Women of Faith: In Acts and the Epistles
May 24, 2016
by Peter Amsterdam
Women of Faith: In Acts and the Epistles
(This is part of a series of four articles that explore the role of women within the New Testament, in order to shed light on the significant part they played in the beginnings of Christianity, as well as the importance of their role in the church today.)
Jesus broke the traditional first-century Jewish mold for women through His interactions with them during His ministry. After His resurrection, His earliest followers carried on with His understanding that men and women were equally capable of being disciples and participating in the spread of the gospel.
This equality was confirmed on the day of Pentecost. Just prior to Jesus’ ascension, He told the disciples to remain in Jerusalem and to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, “you heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”1“You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”2
We read that while waiting in Jerusalem, the believers—both men and women, including Mary the mother of Jesus and His brothers—were continually gathering together and devoting themselves to prayer. On the day of Pentecost, they were likewise all together.
Suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.3
The apostle Peter, when preaching to the crowd which had gathered, explained what had happened by quoting from the book of Joel:
“In the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams; even on my male servants and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy.”4
Women were present when the Holy Spirit was given; and Peter, quoting from the prophet Joel, reinforced the point that they, along with men, received the Holy Spirit and the power to preach the gospel.
In the book of Acts, we read that when persecution arose, Saul (who later became the apostle Paul) was persecuting both Christian men and women.
Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison.5 Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.6
In the book Women in the Church,7 the authors quote Ben Worthington:
This should imply to Luke’s readers that the women were significant enough in number and/or importance to the cause of The Way that Saul did not think he could stop the movement without taking women as well as men prisoners.8
We also read in Acts of women prophets. The daughters of Philip prophesied.9 Paul wrote of women in a manner that suggests that it was quite normal for women to prophesy publicly:
Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head, but every wife who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head.10
Paul also wrote of prophets in a manner which suggests that prophets, along with those who had other functions, had official status.11 This gives some indication that women had positions of leadership in the early church.
We also read of women being teachers within the church. In Acts 18 we read of a Jew named Apollos, who was an eloquent speaker and knew the Jewish Scriptures well. He had been instructed in the way of the Lord; however, he didn’t know all there was to know. When Priscilla (also known as Prisca) and Aquila heard him preaching boldly in the synagogue, they took him aside and explained the way of God even more accurately.12 Here we have a case where Priscilla had a hand in teaching a man about the faith. In this instance, and in other places within the New Testament, Priscilla is named before her husband Aquila. It was quite uncommon in those days to name the wife before the husband. Grenz and Kjesbo wrote:
The reference to “Priscilla and Aquila” suggests that she was probably the primary instructor. Nor should we minimize the depth of Priscilla and Aquila’s teaching. In so far as Apollos was “well-versed in the scriptures,” their explaining of “the Way of God to him more accurately” must have been of sufficient expertise to warrant his acceptance.13
Paul referred to Priscilla (Prisca) and Aquila as my fellow workers in Christ Jesus, who risked their necks for my life, to whom not only I give thanks but all the churches of the Gentiles give thanks as well. Greet also the church in their house.14Here we see Paul calling a woman a fellow worker, a phrase synonymous with one of his favorite phrases for those who aided him in his ministry—“co-worker.” Others whom Paul called co-workers/fellow workers included Timothy15 and Titus,16 who were clearly involved in leading the church. Other women whom Paul refers to as fellow workers are Euodia and Syntyche, whom he says have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel, along with Clement and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life.17
In Romans chapter 16, Paul gives greetings to 27 people and gives specific designation to several of them, including six women. Priscilla is called a fellow worker, Mary and Persis are said to have worked very hard,18 and Tryphaena and Tryphosa are called workers in the Lord.19 (We’ll look at Phoebe and Junia, the other two mentioned in the list, further on.) Within this chapter we see that Paul commends these women in ministry with the same words as he commends the men, which indicates that he considered the men and woman equal partners in God’s work.
There are other indications that women had leadership roles in the early church. Some were patrons, and had houses which were used as places for worship. Mary, the mother of John Mark,20 Lydia,21 and Priscilla (along with Aquila)22 all served as patrons. Phoebe was called a diakonos, which is Greek for deacon, which some scholars take to mean she held an official office, such as a minister, in the church in Cenchreae. Others interpret this to mean she was the patron of the church. Either way, Paul clearly honored her and considered her important enough to tell the believers in Rome to welcome her in the Lord in a way worthy of the saints, and help her in whatever she may need from you, for she has been a patron of many and of myself as well.23
In Romans 16:7, Paul wrote:
Greet Andronicus and Junia, my countrymen and my fellow prisoners, who are of note among the apostles, who also were in Christ before me.24
There has been some divergence of opinion among scholars about this verse and its meaning. Junia was considered to be a woman’s name until the 1200s, when in some manuscripts it was changed to Junias, which would indicate this person was male. The phrase “who are of note among the apostles” can be translated two ways, either as “well known among the apostles,” or as “outstanding as apostles.” Most scholars today consider that Junia was a woman, and that the best translation is “outstanding as apostles,” indicating that Junia was called an apostle. This isn’t saying that Junia was one of the Twelve Apostles, but since Andronicus and Junia were believers before Paul was, they may have been among the 500 brethren to whom Jesus appeared before His ascension.25 Paul’s usage can also be understood as saying that they had an official designation, similar to how Barnabas was called an apostle based on his being commissioned to act on behalf of the local church and confirmed by the Holy Spirit.26 So it’s quite possible that Junia was known as an apostle.
One of the key passages in Paul’s writings which shows the equality of women with men is Galatians 3:26–29:
In Christ Jesus you are all sons (children in some translations) of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.
Paul makes the point that the distinctions between Jew and Gentile, slave and free, and male and female are done away with among those who believe. Everyone who has “put on Christ,” or has clothed themselves in Christ, is considered equal. As Grenz and Kjesbo explain, the “clothing” that all believers share marks them with a “sameness” greater than any human distinctions.27 One way to recognize this sameness is in the distribution of the gifts of the Spirit:
Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good… All these are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills.28
Because all believers—whether Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female—receive the gifts of the Spirit, they have equal spiritual status.
Paul makes the point that through reconciliation with God through Christ, the old way of relating as Jews and Gentiles, slaves and free persons, and male and female is over. This new outlook brings about unity of all believers. Grenz and Kjesbo wrote:
According to Paul, then, each person is to use his or her own ethnic background, social status or gender as the context in which—and a vehicle through which—to glorify God. These human distinctions are not obliterated in Christ. Rather, because they have no significance for a person’s position coram Deo [before God], they no longer provide the basis for functional differences within Christ’s fellowship.29
There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.30
In summary: Jesus’ interaction with women, His accepting them as disciples, and highlighting them as positive examples in His teachings and as faithful witnesses set the stage for women partaking equally with men in the ministry of the early church, which was a radical change in the first century. Then in the book of Acts we see that women received the Holy Spirit equally with men and were prophets and teachers. The apostle Paul considered women fellow workers as well as deacons, and in the case of Junia, an apostle. He clearly acknowledged and supported the ministry of women as Christian leaders.
Elsewhere in Paul’s writings, we find some passages which seem to be restrictive of women. These will be addressed in the next article.
(To be continued
Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
1 Acts 1:4–5.
2 Acts 1:8.
3 Act 2:2–4.
4 Acts 2:17–18.
5 Acts 8:3.
6 Acts 9:1–2.
7 Stanley J. Grenz and Denise Muir Kjesbo, Women in the Church (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 1995).
8 Grenz and Kjesbo, Women in the Church, 80.
God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, helping, administrating, and various kinds of tongues (1 Corinthians 12:28).
He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things. And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ (Ephesians 4:10–12).
9 Acts 21:8–9.
10 1 Corinthians 11:4–5.
11 Grenz and Kjesbo, Women in the Church, 82.
12 Acts 18:24–26.
13 Grenz and Kjesbo, Women in the Church, 82.
14 Romans 16:3–5.
15 Romans 16:21; 1 Thessalonians 3:2.
16 2 Corinthians 8:23.
17 Philippians 4:3 NIV.
18 Romans 16:6, 12.
19 Romans 16:12.
20 Acts 12:12.
21 Acts 16:14–15.
22 1 Corinthians 16:19.
23 Romans 16:2.
24 Romans 16:7 NKJ.
25 Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep (1 Corinthians 15:6).
26 Acts 13:2; 14:14.
27 Grenz and Kjesbo, Women in the Church, 100.
28 1 Corinthians 12:4–7,11.
29 Grenz and Kjesbo, Women in the Church, 106.
30 Galatians 3:28.