred sex” was part of the cult-worship.
What about the other points in this Scripture that seem offensive to women? In his instructions about women dressing modestly, Paul is simply asking them to respect the household codes of the day and focus on adorning themselves with good works that draw people’s attention to God. In the reference to Eve and childbirth, his point is that becoming a mother is not a curse or punishment from God as some think, but that salvation through faith in Christ is for all, women and men alike.
Going back to the most controversial verses, Tom Wright summarizes the results of his Biblical scholarship on this matter by translating 1 Timothy 2:11-12 this way: “[Women] must be allowed to study undisturbed, in full submission to God. I’m not saying that women should teach men, or try to dictate to them; they should be left undisturbed.”
(See N.T. Wright’s paper on “The Biblical Basis for Women’s Service in the Church” presented in 2005. See also Gilbert Bilezikian’s book Beyond Sex Roles: What the Bible Says About a Woman’s Place in Church and Family, published in 1985, which makes similar points as Tom Wright and covers many additional Bible passages.)
Examples of Women Leaders in the Bible
Scott McKnight in The Blue Parakeet insists that in the discussion about women in church leadership too much attention gets put on the two controversial passages of 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2. He says the more forceful argument is to look at the “What Did Women Do” passages in the Bible. In the Old and New Testament, we find many examples of women exercising leadership gifts and authority (including over men) as judges, prophets, teachers, apostles, and deacons. If this is what is done in the Bible, even in the New Testament churches, then we surely ought to follow suit in our churches today.
Books like Her Name is Woman by Gien Karssen and All the Women of the Bible by Herbert Lockyer provide many examples of prominent women leaders in the Bible. This is particularly surprising because the eras in which the Bible was written were Patriarchal cultures. For instance, in the first century, Greco-Roman and Jewish societies women were the property of men and were limited to the domestic roles of wife and mother. Rarely were they educated or given prominent roles. Yet, Jesus and his apostles esteemed women greatly, taught them, and gave them leadership roles.
Women Leaders in the Old Testament
Briefly surveying the Old Testament we find some prominent female leaders like Moses’ sister Miriam, Sara the mother of all nations, Judge Deborah who led Israel’s government and military, Hannah the mother of Samuel who prophesied of the Messiah, the Queen of Sheba who sought Solomon’s wisdom and a millennia later was memorialized by Jesus Christ, Huldah who was a prophetess to King Josiah, and Queen Esther who saved the Jews from genocide.
Also, we might list the Old Testament mothers who are listed in the genealogies of Jesus Christ, even though it was the custom only to name the fathers: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Uriah’s wife (Bathsheba), and Mary.
Women Leaders in the Ministry of Jesus
In the gospel stories of Christ, women play central roles. Here are a few examples:
Elizabeth was a priest’s wife, known as a righteous woman. Into her old age, she suffered from not being able to have children, but she believed the angel’s promise and became the mother of John the Baptist. She offered hospitality and spiritual mentoring to Mary. (Luke 1:5-20, 23-25, 39-80)
Mary’s testimonies and teachings surely inspired Luke’s first two chapters in his gospel and Jesus’ great reversal message that in God’s kingdom the poor become rich and the weak become strong (Luke 1-2; Matthew 5:3-12).
Anna was a prophetess in the Jerusalem temple and one of the first to proclaim Jesus as the Messiah. (Luke 2:36-38)
Mary of Bethany didn’t stay in the kitchen with Martha and the women but crossed the cultural gender line to join Jesus and the circle of men. She was “sitting at his feet,” which is a way of saying that Jesus accepted her as his student so she could learn how to become a teacher like him. (Luke 10:38-42)
Mary Magdalene, Joanna (wife of Herod’s manager), Mary the Mother of James, Susana, and other women were leading disciples of Jesus. They traveled with him at times and provided him and his community with hospitality, financial support, and encouragement. They were the first evangelists of the resurrection of Jesus Christ and taught Peter, James, John, the other male apostles and leaders, and many other people. (Luke 8:1-3, 24:1-7)
The Samaritan Woman was an adulteress who received Christ and became an evangelist, leading many in Samaria to trust the Lord. She paved the way for the revival that the Apostle Phillip (one of the twelve) brought there after the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. (John 4:4-26, 39-42; Acts 8:4-8)
Women as Leaders in the Early Church
There are many women who served as leaders in the first churches and some are named in the Bible.
Female prophets were common in New Testament churches (prophets were high-level leaders, second only to apostles). They served as Holy Spirit anointed, truth-telling teachers. Peter affirmed women prophets in his Pentecost sermon (quoting Joel’s ancient prophecy) and Paul sanctioned it also. (Acts 2:16; 1 Corinthians 11:5)
Women in Damascus were prominent disciples of Jesus in “The Way.” Because of their prominence, Paul targeted them, along with men, to be imprisoned, persecuted, or even killed by Saul of Tarsus. (Acts 9:1-2)
Tabitha (Dorcas) was a widow with a profitable business as a seamstress in Joppa. She became a prominent disciple of Jesus, known for her good works and leading a ministry to care for other widows. When she died from a sickness Peter raised her from the dead! (Acts 9:36-42)
Lydia was a successful business entrepreneur in Philippi who was a leader in a women’s prayer meeting that met at the river (like an informal synagogue). She was Paul’s first convert in Europe and helped establish it’s first church, which probably met in her home. (Acts 16:11-15, 40)
Philip’s Four Daughters were unmarried and devoted to serving the Lord as prophets in Caesarea. They also had a ministry of hospitality, including to the Apostle Paul. (Acts 21:8-9)
Phoebe was a deacon, helper, and benefactor who ministered to many, including Paul himself. She may have been the leader of a house church or a legal expert (which is the meaning of “helper”). (Romans 16:1-2)
Priscilla (wife) and Aquila (husband) were commended by Paul as co-pastors of a house church in Corinth and probably she was the stronger leader because usually her name is mentioned first. She and her husband provided corrective teaching to the Apostle Apollos and he received it. In fact, she was so honored by Paul that out of 26 named people in Romans Paul lists her first! (Romans 16:3-5; Acts 18:26) Furthermore, she is one of four leaders (perhaps elders or pastors) who is specifically greeted and appreciated in Paul’s second letter to Timothy (2 Timothy 1:2; 4:19).
Junia, the wife of Andronicus, was named by Paul as “outstanding among the apostles.” She was a prominent Christian leader and missionary who helped establish and lead one or more churches. (Romans 16:7)
Euodia and Syntiche were female church leaders honored by Paul as his “co-workers” which may have meant they were apostles (church planters). (Philippians 4:2-3)
Lois and Eunice taught Timothy in the ways of the Lord. Later Paul also mentored him and he became a pastor (2 Timothy 1:5).
Deaconesses (female deacons) served in official ministry positions in the New Testament Church (1 Timothy 3:11). Early Church fathers, including Clement and Ignatius, appointed women as deaconesses in their churches.
Early Church History
In the first generations of the Church, the Bible attests to women being in leadership roles. However, there was controversy about this that was addressed in the Council of Laodicea in the 4th Century (about the year 360). Sadly, from my perspective, this council banned the ordination of women elders in Christian churches. Cannon 11 reads: “It is not allowed for those women who are called ‘elders/presbyters/priests’ (presbytides) or ‘women presidents’ (prokathēmenai) to be ordained in the churches.”
This historical evidence shows that in the early Church there were many cases of women serving as official elders and leaders in local churches, despite the surrounding culture’s bias against this. We see the same thing in the Bible. Jesus, Paul, and other apostles and prophets of the Bible have the wisdom and courage to do what is right and loving, even though the culture around them doesn’t support it. That’s being salt and light (Matthew 5:13-16).
Tragically, on this issue I believe we’re in the opposite situation: the secular world is showing more regard and honor for women than many of our churches!
In this Soul Talks episode, Women in Ministry, Bill and Kristi continue to unpack this crucial conversation.