Before Jesus ascended to the Father he told his followers to wait in Jerusalem until the Holy Spirit came empowering them to continue building the kingdom of God on earth. They obeyed him. Acts 1:14 tells us the disciples and “certain women” including Mary, the mother of Jesus, waited in the upper room and prayed. In Acts 2 the Holy Spirit fell on both men and women, and both genders were empowered to proclaim the word of God on the day of Pentecost. Peter confirmed this when he quoted Joel in his sermon that day: “In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams” (Acts 2:17). As we have seen throughout this paper God has never discriminated between calling and empowering both men and women to lead his people and accomplish his plans on earth. This will not change with the coming of the new age. Now God’s Spirit would not be for the called few, but for everyone–all flesh, and both sons and daughters would prophesy, only now in greater numbers.
In Galatians 3:28 Paul proclaimed that “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” In Christ every human erected barrier comes down. Because Christ died for all and all are saved through grace there can no longer be superficial hierarchies of race, class, or gender. In Ephesians 4:8 Paul tells the church that Christ has given them gifts, and in verse 11 he tells us the gifts are “that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers.” These gifts are given “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ” (v. 12). Paul never says that some or all of these gifts are for men only. In fact, the New Testament goes on to describe women in these places of leadership within the Early Church. In the last essay we looked female apostles and prophets. Now we will look at the female teachers in the New Testament.
The primary female teacher in the New Testament is Priscilla. It is understandable that there are not many women teachers given the predominate attitudes of both the Jewish and Roman world toward women receiving formal education; few women had the training needed to be able to teach and educate. Priscilla was one of those women. Both Paul and Luke break with the customary form of addressing couples by citing Priscilla’s name first four out of six times she and her husband Aquila are mentioned in Acts and the Pauline epistles (Acts 18:18, 26; Rom. 16:3; 2 Tim. 4:19). This could mean that either Priscilla’s social rank was higher than Aquila’s or that she was the more prominent leader within the early church.
Priscilla’s role as teacher is most clearly seen in Acts 18:24-28 where she and Aquila instructed Apollos and “explained the Way of God to him more accurately” (v. 26) because “he knew only the baptism of John” (v. 25). Again that Priscilla’s name comes first is an indicator she was the primary instructor (Grenz, 82). The verb ektithemi means “I expound, set forth, declare, exhibit publicly, explain by means of abstraction” (Liddel and Scott, 522). This word is not used to mean a simple explanation, “rather, it connotes a public declaration and exposition” (Spencer, 107). This is the same word Luke used to describe Peter defending himself in Acts 11:4, and Paul’s explanation of the gospel to the Jews who daily came to listen to him while he was a prisoner in Rome (Acts 28:23). This was not informal teaching or unofficial guidance; it was teaching in the proper sense of the word in order to equip believers and build up the body of Christ, so that it would grow into maturity. That this was instruction of the highest level is intimated by the fact Apollos himself was “well-versed in the scriptures” (18:24).
Later in his epistle to the Romans the first people Paul personally greets are Priscilla and Aquila “who work with me in Christ Jesus” (Romans 16:3), which suggests their instruction of Apollos was not an isolated event. There home is one of the house churches in Rome where believers met for worship and instruction. Again Priscilla’s name comes first suggesting that she might have been the “pastor” of this congregation. Although Priscilla and Aquila serve in ministry together it is obvious that Priscilla was a leader and teacher in her own right. As John Chrysostom said of her in the fourth century A.D.:
This too is worthy of inquiry, why, as he addressed them, Paul has placed Priscilla before her husband. For he did not say, “Greet Aquila and Priscilla,” but “Priscilla and Aquila.” He does not do this without a reason, but he seems to me to acknowledge a greater godliness for her than for her husband. What I said is not guess-work, because it is possible to learn this from the Book of Acts. [Priscilla] took Apollos, an eloquent man and powerful in the Scriptures, but knowing only the baptism of John; and she instructed him in the way of the Lord and made him a teacher brought to completion (Acts 18:24-25).
For far too long Priscilla’s gifts and ministry have been marginalized by the church. If a man like Chrysostom, who normally is not known for positive statements toward women, can recognize Priscilla as a leader and teacher in the early church, then why can’t we?
We have seen from the examples of Junia and the female prophets from an earlier essay, and now Priscilla, that women did function as apostles, prophets, and teachers in the early church the same way as men did. That their ministries are so casually mentioned, and there is no question of the validity of what they were doing, shows the early church did not consider it strange or against God’s created order for women to hold these positions. There are four other leadership roles women operated in I would like to look at next: elder, coworker, church overseer, and minister. We will look at elder and coworker in this essay.
Titus 2:3 says, “Likewise, tell the older women to be reverent in behavior, not to be slanderers or slaves to drink; they are to teach what is good.” The Greek word that is normally translated “older women” is presbutidas, which is the feminine form of the noun normally translated as “elder” when it is describing a man. It is very likely that these women are not “older women” but female elders. They would have been older since the Jews would not consider someone to be an elder until the age of 60. They are told in the verse “to teach what is good.” Although the instruction goes on to tell them to train the younger women to love their husbands and children, there is no reason to believe that the younger women are the only ones in Titus’ congregation they taught.
In 1 Timothy 5:1-2 presbutiro is used as an adjective for both men and women and is translated as “older men” and “older women.” Since this section is dealing with the established order of ministry within the church as seen in the instructions of enrolling widows, these two groups could be the elders. In verse 17 the plural form, presbutiboi, is used of those who preach and teach in the church, and Paul tells Timothy that they are worthy of double honor. There is no reason to believe that this group was comprised of only men, especially since Paul used both the masculine and feminine form of the adjective a few verses earlier.
It appears women functioned as elders in the church who taught and preached to the younger generation. Since these women were older, it is likely they were widows.
There are a great number of people whom Paul called co-workers with him in the gospel. Coworkers were those Paul considered to be colleagues who were in a position of authority similar to his own (Spencer, 118-9). These coworkers ministered in a variety of ways: they helped Paul compose his letters and carried them to the churches; they were sent by Paul to encourage and instruct congregations, and they also hosted churches in their homes (Grenz, 84). It is obvious they possessed authority in Paul’s eyes and the eyes of the early church. Among those named as Paul’s coworkers are Timothy, Silas, Apollos, Luke, Epaphras, Mark and Titus. Woman named as coworkers include Priscilla, Euodia, and Syntyche.
Eudia and Syntyche are named as Paul’s coworkers in Philippians 4:2-3 where he says:
I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life.
It is obvious that these two women played an active and important role in the churches of Philippi, and it is very possible that each opened her home for different congregations to meet and worship in (Hawthorne, 179). Whatever was dividing them was causing enough disruption that Paul makes a personal appeal for the church to do everything they can to reconcile these two women.
The reason is not for peace alone. Paul respected and cared for these women because they “struggled beside me in the work of the gospel.” Sullambano literally means to fight and strain, or contend as a gladiator does in the arena or an athlete does in a competition (Grenz, 84). It implies a united effort to achieve victory. They worked side by side with Paul in making the gospel known in Philippi. This may have included actively preaching and teaching the gospel side by side with Paul. Regardless of their precise ministry and role in Philippi, Paul regarded them as equals who had worked just as hard as he did in establishing the church and the gospel in Philippi.
We see that in the early church the tradition of women leaders that began with Miriam and Deborah continue as women like Priscilla, the female elders in Ephesus, and Eudia and Syntyche taught, preached, planted churches, and help Christianity take hold in the pagan cities of the Roman Empire.
Shawna Renee Bound, Your Daughters Shall Prophesy: A Biblical Theology of Single Women in Ministry, unpublished thesis, © by Shawna Renee Bound 2002), “Women in the Early Church.”
Loren Cunningham and David Joel Hamilton, Why Not Women? A Fresh Look at Scripture on Women in Mission, Ministry, and Leadership (Seattle: YWAM Publishing, 2000).
Stanley J. Grenz with Denise Muir Kjesbo, Women in the Church: A Biblical Theology of Women in Ministry (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1995).
Gerald F. Hawthorne, Philippians, vol. 43, Word Biblical Commentary (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1983), 179.
Henry Georg Liddel and Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, eds. Henry S. Jones and Roderick McKenzie, 9th ed. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1968), 522.
Letha Dawson Scanzoni and Nancy A. Hardesty, All We’re Meant to Be: Biblical Feminism for Today, 3rd rev. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.), 1992.
Aida Besançon Spencer, Beyond the Curse: Women Called to Ministry (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1985), 43-63.
All biblical translations are from the New Revised Standard Version unless otherwise noted.