Women in Leadership in the Early Church – Part 2

This is the second 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. 

Priscilla and aquilla teaching


What do we know from the Bible about women in the early church? Did they have any part in leadership?  Were there limits on their participation?  What do their lives mean to us today?  Let’s take a look and see what we can learn.


We know that Jesus had women disciples. In Luke 8:1-3 it states that the twelve were with Him, … and also some women including Mary Magdalene, Joanna the wife of Chuza, Susanna, and many others. Luke 23:49 and 55 tell us that there were women who accompanied Him from Galilee to Jerusalem and then followed His body from the cross to the tomb.

In Luke 24:10-11 we learn that some visited the tomb after the resurrection and tried to tell the apostles that He was risen, but they would not believe them. Mark 16:11 tells us that Jesus rebuked the apostles for refusing to believe Mary Magdalene when she told them that Jesus was alive and she had seen him.


 We clearly have an evangelist in the Samaritan woman at the well. John 4:39 says specifically that “people believed because of her testimony.” Jesus never rebukes her, thus giving tacit approval to her actions. The Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20, Mark 16:15) to preach the Gospel and make disciples throughout the world was given to the entire church, both male and female. Luke 24:33-53 shows that the Commission and opening of their minds to understand the Scriptures was given to the whole company of believers, not only the Eleven.  The last verse of Mark’s gospel says, “and they (including women) went forth and preached everywhere, the Lord working with them, and confirming the word with signs following.” (Mark 16:20)[1]


What Jesus started, the Holy Spirit continued. Women were in the Upper Room after the Ascension and were present on the Day of Pentecost to receive the Holy Spirit along with the men (Acts 1:14, 2:1-4, 17-18). Women were experiencing salvation and Spirit baptism, and were proclaiming the Gospel. They were also being persecuted and imprisoned (Acts 8:3-4,12; 9:1-2; 22:4).

Ministry in the New Testament is the Spirit-empowered expression of God to us and through us. It is a privilege and responsibility of all believers. A gift was recognized by the anointing of the Holy Spirit on a person’s life. Do the scriptures show that women, anointed with various gifting, functioned as leaders? The answer is a resounding YES!


We know that Paul asked for support of his co-workers (1 Corinthians 16:16) which included the household (including women) of Stephanas, the first-fruits in Greece who worked in ministry after their conversion. Philippians 4:2-3 mentions Euodia and Syntyche, who needed to resolve a disagreement, but had labored with Paul in the Gospel. The word translated “labored” means struggled, fought at my side, like athletes working as a team. They were not confined to teaching other women but working alongside Paul as he taught. In Romans 16:6 Paul speaks of Mary, and in Romans 16:12 he praises three women –  Tryphana, Tryphosa and Persis – for their hard work in the Lord.


Whoever is mentioned when it says “the church in their house” or someone’s “household” or something similar should be considered pastors. Actually the word “pastors” occurs only in Ephesians 4:11 and would be better translated as “shepherds.” We would say they functioned as pastor or shepherd of a house church. Remember, there were no separate buildings called “churches” in which to meet. Christians met in someone’s house.

The first mentioned is Mary, the mother of John Mark (Acts 12:12), then Lydia from the city of Thyatira (Acts 16:13-15 and 40). Careful reading of 1 Corinthians mentions a letter from Chloe’s household (1 Corinthians 1:11). The church meets in the house of Priscilla and Aquila—more on them later. (I Corinthians 16:19 and Romans 16:3-5). Then we have Laodicea, and also Nympha and the church that is in her house. Some versions changed the original to say “Nymphas and the church that is in his house” (KJV); NKJV left it as Nympha, but said that it was in his house. Nympha is a woman’s name (Colossians 4:15). Finally, the second letter of John is addressed to “the chosen lady”. Some try to say that means the whole body of Christ, the Bride, but they are trying to make scripture fit their own beliefs. (2 John 2:1)

Is Phoebe functioning as a pastor? We need to look at Scripture to decide:

1 I commend to you our sister Phoebe, who is a servant of the church which is at Cenchrea; 2 that you receive her in the Lord in a manner worthy of the saints, and that you help her in whatever matter she may have need of you; for she herself has also been a helper of many, and of myself as well. Romans 16:1-2 (NASB)

The word translated “servant” is diakonos. It is how the New Testament describes those who serve in the churches. (1 Corinthians 3:5, 2 Corinthians 3:6; 6:4; 11:23; Ephesians 3:7, Colossians 1:23,25; 1 Thessalonians 3:2, 1 Timothy 4:6). Another word we need to note is helper (prostatis). It is a feminine noun denoting one who stands before as a protector or guardian caring for the affairs of others and aiding them with her resources. Both these words are a good description of what we call one who functions as a pastor who is also a teacher.

In Acts 18:1-4 we meet Aquila and Priscilla who were tentmakers like Paul. He met and lived with them in Corinth and they became lifelong friends (Acts 8:18-19 and 26, Romans 16:3, 2 Timothy 4:19). Except for this mention at the beginning of Acts 18 and once in 1 Corinthians 16:19 where it speaks of the church in their house, Priscilla is always listed first. In Greek this indicates that even though they taught together, she was the leader in this area rather than Aquila. This is important because it shows that a gift is by anointing and not gender. They instructed the gifted teacher Apollos on the baptism in the Holy Spirit (Acts 18:24-26).


A clear example is found in the four daughters of Philip who appear in Acts 21:9 as prophetesses. There are multiple scriptures that encourage everyone to prophesy – propheteia, which Vines Concordance defines as “the speaking forth of the mind and counsel of God.” Women are always included and are specifically mentioned in Acts 2:17-18 and 21:8-9.


Mary Magdalene was sent by Jesus to tell the eleven that He had risen from the dead.  Who can deny her apostleship when it came from the Lord Himself![2] There is evidence outside Scripture of others, but we have another in Romans 16:7 that can’t be denied: “Greet Andronicus and Junia, my countrymen and my fellow prisoners, who are of note among the apostles, who also were in Christ before me.” Some translators tried changing the name to a masculine form, Junias, but we now know that there was no such name as Junias at the time Paul wrote this letter. Unfortunately the NIV, NASB and RSV and possibly some others, have kept the error. It is very hard for some to admit that women can be Apostles.

Here we have shown Biblical evidence that women in the early church filled all five ministries of Ephesians 4:11. The gifting of God is given by the Holy Spirit without regard to gender. The calling of God on our lives must not bow to the traditions of men.


[1] For additional evidence for women as Evangelists that is not found in Scripture, see “Women Evangelists in the Early Church” by Kathryn Riss.  http://godswordtowomen.org/evangelists.htm

[2] Mary Magdalene was sent by Jesus to tell the Apostles of the resurrection.  The definition of an Apostle is a “sent one.”  See the Part One Article “What is an Apostle?”




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