WOMEN'S ROLE IN THE CHURCH #3
by the late Samuele Bacchiocchi PhD
Ministry of Women in the
What impact did the coming of Christ make on the social
status and religious roles of women? Was Jesus' 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"' 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: "'The headship principle,' 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
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.
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 elsewhere 6 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 deliniate 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.
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.
WOMEN IN THE MINISTRY OF JESUS
1. Jesus' Attitude toward Women
Most scholars acknowledge that Jesus' 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 Jesus' 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 the 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
Azariah's 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 Jesus' attitude toward women is
"without precedent in contemporary Judaism." 8
Women as Persons
Central to Jesus' 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 Paul's
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 family. 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.
Women's 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 t 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 John's
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 woman's testimony" (4:39).
Jesus' encounter with a Canaanite woman provides another
example of His appreciation for women's 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. Jesus' attitude was different. He refused to send her away.
Instead, He chose to talk with her and test her faith. She
understood that Jesus' 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
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 Jesus' 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 God's kingdom
(Matt 13:33). A woman looking for a lost coin exemplifies God's
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
rabbinic customs which generally avoided 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
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 Martha's
confession, "You are the Christ, the Son of God" (John 11:27), is
the nearest equivalent to Peters confession of Christ (Matt
The above examples suffice to show that Jesus' 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 Christ's 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
2. Women in the Ministry of Jesus
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
Peter's 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
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
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
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 Christ's 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; 2:14, 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
didn't 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).
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 Jesus'
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.
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).
Jesus' 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.
WOMEN IN THE MINISTRY OF THE APOSTOLIC CHURCH
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 Judas' successor. The women who had filled a
significant 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
formerly 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 took an
active role, together with her husband Aquila, in instructing the
learned Apollos (Acts 18:2,26).
Paul, who sometimes has been unjustly accused of being an
antifeminist, 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
A major need in the primitive church was the 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
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 occurrances 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 few cases the term diakonos is used to describe the
church office of "deacons" (Phill:l; 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
The reason why Paul does not call these women deaconesses
(diakonissa) 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 in 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 the 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
Women as "Fellow?workers"
Women distinguished themselves 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 must have been,
therefore, well?grounded in the Christian faith and a most
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
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
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
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 2:1718). 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, coun seling 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
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 prophecy 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
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"2o 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 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 the light of the foregoing considerations we conclude
that Paul's 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
Jesus' 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, 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 prophets, there are no indications in
Scripture that they were ever ordained to serve as priests in the
Old Testament and 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.
NOTES ON CHAPTER II
1. Letha Scanzoni and Nancy Hardesty, All We're Meant to Be: A
Biblical Approach to Women's 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,
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, Woman in the Bible (Downers Grove, Illinois,
12. Susan T. Foh, Women and the Word of God (Phillipsbury, 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,
14. See W. Sunday, Sacred Sites of the Gospels (Oxford, 1903),p.
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 were the "women" in 1 Timothy 3:11
19. R. Hugh?Connolly, ed. Didascalia Apostolorum (Oxford, 1929),
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),
To be continued