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7 Women in Leadership in the Early Church

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Admist the context of patriarchy and male leadership, there are a handful of women in leadership in the Bible who disrupt the traditional assumptions about church leadership and gender.

Many people who encounter Christianity (myself included in my younger days) find that there is a whole lot of patriarchy both in traditional church structures and in the Bible itself.  The leaders were men; the people in charge were men; women were typically supposed to teach no one but other women or children.  And do the dishes.  We musn't forget that we ought to do the dishes.

But there are examples in the Bible of women in leadership that challenge the idea that it is men who run the show.

These 7 women in leadership in the Bible show us that there is Biblical precedent for women apostles, evangelists, prophets, pastors, and teachers, and that they were given authority equal to that of men.

women in leadership in the Bible

Leadership Positions in the Church

In Ephesians 4:11, Paul identifies 5 positions of leadership within the church:

  • apostles
  • prophets
  • evangelists
  • pastors
  • teachers

The people who fill these roles are to "equip [God's] people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up" (Ephesians 4:12).

While men have traditionally held most of these roles within the church (and women have occasionally taken on limited versions of these roles, such as teaching children), there are examples of women who hold each of these positions in the early church.

Women as Apostles and Evangelists: The Two Marys

Perhaps the most striking example of women in leadership in the Bible is that of the two Marys who discover the empty tomb of Christ.

After Jesus is crucified, his body is buried, a stone is rolled in front of the tomb, and a Roman guard is placed there.  Three days pass and "Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb" (Matthew 28:1).

It is these two Marys who discover the empty tomb and who are instructed by the angel that they find there to "go quickly and tell [the] disciples: 'He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee'" (Matthew 28:7).

So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples (Matthew 28:8).

This is an extraordinary fact that is often overlooked: God gives the task of telling the good news of the resurrection to women.

Mary Magdalene and "the other Mary" are the very first evangelists.  They are tasked with telling the men (who had all run away in fear at this point) the good news about the risen Christ.

We could also count them among the first apostles, as well, since they are messengers (emmisaries, which is the literal meaning of the word "apostle") sent out by God to proclaim the good news of the resurrection.

While they are not counted among the 12 original disciples of Jesus, they are the ones that God trusts first to spread the message of the risen Christ.

Junia the Apostle

Junia is another example of a woman in leadership in the Bible, whom we could count as an apostle.

In Romans 16:7, Paul writes of Junia and Andronicus, that they are "outstanding among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was".

While there is some dispute over whether "outstanding among the apostles" means one of the apostles, or whether it means "esteemed by the apostles", we can note that Junia is here identified on equal terms with Andronicus (likely her husband or her brother) and that they are esteemed leaders in the church.

Women as Prophets: Philip's Daughters

While Philip's daughter are only mentioned in passing, they are important examples of women as prophets in the church.  Acts 21:9 says that Philip had "four unmarried daughters who prophesied".

women with daisies

Women as Pastors and Teachers: Phoebe and Priscilla

Romans 16:1 identifies Phoebe as a deacon of the church.  The word "deacon" here refers to a Christian designated to serve with the elders/overseers of a church in various ways.

This word is used in Phil 1:1 and in 1 Tim 3:8,12 to identify leaders of the church.  While 1 Tim gives rules for deacons that suggest that they would be male ("A deacon must be faithful to his wife...") we can note that Phoebe is an obvious counter-example of an assumed-masculine role.

Priscilla is also identified, along with her husband, in Romans 16:3, as a leader of a house church and "my co-worker in Christ Jesus".

The wife is here named before the husband (as in Acts 18:18 and in 2 Timothy 4:19 ), probably as being the more prominent and helpful to the Church.

Mary and Martha

The story of Mary and Martha, in Luke 10:38-42, is also a telling example of the role of women in the church and the role of women in the Bible.

When Jesus and his disciples are visiting the village where Mary and Martha live, Martha opens her home to them and quickly gets busy with preparations.

Martha says mostly in the kitchen, doing the work that is typically taken to be the woman's job.

Mary, however, sits at Jesus' feet, in the living room, among the disciples, listening to his teaching.

This is a scandalous act in a time of patriarchy, where women are to do their work behind the scenes, in the kitchen.  It is the men who are disciples.  It is the men who hold the positions of power.  It is the men who gather to talk about important things while the women prepare the food.

Mary disrupts this dynamic by entering into the male realm.  She sits with the disciples at the feet of Jesus.  And Jesus tells her (and her sister Martha) that "Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her" (Luke 10:42).

Jesus himself acknowledges Mary's right to sit as his feet along with the [male] disciples.  She is given equal standing with his male followers.  Perhaps it is for this reason that we see women like Pheobe and Priscilla and Junia taking up leadership roles in the early church.

Exceptions in a Patriarchal Culture

While women in leadership in the Bible are the exceptions rather than the rule, that should not be surprising given the patriarchal context in which they live.

  • Jesus approves Mary's move into the traditional male realm of his disciples.
  • God entrusts the spreading of the good news of the resurrection first and foremost to women (while the men where hiding and afraid).
  • And a few women begin to take up leadership roles and claim their place of leadership in the early church.
  • Paul acknowledges some of them as "co-workers" and as equals with the men who make up the majority of the apostles, evangelists, prophets, pastors, and teachers.

When we look a little closer and dig a little deeper, we find that the role of women in the Bible is one that challenges the patriarchal hierarchy.

We should perhaps not be surprised at this either, since God consistently inverts the worldly hierarchy, insisting that it is not worldly success, wealth, etc., that matter, but rather what matters is that we follow Him.  It is the poor, the peacemakers, the  merciful, the pure in heart who will inherit the earth (Matt 5:3-10).  The first will be last and the last will be first (Matt 20:16).

Would we be surprised that a God who insists that the standards of the world are not His own should disrupt the gender hierarchy as well and entrust the Gospel to women?

graffitti on a brick wall

2 thoughts on “7 Women in Leadership in the Early Church”

  1. As a child I was taught that women were not to participate in leadership according to the New Testament. As an adult, I learned to study God’s Word for what it said in context to us now as well as to first century believers who read it first. I also learned that some words used by King James’ translators mean different things to us now than they did in the 17th century. Thank God we have the resources to study ancient texts to see the original words and what they meant at the time they were written.

    1. I was taught that too, Steve. Women were in charge of Sunday school and that was it. The reality is that women can be really excellent leaders, and the paradigm of men-only was being challenged even in the 1st century.

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