Women in the Church: Why I am an Egalitarian
Part 5: Women as Leaders in the Bible (NT)
Today I continue my list of ten significant women in the Bible. Last week, I wrote about 5 women in the Old Testament: Eve, Miriam, Deborah, Ruth, and Huldah.
Here are five significant women who were leaders in the church in the New Testament:
- Junia the Apostle: In Romans 16:7, Paul refers to the woman Junia as “outstanding among the apostles” and as one who was “in Christ before I [Paul] was.” Of Junia, Scot McKnight writes “she was in essence a Christ-experiencing, Christ-representing, church-establishing, probably miracle-working, missionizing woman who preached the gospel and taught the church.”1
- Euodia and Syntyche, Evangelists (Phil. 4:2-3). These women are described as “co-labourers” with Paul “in the gospel.” This is significant. “These women were gospel workers ‘with’ or alongside Paul . . . gospel work is about preaching, teaching, evangelizing, and pastorally shaping. One cannot infer specifics of what Euodia and Syntyche did, but we know it was within this set of categories: they were gospelers.”2 Other “co-labourers” included such figures as Apollos, Silas, Titus, Priscilla and Aquila, Timothy, Philemon, Mark, and Luke.
- Priscilla the Teacher: Priscilla and her husband Aquila appear in 4 New Testament passages (Acts 18; Rom. 16:3; 1 Cor. 16:19; 2 Tim. 4:19). Their names occur together 7 times in the NT and Priscilla’s name is mentioned first in 6 of those 7 occasions (i.e, her name has the emphasis). After hearing the preaching of Apollos, who would later become an influential leader and evangelist, Priscilla and Aquila invited him to their home and “explained to him the way of God more adequately” (Acts 18:26). Paul refers to Priscilla as a “co-labourer in Christ Jesus.” He goes out of his way to greet Priscilla and Aquila, or to pass on their greetings to others, in 3 of his letters. We also learn that Priscilla and her husband led a church in their home.
- The Prophesying Daughters of Philip: Acts 21:8-9 tells us that the evangelist Philip had 4 daughters who were known to prophesy. This is a short passage and not much detail is given. But it is significant, because Paul highly valued prophesy as a leadership gift in the church. Consider his words in 1 Corinthians 14:3-4: “But the one who prophesies speaks to people for their strengthening, encouraging and comfort. Anyone who speaks in a tongue edifies themselves, but the one who prophesies edifies the church.” The gift of prophecy is closely related to the gift of teaching and serves to instruct and edify the church.
- Phoebe (Rom. 16:1-2): Paul refers to Phoebe as a deacon (literally ‘minister’) in the church. Deacons serve with ‘overseers’ in the church in a variety of ways. Paul also refers to her as a ‘benefactor’ and she may have been the first to read the letter to the Romans in public.3
While I focused on these five for their influence on the development of the church, there are of course many more I could have mentioned: Mary, the Mother of Jesus, who was the first to offer a Christian exposition of Scripture in her Magnificat recorded by Luke 1:46-55* (Mary also had a tremendous influence on both Jesus and his brother James, who became the leader of the early church in Jerusalem and wrote the NT book of James); Mary the sister of Martha and Lazarus, who sat at Jesus feet in the posture of a disciple learning from a Rabbi; Lydia, the wealthy merchant of purple cloth and house church leader; Mary Magdalene, who was the first to see the Risen Messiah and became the first evangelist (Jesus sent her to his disciples to tell them the good news); and Martha, who made a confession of faith virtually identical to Peter’s (“You are the Christ, the Son of God” – John 11:27).
The Bible has many, many stories of gifted, powerful, faith-filled women who were effective leaders in the church and amongst the people of God.
Yes, there are also “problem texts” for the egalitarian position, passages that restrict the freedom of women in certain contexts for certain reasons. We’ll get to those later in the series. For now, suffice it to say that, given the examples listed in this and last week’s posts, such restrictions are not absolute; they must be read according to the unique contexts the biblical authors addressed.
But, more to the point, these 10 examples, plus the others briefly mentioned, plus those in the Bible I didn’t get to, are “problem texts” for the complementarian position, especially versions of it that restrict women from teaching, preaching, and leading in the church.
1 Scot McKnight, Junia Is Not Alone (Patheos Press, 2011; Kindle Locations 73-75).
2 Scot McKnight, “Junia’s Friends” (blog post).
3 Rita H. Finger, Roman House Churches for Today: A Practical Guide for Small Groups (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007).
* I drew this insight from Philip B. Payne, “Examining the Twelve Pillars of Male Hierarchy,” p. 5, in this CBE online publication.