December 13, 2011

Women In Ministry V: Egalitarian - Early New Testament Church - Acts and Then Some

I am primary concerned with the Christian New Testament church so I will not be delving into patterns of the Old Testament until the end of this series and only from a very high level. I will mainly focus on the New Testament church and thereafter. I also believe that the final authority for a Biblical view is the Bible itself so it will be my prime focus. I am not wholly concerned with views outside the early church or modern views as they are only derivations or deviations of either tradition or Biblical source interpretation anyway.

There is no denying that there is evidence early within the Christian church of women in leadership type roles. There is historical archeological evidence from papyri and inscriptions of the first couple of centuries that women did hold some form of ecclesiastical office. There are at least two extra biblical instances of a woman being called a diakonia / διάκονia and two instances of presbuteris/ πρεσβύτερiς (Tucker et al 91). It is not certain that these terms were applied as we would’ve applied them today with the same "norms of language" or full extent of meaning that applies to them in today's Greek lexicons. It could simply mean "elderly woman” as presbuteris can be translated as an aged mature woman. In addition to this there is a vague mention of a "fourth-century Christian letter which mentions a woman twice called a [Gk: kyrian ten didaskalan]”...this phrase though might be translated as a "Madame teacher." (Tucker et al 91)

We also see evidence as outlined in the book of Acts and numerous letters from the Apostle Paul. We see all throughout the New Testament that early churches are house churches. These houses churches are identified as clearly meeting in the homes of women, who apparently acted as head-of-household (Acts 12:12; 16:40; Romans 16:3-5; I Corinthians 1:11; 16:19; Colossians 4:15; 2 John (Kroeger 1183). Keener merges the fact women allowed meetings in their homes with the default assumption that they were leaders in the church (Keener “Two Views” 45). I believe this is an exegetical overreach on his part. Just being the owner or female matriarch of the household does not constitute a leadership position it constitutes an act of exceptional benevolence on the behalf of the women allowing Christians to meet in their homes (even upon risk of death). I am assuming they are owners or matriarchs in an absence of men or husbands in this situation and men having been present would've been mention by Luke or Paul. This is especially true considering  women could own homes or property by this time in 1st century Roman empire. The truth is that in the book of Acts and in the Paul's (and John's) letters, there is a curious paradox as to the place of women in the early Christian community. On one hand, women seem to have been very active in the work and workings of the churches, far more than would normally have been possible in Jewish, Greek or Roman society. For their selfless acts they received commendation from Paul repeatedly in Scripture. Conversely, we have the restrictive words of Paul as to their speaking in church, attending worship with heads' unveiled, or seeking to learn something through a channel other than their husbands? The same essence is seen in Ephesians and even more restrictive in the pastoral epistle of 1 Timothy. Do they present a contradiction, a paradox or a clarification? Hmmmm.


It is in Acts that we first read of the accounts of women active in the Church. Their roles are not always clear or clearly defined but it is clear they are active. Right from the beginning in the upper room we see:

“They all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers.” Acts 1:14

This is the beginnings of the church and women are integrally involved immediately, otherwise they would not be noted in Acts. We then see the mention of Priscilla (and Aquila) which is also noted on Romans 16:3. Priscilla obviously plays a prominent role but what exactly the role is anyone’s guess because Scripture remains silent about her exact duties within the Body.

In Joppa there was a disciple named Tabitha (in Greek her name is Dorcas); she was always doing good and helping the poor ~ Acts 9:36 (36-43 in context)

We have the case of Tabitha (Dorcas) who initiated an effective goodwill and altruistic ministry. She is termed a disciple but it is done so in a generalized way here in my opinion. She is a disciple in a way that we all are disciples that follow Jesus’ teachings. This though does not necessarily bestow a position of leadership on her, it designates her in a generalized way as a follower of Christ. Her benevolence and altruistic ministry on the other hand is not a leadership role but rather a manifestation of fruit(s) of the Spirit

"One of those listening was a woman from the city of Thyatira named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth. She was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message. When she and the members of her household were baptized, she invited us to her home. “If you consider me a believer in the Lord,” she said, “come and stay at my house.” And she persuaded us." Acts 16:14-15

There is the account of Lydia a merchant of Thyatira. There is no questioning her devotion and hospitality but hospitality and sharing of a home does not instantly bestow a leadership role on the homeowner. Additionally, Lydia responded kindly as Paul spoke to women’s prayer group in Philippi, and was baptized with her household. Her home appears to be subsequently made their headquarters. I do not suppose it is because of things like this that allowed Paul to have such strong feels for the church Philippi. Again though, this does not constitute a declared leadership role in the church. She clearly had an active role but a leadership role is evasive and hard to define here. Some of the other Scriptural references are noted here by book and then name (Harkness 62-65).

"Leaving the next day, we reached Caesarea and stayed at the house of Philip the evangelist, one of the Seven. He had four unmarried daughters who prophesied." Acts 21:8-9

We have the case of Philip’s four unmarried daughters that were recognized prophets. As I will note throughout this paper, I do not view prophesying in the New Testament as a position of leadership in a manner similar to the Old Testament. A distinction needs to be made here. The idea of the prophet in the New Testament is different than the understanding of the Old Testament prophet. As is says in Hebrews 1:

“In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. Hebrews 1:1-2

John the Baptist appears to be the last of the Old Testament styled prophets and this is why he is compared to Elijah, he is the last of his kind. A prophet and prophecy in the New Testament seems to be a different function and or gift to edify the body as expounded upon by Paul in 1 Corinthians 12:10 that is intermittent and sporadic at best. In the Old Testament God expected His people to call upon Him and He would then speak through a prophet to give guidance. Kings often asked the prophet to seek God on their behalf (2 Kings 3:9-12). In the New Testament the Scriptures clearly teach repeatedly that Christians are to get their guidance from The Holy Spirit who indwells them.

“For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God.” Romans 8:14

“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. However, when He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth; for He will not speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak; and He will tell you things to come. He will glorify Me, for He will take of what is Mine and declare it to you. All things that the Father has are Mine. Therefore I said that He will take of Mine and declare it to you.” John 16:12-15

For me this sporadic behavior doesn’t consistently exhibit a quality of leadership over a long haul that is needed for sound and steadfast leadership. A prophet speaks from God intermittently and provides guidance from God directly but inconsistently. I view them as distinct positions with different obligations. Their roles in the New Testament seem slightly incongruous to one another. The most important difference between the Old Testament and New Testament roles relating to guidance is a New Testament prophet will be sent by The Holy Spirit to speak to an individual or group to give guidance (intermittently or randomly from a human point of view). The prophet is sent either as an answer to prayer or as a Sovereign act of The Holy Spirit to address a particular issue in the life of the individual or group. Individuals generally did not/do not seek out prophets. This is not a leadership role that is conducive to leading. It is a role of guidance conducive to edification and improvement to the Body of Christ.

Leaving the next day, we reached Caesarea and stayed at the house of Philip the evangelist, one of the Seven. He had four unmarried daughters who prophesied. Acts 21:8-9

Although Priscilla appear to play a larger role in the letters of Paul it is always in conjunction with her husband Aquila. When she is mention there is no indicator in the text of Scripture that leads me to believe that she takes precedence in order of importance or dominance in terms of leadership. If anything, they are mentioned synonymously. They appear to be presented as equals which is what one would expect in a Bible that promotes married couples as “one flesh”. As would be expected by the culture of the time and the Greek grammatical/syntactical structure, when Priscilla is first mentioned in Scripture it is in a secondary role as the wife “αὐτοῦ/of him” or the referent, Aquila in Acts 18:2, not the other way around.

“There he met a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, who had recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had ordered all Jews to leave Rome. Paul went to see them…” Acts 18:2

We also see later mention of her also:

"He began to speak boldly in the synagogue. When Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they invited him to their home and explained to him the way of God more adequately.” Acts 18:26

My difficulty with interpreting these episodes in a “pro-women in leadership” light is reconciling them as issues of evidences of “official” leadership or eldership in the church. There remains a problem of qualifying and quantifying them as legitimate and sustained “offices” or “positions” in the church (recognized or not). Many to me are simply manifestation of the Holy Spirit in charitable/benevolent but non-leadership capacity. To view them as leadership roles as appointed “offices” or “positions” is stretching what can be unambiguously gleaned from many of these passages. If they are offices they appear more “de facto” appointments necessitated by mitigating circumstances of culture, customs, society or time-bound factors.

Acts, Prophesying & 1 Corinthians 11 & 12

It is also in Acts that we see the interesting New Testament parallel of Joel 2:28-29 fulfilled in the pouring out of the Holy Spirit on men and women. The pouring out of the Spirit on men and women is not my contention with these passages. My contention or issue with them is the gift or issue that they speak of: prophesying and dreams. These things in and of themselves are not necessarily speaking of being leaders in the Church as mentioned before although at the point of prophecy, a given person takes center stage as a speaker for God…this does not necessarily equal or equate to a bestowed or sustained position of leadership in church. It does not show a pattern of leadership but rather a supernatural act of God on behalf of the speaker or prophesier. Yes, it is an “office” as defined by Paul in 1 Corinthians 12 but my question is, “Is it a gift/office of leadership in the New Testament or a position to edify the body as Pastor appears to be a gift/office distinct to itself. Prophets prophesy, teachers and teacher/pastor teach and pastor. I view them as categorically distinct.  I also do not view Paul’s statements in 1 Corinthians 12:28 as an itemized list of gifts in order of importance or priority. I view it simply as a list. All are important, none should be more important than anther as this would give one portion of the Body of Christ priority over another and this is just not biblical in its premise. We are all equal in Christ ontologically as He is the head. We are different in function though. Although there may be bleed-over, the scant evidence we have for women in the New Testament points towards prophesying not teaching and pastoring. Where Scripture appears to allude to women in these roles, the definitiveness and clarity of these roles passages become suspect.

I also realize the Old and New Testament make mention of the fact that the Holy Spirit will be poured out on both men and women which shows a vivid egalitarian and divine view. Sadly, I see this as a misinterpretation or misuse of the source data.

“And afterward, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days. Joel 2:28, 29

…and the New Testament version:

“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. Acts 2:16–18

Even Paul allowed for women to prophesy in the Corinthian church, but his issue appears to be tempered inside of the proper role of men and women in the church and head coverings. It is in the 1 Corinthian 11 passage in particular that I make note of the fact that Paul himself distinguishes between the role of prophet and leader since he distinguishes the difference between prophesying and God’s proper order in the Creation when he describes the defined roles of men and women in 1 Corinthians 11 (Howe 1180). He clearly distinguishes a difference in roles but not necessarily in a hierarchical manner though. I solely mention the 1 Corinthians 11 passage to denote the Paul references prophecy in correlation to proper gender roles. Regardless, nothing conclusive can be gleaned from the 1 Corinthians 11 passage in terms “do’s” and “don’ts” and therefore it is only used as a point of comparison to show the uneven nature and inability to draw a doctrine out of these single passages in Scripture. I side with the Assemblies of God on this conclusion (Assemblies of God “Role of Women”, Harkness 68-70, MacHaffie 15-16).

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