Women leaders in the New Testament
While the cultural value of patriarchy is generally reflected in the biblical text as a whole, there is a discernable shift in the New Testament. We see this dramatically portrayed in a passage from the early church community that mirrors directly the experience of Achan and his family in the conquest text, albeit with a twist. Like the Joshua text, Ananias lied and hid some of the profit of his property sale in the establishment of this new community. Like Achan, he was essentially stealing from God. However when Ananias was accused and punished for his personal disobedience, he alone suffered the consequences (Acts 5). While his wife, Sapphira, was aware of his deceit, she was not punished. However when she later also contributed to the deceit, she was punished in her own right for her own role. Unlike Achan’s family, she was not considered just an extension of him; she was an autonomous, responsible being. Sapphira was accepted as a full member of the Christian community in her own right and responsible for her own behaviour. Unlike the women of the Old Testament, Sapphira was free to make independent decisions within the community; her life and decisions were not framed by her relationship to men (such as her husband, Ananias). This is contrasted to Rabbinic writings where women were not only considered inferior to men but repeatedly associated with slaves and children.12 So although patriarchy continued to be endemic in the broader culture of the Graeco-Roman world, there was a shift within the new Christian community of Spirit-filled believers. This new individual responsibility was perhaps a reflection of Acts 2 in which the Spirit was given to all members of the community regardless of their gender, age or status. All could receive the Spirit and all could prophesy. This role was no longer the domain of a few, but available to all. Therefore all were responsible for their participation in the community. This new attitude is reflective of the ministry of Jesus Christ, as described in the gospels, who treated women with respect, dignity and equality (such as the woman in Samaria in John 4). Therefore through the Spirit, each member of the community was an equal and responsible participant.
This new openness of the community to women is reflected in the texts of the earlyChristian community. Women feature prominently in these narratives, such as Luke-Acts. Like the early origins of ancient Israel, this non-centralised community life allowed a larger openness to women’s leadership roles than in other later periods. Just as the study of early Israelite history almost equates to the study of the family, so the study of the early Christian community almost equates to the study of the ekklesia, or house-church. Like the Genesis narratives, there was no separation of the private and public government structures. The public church was the private home.13 However this new ‘people of God’ did not comprise of people with physical familial ties (such as the children of Abraham) but consisted of people with spiritual ties. New believers became brothers and sisters through common faith in Jesus Christ regardless of their race, class or age. This new community was to be a royal priesthood (1 Peter 2:9). Access to God was no longer mediated through a male representative, but directly through Jesus Christ. This new community was no longer led by a male king, but by believers in submission to Jesus Christ and one another. Female participation in formal leadership roles of this new community is highlighted in the writings of Luke-Acts.
In this early Christian community, the transmission of cultural values, education and instruction of new disciples was conducted in the home. These homes were generally urban dwellings within the emerging cosmopolitan cities of the Roman Empire. One of the most prominent examples of women leaders and teachers in this early community, as described in Luke-Acts, was Priscilla (or Prisca). She is described by Fiorenza as one of the first missionaries and founder of house churches. Together with her husband Aquila, she was a co-worker and missionary with Paul. Priscilla and Aquila were responsible for the education of Apollos and nurturing of the fledgling Christian community in Ephesus. Yet, the fact that the author of Luke-Acts mostly mentions her name first in reference to the teaching performed by the couple suggests that she was the more prominent in this role (eg Acts 18:18). It is important to note this role of Priscilla in teaching Apollos while in Ephesus (Acts 18:18-23), as this undoubtedly put her in a position of authority over him. It also indicates the advanced knowledge and skill possessed by Priscilla to instruct a man known for his intelligence (Acts 18:24). This teaching in the ‘home’ was the public teaching of the church. As an educator, Priscilla at this time provided leadership and direct influence over the Christian community. Timothy, stationed at Ephesus many years later, is instructed to not to let any of the women in that locality teach (1 Timothy 2:8-15). This text suggests either a declining openness to the leadership of women or a unique situation requiring a temporary abstention of women teachers at that time. Yet in this formative period of Christianity, Priscilla and Aquila were active ministers and authoritative teachers in the early house church movement, including their later location of Rome (Romans 16:3).
However women did not just participate in authoritative roles through the vocation of teaching in the house churches of the early Christian community, they also participated in the direct leadership of the community. This is modelled by Lydia, the patron of the house church in Philippi. This house church was founded when Paul visited Philippi to find a group of Jewish women meeting by the river. The absence of men would have disqualified this group as being recognized as a synagogue community, according to Jewish practice developed in the Second Temple Period. However the new Christian community could begin with a woman convert14 that would meet in her home. Yet this was no ordinary woman but a successful business dealer. The provision of the meeting place for the new congregation at Philippi, suggests also a direct leadership role of the group. This responsibility has more significance than it may suggest to a contemporary reader. Early patrons provided a pastoral as well as a practical function.15 Yet Lydia was not the exception. The house church of Jerusalem developed under the patronage of Mary (Acts 12:12-17). Chloe (1 Cor 1:11) and Nympha (Col 4:15) are listed as patrons and leaders of local congregations. The author of Luke-Acts also refers to the exercise of spiritual gifts by women as well as men, such as the healing ministry of Tabitha (Acts 9:36-43) and the influence of Philip’s daughters through their authoritative utterances of prophecy (Acts 21: 8-9).
Beyond the New Testament narratives, there are also several references in the writings of Paul to the contribution of women to the leadership of the early Christian community. Paul honours several women as his “co-workers.” These women received the same commendation as their male co-workers as they served together in the new community.16 As Grenz and Kjesbo write,
Within this loose structure, Paul’s coworkers carried out a variety of functions. They assisted in composing letters (Rom 16:22; 1 Thes 1:1), carried apostolic messages to local churches (1 Cor 4:17; 16:10-11), sought to encourage the believers on Paul’s behalf (1 Thess 3:2), reported to Paul the status of congregations under his care (1 Thess 3:6) and even occasionally hosted house churches (1 Cor 16:19).17
This list of the involvement of women represents all areas of leadership and service in the early Christian community. In Romans 16:1-2, Paul refers to the deacon (using masculine gender) Phoebe, who served the church of Cenchreae. This means she was serving in an official, public role in the local church community. There is also suggestion that the Romans text refers to a female apostle, “Junia” (Romans 16:8).18 Despite the ambiguities of the text, the involvement of women in such varied levels of leadership demonstrates the new freedom in the developing Christian community. However, would this freedom last? As the Old Testament community shifted from a non-centralised community government structure to a central monarchy, the openness to women’s leadership decreased. Their opportunity for leadership became limited to more indirect methods of influence. As the Old Testament demonstrates, when women have been marginalized from the power structures they have demonstrated influence through informal power. Would this be the experience of women in the new Christian community? The history of the Christian church would suggest the invisibility of women’s contribution became a reality. However to look to the future, it is the task of the contemporary church to retrieve the contribution of women from the biblical text.
About Jacqui: Graduating with a BA in 1994, Jacqui served as the AOG chaplain and campus director for Students For Christ at Sydney University until 1998. After studying at Southern Cross, she completed her honours and doctoral studies through CSU, graduating in 2006. Jacqui has served as the Student Dean (2002-2005), Dean of Christian Studies (2006-2008) and Academic Dean of the College (2009-2014). Currently, Jacqui is associate professor of Biblical Studies, specialising in Old Testament studies. Her publications include Them, Us and Me: How the Old Testament Speaks to People Today, Raising Women Leaders (edited volume with Shane Clifton), andThree's A Crowd: Pentecostalism, Hermeneutics and the Old Testament as well as various articles and book chapters. Jacqui is an ordained minister of the Australian Christian Churches, and speaks regularly at local and international events. She has also appeared on various nationalTV and radio programs in Australia, including the ABC TV's Q&A program. Jacqui is committed to the mission of higher education in the church, and provides assistance to Pentecostal colleges in developing their institutional goals. She currently serves on the executive of the Society of Pentecostal Studies, and is part of the steering committee for Biblical Ethics in the Society of Biblical Literature. Her research interests include pentecostal hermeneutics, prophetic literature and feminist readings of Scripture. Jacqui is a member of Mountains Church (a church plant of Hawkesbury Church). She loves travelling, photography, art and coffee with friends.Jacqui is a member of the TEQSA Register of Experts. Taken from the Alphacrucis website. Jacqui blogs here
12 Mary Evans, Woman in the Bible, p.33
13 Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, But She Said: Feminist Practices of Biblical Interpretation, (Boston:
Beacon Press, 1992), 168.
14 Stanley Grenz and Denise Kjesbo, Women in the Church: A Biblical Theology of Women in Ministry, (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP, 1995), 78.15 Ibid, 87.
16 Ibid, 85.17 Ibid18 The reference of this text to a female apostle may have been suppressed in later manuscript copies and interpreters to assume a male name.
(Extract from Grey, J, ‘Models of Women’s Leadership in the Bible’ in Raising Women
Leaders: Perspectives on Liberating Women in Pentecostal and Charismatic Contexts,
Jacqueline Grey and Shane Clifton (eds), Chester Hill, NSW: Australasian Pentecostal
Studies, 2009, pp.71-88. Permission Approved.)