Women in Leadership in the Early Church – Part 1

This is the first of three articles addressing women in ministry.  The first two articles use the Bible to document their service and leadership from the time of Jesus through the first century.  Part 3 looks at the factors that came together to oppose the equality found in the early church. 

mary m telss disciples

What is an Apostle?

It was still dark just before dawn on Resurrection morning. Mark tells us that Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices that they might come and anoint Him. Matthew describes an earthquake and an angel of the Lord who scared the guards at the tomb so badly they were like dead men.

The Gospel accounts vary in detail but a careful reading shows that on Resurrection morning a group of women came to the tomb. As dawn broke, they found the stone rolled away and angels sent them to tell the disciples that Jesus was risen. However, Luke 24:11 tells us, “their words seemed to them like idle tales, and they did not believe them.”[1]

The Gospel of John appears to say Mary Magdalene went alone to the tomb. But take a careful look at John 20:2. Speaking to Peter and John she says, “They have taken away the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid Him.” Notice when she tells them she uses the word “we” indicating that she was not alone in this first visit to the tomb.

Such detail may seem unimportant, but it matters that the gospels do not contradict each other. It is normal to have some slight differences with any story told by more than one person, but this detail was a problem. What a relief to discover that John was consistent with the rest in telling what happened.

Next, Peter and John raced to the tomb and found it empty. It appears that at least John believed Jesus was risen (verse 9). Evidently, Mary Magdalene followed them to the tomb, because after Peter and John left she was at the tomb weeping (verse 11). She saw the angels, who asked why she was weeping. Her response lets us know that she was still looking for a body (verses 12-13). She turned to leave and saw Jesus standing there, but did not recognize Him. Mary evidently thought He was the gardener and asked about Jesus’ body. It is only when He spoke her name that she turned again and realized who He was.

What happened next should forever end the question of whether women can preach. Jesus said to Mary Magdalene, “go to My brethren and tell them that I am ascending to My Father and your Father and to My God and your God.” Jn 20:17

Peter and John were just at the tomb. Why didn’t he appear to them? It seems that He waited for her. He chose to send her to “go and tell.”

What does it mean for Jesus to have “sent” her? The definition of an apostle in Greek according to Strong’s #649 is “a delegate, messenger, one sent forth with orders.” Jesus, our Lord, deliberately chose a woman and sent her forth with orders.

Mary Magdalene fulfills the definition of apostle. Not only that, she was sent to His brethren,[2] the apostles as well as His disciples. No one has ever been given a higher commission! How can we ask if women should lead when the head of the church Himself chose a woman to be the first to see him and to tell the awesome news?

Jesus sent a message to the church by deliberately appearing to a woman and sending her forth with orders! The church has ignored the message. Will we continue to be blinded by the religion and traditions of men and refuse to believe this clear word about women’s freedom to function wherever they are called?

The Lord spent much of His ministry demonstrating by both words and actions that it was culture and tradition, not God that was prejudiced.  If you go back and read His encounters with women, you will find that the only rebuke of a woman[3] came because her comments valued women only for their ability to have children.[4]

We must read the gospels with our eyes open, not blinded by the scales of traditional interpretation. Jesus’ revolutionary views have been ignored and even hidden by theology that is often at war with scripture. It is God’s time to free His church from practices that leave at least half of its people hindered in accomplishing His purposes. We must ignore gender, put aside prejudice, look for the anointing, and trust God’s choices.

Jesus showed the way. Will we follow Him?



  1. 1. In Mark 16:11 we read, “And when they heard that He was alive and had been seen by her, they did not believe.” Later in Mark 16:14, Jesus appeared to the Eleven as they sat at the table; and He rebuked their unbelief and hardness of heart because they did not believe those who had seen Him after He had risen.
  1. The word “brethren” in Greek isadelphoi. In this context it means fellow believers. The wordadelphoi is like the word anthropos, which in most Bibles is translated as man but should be translated human being. Both of these words can refer to both men and women.
  1. Luke 11:27-28 And it happened, as He spoke these things, that a certain woman from the crowd raised her voice and said to Him, “Blessed is the womb that bore You, and [the] breasts which nursed You!” But He said, “More than that, blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it!”
  1. Even the Syro-Phoenician woman whose daughter had a demon was rewarded for her faith and persistence.






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