Women such as Anna (Luke 2:36), Philip’s four prophesying daughters (Acts 21:9), the women who prophesied at Pentecost—the birth of the church (Acts 2:4-21)—and the women in Corinth (1 Cor. 11:4-5; 14:31) offered leadership to God’s kingdom as prophets.
Female teachers. Both Luke and Paul acknowledged a female teacher—Priscilla—who instructed one of the most gifted evangelists in the New Testament, Apollos. Well schooled in Scripture, Apollos lacked information, which Priscilla and her husband provided. Apollos received Priscilla’s instruction without reservation (Acts 18:26). Far from condemning her for having taught a man, Luke and Paul recognized Priscilla’s prominence in teaching Apollos.
Moreover, Paul instructs the whole church at Colossae to “teach one another” (Col. 3:16), just as he tells the church at Corinth that he would rather each offer a few words of intelligible instruction than many words in a strange tongue (1 Cor.14:19).
Female evangelists and house-church leaders. There is no shortage of women evangelists or house-church leaders in Scripture. The church flourished because they welcomed the gifts mentioned in Ephesians 4:11-12: “The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ” (NRSV).
Lydia was an evangelist, as well as a house-church and business leader (Acts 16:13-14,40). She launched the first church in Philippi, which was also the first church in Europe.
Paul loved this church. It was the only church that regularly contributed to Paul’s support and the only one from which Paul accepted help. Paul’s letter to the Philippians is perhaps the most tender and personal letter among his epistles.
Lydia was not the only female house-church leader or church planter. There was also Apphia, who oversaw the church in Colossae (Philem. 1-2). There was the “elect lady” mentioned in 2 John 1:1; Nympha (Col. 4:15); Chloe (1 Cor. 1:11); and Priscilla (Acts 18:26; Rom. 16:3). Priscilla’s authority in the early church is highlighted by Paul, who calls her his “co-worker” (Rom. 16:3), a term Paul uses to identify male leaders such as Mark, Timothy, Titus, Philemon, Clement, Aquila, Apollos and Luke. Moreover, her name is listed before her husband Aquila’s in four of the six times they are mentioned, suggesting that Priscilla was the more distinguished of the two.
Like house-church leaders, evangelists advanced the gospel. Paul said that women such as Tryphena, Tryphosa and Persis “worked hard in the Lord” (Rom. 16:12), a phrase Paul used to describe his own missionary efforts. Similarly, Euodia and Syntyche “struggled beside” Paul (Phil. 4:3) in the work of the gospel, and thus Paul affirms Euodia and Syntyche as leaders in the church at Philippi.
Other female evangelists include Jesus’ female disciples (Luke 24:9-10), the Samaritan woman who told the people of Sychar about Jesus the Messiah (John 4:39), and Mary Magdalene, whom Jesus told to “Go ... to my brothers and tell them, 'I am returning to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God’” (John 20:17, NIV).
Female deacons. Leadership was service and service was leadership in the early church, and those who served were also called deacons (1 Tim. 3:8-13). Female deacons ministered mostly to women, as it would have been scandalous for men in the ancient world to anoint women with oil, baptize women or visit ill women in their homes. Thus, female deacons anointed and baptized other women; they also taught women and children and visited the homes of female believers who were ill in order to bring them Communion.
Phoebe was a deacon who served the church of Cenchrea. She also delivered Paul’s letters to the church in Rome. Paul refers to Phoebe as prostates, or benefactor (Rom. 16:2), which literally means one who is in authority or one who presides over (as in Communion). Paul uses the verb form of prostates in 1 Thessalonians 5:12, where it means “exercising leadership.”
The term deacon can be used to describe either a male or a female. (Deaconess did not come into use in the church until the third century.) Paul outlines for Timothy the qualifications for male and female deacons in Ephesus (1 Tim. 3:8-13), as well as sending him instructions on how to manage women in this church who were abusive or who were teaching heresy (2:11-15). As he did with the women in Corinth, whose freedom in Christ led to disruptive chatter (1 Cor. 14:34), Paul limited the authority of women at Ephesus when their freedom led to heresy and abuse.
Paul affirmed the authority and service of women when they promoted the gospel rather than heresy (Acts 18:26; Rom. 16:1-5,7,12-13,15); when their leadership was neither heretical nor abusive as it was in Ephesus (1 Tim. 2:11-12); and when they prayed and prophesied in public in ways that were not disruptive, either by their clothing or through their chatter (1 Cor. 11:4-5).
But in order to manage heresy, disruption and false teaching Paul did limit the expression of some women’s freedom in Christ (1 Tim. 2:11-15; 1 Cor. 14:34). Yet, in the absence of these problems, both women and men from all tribes and socioeconomic groups were given freedom to exercise their spiritual gifts as equal members of Christ’s body, in which there is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female.