by Joel Comiskey
In 1928 Archbishop Davidson wrote, “Wesley practically changed the outlook and even the character of the English nation.” The Wesleyan revival cut across denominational lines and touched every level of society. John Wesley accomplished this feat through an effective small group system, led primarily by female lay leaders. Wesley’s own mother, Susanna, had previously exemplified the effectiveness of small group ministry by leading a small group in her home that transformed lives and instilled the small group vision in both John and Charles. Female leadership might have been new and innovative in Wesley’s day, but it was a common occurrence in New Testament times because Christ liberated women and elevated them to a new level (Mark 15:41; Luke 23:27; John 20).
Spiritual Gifts to Men and Women
When Christ’s church was born on the day of Pentecost, Peter’s first sermon portrays women as full participants in his church. He reminds his hearers,
These men are not drunk, as you suppose. It’s only nine in the morning! No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel: “In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy” (Acts 2:15-18).
The culture of Peter’s day was male dominated and women were commonly assigned the status of servitude and even treated by some as if they were dogs. Yet, the coming of the Spirit made women full participants. Paul goes so far as to make them equal with men in Galatians 3:28, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Speaking of this text, Gordon Fee writes,
Indeed, on the basis of this text and its place in the argument of Galatians—where socialized distinctions between people in their relationship to God have been overcome by Christ and the Spirit—one must argue that the new creation has brought in the time when the Spirit’s gifting (the Spirit who is responsible for ushering in the new order) should precede roles and structures, which are on a carryover from the old order that is passing away.
This new era or new creation is focused on the charisma of the Spirit working through both male and females. The gifts of the Spirit are not gender or role specific. For example, in Romans 12:8, where Paul talks about the gift of leadership, the pronoun “your” is genderless. Leadership was given to both men and women. Women are recipients of the gifts of the Spirit equally as much as men are.
The Active Roles of Women
Where do we see women in ministry in the New Testament? The answer is everywhere. Approximately one-fourth of Paul’s co-workers are women. If Nympha, mentioned in Colossians, is added, and Lydia, in Acts, there are a total of twelve women who Paul mentions prominently: Euodia, Julia, Junias, Lydia, Mary, Nympha, Persis, Phoebe, Priscilla, Syntyche, Tryphena, and Tryphosa.
Seven of them were instrumental in the house church movement in Rome: Priscilla (Romans 16:3), Mary (Romans 16:6), Junias (Romans 16:7), Tryphena, Tryphosa, Persis (Romans 16:12) and Julia (Romans 16:15). The early house church era belonged to women as much as to men. Arthur Patzia, professor of New Testament at Fuller Seminary, writes, “The overall impression from Luke’s and Paul’s perspective is that women played a significant role in the life, ministry, and leadership of the early church.”
Paul treated women with equal dignity and valued their contribution to the ministry of the gospel. Paul wanted to break down the barriers that existed between ethnic groups and gender classes. His desire was to see the church implement unity among males and females.
Women in House Church Leadership
Various women were house church hosts and leaders. Mary the mother of John Mark appears to have been a leader of one of the early Christian groups, her house being used for church meetings (Acts 12:12); Lydia’s household served as a gathering place for the early believers in Philippi (Acts 16:12-15, 40); in Thessalonica (Acts 17:4) several “leading women” responded to the gospel; as did other Greek women in Berea (Acts 17:12).
The fact that Nympha hosted one of the house churches shows that women were allowed positions of authority and leadership. Nympha would have been a person of social standing and wealth who had a large home. She was probably a widow who owned land or managed a business and was the “head” of an extended family including blood relations, employees, and slaves.
Paul says about Phoebe, “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church in Cenchrea. I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of the saints and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been a great help to many people, including me” (Romans 16:1-2). Phoebe made her own house available to the congregation as a meeting place, serving as hostess. She probably took over responsibilities of the absent housefather. It could be that Phoebe had a teaching ministry in the house church in Cenchrea and delivered the letter to the Romans but also read and explained it to the house churches in Rome. Osiek, MacDonald, and Tulloch have studied the women’s place in the early house churches and conclude,
To step into a Christian house church was to step into a women’s world. This was true even when the leader of the assembly was male. Further, it can be established that women, probably for the most part widows who had autonomous administration of their own households, hosted house churches of the early Christian movement.
In the early church, women were active evangelists, coworkers, patrons, and even apostles. It is virtually certain that Paul refers to the woman Junia as an apostle in Romans 16:7. Some Bibles translate this passage as referring to the male apostle “Junias.”
Eldon Jay Epp is an eminent New Testament scholar who has recently done the definitive study on Romans 16:7 in his book Junia: The First Woman Apostle. He shows that (a) there are over 250 first-century inscriptions in Rome alone with the female name “Junia,” (b) there is no evidence whatsoever in the Greek or Latin literature of the day for the existence of the male name “Junias,” (c) there is no evidence whatsoever that the known male name “Junianus” was ever shortened to “Junias” or any other type of nickname, (d) the construction of the Greek wording in this verse should not be translated as “well known to the apostles,” and (e) virtually all bible scholars and theologians up to about 1300 AD recognized that “Junia” was indeed a female name.
Consequently, after carefully exegeting the passage, Linda Belleville writes, “Thus the reading of this reference to Junia yields an example of a woman not only functioning as an ‘apostle’ in the New Testament church but being highly esteemed as such by Paul and his apostolic colleagues.”
Prophets and Teachers
Luke refers to the prophetic ministry of Philip’s daughters (Acts 21:8-9). Paul and John also acknowledge the existence of female prophets in the early church. Women prayed and prophesied in public (1 Corinthians 11:5) and Paul writes that a prophet, like an apostle, designated an official role (1 Corinthians 12:28-29).
Priscilla and her husband Aquila became significant leaders of the church in several different locations (Acts 18:18, 26; Romans 16:3; 1 Corinthians 16:19; 2 Timothy 4:19). In 1 Corinthians 16, Paul speaks of Aquila and Priscilla together having a congregation meeting in their house.
Priscilla is a good example of a woman teacher. Four times, Paul and Luke mention Priscilla before her husband, Aquila (Acts 18:18, 26; Romans 16:3; 2 Timothy 4:19). Priscilla’s role as teacher emerges when Apollos visited Ephesus. Scripture says, “When Priscilla and Aquila heard him [Apollos], they took him aside and explained the way of God to him more accurately” (Acts 18:24-26). The account shows her teaching role, and she is mentioned before her husband in connection with the instruction of Apollos. Apollos was “well-versed in the Scriptures” (18:24), and so the fact that they explained “the way of God to him more accurately” means they must have had sufficient expertise to gain his acceptance. Michael Green says,
The New Testament tells us of women laboring in evangelism, acting as hostess to the church in their houses, prophesying and speaking in tongues, and acting as deaconesses. This prominence of women continued, as we have seen, in the second century. Sometimes it would be exercised through public speaking, sometimes through martyrdom.
Some have used 1 Timothy 3:1 to prohibit women in ministry because some translations, like the NASB read, “It is a trustworthy statement: if any man aspires to the office of overseer, it is a fine work he desires to do.” The problem in the Greek is that the word man in English does not appear in the Greek text. In the Greek, the word is tis, an indefinite pronoun. The masculine and feminine forms of this pronoun are identical, and indistinguishable as to gender apart from the context (The NIV translation is better, “If any one”). We’ve already seen that the early church was fluid and flowed naturally from the house church structure.
Although the New Testament does not directly designate a specific woman as an elder or bishop, we do find women acting in the kind of leadership functions normally associated with this office. Women exercised the authority of prophets, teachers, and apostolic coworkers. Stanley J. Grenz and Denise Muir Kjesbo write,
Paul readily spoke of women, as well as men, as his coworkers. He never cautioned his recipients to view only the men as possessing authority or being worthy of honor. Rather, his readers were to “submit to . . . everyone who joins in the work, and labors at it” (1 Corinthians 16:16).
The New Testament paints a clear picture of women’s role in ministry in the early church. It’s beyond the scope of this article to provide an in-depth study of the three controversial passages about women in ministry: 1 Corinthians 11-14, 1 Timothy 2: 8-15, and 1 Timothy 3. However, I do write about these passages in detail elsewhere.
We know that women were important in early house to house ministry, but they are just as important into today’s ministry. In fact, the worldwide small group movement was birthed in South Korea in the mid-1960s through female leaders. David Cho, the founding pastor of Yoido Full Gospel Church, had become utterly exhausted and was confined to a two-year bed rest. During that two year hiatus, he realized that he was acting like Moses in Exodus 18 by performing the ministry on his own. When his male elders refused to help, he asked his women deaconesses to open home groups and apply his sermons, thus launching the modern day cell group explosion. The female led small groups grew to 19,000 group, in comparison to 6,000 male led groups. Of course, Cho was only rediscovering the role that women have always played in New Testament history and more specifically in house to house ministry.
As the body of Christ at large allows women to assume their rightful place in Christian ministry, the church will more fully reap the harvest and fulfill the words of Jesus, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field” (Matthew 9:37-38).