In the earliest account of man and woman in the Bible, we find partnership. That is not, in itself, a persuasive argument for the role of women-in-ministry-leadership. But it is a compelling precedent.
A brief scan through the Bible reveals several particular women whom God used to teach, lead and supervise His people. From Genesis to Revelation, women have had roles of ministry leadership.
Women in the Old Testament
- Miriam was called “the prophetess,” (see Exod. 15:20, NASB), and she was one of the three main leaders “sent before” Israel by God to take the people out of Egypt (see Mic. 6:4).
- Deborah, the wife of Lappidoth, sat as judge of Israel, keeping the land “undisturbed for forty years” (see Judg. 4:4-5; 5:31). Her male assistant, Barak, deferred to her primary leadership role because he recognized her gifting/calling.
- When Hilkiah, the high priest, found the lost Book of the Law in 621 B.C., King Josiah chose to inquire of the Lord from the prophetess Huldah, wife of Shallum, who then prophesied to the high priest and to Josiah, the king (see 2 Kings 22:14-20).
- Esther used her royal powers to effect deliverance for her people, and Mordecai did according to what she commanded him to do (see Est. 4:13-17).
Women in the New Testament
- After Peter and the rest of the (male) disciples denied Jesus and deserted Him, it is the women from amongst them who, as N.T. Wright has noted, “come first to the tomb, who are the first to see the risen Jesus, and are the first to be entrusted with the news that He has been raised from the dead. This is of incalculable significance.”
- On Pentecost, Peter reminded everyone that prophetic ministry and the outpouring of God’s Spirit were promised to “sons and daughters,” old and young alike—all the bondservants of the Lord, “male and female” (see Joel 2:28-29; Acts: 2:17-18). That very day in the upper room, both women and men were filled with the Holy Spirit (see Acts 1:14: 2:4).
- Priscilla, who in an atypical manner is usually mentioned before her husband, Aquila, collaborated with him in teaching and correcting the understanding of eloquent Apollos, a man “mighty in the Scriptures” (see Acts 18:24-26). As “fellow workers” with Paul, they co-pastored a church in their home (see Rom. 16:3-5).
- When Saul ravaged the church by “entering house after house,” men and women were put in prison or “scattered throughout the regions,” where they continued preaching the word (see Acts 8:1-4).
- Philip, who was known as an evangelist, had four single daughters who were called “prophetesses” in the same way that Agabus was named a “prophet” (see Acts 21:8-9).
- Junia, along with Andronicus, was part of a prominent team of apostles (see Rom. 16:7).
- Phoebe was a deaconess of the church at Cenchreae (see Rom. 16:1) as well as a benefactress of Paul (see Rom. 16:2).
- Various others, such as Nympha and “the chosen lady,” led churches (see Col. 4:15; 2 John 1).
The Early Disciples
It is true that the first 12, named “disciples,” were only men. Jesus did not designate any women as apostles during His earthly ministry but, as mentioned earlier, Junia, a woman, is called “outstanding among the apostles” in Paul’s letter to the Romans.
Jesus’ selection of 12 men as founding apostles is no more a statement regarding gender qualification for ministry office (i.e., men only), than is the fact that the first to tell others about Jesus’ resurrection were all women. Would we want to say that only women may tell of Jesus’ resurrection?
While Jesus entered human history at a particular point in time, no one would suggest that we who were not alive in that era should be excluded from leadership in His church! A snapshot from the beginning of His earthly ministry is not a complete picture of what Jesus’ ministry has become over time. His roving band of 12 disciples included no 19th-century Frenchmen, no 4th-century women from the Balkans. But, as His followers grew in number over the centuries, His retinue encompassed every manner of people.
Remember, too, that the apostles were all Jews; however, no one insists that church leaders today must be Jewish. Because Jesus came to a particular place in the world, His followers were, initially, from that place only. They were Jews, the inheritors of God’s promises.
But He came for all people of all nations, and that is why we celebrate believers and leaders from every nation who belong to His church. He includes all people based on faith: “The gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (see Rom. 1:16).
Those who identify themselves with Christ are united into a “chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation” (see 1 Pet. 2:9). In order to bond us together, God removes economic, religious, cultural and ethnic distinctions, as well as all other particulars of what we are “according to the flesh” (see 2 Cor. 5:16).
He wants His people to be a joined-together people, each of whom supplies meaningful ministry to the whole body (see Eph. 4:16). That’s why Paul tells all believers—not just men—to “desire earnestly spiritual gifts, but especially that [they] may prophesy” (see 1 Cor. 14:1). The goal is that when the church gets together, “each one has a psalm, has a teaching, has a revelation” (see 1 Cor. 14:26).
That’s how it was at the birth of the church on Pentecost. The “tongues of fire rested on each one” in the upper room (see Acts 2:3), and among those who gathered with the disciples were certain “women, and Mary the mother of Jesus” (see Acts 1:14). Those women were also part of the ministry spill-over, “speaking as the Spirit was giving them utterance,” that enabled people of all languages to hear of “the mighty deeds of God” in their own languages (see Acts 2:4).
From the Upper Room
It was not just the men from the upper room who went into the marketplace. The women engaged, fully and equally, in that first ministry outreach. Their participation explains why Peter quoted from the prophet Joel about “sons and daughters” prophesying, and God’s Spirit being poured forth upon “both men and women,” so that all mankind will have opportunity to call on the name of the Lord (see Acts 2:17-18).
The early church was taken aback that God gave the Gentiles “the same gift” that He had given to them (see Acts 11:17; 15:7-11). Ultimately, though, they realized that they would be “standing in God’s way” if they held to their traditional exclusion of the uncircumcised (see Acts 11:15-18).
Sometimes, limiting or restrictive practices can become confused with orthodoxy. The religious establishment—especially those with vested authority to teach—can, too easily, morph a liberating message into suppressive tenets. Historically, the place of women in the leadership of the church seems reminiscent of that divisive exclusivity.
Just as the Gentiles are “fellow heirs” with the Jews through the gospel (see Eph. 3:6), so, too, are women. Redeemed, anointed, gifted, called and loved by God in exactly the same way as men, women should be fully released to exercise their gifts in every facet of ministry in His church.
Though clearly out of sync with the culture at that time, men and women in the New Testament served in mutual, egalitarian ministry. Meaningful ministry in the church was not limited to one gender, to one nationality, or to one age group.
Men and women are counterparts, and it serves no godly purpose for either gender to function autonomously, acting independently, without need of the other (see 1 Cor. 11:11). Making distinctions among ourselves for treating one group differently from another strikes me as less than God’s intent.
There is no place in the church for biased treatment of people based on economic standing, racial heritage, national identity, political persuasion, religious upbringing or physical age; neither should there be discrimination on the basis of gender. The qualification for ministry is not gender, but surrender.
Adapted from The Problem With the Problem With Women in Ministry Leadershipby Daniel A. Brown, Jenifer A. Manginelli and Kelly C. Tshibaka. Copyright 2010. Published by Commended to the Word. Used by permission. No part of this article may be reprinted or distributed in any form. To get a copy of this invaluable resource, visit //ctw.coastlands.org/store.