Learning to thrive in the new life Jesus offers us – 2 Corinthians 5:16-17

Were there women elders in New Testament churches?

Theodora EpiskopaThree times this past week I’ve been in online conversations where a person has stated that women were not leaders in early churches. Here’s what Doug told me: “A church elder or bishop of that period would have been a man . . . fact.” Nick wrote, “There are no NT examples of women elders or pastors serving over men.” (Not sure how any follower of Jesus legitimately serves over another person.) And on Twitter, David wanted proof that women were elders (presbyteroi), or bishops (episkopoi), or pastors.

Despite the assertions of Doug and Nick, the New Testament is sketchy about which individuals, male or female, were actually called elders, bishops, or pastors. (The exceptions are 1 Peter 5:1, 2 John 1:1, and 3 John 1:1 where the authors clearly identify themselves as elders.)

It is fair to say that men were more likely to be bishops and elders, yet Paul mentions women elders (using the feminine of presbyteroi) in his first letter sent to Timothy in Ephesus. Priscilla seems to have been a leader in the house church she hosted with her husband in Ephesus and, later, in her house church in Rome. She was certainly prominent in the Christian communities at Ephesus and Rome. Was Priscilla an elder?

  • When Apollos was teaching in Ephesus, it was Priscilla, with her husband, who corrected his theology, and Apollos accepted their correction (Acts 18:24-26). No one else is mentioned as being involved.
  • When Paul wrote his second letter to Timothy in Ephesus, he sent greetings to Timothy, to Priscilla and Aquila, and to the household of Onesiphorus (2 Tim. 1:2; 4:16). No other Christians in Ephesus are greeted. Were these four named people the leaders of the Ephesian church?
  • In Paul’s list of 27 members of the church at Rome—given in the last chapter of Romans—Priscilla is listed first (Rom. 16:3-5). First!

Women were ubiquitous in the missions of Paul, and he refers to some of these women with his favourite ministry terms: coworker, apostle (apostolos), and minister/deacon (diakonos). Paul does not identify any of his male or female colleagues as elder, bishop, or pastor. Nevertheless, I suggest women, as well as men, functioned as elders, etc, in New Testament congregations, especially in the early decades of the church.

Later, women were largely excluded from such ministries. Yet there are some surviving inscriptions from the first few centuries of the common era which mention Christian women called “elders”. Perhaps the biggest clue that a few churches—and not necessarily heterodox churches—had women elders is found in the Council of Laodicea (circa 360). In what I believe was a misguided move, this council banned the ordination of women elders.

It is not allowed for those women who are called ‘elders/priests’ (presbytides) or ‘women presidents’ (prokathēmenai) to be ordained (kathistasthai) in the churches.
Canon 11 of the Council of Laodicea

This canon acknowledges that in the fourth century there were women called elders and that some presided in congregations under the jurisdiction of the Council of Laodicea. Other councils and canons also restricted or banned women elders. I suspect the prohibitions against women elders had more to do with cultural prejudices than anything else.

It’s well past time for Christians to acknowledge that:

  • Some New Testament women were leaders and their ministry was valued by Paul.
  • 1 Timothy 2:12 and 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 addressed bad behaviour and were not meant to silence godly women and stifle their ministries. (1 Timothy 2:12 and 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 are discussed here and here.)
  • Various New Testament churches had differing, and sometimes fluid, leadership “structures”, and they did not all use the same ministry terms. Furthermore, Paul encouraged corporate participation in church meetings. (This is discussed here and here.)
  • The church is weaker and the world is poorer for not allowing appropriately gifted Christian women, women such as Priscilla, to lead.

I haven’t written about women elders until now because there is little information about them in the New Testament, and evidence outside the New Testament, such as inscriptions, need specialist skills to be correctly understood in context.

Also, the topic of elders seems to be tied to the topic of ordination. I rarely write about ordination as there are various traditions concerning this, and some (many?) have little in common with how people were recognised, chosen, or commissioned for ministry in the New Testament. Moreover, while the New Testament does show that some leaders in the church were called elders, it gives little indication of what these people did. It may be that many ordained elders today have little in common with elders of churches founded by Paul.

Today’s post is based on a short reply I gave to Doug, and then rehashed in a reply to Nick. But, because misleading statements about women elders continue to be made, I plan on writing more posts about these women. In my next post, I’ll look at women elders in the church at Ephesus.

Image: Image is an excerpt of a mosaic that reads Episcopa Theodora: “Bishop Theodora”. This ninth-century mosaic is in the Church of Saint Praxedis (or Santa Prassede) in Rome. Theodora was the mother of Pope Paschal I. (Image source: Wikimedia Commons)

Related Articles

The First-Century Church and the Ministry of Women
More on Priscilla here.
Are there women pastors in the New Testament?
Paul’s Qualifications for Church Leaders (1 Tim. 3)
Women Church Leaders in the New Testament
The Means of Ministry: Gifts, Grace, Faith  . . . Gender?

Posted January 9th, 2017 . Categories/Tags: Equality and Gender Issues, Equality in Ministry, , ,

Unkind, judgemental, bizarre, and off-topic comments will be deleted.

23 comments on “Were there women elders in New Testament churches?

  1. Tim says:

    Great response to their inquiries/positions, Marg.

  2. Ray says:

    As always, just brilliant writing! PTL

  3. Marg says:

    Thanks, Tim and Ray.

  4. Joanne Lees says:

    So appreciate your insightful and well researched comments, Marg. Thank you.

  5. Donald Johnson says:

    One aspect is that everyone that received a letter by Paul knew the actual leaders in each congregation, so such things did not need to be explicitly stated, as it was commonly known and was obvious. However, almost 2000 years later, it is not so obvious to us today. This is one of the flaws with the claim that Scripture is clear, that things that were obvious to the original hearers/readers are not obvious to us today.

    • Marg says:

      I agree that scripture is not as clear as some claim it to be. And I agree that the recipients of Paul’s letters knew who the leaders were in their own congregations. Yet I find it unlikely that Paul would acknowledge some people in a congregation but not acknowledge the leaders, especially in a church he did not start. Then again, perhaps he really didn’t feel a need to greet leaders, and just greeted his friends, though it is likely some of the people he greeted in Romans 16 he knew by reputation only. In a few of his letters (e.g., Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, 1 Corinthians) Paul does acknowledge the leaders in some way.

  6. Njogu says:

    1 Timothy 3

     1  This is a true saying, If a man desire the office of a bishop, he desireth a good work. [xref-1]

     2  A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, vigilant, sober, of good behaviour, given to hospitality, apt to teach; note xref-2 [xref-1]

     3  Not given to wine, no striker, not greedy of filthy lucre; but patient, not a brawler, not covetous; note [xref-2]

     4  One that ruleth well his own house, having his children in subjection with all gravity;

     5  (For if a man know not how to rule his own house, how shall he take care of the church of God?)

     6  Not a novice, lest being lifted up with pride he fall into the condemnation of the devil. note

     7  Moreover he must have a good report of them which are without; lest he fall into reproach and the snare of the devil. [xref-1]

     8  Likewise must the deacons be grave, not doubletongued, not given to much wine, not greedy of filthy lucre; xref-1

     9  Holding the mystery of the faith in a pure conscience. xref-1

     10  And let these also first be proved; then let them use the office of a deacon, being found blameless.

     11  Even so must their wives be grave, not slanderers, sober, faithful in all things.

     12  Let the deacons be the husbands of one wife, ruling their children and their own houses well.

     13  For they that have used the office of a deacon well purchase to themselves a good degree, and great boldness in the faith which is in Christ Jesus.

    • Marg says:

      Hi Njogu,

      I think we are all aware of traditional translations and interpretations of 1 Timothy 3:1-7.

      Did you know that there is no word for “man” in the Greek of 1 Timothy 3:1 and 5? The Greek word translated as “man” in verse 1 is tis and means “someone” or “anyone”.

      Also, there are no masculine personal pronouns in the Greek of 1 Timothy 3:1-7 at all. None.

      More on this here: http://newlife.id.au/equality-and-gender-issues/pauls-qualifications-for-church-leaders/

      • Lea says:

        Fascinating! Thank you for your research.

        Does that mean all appeals here are based on the whole ‘husband of one wife’ business? [if women were not allowed to have two husbands that didn’t exactly need addressing…]

        • Marg says:

          Hi Lea,

          The “one-woman-man” expression is a Greek idiom. It is found in numerous ancient funerary inscriptions where it means someone who was married only once. That is, someone who remained faithful to their first spouse, even after death. In the early church, widows and widowers were discouraged from marrying again. Tertullian and others discuss this in some detail (e.g. To His Wife (Ad Uxorum). This notion is foreign to most modern western Christians.

          The idiom is used in the passage concerning moral qualification for episkopoi (bishops, overseers, supervisors) and diakonoi (deacons) in 1 Timothy 3. Presbuteroi (elders) are not mentioned here, though there would be some overlap between the elders and episkopoi in the Ephesian church. The idiom is also used for widows in 1 Timothy 5:9, and it occurs again in Titus 1:6 where it is used for elders.

          Bigamy was illegal under Roman law, and therefore practically unheard of in the Roman Empire (the setting of the first-century church). The expression doesn’t address bigamy, but marital fidelity.

          I’ve written more about this idiom in as article entitled, “Paul’s Qualifications for Church Leaders.” See also endnotes 3 and 6 of this article.

      • Steve Kline says:

        I have found it so critical to look at the original languages as much as I can, even though I never studied them in any. All the technology really helps that.

        Marg, your reply shows exactly why. So many times translators added words or gave a different than what the original seems to mean. The added words are especially harmful as you show.

        Thanks for pointing that out 1 Timothy 3. I have never heard anyone mention that before.

  7. Erika Koenig says:

    Let’s use our imaginations. Not every person in a leadership position is mentioned in the New Testament letters. Comments and continued thinking like Doug and Nick’s continues to marginalize the value and importance of women as persons who very likely were leaders and mentors to others women. Yes, it was and is a patriarchal culture, yet women are persons and therefore are able to serve and lead as G-d through his Holy Spirit guides.

  8. Apryl says:

    Hi Marg. Fabulous article. I would just like to add a thought to the discourse regarding elders. In the entire context of scripture is found the fullness of Christ. That fullness is demonstrated by our love for one another. Therefore, setting gender aside, Paul’s founding principle regarding elders is located in maturity. A mature Christian knows how to serve accordingly. And since Paul talked about being led by the Spirit we know that our maturity is squarely seen in our ability to be so led. A mind controlled by the Spirt (NLT language) etc. is largely the mind of Christ. Because I am rueful God is around arguing who is in charge knowing He is, a mature believer will be focused on demonstrating love as Christ did. Think about the profound nature of some of Christian teaching. We possess His image and likeness and He is not only love but the actual word. Are we to be fooled this is not our course work? From this concept alone we can see we are TO BE love, light, truth as He is. Mature people are simply not focused on anything but Spirt led living and in that maturity we find an amazing demonstration of love. Perhaps if we refocused as an entire body on elders as being mature….and their qualifications as demonstrations of true genuine and authoritative love, we would find less need to argue about leadership roles and gender and discover we are all “leaders” in some capacity as servants and the target is to be a mature believer and to submit to those who have this walk so we may learn of God through them. If it doesn’t point back to Christ then question the fruit. We never lose our ministry of reconciliation and to be great in the Kingdom is to serve and to teach should be from the mind of Christ…that is by the Spirit. Truly, you can study the word and it is a good thing, but if the outcome does not produce the fruit of the Spirit then wonder about it…you “know” the word but have no love (Jesus said it to the Pharisees) and Paul said you could have all knowledge but it’s nothing without love. And Paul also wrote that knowledge can make us arrogant but love builds. Mature believers will be serving, never lording (being over) because they know (yada) God in ever increasing fullness. My two cents. Disagree if you like internet world, but the foundation is love.

    • Marg says:

      I don’t think that anyone would disagree that love is, or should be, the primary motivation in our relationships. Love is a primary indicator of genuine followers of Jesus (John 13:35; Eph. 5:1-2).

      • Apryl says:

        I appreciate your teaching and dedication to the truth Marg! You offer amazing insight in your study and demonstration of encouragement and healing for hundreds. Thank you for the time you take to share your discoveries!

  9. Désiré Rusovsky says:

    Please, dont forget Phoebe who was minister of the church of Cenchreae and prostatis (leader). She could be the only one pastor named in the New Testament.

    • Marg says:

      Hi Désiré,

      Yes, let’s not forget Phoebe. 🙂 In my previous article, I show that Priscilla, Phoebe and Junia knew each other.

      I translate prostatis as “patron“. I think it is unlikely that Phoebe was a “leader” of Paul, but that she was one of his benefactors (Rom. 16:2 NIV, ESV, HSC, CEB). Also, I haven’t seen the feminine prostatis used for leaders, only the masculine prostatēs. But male and female patrons were people of influence and clout.

      I think the chosen lady is an even more obvious candidate for pastor, though we do not know her name. The fact remains that, apart from Jesus, no minister is called pastor (or, shepherd) in the New Testament.

  10. Thank you for taking this topic on. You really summed up the importance of this issue with this one sentence…”The church is weaker and the world is poorer for not allowing appropriately gifted Christian women, women such as Priscilla, to lead.” The church today is missing out on what God has deposited in so many women.

    I am thankful for houses that recognize this and who like you are really willing to set aside tradition to study the scriptures and see what God’s heart really is towards women. I spent many years in my young adult life relegating what God might do in me and through me to pretty limited understanding. Thankfully, God led me to deeper revelation of women’s capabilities in Christ, and I am now walking in so much freedom and life.

    Have you heard of Kris Vallotton’s book called Fashioned to Reign? It’s a great resource for the discussion of women following Christ’s lead.

  11. […] [5] Some people suggest that the word presbutidas (from presbutis) used in Titus 2:3 should be translated as “women elders”. However, the emphasis is on contrasting the older women with the younger women, just as older men are contrasted with younger men in Titus 2:2 and 2:6. Moreover, it is the adjective presbuteros that is typically used for the word “elder”, rather than the nouns presbutēs (masculine) and prebutis (feminine) which are used in Titus 2:2 and 3. (The feminine for “elders” is used in 1 Timothy 5:2. Is Paul speaking about female elders here?) There is nothing in the New Testament which rules out the possibility that some elders in the church were women. I suspect Priscilla was an elder of the church at Ephesus when she and her husband corrected the doctrine of Apollos. [More on this here.] […]

  12. […] While the current episkopoi in Ephesus may well have been all men, nothing in 1 Timothy 3 rules out the possibility of godly women becoming episkopoi. I suspect Priscilla was functioning as a supervisor or elder in Ephesus when she and her husband corrected the doctrine of Apollos. (More about women elders in New Testament churches here.) […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

© 2009–2017   Margaret Mowczko | Powered by WordPress