Just as you can’t help but notice all the women featured prominently in the gospels, so it is with Acts and the accounts of the early church.
Stop trying to force me to deal with Paul. We’re not there yet. We’ll get there when we get there! Haha
AS IT WAS, SO IT WILL BE
Right from the beginning, the women are fully included with the disciples. Check it out:
They all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers. (Acts 1:14)
Who are these women? We know Mary the mother of Jesus. We can safely assume that also included at least Mary Magdalene, Salome, Joanna, and perhaps Mary and Martha along with others.
Multiple women and men joined the remaining eleven apostles in constant prayer. Then Peter addresses the group and the group appoints a man to replace Judas. That’s right. The text leads us to presume that women were involved in the selection process alongside the men.
That leads into chapter 2 and the Day of Pentecost. Luke tells us that they were all together in one room. Who were they? The same aforementioned group of 120 disciples and apostles, men and women. The Holy Spirit filled the room. It would have been an amazing scene to witness. But don’t skip over this:
All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them. (Acts 2:4)
All of them – men and women. Filled with the Spirit. Prophesying. Speaking in tongues. All of them. Men and women.
What other evidence is there that these sisters were included in this miraculous outpouring of the Spirit right alongside their brothers? Because that’s exactly what we are told would happen! Again, don’t skip over the quotation in Peter’s sermon from the book of Joel. The significance of this cannot be stressed enough.
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.
I will show wonders in the heavens above
and signs on the earth below,
blood and fire and billows of smoke.
The sun will be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood
before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord.
And everyone who calls
on the name of the Lord will be saved.’
(Acts 2:16-21, quoting Joel 2:28-32)
This message from Joel fits right in line with the messages of the other prophets and the ministry of Jesus. Joel (and thus Peter) is looking back at how God intended creation to be and looking forward to a day when that creation would be restored. Peter is saying that day is now.
I’m getting myself worked up. I’m literally shaking as I write this because – how could we have missed this for so long?! It’s right there!
But what about what Paul said in…? Stop it. We’ll deal with that later. We must root Paul’s words firmly within the context of what was actually happening in the early church specifically and in the Greco-Roman world more generally. Either the Bible contradicts itself in the most severe way OR we’ve been misinterpreting and misapplying two verses of Scripture to the detriment of women for centuries.
Ok, I got a little side tracked. Let’s keep going. What else is there precedence for women to do in the context of ministry, evangelism, and “church work?”
THREATENED BY WOMEN?
If we look at Acts 9, we notice something very telling about the role women played in the early church. This wouldn’t raise too many eyebrows for our cultural context, but this was huge in that day – and still to this day in that part of the world. Let me explain.
Even today in the Middle East, the men may be fighting, there may be a war going on outside, but the women are still able to go about their business running errands, taking the children to school, picking things up at the market. Women are not seen as a threat. They are not the leaders or key participants in the conflict, so they are largely left alone. So it was at the end of the gospels. The male disciples were all hiding behind locked doors that resurrection Sunday. It was the women who felt free to go about the business of finishing Jesus’ burial preparations. The men all feared for their lives. The women could walk the streets freely.
That is until Acts 9. By this time apparently the authorities had caught on that women were also involved in the leadership of this new sect, so they gave Saul of Tarsus the go-ahead to arrest any female disciples, too. Women were just as big a threat as the men!
Acts 9 also introduces us to a disciple named Tabitha who had died. She was known for “always doing good and helping the poor.” Apparently she was so vital to the church in her town that they sent a special envoy to bring Peter to help. He miraculously raised her from the dead and presented her alive to all the believers – especially the widows.
In Acts 10 we find out that Mary, John Mark’s mother, hosted a church gathering at her house in Jerusalem. You can actually still visit that spot today. It was not uncommon for women to be named as the host for house churches.
The first convert to Christianity on Greek soil was a woman named Lydia. She was a business owner and apparently the leader of their makeshift outdoor synagogue in Philippi (Acts 16). The story treats her as the head of the household, just as it does Cornelius in Acts 10.
Priscilla and Aquila were a married couple from Rome. They were Jewish Christians who had been expelled from Rome in the early 50s by order of Emperor Claudius. They met up with Paul and became his coworkers in the faith – a term that pretty much always included church-planting, preaching, teaching, evangelizing, and encouraging and guiding the churches. Priscilla is nearly always mentioned first, a fact that leads most scholars to believe she was the main teacher out of the two. Priscilla and Aquila teamed up to correct the theological teachings of a man named Apollos – who graciously submitted to their instruction in the faith and went on the accomplish amazing things for the Kingdom.
Going back to Philippi for a moment — in the letter to Philippi Paul specifically calls out two women – Euodia and Syntyche – who were having some sort of disagreement. He urges them to be of one mind, to reach a truce for the sake of the gospel. He then acknowledges them as his coworkers who have contended with him in the faith. I doubt their argument was about which color the church carpet should be.
Most people would probably disregard the final chapter of Romans as just a list of names of people Paul sends his greetings to. And that’s kind of what it is, but it’s so much more. Romans 16 gives us a glimpse into the day-to-day life of Christians in the early church. For our purposes, just look at how many women Paul names.
- Priscilla, a coworker who risked her life for Paul and who hosted the church in her and Aquila’s house (they had moved back to Rome by this point)
- Mary, who worked hard for the church in Rome
- Junia, who – along with her husband Andronicus – was imprisoned with Paul and was considered “outstanding among the apostles.”
***YES – Junia is regarded by Paul to be an apostle, an outstanding one at that! This is what the early church father Chrysostom said about her:
“To be an apostle is something great. But to be outstanding among the apostles — just think what a wonderful song of praise that is! They were outstanding on the basis of their works and virtuous actions. Indeed, how great the wisdom of this woman must have been that she was even deemed worthy of the title of apostle.”
- Tryphena and Tryphosa, two women who work hard in the Lord
- Persis, another woman who worked hard in the Lord
- The mother of Rufus, who was like a mother to Paul
- Julia and the sister of Nereus
But I skipped over another important woman in Romans 16 – Phoebe. She is the only person in the Bible specifically named as a deacon. You can try to explain it away (deacon simply means “servant,” after all), but then you must be consistent and strip away the “authority” given to the deacons in the church – after all, they’re just servants.
Phoebe is regarded by Paul (who wrote the “qualifications” for deacons, by the way) as a deacon – not “deaconess” as some try to translate it. More than that, she played a key role in the church of Cenchrea and was the wealthy benefactor for Paul’s missionary journeys (and those of others). The way she is “commended” leads us to understand that Phoebe was actually the one to deliver and probably read aloud the letter to the Roman church. She was deserving a warm welcome and hospitality. As one in close contact with Paul, she would have likely been the one to answer the miriad questions that would have arisen from the letter. How many commentaries have been written on the book of Romans? Phoebe was the first.
Finally, a brief mention goes out to Chloe, a leader and close confidant of Paul’s in the Corinthian church. And let’s not forget to call out Lois and Eunice, Timothy’s own mother and grandmother who instilled within him a love for Scripture and a firm faith that would stick with him for the rest of his life.
Good grief, that’s a long list. There were SO MANY women working in the churches of the First Century. They were deacons and apostles and teachers and house-church leaders. They were coworkers with Paul who were considered a threat by the authorities and spent time in prison. They spoke in tongues and prophesied.
There is precedence for all these things – full leadership and equal authority to serve alongside the men.
What is there no precedent for? VBS, children’s ministry, meal trains, casseroles, women’s ministry, pot lucks, women’s retreats, classroom design, women’s classes, bulletins, secretaries, nursery attendants, and literally every other role we relegate women to in our churches.
These women in the Bible kicked butt and took names for the sake of the kingdom. They were rockstars. They weren’t thrown in prison for making casseroles, that’s for sure. The world had never seen anything quite like it before.
So what happened?