Women’s Leadership Role in the Early Church

This is a paper I wrote in one of my New Testament classes at Pepperdine on Female Prophets in the Early Church and the implications it has of women's role of speaking and leadership and teaching in Christianity.

FEMALE PROPHETS IN THE EARLY CHURCH

After Jesus ascended into Heaven, the Apostles preached the Gospel at Pentecost. As a defense of their λαλεῖν ἑτέραις γλώσσαις (speaking in tongues), Peter quoted a prophecy from Joel,

And it will be in the last days, says God, that I will pour out My Spirit on all humanity; then your sons and your daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, and your old men will dream dreams. I will even pour out My Spirit on My male and female slaves in those days, and they will prophesy.[1]

Prophecy became a central practice for the early Christians. It allowed the Holy Spirit to speak directly through male and female believers to encourage and convict the Church. Paul writes of prophecy to the Christians at Thessalonica: “Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophecies, but test everything; hold fast what is good.”[2] Prophecy remained an accepted aspect of Christian practice until institutionalization began in the early second century.[3] Through prophesying, women participated in the authoritative and speaking roles of the house churches that predominated early Christendom.

The specific mention of female prophets in the New Testament is lacking. In Acts female prophets are mentioned in passing, “The next day we left and came to Caesarea, where we entered the house of Philip the evangelist, who was one of the Seven, and stayed with him. This man had four virgin daughters who prophesied.”[4] In 1 Corinthians amidst a dialogue about worship instructions, Paul instructs women to wear head coverings while they are prophesying, “Every man who prays or prophesies with something on his head dishonors his head.  But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, since that is one and the same as having her head shaved.”[5] Additionally, a negative reference to a female prophet is in Revelation, “But I have this against you: You tolerate the woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess and teaches and deceives My slaves to commit sexual immorality and to eat meat sacrificed to idols.”[6]

               Early Christians would have understood prophecy in the context of Judaism and Greco-Roman culture. Within Judaism prophecy was diverse, from proclamations against injustice to describing “revelatory images” to figures like Moses and Isaiah to John the Baptist and Jesus.[7] A tradition of women prophesying existed within Judaism. In the Tanakh Miriam, Deborah, Huldah, and Noadiah are each described as a prophetess.[8]   In the Gospel of Luke, Anna is named as a prophetess.[9]   The Hebrew word translated as prophet נביא (navi) means “someone who is called.” The Israelites would have simply thought of prophets as individuals through whom God had elected to speak through.[10]

Prophecy was understood in a similar way in Greco-Roman religion and would have been an intuitive concept to Gentile Christians. The significant difference is that Jewish prophecy was written down, while Greco-Roman prophecy was spoken.[11] In paganism, professional prophets were called diviners and their prophecies were known as oracles. These oracles were in response to inquiries on anything from births to military campaigns to travelling, and could be accessed by individuals and government officials. Torjesen maintains that “prophecy permeated every aspect of Greco-Roman social life.”[12]

Within mystery cults prophecy functioned a little differently. Instead of providing knowledge about the future, prophecy was a state of altered consciousness that made the adherent feel connected to the supernatural. Aune asserts, “The basic assumption was that if a god was actually speaking through an individual, the person’s own mind must become inactive in order that his speech organs might become instruments of the divinity.” This altered mental state typically involved “a loud voice, abnormal tones and rhythms of speech, the physical manifestations of excitement, or a state of trance.”[13] The place of prophecy within Greco-Roman mystery cults is significant, because early Christianity most resembled a mystery cult.  

Aune describes Hebraic prophecy in a similar way, “All inspired prophetic speech in which a religious specialist or a novice makes direct contact with the supernatural world is based on a revelatory trance experience.”[14] A majority of the Hebraic prophecy that exists in written records is in stark contrast to pagan prophecy in that it was unsolicited; meaning only a minority of the prophecy took the form of responses to inquiries.[15] Regardless, the trance-like state of prophecy was not understood by Hebraic prophets as a way to feel connected to God, but rather as a means to the end of receiving God’s commands. The mystery cult’s emotional purpose to their prophetic trances seem to most closely resemble λαλούντω (speaking in tongues) in Christianity in that the purpose of both mystery cult prophecy and λαλούντω is one’s relationship with the divine. Paul may have been the first person to derive λαλούντω as something distinct from prophesying.[16]

In the early Church prophecy was understood as something that only specific Christians were gifted with, “We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your faith.”[17] However, this is not a consensus amongst Biblical scholars. Some have argued that certain passages in Acts imply that prophesying was something given to all believers when they received the Holy Spirit: “When they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. And when Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they began to speak in other languages and to prophesy.”[18] Aune argues that this was just a manifestation of the Holy Spirit on the earliest communities of believers, because beyond this verse in Acts, there are no other passages which imply that all believers are prophesying. It should also be noted that this passage in Acts of baptism and the Holy Spirit causing the gift of prophecy to be manifested is a situation in which Paul was talking to “some disciples…about twelve men in all,” not an entire congregation. Aune’s interpretation is especially convincing, because in later passages about prophecy, there is an exclusivity of who is gifted with prophecy, namely the term prophet exists as a specific group of people within the Church. Passages referring to people who are prophets would be unintelligible if everyone in the Church was prophesying.

Based upon 1 Corinthians 11 Christians understood both men and women as being prophets.[19] “Every man who prays or prophesies with something on his head dishonors his head. But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, since that is one and the same as having her head shaved.”[20] A few chapters later, there is a passage in chapter 14 that if read by itself seems to exclude women from being prophets. “For you can all prophesy one by one, so that everyone may learn and everyone may be encouraged. And the prophets’ spirits are under the control of the prophets, since God is not a God of disorder but of peace. As in all the churches of the saints, the women should be silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak, but should be submissive, as the law also says. And if they want to learn something, they should ask their own husbands at home, for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church meeting.”[21] Read in context, Chapter 14 cannot be understood as a mandate against women ministering in Corinth, because that would contradict Chapter 11. It is likely that in this instance Paul is addressing specific women who are asking misguided questions at Church.[22]

The two important realities concerning prophecy in the early Church: Prophecy is performed by specific Christians gifted as prophets, not just anyone in the congregation. And women are included in this group of prophets. Passages such as Acts 24 referring to Phillip’s daughters who prophesy and mention of women prophesying in 1 Corinthians 11, are talking about female prophets. This corresponds well with Greco-Roman culture, because pagan prophets were seen as authoritative for receiving and interpreting divine revelations.[23]  

Prophesying entailed leadership and authority. Passages such as 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1, which mention only men as participating in church leadership and seem to imply an exclusion of women, are not representative of female leadership in the early Church. There were two layers of leadership in early Christendom: central and local, or as Harnack describes it, “the tension between “Spirit” and office, charisma and legislative regulation, the tension between the inspired men and the officials, those pre-eminent for personal religion on the other hand, and its professional representatives on the other.” The overseers and deacons belong to the legislative and local leadership, while prophets belong to the central and charismata leadership.[24] The three types of central leaders in the early Church were Apostles, Prophets, and Teachers. This is established by Paul in 1 Corinthians, “And 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. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles?”[25] Torjesen refers to these as “the recurring trio of leaders mentioned in Paul’s writings.” Apostles were missionaries who planted churches as they travelled, while prophets and teachers remained with a local house Church.[26] These distinctions are more complicated though: Paul considered himself an apostle and a prophet, and there also existed travelling prophets who resembled apostles.[27] Nonetheless, prophets were seen as authoritative and functionally held leadership positions in the Church.

It is probable that each house church of early Christendom differed in how it did local leadership. In the letters to the Galatians and Corinthians, no local leadership of overseers and deacons is mentioned. In the letter to the Ephesians, which was a circular letter also received by the Church at Laodicea and other Asian Congregations, local leadership seems to be shared between the local and charismata leaders. In Romans, instruction of local leadership is given specifically to the charismata class of leaders.[28] It seems that in a majority of the early house Churches, the charismata leaders, which included female prophets, exercised some sort of local leadership.

Considering the lack of female leadership accepted in the Church throughout the history of Christendom this may seem surprising. It is not surprising though when compared with roles acceptable for women in Jewish synagogues. “The predominance of women in the leadership of the Christian community at Philippi may have been a natural carryover from their apparent predominance at the Sabbath worship outside the city gates. Women’s leadership in synagogue services was nothing extraordinary. It is well attested by inscriptions. Bernadette Brooten’s study of nineteen Jewish inscriptions shows that women held the offices of “ruler of synagogue,” elder, priest, and “mother of the synagogue.”[29] Judeo-Christian house churches in the Diaspora formed by splitting off from synagogues and predominantly Gentile churches began with a nucleus of Jewish believers, so the early Church was in part modeled off of Judaism.[30]

Female charismata leaders are mentioned only in passing in Paul’s letters, as though he is ambivalent to them. While it was common for women to prophesy in paganism and participate in speaking roles in Judaism, the leadership implied by female prophets was one that may have conflicted with Greco-Roman values of females being intellectually inferior.[31] This may explain Paul’s seeming discomfort but acceptance of women being in spiritual leadership roles. By the third and fourth centuries, as house churches became replaced by basilicas, this tension between culture and new creation resulted in the removal of women from leadership positions and speaking roles in the Church, conforming Christian values to the surrounding culture.[32] As Keener asserts, “There is in the entirety of the New Testament no evidence for the subordination of women that is practiced in many of our churches today, and certainly not sufficient evidence for men to rule out the validity of women’s call to minister the word of God.”[33]

[1] Acts 2:17-18 (HCSB) quoting Joel 2:28

[2] 1 Thessalonians 5:19-22 (ESV)

[3] David E. Aune, Prophecy in Early Christianity and the Ancient Mediterranean World.

(Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 1983), 189.

[4] Acts 21: 8-9 (HCSB)

[5] 1 Corinthians 11:4-5 (HCSB)

[6] Revelation 2:20 (HCSB)

[7] Katharine Doob Sakenfeld, The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible Volume 4.

(Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2009), 621-622.    

[8] Exodus 15:20, Numbers 12:1-2, Micah 6:4, Judges 4:4, 2 Kings 22:14, 2 Chronicles 34:22, Ezra 8:33, Nehemiah 6:14

[9] Luke 2:36

[10] Katharine Doob Sakenfeld, The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible Volume 4.

(Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2009), 622-623.    

[11] David E. Aune, Prophecy in Early Christianity and the Ancient Mediterranean World.

(Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 1983), 23.

[12] Karen Jo Torjesen, When Women Were Priests. (New York: HarperCollins

Publisher, 1995), 28.

[13] David E. Aune, Prophecy in Early Christianity and the Ancient Mediterranean World.

(Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 1983), 46-47.

[14] David E. Aune, Prophecy in Early Christianity and the Ancient Mediterranean World.

(Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 1983), 86.

[15] The Hebraic prophecy we have records of, may be an inaccurate representation of the diversity of prophecy that occurred amongst the Israelites. Oracles from court and temple prophets have not survived, so the sample of prophecy we have preserved is primarily from free prophets. The early Prophets did deal mostly with responding to inquiries, and one of the reasons that records of the later prophets focus so much on judgment of an unsolicited nature could be because they were prophesying during a time of extreme social and political crises.

[16] David E. Aune, Prophecy in Early Christianity and the Ancient Mediterranean World.

(Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 1983),

[17] Romans 12:6 (NIV)

[18] Acts 19:5-6 (HCSB)

[19] 1 Corinthians 11:4-5, Acts 21: 8-9

[20] 1 Corinthians 11:4-5 (HCSB)

[21] 1 Corinthians 14:31-35

[22] Craig S. Keener, Paul, Women & Wives. (Peabody, MA: Hendricksons Publishers,

1992), 17-18.

[23] Karen Jo Torjesen, When Women Were Priests. (New York: HarperCollins

Publisher, 1995), 28.

[24] A. Harnack, The Constitution and Law of the Church in the First Two Centuries.

Trans. F.L. Pogson. (London: H.D.A. Major, 1910), 42.

[25] 1 Corinthians 12:28-29 (HCSB)

[26] Karen Jo Torjesen, When Women Were Priests. (New York: HarperCollins

Publisher, 1995), 23.

[27] Katharine Doob Sakenfeld, The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible Volume 4.

(Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2009), 621-622.    

[28] A. Harnack, The Constitution and Law of the Church in the First Two Centuries.

Trans. F.L. Pogson. (London: H.D.A. Major, 1910), 53-55.

[29] Karen Jo Torjesen, When Women Were Priests. (New York: HarperCollins

Publisher, 1995), 19.

[30] A. Harnack, The Constitution and Law of the Church in the First Two Centuries.

Trans. F.L. Pogson. (London: H.D.A. Major, 1910), 45.

[31] Karen Jo Torjesen, When Women Were Priests. (New York: HarperCollins Publisher,

1995), 42-43

[32] Karen Jo Torjesen, When Women Were Priests. (New York: HarperCollins Publisher,

1995), 37-38.

[33] Craig S. Keener, Paul, Women & Wives. (Peabody, MA: Hendricksons Publishers, 1992), 18.

Bibliography:

Aune, David E. Prophecy in Early Christianity and the Ancient Mediterranean World.

Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 1983.  

Byrne, Brendan, S. J., Paul and the Christian Woman. Homebush, New South Wales,

Australia: St. Paul Publications, 1988.

Harnack, A., The Constitution and Law of the Church in the First Two Centuries. Trans.

F.L. Pogson. London: H.D.A. Major, 1910.

Keener, Craig S., Paul, Women & Wives. Peabody, MA: Hendricksons Publishers,

1992.

Kraemer, Ross Shepard, Women’s Religions in the Greco-Roman World: a sourcebook.

New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Miller, Patricia Cox, Women in Early Christianity: Translations from Greek Texts.

Washington D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2005.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob, The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible Volume 4.

Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2009.  

Torjesen, Karen Jo, When Women Were Priests. New York: HarperCollins Publisher,

1995.

Wire, Antoinette Clark, The Corinthian Women Prophets. Minneapolis: Fortress

Press, 1990

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.