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She Shall Be Called Woman

Part Three Session Six


Women in Leadership in the Early Church and What Happened After the First Century

In this lesson we’ll examine:

1. Scriptural evidence for women’s leadership
2. What functions women fulfilled
3. Reasons women lost these opportunities to serve

What do we know about women leaders in the early church? What part did they play? Let’s look at scripture for our answers.


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.


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. There were no “offices” in the early church.[1] A gift was recognized by the anointing of the Holy Spirit on a person’s life. Do the scriptures show that women were anointed with various giftings functioned as leaders? The answer is a resounding YES!


We know that Paul asked for support of his co-workers (1 Cor 16:16) which included the household (includes women) of Stephanas; the first-fruits in Greece who worked in ministry after their conversion. Phil 4:2-3 mentions Euodia and Syntyche, who need to resolve a disagreement, but have 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 along side Paul as he taught. Romans 16:6, Paul speaks of Mary, in 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 Eph. 4:11 and it would be better translated as “shepherds.” We would call them the 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). When we studied 1 Corinthians we learned of a letter from Chloe’s household (1 Cor. 1:11.) The church meets in the house of Pricilla and Aquila—more on them later. (Cor 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 (Col 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 a pastor? We need to look at the 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 Cor. 3:5, 2 Cor 3:6; 6:4; 11:23; Eph 3:7, Col. 1:23,25; 1 Thes 3:2, 1 Tim. 4:6) Another word we need to note is helper (prostates). 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 a pastor who is also a teacher.

In Acts 18:1-4 we meet Aquila and Priscilla who were tent makers like Paul. He met and lived with them in Corinth and they became lifelong friends. (Acts 18:18-19 and 26, Romans 16:3, 2 Timothy 4:19) Except for this mention at the beginning of Acts 18 and once in 1 Cor. 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.


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, 21:8-9.


There is evidence outside the scripture of others, but we have one 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. Now all we need is an evangelist to fill all five ministries of Eph. 4:11. We have an evangelist in the woman at the well. John 4:39 says specifically that “people believed because of her testimony.”


The list of women included in Romans 16 gives us a good picture of how active women were in the ministry and leadership of the early church. Yet in only a few hundred years, this shared ministry was no longer present. A number of factors came together to oppose the equality found in the first century church. Prominent among them are 1) the long standing patriarchal nature of society 2) the educational background of second-generation church leaders, and 3) the institutionalization of the church.

The beginnings of equality found in the early church were quickly overcome by the surrounding culture and traditions. I asked the Lord why He allowed this to happen. He reminded me that He is a God of set times and seasons and, while He let us see into the future, the time had not yet come. Remember, what seems long to us isn’t long to God. Ps 90:4 and 2 Peter 3:8 remind us that with God a day is as a thousand years and a thousand years a day. Even while negative influences predominated, our faithful God, through moves of the Holy Spirit, kept a trace of His unchanging plan that can be followed through the past 2000 years.[2] He begins to restore with the Reformation and has continued to move to free women into the present day.


From the time of the fall until the industrial revolution, most human beings were farmers. The idea that women were inferior came from the role they played in an agrarian (farming) society that was patriarchal (ruled by men). Little value was placed on the work of women which had to be done in or near the home while caring for children. Those confined to such work were considered far inferior to the men who did the farming that involved crops to be sold, handled the money, were involved in the community and were warriors when protection was needed. The early church was primarily located in cities. Rapid growth and persecution brought it into these rural areas where the culture severely limited opportunities for women.
Historically, nearly every known culture has ignored contrary evidence and believed that the female was biologically and intellectually inferior to the male. The male “seed” was thought to contain a tiny human, fully formed but needing a place to grow. As the ground is only to nurture seed, so too, the wife was thought to only carry the baby but have no part in its conception. This belief did not end until the end of the 19th century. Women were seldom educated which made it easy to consider them intellectually inferior (not as smart) to educated men.


Many Christians had left Jerusalem before the destruction of the temple in 70 AD; most who remained were killed or enslaved. There was a move away from Jewish beginnings toward being composed primarily of former pagans. In the second century the educational background of those known as “church fathers” was in the classical Greek philosophers like Plato and Aristotle who had very negative views on women. They lacked the Jewish training in Old Testament scripture and cultural influences evidently blinded these early leaders and theologians to Jesus’ teaching on womanhood that is found in the Gospels.

God’s intent is for His people to be a royal priesthood. But as the church grew, the man-made need to organize and “be in control” caused a move away from servant leadership chosen and anointed by the Holy Spirit. What had been functions became titles for “offices.” [3] Offices became places of power and brought about separation of Christians into two basic categories, clergy and laity. These words come from kleros, “the called ones” and laos, “God’s people” which originally referred to all believers. Over time they became terms for a hierarchical structure where clergy meant you were called to lead and laity meant you needed to be led. God intends for there to be leadership, but it only works when He does the choosing. Spiritually, most who call themselves Christians, have been willing to look to those we hire as ministers to do “ministry” without taking personal responsibility to know scripture and be the priesthood of believers that God has called us to be.

By the fourth century when Constantine made Christianity the “state religion,” women had been removed from leadership and the downward spiral into the dark ages was well underway. The institutionalized (organized) church was structured after worldly government and the “clergy” were male. With the chart below, it is easy to see the similarity of structure. Structures similar to these remained even after the Reformation and are still with us today.






















Today as God is restoring women to function according to His plan for their lives, we need to take great care that we remain His servants. For some there is a temptation to ignore a call that is not traditionally acceptable. For others, the lure is to seek recognition through worldly means rather than waiting on His anointing. From personal experience we can tell you that the only way to rest and peace is finding and moving in His plan for your life.





1. The word “office”, except when it referred to the Jewish priesthood, was added by translators and is not present in the Greek.


2. Dr. Eddie Hyatt has written an excellent book, 2000 Years of Charismatic Christianity. Of particular interest is that fact that during every move of the Spirit for the last 2000 years women have been lifted toward equal status with men.


3. When you look at the scripture, you never find Paul referring to himself by the title “Apostle” Paul. He always says Paul, an apostle. It is a function, not a title. The use of titles is very common today, but it is not scriptural.


Questions for understanding and/or discussion

1. Were you aware of the number of women in leadership and ministry mentioned in the New Testament? If not, does knowing they existed change your view of women’s functions in the church?

2. Do you think the three factors that contributed to women being removed from church leadership and ministry are still active today? Why or why not?

3. What could be done to improve this course?

Click here to discuss 


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Anchor 20

This diagram is taken from Susan S. Hyatt, The Spirit, The Bible, and Women: Teaching and Study Guide for In the Spirit We're Equal (Hyatt Press 1999) p 33.  Original source Lars P. Qualben, A History of the Christian Church (New York: Thomas Nelson and Sonas, 1933), p. 99

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