Women in the Heart of God (8)

Women's Roles in the Early Church


[updated Nov/2005—added material on Junia/Joanna, the Apostle; Mar 04 – added the pushback to the section on women apostles]


This period of time stretches from the birth of the Church in Acts 2, until the end of the 5th century or so.

The data of this period comes from three sources: the NT writings, extra-biblical literature, and archeological data (largely inscriptional).

We have a lot of data here, so I plan to "cut it" three ways--by title, by geography, by role.

So, first I will go through the various titles used of church workers (esp. 'official titles') and see what data we have on female workers in those 'titles'. Then I will look at data by church location. Finally, I will group some of the roles together and look at representatives of those functions in church history.

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The "title" data


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Pushback: “I enjoy reading your ideas on the topics. However, I read your article on the role of women in the church and was a bit surprised. Being a protestant ( I go to a Vineyard Church) I enjoy church history and find it interesting, however, I do not establish doctrine based on simply historical text outside of scripture. But your idea of women as apostles was based primarily on Church history. Yes, I read the article, and I am aware of your argument of the feminine form of the name, but I find it difficult to establish doctrine on the ambiguity of the gender reference. Don't get me wrong; I wanted you to be right, but I found your argument a bit problematic. Sorry, I hope I don't sound to negative; I have enjoyed many of your articles, but to create a gender doctrine based on what doesn't seem to me to be a scripture addressing that issue is somewhat sketchy. I still am a frequent visitor and will continue to be. “


(Boy, I wish all pushbacks were worded as sweetly as this one...sigh)


Couple of things here:


First, strictly speaking, my argument is NOT really from Church History, but from Historical data about the biblical text. (If it were a real argument from Church History, there would be no discussion of the form of this work/phrase in Romans—it would be about Historical tradition, without any basis in the biblical text per se.). Using (a) the lexical data from the ancient world about a word, its forms, and its distribution in history/usage; and (b) the history of interpretation of that biblical phrase by those closer in time/mindset than us is standard praxis in biblical exegesis. We use the Church Fathers to help us with textual criticism, biblical background, and lexical issues constantly, and these are used to clarify the biblical text itself—and not to establish some doctrine separately/independently from the text. Big, important difference there. I am using the lexical (non-Christian usage) data and the literary (Christian interpretation) data to help remove the ambiguity of the specific phrase (much as we do for phrases/concepts of 'headship', 'sacrifice', 'reconciliation', or even 'became a curse for us'. This is still an argument about the text, and NOT an argument about 'church history'.


Secondly, I am not sure that I am really trying to establish a 'doctrine' with this. I am examining all the data about the text to see which side of the issue is BEST SUPPORTED by the LARGER amount of data. In the historical (not doctrinal) question of “was there a woman apostle?”, the data is significantly heavier in favor of “YES” (as also seen from the many commentator assessments cited above—this is not just MY opinion on the subject). The doctrinal question of “Could a woman be an apostle, as recognized by other apostles?” could be established by either an overt rule-type statement to that effect (“apostles can be female or male”) or by an overt biblical reference to such a case (“Female X (is) an apostle”). Of course, we dont' have ANY statement about gender/sex relative to apostles (i.e., there is no statement that apostles have to be male or female—only the requirement that they had seen the Risen Lord), so we are limited to the latter cases—of which the Romans passage is our text. To see this another way, there are no instructions that prophets have to be male (or that they can be female), but we know of women legitimately prophesying in the New Testament (e.g., Stephen's daughters, and 1 Cor 11). So the issue is a historical one—does the Romans passage refer to a woman apostle, and EVERY SCRAP OF DATA we have indicates that the answer to this is “YES”.


Thirdly, the very fact that the biblical texts present women as legitimate prophets creates a prima facie argument that they were as important as apostles (and therefore “superior” in the church to elders/pastors]. The scriptures which illustrate this linkage and priority are:



So, given these three points, I still believe that


(a) my argument is from the biblical text itself (as illuminated by secular and ecclesiastical history) and not from just the position of the sub-apostolic leaders on the question “should women be allowed to be apostles?” and;


(b) the biblical data is still strongly in favor of the historical position that woman were accorded apostolic status since:

  1. they are accorded the equal, closely-related, and superior-to-pastors position of prophets;

  2. there are no qualifications for an apostle involving gender at all


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It should be noted that there is not a single title of leadership mentioned in the NT that is not ascribed to a female sometime within the first 3 centuries of the Church's life--as evidenced by literary and/or archeological data.

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The Geographical Data

Here we want to simply note the location of the female workers/leaders.

This is interesting data, especially since it indicates female 'leadership roles' in most of the major cities of the early church!

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A Listing of Some of the Roles/Functions Women Provided

One can see from this wide survey of data that women played powerful, pervasive, and precious roles in the life of the early church. From their fortitude and beauty in the face of horrible martyrdom, to their power and thoroughness in scholarship and teaching, they honored the Lord.

They did it all--led the church, served the church, birthed the church, fed the church. The truly played their part in proclaiming the gospel to all nations.

And their Father wrote all their labor, all their tears, and every drop of their blood, down in His private books...and one day, He will visit them with His reward...


The Christian ThinkTank...[http://www.christian-thinktank.com] (Reference Abbreviations)