Women in the Church
Click to return to overview

Four of the ten chapters can be accessed by clicking their titles below: 

The Ministry of Women in the New Testament

Women and Church Office

The Role of the Pastor

Retrospect and Prospect

Order this book online--click here


Chapter 2


Samuele Bacchiocchi, Ph. D., Andrews University

What impact did the coming of Christ make on the social status and religious roles of women? Was Jesusí treatment of women as human persons to whom and for whom He had come and His inclusion of some of them among His inner circle of companions, designed to pave the way for their full access to the pastoral ministry? Does the New Testament respect or reject the social and religious role distinctions between men and women which we have found in the Old Testament? 

Two Opposing Views. Two opposing answers are generally given to these questions. Some Bible students argue that the New Testament abolished "the distinction between priest and laity"1 by granting to women equal and full access to all the forms of ministry open to men.2 Elizabeth Meier Tetlow, for example, concludes her book Women and Ministry in the New Testament, by saying:

    There is nothing inherent in the character of Christian ministry as it is presented in the writings of the New Testament which would give reason for the exclusion of women. On the contrary, the New Testament portrays Jesus treating women as equal human persons. It also portrays women and men serving side by side in the various ministries of the early church. . . . According to the evidence of the New Testament, the exclusion of women from ecclesiastical ministry is neither in accord with the teaching or practice of Jesus nor with that of the first century Church.3 
Other Bible students disagree with this conclusion, maintaining instead that the New Testament upholds the Old Testament role distinctions between men and women in the home and in the church. For example, the Commission on Theology and Church Relations of the Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod, states in its report issued in September 1985: 
This analysis of the order of creation and redemption leads to the formulation of a second principle, derived from the Holy Scriptures, for clarifying the function of women in the church today: Distinctive identites for man and woman in their relation to each other were assigned by God at creation. These identities are not nullified by Christ's redemption, and they should be reflected in the church.4 
 A similar conclusion is presented in the 1984 report issued by the commission appointed by the Christian Reformed Church. The report declares: "ĎThe headship principle,í which means that the man should exercise primary leadership and direction-setting in the home, in the church, and in society in general, is a creational norm recognized in both the Old and New Testament."5 

A Reason for Opposing Views. How can evangelical Christians, committed to the authority of the Word of God, reach two opposing conclusions regarding the New Testament teaching on the role of women in the church? A major reason is the seemingly contradictory data found in the New (and Old) Testament regarding the social status and religious roles of women. Some statements and examples suggest that women shared equally with men in the various ministries of the church, while others indicate that women were excluded from the appointive representative roles of apostles, pastors, and elders/bishops. 

Jesus, for example, on the one hand elevated women to a position of equal worth with men, admitting some of them to His inner circle of companions, and commissioning them to witness for Him (Matt 12:49-50; 27:55-56; 28:7; Luke 8:1-3; John 4:26-30; 20:17-18). Yet on the other hand Jesus did not include any women among His twelve apostles nor did He commission any to "feed my sheep" (John 21:17). 

Similarly, Paul, on the one hand, speaks of women as "fellow workers" (Rom 16:1-3, 6, 12; Phil 4:2-3), prophets (1 Cor 11:5), persons who "have labored side by side with me in the gospel" (Phil 4:3) and as being equal to men and one in Christ ("neither male nor female"--Gal 3:28). Yet, on the other hand the Apostle teaches the submission of wives to their husbands (Eph 5:22-24; Col 3:18) and the exclusion of women from the authoritative teaching role of pastor or elder (1 Tim 2:11-12; 1 Cor 14:34-35). 

The existence of these apparently contradictory teachings can easily give rise to conflicting views. This happens when one chooses to maximize those statements or examples which favor one's view and to minimize opposing statements by ignoring, reinterpreting or rejecting them. This is not a new phenomenon in Biblical interpretation. A classic example is the two opposing views regarding Paul's seemingly contradictory statements about the law. Antinomians appeal to those Pauline statements which speak of Christ abolishing the law (Eph 2:15; cf. Rom 3:28; 7:6) to negate the value of the law in the process of salvation. Legalists make use of those Pauline texts which speak of Christ establishing the law (Rom 3:31; cf. Rom 7:12; 1 Cor 7:19) to teach law-keeping as the basis of salvation. 

Method. A responsible interpretation of seemingly contradictory Biblical teachings, must first recognize the existing tension and then seek for a resolution by trying to understand its causes. In the case of Paul's contradictory statements about the law, I have shown elsewhere6 that the contradiction can be explained by simply recognizing the different contexts in which Paul speaks about the law. In the context of salvation (justification--right standing before God), Paul clearly affirms that law-keeping is of no avail (Rom 3:20). But, in the context of Christian conduct (sanctification--right living before God), Paul maintains the value and validity of God's law (Rom 7:12; 13:8-10; 1 Cor 7:19). 

The same methodology will be used in the present study. First, we shall endeavor to delineate the seemingly contradictory teachings of the New Testament regarding the role of women in the church and then we shall seek to resolve the apparent contradiction by trying to understand its causes. 

Objective. This chapter is divided into two parts. The first part examines the role of women in the ministry of Jesus. The second part focuses on the ministry of women in the apostolic church. The concern is not merely to survey the various forms of women's ministries but primarily to understand the Biblical rationale for the inclusion of women in certain ministries and their exclusion from others. The latter question will be investigated more fully in the subsequent chapters. 


1. Jesusí Attitude toward Women

Radical Break. Most scholars acknowledge that Jesusí treatment of women represents a radical break with the Jewish cultural tradition of His time. Joachim Jeremias, for example, writes: "Jesus knowingly overthrew custom when he allowed women to follow him." He calls the presence of women in the inner circle of Jesusí followers "an unprecedented happening in the history of that time."7 

To appreciate the revolutionary attitude of Jesus toward women it is important to note that in the centuries following the close of the Old Testament canon, the subordinate role of women was hardened to a considerable degree. Women became relegated to a position of marked inferiority. In religious life, contrary to the Old Testament practice, women were largely excluded from participation in public worship, being considered unfit to learn and inappropriate to teach. 

The prevailing rabbinic attitude toward the role of women in the temple or synagogue is well reflected in Rabbi Eliezer ben Azariahís comment, "The men come to learn, the women come to hear" (bHag. 3a). The women could listen to the reading of Scripture but were not expected to gain any deep understanding. On account of this perception women were almost totally excluded from any formal religious education. Rabbi Eliezer said: "if a man gives his daughter a knowledge of the Law, it is as though he taught her lechery" (mSot. 4:3). The depreciation of women was such that men, especially rabbis, would not speak to them in public. Against this background Jesusí attitude toward women is "without precedent in contemporary Judaism."8 

Women as Persons. Central to Jesusí attitude toward women is His view of them as persons for whom He had come. He viewed them not in terms of sex, age or marital status, but in terms of their relation to God. "Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother, and sister, and mother" (Matt 12:50). Here Jesus identifies as disciples and members of His family, any person, male or female, who does the will of God. This sentiment is echoed in Paulís great proclamation: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal 3:28). 

The value Jesus placed on women as persons stands out in His teaching on divorce. Women are not objects that can be dismissed at will "for any cause." Rather they are persons who by God's design can enter into a sacred marital relationship which no man has the right to "put asunder" (Matt 19:3, 6). 

The description of the crippled woman as a "daughter of Abraham" (Luke 13:16) is also indicative of the value Jesus gave to women. The title "son of Abraham" was commonly used to emphasize the worth of a man as a member of the covenant community. But the title "daughter of Abraham" was virtually unknown, because women were seen not as citizens of the nation but as members of their families. By the use of this title Jesus intended to bring out the value he placed on the crippled woman in particular and on women in general. 

Womenís Intelligence and Faith. The encounters of Jesus with women illustrate not only His respect for them as persons but also His appreciation for their intelligence and faith. His conversation with the Samaritan woman (John 4:7-30) shows His willingness to dismiss the cultural conventions of His time. According to rabbinic thinking Jesus should not have talked with her for three reasons: she was a Samaritan, a woman, and immoral. Jesus refused to be restricted by such cultural conventions in revealing to her His Messiahship. 

The conversation indicates that Jesus considered this woman as capable of grasping profound theological concepts such as the "living water" (John 4:10), the correct place of worship (4:21), and the spiritual nature of God (4:24). It is instructive to note that this woman is the first person to whom Jesus, in Johnís Gospel, reveals Himself as Messiah. She not only accepted Jesus as the expected Messiah but was also the first messenger to witness for Him to the Samaritans. The success of her witness is emphasized by John who says that "Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the womanís testimony" (4:39). 

Jesusí encounter with a Canaanite woman provides another example of His appreciation for womenís intellectual and spiritual capabilities (Matt 15:21-28; Mark 7:24-30). Seeking healing for her daughter, this woman followed Jesus until the disciples became so irritated that they begged Jesus to send her away. Jesusí attitude was different. He refused to send her away. Instead, He chose to talk with her and test her faith. She understood that Jesusí first responsibility was to Israel, but she also believed that He could bestow upon her "the crumbs" of His blessings. Jesus commended her "great faith" (Matt 15:28) and granted her request. What is significant here is that Jesus recognized the woman's intelligence and faith by talking with her and deliberately bringing out her intellectual and spiritual capacities. She receives a place in sacred history as the first Gentile convert. 

Other encounters of Jesus with women further demonstrate His appreciation for their faith and love (Mark 5:25-34; Luke 7:36-50). The encounter with the repentant woman at the home of Simon is most revealing of a woman's faith and love in action (Luke 7:36-50). While Simon would have never permitted such a "sinner" to touch him, Jesus accepted the public demonstration of her love and gratitude as an example of godly faith in action. Once again Jesus shows respect for women as persons, without reference to their sex. He received them as full-fledged participants in the blessings of God's people. 

Women in the Parables. The parables further illustrate Jesusí acceptance of women as treasured members of the human family. The parables present women in ordinary activities which dramatically illustrate the lessons Jesus wanted to teach. A woman mixing leaven in flour illustrates the hidden but pervasive nature of Godís kingdom (Matt 13:33). A woman looking for a lost coin exemplifies Godís concern for lost sinners (Luke 15:8-10). The wise and foolish bridesmaids illustrate the need of constant readiness for the unexpected moment of Christ's return (Matt 25:1-13). 

A persistent woman confronting an unscrupulous judge teaches the need of perseverance in prayer and of not losing heart (Luke 18:1-8). A poor widow who gives her last penny illustrates that God measures our devotion not by the size of our gift but by the commitment of our hearts (Mark 12:38-44). Thus, contrary to the rabbinic custom of generally avoiding mentioning women in their teachings, Jesus often refers to them, and always in positive ways, to illustrate the principles of His kingdom. 

Women as Learners. Jesus taught women not only in those casual encounters mentioned above, but also in formal settings. The best example is that of Jesus teaching in the home of Lazarus where Mary "sat at the Lord's feet and listened to his teachings" (Luke 10:39). Here we have the typical picture of a rabbi instructing his students. What is uncommon, however, is the fact that the student is a woman. Contrary to the view of Rabbi Eliezer, who would rather burn the Scriptures than teach their truth to women, Jesus not only takes time to teach Mary, but also praises her for having laid aside all other concerns in order to listen to Him (Luke 10:41). 

Martha too was taught by Jesus. In connection with the death of Lazarus, Jesus took time to teach her and to lead her to accept Him as her Messiah and the source of the resurrection from the dead (John 11:25-27). It is interesting to note that Marthaís confession, "You are the Christ, the Son of God" (John 11:27), is the nearest equivalent to Peter's confession of Christ (Matt 16:16). 

The above examples suffice to show that Jesusí attitude toward women was in many ways revolutionary. He rejected the prevailing prejudices against women by treating them as human persons of equal worth to men, by appreciating their intellectual and spiritual capacities, by admitting them into His fellowship, and by taking time to teach them the truths of the kingdom of God. Was Christís recognition of the human worth of women and His appreciation for their spiritual, intellectual, and moral capacities, intended to open the way for women to function as pastors/elders in the church? In the rest of this chapter we shall begin to answer this question by examining first the participation of women in the ministry of Christ, and then in the apostolic church. 

2. Women in the Ministry of Jesus

Unique Role. The role that some women filled in the ministry of Christ is absolutely unique. It is remarkable that while Christ ministered to men, women are shown as ministering to Him. Whenever the Gospels speak of ministry being rendered directly to Jesus, it is the ministry of either angels or women. (This does not imply that all women are angels.) After the temptation "angels came and ministered to him" (Matt 4:11; cf. Mark 1:13). All the other instances speak of the ministry of women. After Jesus healed Peterís mother-in-law, " she arose, and ministered unto them" (Matt 8:15, KJV). Mention is made of a band of women who followed Christ constantly and who "ministered unto him of their substance" (Luke 8:3, KJV). On two occasions it is recorded that Martha served Jesus (Luke 10:40; John 12:2). 

The Greek verb used in all the above examples is diakoneo, which is translated "to serve" or "to minister." This verb "has the special quality of indicating very personally the service rendered to another."9 It is from the root of this verb that the English word "deacon" is derived. The personal and dedicated service that women offered to Christ included the preparing and serving of food, especially since the original meaning of diakoneo was "to wait at table."10 

Travelling Companions. Perhaps the most amazing aspect of Christ's relationship with women is the small band of women who followed Him together with the disciples. Luke provides this insightful description:  

    Soon afterward he went on through cities and villages, preaching and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. And the twelve were with him, and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod's steward, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their means (Luke 8:1-3). 

This is the only passage in the Gospels which tells us how Jesus and His disciples lived when they were not entertained by hospitable people. It is noteworthy that the travelling party of Jesus included a group of women besides the twelve disciples. Each of the synoptic writers records that there were many other women besides those which are mentioned by name (Matt 27:55; Mark 15:41; Luke 8:3) 

At a time when women appeared in public only when absolutely necessary, it must have been a matter of considerable gossip to see a group of women travelling with Jesus. It was not uncommon for a rabbi to travel with a band of followers, but it was most unusual for women to be among them. The fact that Jesus accepted both the presence and the service of these devoted women clearly shows that His actions were not conditioned by the custom of the day. 

Women at the Crucifixion and Resurrection. Some of the women who followed Christ during His ministry assumed a prominent role at the time of the crucifixion and resurrection. At the risk of their lives they followed Christ to the Cross and then they followed His body to the burial place. They wanted to show their tender love for Him by returning later to embalm His body with spices and ointment (Luke 23:55-56; Matt 27:59-61; Mark 15:47-16:1). 

When the women returned to the tomb after the Sabbath to anoint Christís body, they were honored with the news of the resurrection. Their loyalty and devotion to Christ were rewarded by their being the first to encounter the risen Savior (Matt 28:9; Mark 16:9; John 20:14) and to be commissioned to break the news of the resurrection to the disciples (Mark 16:7; Matt 28:7, 10). In the Passion narratives the women clearly show a greater loyalty, courage and faith than the twelve disciples.  

The same women who ministered to Jesus during His travels and at His death were also present among the disciples in the period between the resurrection and Pentecost. Presumably they were also among those upon whom the Holy Spirit came at Pentecost (Acts 1:12-14; 2:1-4, 14-47). 

3. No Women Apostles

The foregoing considerations have shown that women had a special place in the life of Christ. He affirmed their personhood, related to them with love and respect, appreciated their intellectual and spiritual capacities, taught and healed them, accepted them in His inner circle of travelling companions and honored them with the first announcement of His resurrection.  

In the light of these facts we may ask, Why did Jesus call no woman to be part of the twelve apostles? Furthermore, Why didnít the apostles and "the women" (Acts 1:14) who deliberated over the replacement of Judas, at least also propose the name of a woman as a possible candidate? Obviously it was not a question of qualifications, since several women fulfilled the conditions for apostleship, namely, someone who had accompanied Jesus and had witnessed His resurrection (Acts 1:21-22). 

Cultural Reason. Two reasons are often given for Christ's omission of women from the apostles: the first is cultural and the second is theological. Culturally, it is argued that in that "particular cultural setting only males would have been acceptable both as the closest companions of Jesus and as leaders of the community which was to be formed."11 This explanation is unacceptable for three major reasons. 

First, if Jesus broke radically with the customs of the time by admitting women into the inner circle of followers, why should He have felt constrained by customs not to commission women to preach or teach publicly? It is unconvincing that Jesus radically rejected the conventions of His time in His treatment of women, but conceded to them by not allowing women to be apostles. 

Second, as Susan T. Foh points out, "to argue that Jesusí choice of apostles was determined by culture is to ignore the fact that God chose the culture and time in which his Son was to be born. No detail escapes God's consideration."12 

Third, in the Roman-Hellenistic culture of the time, as we shall see, women played leading priestly roles in the religious life. Thus, if Jesus had been conditioned by the culture of His time, he could have appointed some women among the apostles, in view of the fact that they would have been readily accepted in the Gentile world where the Gospel was to be preached. 

Theological Reason. Some reason that Jesus did not appoint women as apostles because He believed that "the end of time was coming soon" and consequently He "was not concerned to legislate for His church for all time."13 If this reasoning were true, then Jesus should not have bothered to appoint twelve apostles as the representatives of the new spiritual Israel, and to commission them to preach the Gospel to the whole world. It is true that Jesus did not define the distinct functional roles men and women are to fulfill within the church, but He did choose and train twelve men to feed His sheep and to make disciples of all nations (John 21:15-17; Matt 28:19-20; Acts 1:8). 

Jesusí choice of twelve male apostles was not conditioned by the social conventions of the time, but rather was consistent with the Old Testament headship role man is called to fulfill in the home and in the community of faith. This role structure, as we shall now see, was retained and respected in the life and order of the church which the apostles raised up under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. 

1. The Participation of Women

Visible and Active. Women were visible and active not only in the ministry of Jesus, but also in the life of the apostolic church. Immediately after Christ's ascension the disciples gathered in the upper room "together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers" (Acts 1:14). These women were there not to cook for the men, but to pray with them and to seek divine guidance over who should be Judasí successor. The women who had filled a signif icant role in the ministry of Christ now continue their service within the life of the community. 

On the day of Pentecost women were in the upper room together with the disciples when the Holy Spirit was poured out and all of them began speaking in tongues (Acts 2:1-4). Peter explained the event to the skeptical crowd by quoting Joel: "Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, . . . and on my menservants and my maidservants in those days I will pour out my Spirit" (Acts 2:17-18). The specific reference to "daughters" and "maidservants" presumably served to justify why the women also had received the gift of the Holy Spirit. 

Women in the Expanding Church. Women joined the expanding church in large numbers. Luke notes that "more than ever believers were added to the Lord, multitudes both of men and women" (Acts 5:14). When Philip preached the Gospel in Samaria, the result was the same: many "were baptized, both men and women" (Acts 8:12). 

One of the early converts in Jerusalem was Mary, the mother of John Mark. She offered her house as a meeting place for believers in that part of the city. It must have been an important meeting place, since Peter went there immediately after his release from prison (Acts 12:12). Some scholars believe that the upper room was in her house.14  

When the Gospel reached Europe, women again were prominent. The first European convert was a woman named Lydia, "from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple goods" (Acts 16:14). The next convert mentioned by Luke was also a woman, a former demon-possessed slave --an example of how the Gospel reached all classes (Acts 16:16). 

The rest of the book of Acts is replete with examples of women who responded to Paul's proclamation of the Gospel by becoming active participants in the life of the church. In Thessalonica and Berea among the many who believed there were "not a few Greek women of high standing" (Acts 17:4, 12). In Athens one woman, Damaris, is specifically mentioned among the few who believed (Acts 17:34). In Corinth Priscilla, together with her husband Aquila, took an active role in instructing the learned Apollos (Acts 18:2, 26). 

Paul, who sometimes has been unjustly accused of being an anti-feminist, repeatedly mentions in his letters many women as worthy of commendation for the special work they were doing in the church (Rom 16; Phil 4:2-3; 1 Cor 16:19). There is no doubt that the apostolic church followed Christ's example by including women in the ministry of the church. The question, however, is: what specific roles did women fill within the apostolic church? To this question we must now address ourselves. 

2. The Roles of Women

 Charitable Service. A major need in the primitive church was caring for the needy, the sick, the widows, the orphans and the visitors. The apostles were made forcefully aware of such a need soon after Pentecost by the murmuring of the Hellenists over the apparent neglect of their widows (Acts 6:1). To remedy the problem "seven men of good repute" were appointed at that time (Acts 6:3). Soon women, especially widows, became active in the charitable services of the church, communicating Christian love by deeds of mercy and hospitality (1 Tim 5:9-10). 

Acts reports the story of a woman, Tabitha (Dorcas), who "was full of good works and acts of charity" (Acts 9:36). Her works of charity consisted in making clothes for the poor (v. 39). The fact that "All the widows stood beside . . . weeping" (v. 39) after her death, suggests that she herself was probably one of the widows in the local church. There is no indication in the story that at this point the widows were organized as a group or order within the church. 

By the time Paul wrote 1 Timothy widows were recognized as a special group within the church, since the apostle writes: "Let a widow be enrolled if she is not less than sixty years of age. . . . But refuse to enroll younger widows" (1 Tim 5:9, 11). Some have argued that the enrolling represented an official appointment to certain offices in the church.15 However, as James B. Hurley points out, "A close look at the text indicates that the roll is a welfare roll rather than an employment roll."16 

The ministry performed by these widows apparently consisted of prayer and supplication for the church (1 Tim 5:5), as well as "doing good in every way" (v. 10). There is no indication that their service was perceived as an official order of ministry in the church. As Charles C. Ryrie puts it: 

    Official support was part of the enrolling; official duties were not. The catalogue was instituted to correct and systematize financial matters, and no doubt it paved the way for the development of orders of ministry among women, but at this point in history matters are still undefined.17 
"Deaconesses." Closely related to the ministry of widows is that of women who became known as "deaconesses." This ministry is highlighted by Paul's reference to Phoebe, "a deaconess of the church of Cenchreae . . . she has been a helper of many and of myself as well" (Rom 16:1-2). The word "deaconess" is a translation of the Greek diakonos, a masculine noun which was used both for men and women with two distinct meanings. 

In the vast majority of its occurrences in the New Testament, the term diakonos simply means "servant" or "one who ministers" to another. Paul, for example, speaks of himself and of his co-workers as diakonoi (servants, ministers) of Christ, of the Gospel and of the new covenant (1 Cor 3:5; 2 Cor 3:6; Eph 3:7; 1 Thess 3:2). He also speaks of his apostolic work as a diakonia (Rom 11:13) 

In a few cases the term diakonos is used to describe the church office of "deacons" (Phil 1:1; 1 Tim 3:8-13). Usually the context gives the clue to whether diakonos is used in the general sense of ministering or in the restricted sense of an established diaconate. The question then is to determine whether Paul is commending Phoebe as a member of the church at Cenchreae who has served others, or as a deacon in that church. Scholarly opinion is almost equally divided on this matter. Personally I tend to think that diakonos is used by Paul in a technical sense to describe the official deaconess role of Phoebe in the church. The main reasons are three. 

First, the use of the participle "being" (ousan) in Greek and the connection with the church--"Phoebe, being a deacon of the church in Cenchreae"--reads like an official title. Paul may have chosen to introduce Phoebe to the Romans by her official role in her home church, especially if she was the carrier of his letter, as is generally believed. 

Second, the characterization of Phoebe as a "helper of many" (Rom 16:2), suggests that she played a vital role in the Cenchreaean church by offering assistance to many, including Paul himself. Such a service was associated especially with the office of the deacon. 

Third, in 1 Timothy 3:11 Paul describes the qualifications of a group of women serving in the church--qualifications which are point for point parallel to that of the deacons given immediately before (1 Tim 3:8-10). "The parallel lists of qualifications strongly suggests," as James B. Hurley observes, "that the function of these women was parallel to that of the deacons."18 

The reason why Paul does not call these women deaconesses (diako-nissa) is simply because such a term did not yet exist. The term first appears in the Syriac Didascalia (ch. 16), a document written in the early part of the third century. The masculine form of "deacon--diakonos" was used for both men and women as in the case of Phoebe (Rom 16:1). In 1 Timothy 3:11 Paul uses the word "women--gynaikas" instead of "deacons--diakonoi" presumably to avoid confusion, since he had already used diakonos to introduce the men in 1 Timothy 3:8. Thus, it would seem best to understand the "women" of 1 Timothy 3 as a group of persons who served the church in a similar capacity to that of the deacons. The example of Phoebe, identified as diakonos, lends positive support to this conclusion. 

Female deacons were needed in the early centuries when the sexes could not mingle freely. According to the Didascalia they performed a great variety of services in the care of women, including assistance at the baptism and burial of women, the catechizing of women and caring for sick women at home.19 They never functioned, however, as heads of the community, but served in a role auxiliary to that of the pastors, elders and bishops. 

Women as "Fellow-workers." Women distinguished them selves in the apostolic church not only at the level of local churches but also in the wider missionary outreach of the church. Much of the missionary activity reported in the New Testament focuses on Paul and his co-workers, many of whom were women. 

In Romans 16 Paul greets several women whose missionary endeavors contributed significantly to the life and growth of the church. Outstanding among them is Prisca (a diminutive of Priscilla) and her husband, Aquila. Of them Paul says: "Greet Prisca and Aquila, my fellow workers in Christ Jesus, who risked their necks for my life, to whom not only I but also all the churches of the Gentiles give thanks; greet also the church in their house" (Rom 16:3-5). 

This couple lived in Rome until about A.D. 49 when they were forced to move to Corinth after Claudius expelled the Jews from Rome (Acts 18:1-3). From Corinth they moved their tentmaking business first to Ephesus (Acts 18:18-26; 1 Cor 16:19) and then back to Rome. It is noteworthy that both Paul and Luke mention Prisca almost always before her husband, Aquila, presumably because she was the more prominent in missionary endeavors. In Acts she is engaged with her husband, Aquila, in teaching the great orator Apollos (Acts 18:26). Prisca, therefore, must have been well-grounded in the Christian faith and a most capable instructor. 

Paul refers to this couple as "fellow-workers." The term was often used by Paul to characterize those persons who worked with him, including Titus and Timothy (Rom 16:9, 21; 1 Cor 3:9; 2 Cor 1:24; 8:23; Phil 2:25; 4:3; Col 4:11; 1 Thess 3:2). 

Other women greeted by Paul are: Mary, Tryphaena, Tryphosa, and Persis, all of whom "worked hard" in the Lord (vv. 6, 12). The term Paul uses here is descriptive of the toil in proclaiming the Gospel (cf. 1 Cor 4:12; 15:10; Phil 2:16; 1 Tim 4:10). In Philippians 4:2, 3 Paul mentions two other women, Euodia and Syntyche, as persons who "have labored side by side with me in the Gospel." 

Paul: a Chauvinist? The fact that Paul commends such a significant number of women for working hard with him in the missionary enterprise of the church, suggests two things. First, the characterization of Paul as "anti-feminist" is based on prejudice. Paul appreciated women and admired their contribution to the mission of the church. Thus, his insistence on the role differentiation between men and women in the home and in the church, which we shall examine in later chapters, must be seen as an indication not of Paul's chauvinism but rather of his respect for the role distinctions established by God at creation. 

Second, women as well as men can participate legitimately in the ministry of the church. The question, however, is: In what roles? As appointive leaders of the church or as "fellow-workers" ministering to the needs of believers and unbelievers? This question will be addressed in the following chapters where we shall examine those texts which address specifically the roles of women within the congregational structures of the New Testament church. 

Women as Prophets. Women as well as men also participated in the prophetic ministry of the apostolic church. Two specific New Testament passages refer to women functioning as prophets. Acts 21:9 speaks of the four daughters of Philip, "who prophesied." In 1 Corinthians 11 Paul recognizes the presence of women who prophesied in the worship services: "Any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled dishonors her head" (1 Cor 11:5). 

The prophetic ministry of women in the apostolic church confirms the fulfillment of Joel's prophecy quoted by Peter on the day of Pentecost: "And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy; . . . yea, and on my menservants and my maidservants in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy" (Acts 2:17-18). It is possible that Peter quoted this prophecy to explain to the surprised crowd of onlookers why the gift of prophecy had been bestowed upon women also. The prophetic ministry of women in the New Testament stands parallel to that of prophetesses in the Old Testament.  

The high regard for the prophetic ministry in the New Testament is indicated by Paul's listing of spiritual gifts where "prophets" are mentioned immediately after "apostles" and before "teachers" or "evangelists," and "pastors" (Eph 4:11, 1 Cor 12:28). This order suggests that the prophetic ministry, which women exercised in the church, was in no way seen as inferior to that of the pastor/teacher. 

The exact nature of the prophetic ministry is not clearly defined in the New Testament. Its primary function appears to have been to serve the Christian community through edification, encouragement, counseling and consolation. The chapter most descriptive of the prophetic ministry is found in 1 Corinthians 14. Here Paul explains that the person "who prophesies speaks to men for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation. . . . He who prophesies edifies the church" (1 Cor 14:3-4; cf. Acts 15:21). 

Some wish to see in the prophetic ministry of women in the apostolic church an indication that women functioned as leaders in the church. This view is obviously wrong because prophets functioned not as the appointed leaders of the congregation, but as private believers with a God-given message of exhortation for the congregation. The office of prophet was not restricted to anyone but was open in a sense to everyone. Paul clearly says: "For you all can prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged" (1 Cor 14:31). While women shared in the prophetic ministry of encouraging, guiding, and exhorting the Christian communities, there are no indications that they were ever appointed to serve as the representative leaders (pastors/elders). The reason for this, as it will be shown in the following chapters, is the New Testament acceptance of the Old Testament role structure for men and women. 

A Woman "Apostle"? Appeal is often made to Paul's reference to Junias (Rom 16:7) to defend the alleged leadership role women fulfilled in the apostolic communities. The text reads: "Greet Andronicus and Junias, my kinsmen and fellow prisoners; they are men of note among the apostles, and they were in Christ before me" (Rom 16:7). Among a long list of fellow workers, Paul here acknowledges two Jews who shared in his imprisonment. Their service makes them noteworthy "among the apostles." Is Paul here characterizing a woman, Junias, as an "apostle"? If so, in what sense? 

Letha Scanzoni and Nancy Hardesty view the case of Junias as a major example of the fact that "from the beginning women participated fully and equally with men"20 in the leadership of the church. They write: 

One woman "apostle" is even mentioned in the Bible! Junia, saluted by Paul in Romans 16:7 (KJV), is a common Roman name for a woman, but since she is identified as an "apostle," many translators have assumed the name to be a contraction for a much more common male one.21 
This categorical conclusion is discredited by three important considerations. First, the name Jounian in the Greek text grammatically could be the name of either a man or a woman. Thus, the grammatical form does not permit a categorical conclusion in either direction. 

Second, it is possible that the passage does not identify Andronicus and Junias as apostles at all, because the grammatical form of "men of note among the apostles" can be translated equally well as "They are noted by the apostles." The latter appears more plausible because, as John Murray explains, "they were Christians before Paul and, no doubt, were associated with the circle of apostles in Judea if not in Jerusalem."22 

Third, the term "apostle" is used in the New Testament in both a narrow and broad sense. In a narrow sense it designates "the twelve," as when Matthias "was enrolled with the eleven apostles" (Acts 1:26) to replace Judas. Because of this exclusiveness, Paul had to labor to prove the legitimacy of his apostleship (1 Cor 15:9-11; 2 Cor 12:11-13; Gal 1:1,11; 2:9). In a broad sense the term "apostle" means a "messenger," someone sent out for a specific mission (cf. 2 Cor 8:23; Phil 2:25). If Andronicus and Junias were apostles, most probably it would be in the latter sense, since nowhere else are their names associated with the inner circle of the apostles.  

In light of the foregoing considerations we conclude that Paulís reference to Junias lends no support to the view that she was a woman apostle. The name can refer equally well to a man, and whether the person is a man or a woman, she/he was not an apostle in the narrow sense of the word. 


Several conclusions emerge from our study of the ministry of women in the New Testament. These can be summarized in the following points: 

Jesusí treatment of women was in many ways revolutionary. He rejected the prevailing prejudices against women, by treating them as human persons of equal worth to men, by respecting their intellectual and spiritual capacities, by admitting them into His fellowship and by teaching them the truths of God's kingdom. 

Women played a very prominent role in the ministry of Jesus. They ministered to His physical needs, a group of them traveled with Him and His disciples, and some of them followed Jesus to the Cross at the risk of their lives. Their loyalty and devotion to Christ stand out in the passion narratives as more exemplary than that of the apostles. Women were the first to encounter the risen Lord and to be commissioned to break the news of the resurrection to the disciples. 

In spite of His revolutionary treatment of women, Jesus did not choose women as apostles nor did He commission them to preach the Gospel. Such an omission was not a matter of concession to the social conventions of His time, but rather of compliance with the role distinction for men and women established at creation. 

The apostolic churches followed the pattern established by Christ by including women as integral members in the life and mission of the church. Women joined the church in large numbers, attended worship services, organized charitable service for the needy, learned of the faith and shared it with others, performed a variety of services in the care of women, worked hard as "fellow-workers" alongside numerous men in the missionary outreach of the church, and shared in the prophetic ministry of edification, encouragement and consolation. 

Though women ministered in the church in a variety of vital roles, including that of prophet, there are no indications in Scripture that they were ever ordained to serve as priests in the Old Testament or as pastors/elders/bishops in the New Testament. 

Why were women able to participate equally with men in various ministries of the apostolic church, and yet were excluded from the appointive roles of apostles/pastors/elders? The Scriptures suggest several reasons which we shall now consider in the following chapters. 


1. Letha Scanzoni and Nancy Hardesty, All We're Meant to Be: A Biblical Approach to Womenís Liberation (Waco, Texas, 1975), p. 208. The same authors write: "From the beginning women participated fully and equally with men" (p. 60). 

 2. See, for example, Gilbert Bilezikian, Beyond Sex Roles (Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1985), pp. 118, 206; Paul K. Jewett, The Ordination of Women (Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1980), p. 135. 

 3. Elizabeth Meier Tetlow, Women and Ministry in the New Testament: Called to Serve (Lanham, Maryland, 1980), p. 131. 

4. Women in the Church: Scriptural Principles and Ecclesial Practice, A Report of the Commission on Theology and Church Relations of the Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod, September 1975, p. 27. 

5. Quoted by Nicholas Wolterstorff, "On Keeping Women Out of Office: The CRC Committe on Headship," The Reformed Journal 34 (May 1984): 8. 

6. Samuele Bacchiocchi, The Sabbath in the New Testament (Berrien Springs, Michigan, 1985), pp. 108-120. 

7. Joachim Jeremias, Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus: An Investigation into Economic and Social Conditions during the New Testament Period (Philadelphia, 1969), p. 376. 

8. W. Forster, Palestinian Judaism in New Testament Times (Edinburgh, 1964), p. 127.  

9. Hermann W. Beyer, "Diakoneo," Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, eds. Gerhard Kittel and Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1974), p. 81. 

10. Ibid., p. 84. 

11. Mary J. Evans, Women in the Bible (Downers Grove, Illinois, 1983), p. 50. 

12. Susan T. Foh, Women and the Word of God (Phillipsburg, New Jersey, 1979), p. 93. 

13. Reginald H. Fuller, "Pro and Con: The Ordination of Women in the New Testament," in Toward a New Theology of Ordination: Essays on the Ordination of Women (Somerville, Massachusetts, 1976), p. 2. 

14. See W. Sunday, Sacred Sites of the Gospels (Oxford, 1903), p. 83. 

15. See E. F. Scott, The Pastoral Epistles, Moffat New Testament Commentary (London, 1936), p. 26. 

16. James B. Hurley, Man and Woman in Biblical Perspective (Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1981), p. 121. 

17. Charles Calwell Ryrie, The Role of Women in the Church (Chicago, 1958), p. 84. 

18. James B. Hurley (n. 16), p. 231. Hurley provides a very cogent interpretation of who the "women" were in 1 Timothy 3:11 (see pp. 229-233). 

19. R. Hugh-Connolly, ed. Didascalia Apostolorum (Oxford, 1929), ch. 16, pp. 146-148. 

20. Letha Scanzoni and Nancy Hardesty (n. 1), p. 60. 

21. Ibid., p. 63. 

22. John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans, The New International Commentary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1982), p. 230.

Home | About Author | Books | Order Online | Print Order Form | Scholars comments

[FrontPage Include Component]