Female Leaders, Apostles, Disciples, Prophets and Other Women of Influence in the Bible and Early Church History

The more I spend time in the Scripture and study the Greek and Hebrew lexicons, the more I believe many of our disagreements over the roles of women in church leadership are frequently based on misunderstandings of the original languages and a loss of cultural context.  The intended audiences would have easily understood the depth and breadth of the meanings of the words used.  However, our English translations often fail to sufficiently explain the authors’ intended messages and grammatical nuances.

This is not to say the Word of God contains errors.  For example, in the English language we use the word “love” to describe a wide range of feelings or actions.  It may be used to describe a deep affection for a spouse, child or close friend.  The emotions may be complex and shift in meaning depending on what, whom, how or why I love.  However, the word “love” may also be used to describe a favorite food or song on the radio, which are obviously shallow expressions of the same word.  These examples may be oversimplified, but they were my starting point for researching and understanding this topic.  After all, God’s Word never changes but my understanding should as I read the Scripture, spend time in study and commune with Him.

I humbly pray the summaries of the influential Old Testament and New Testament women below will inspire you to perform your own research. After all, our most powerful tool as Christians is knowledge. Our most destructive weapon is ignorance.

“God never violates His Word. But He’s quite comfortable violating our understanding of His Word.” – Bill Johnson

INFLUENTIAL WOMEN OF THE NEW TESTAMENT

Ancient inscriptions upon the walls of early church tombs and catacombs indicate many women were leaders within Gentile churches between the first and sixth centuries. Women were recorded as apostles, synagogue leaders (archisynagōgos or archisynagōgissa), elders (presbytera), deacons (diákonos), church mothers, bishops and other prominent roles.  Many of these inscriptions were found in Tripolitania (former province of Libya), throughout Italy, Malta (European island country in the Mediterranean Sea), Turkey and Kissamos (Greece).

Examples of a few historically recorded female deacons include Sophia he diakonoshe deutera Phoibe (the second Phoebe) and Maria of he deacons whose name and title is etched into a stele of grey marble inside a Byzantine church.  More evidence of female leaders can be found in the historical records of the reign of Trajan (98-117 C.E.).

Although some early church leadership titles were honorary or given by inheritance or marriage, many titles of these women differ from their fathers and husbands, if they were married at all. This indicates these leaders were likely given these roles for their level of importance, influence and dedication at their local churches.  Based on the root of Greek words like arch (meaning “ruler”) used to describe many of these leaders, a person with these roles would have overseen the organization of the church or synagogue, taught, preached, collected money from congregants and performed other administrative duties (Brooten, Bernadette).

PRISCILLA – AN EARLY CHURCH MISSIONARY, CO-PASTOR AND THEOLOGIAN

Acts 18:24-27 – Meanwhile, a Jew named Apollos, an eloquent speaker who knew the Scriptures well, had arrived in Ephesus from Alexandria in Egypt. He had been taught the way of the Lord, and he taught others about Jesus with an enthusiastic spirit and with accuracy. However, he knew only about John’s baptism. When Priscilla and Aquila heard him preaching boldly in the synagogue, they took him aside and explained the way of God even more accurately. Apollos had been thinking about going to Achaia, and the brothers and sisters in Ephesus encouraged him to go. They wrote to the believers in Achaia, asking them to welcome him. When he arrived there, he proved to be of great benefit to those who, by God’s grace, had believed.

Romans 16:3-4 – Give my greetings to Priscilla and Aquila, my co-workers (“collaborators” or “fellow-workers”) in the ministry of Christ Jesus. In fact, they once risked their lives for me. I am thankful to them, and so are all the Gentile churches. Also give my greetings to the church that meets in their home.

I love the picture Paul paints of the powerhouse couple named Priscilla (Prisca) and Aquila. They were pastors, traveling missionaries through Asia Minor (Acts 18), church planters and theology teachers. According to Romans 16, they were well known in the Gentile churches and preached the Gospel courageously, risking their own lives for Paul’s ministry.  Together, Priscilla and Aquila taught and encouraged Apollos who was already a passionate man of God with a gift for preaching and teaching. As spiritual parents to Apollos, they, along with the encouragement of other believers, launched Apollos’s pastoral ministry in Achaia (Acts 18:24-26).

PHOEBE THE DEACONESS AND LEADER OF THE CHURCH AT CENCHREAE

Romans 16:1-2 – I commend to you our sister Phoebe (Phebe), who is a deacon (diákonos) in the church in Cenchrea. Welcome her in the Lord as one who is worthy of honor among God’s people. Help her in whatever she needs, for she has been especially helpful (prostatis) to many, and especially to me.

As the first recorded deacon in the history of Christianity and someone who was given the titles “deacon” and “prostatis”, Phoebe was a notable woman within her church. Many scholars believe the church met in her home, she was Paul’s courier for the Book of Romans and a wealthy financier for Paul and others (McKnight, Scot).

The Importance of a Courier: The role of courier was not usually given to women because the roads used to deliver letters were dangerous and full of bandits. Paul must have trusted Phoebe greatly to give her such a responsibility.  As a courier, coworker and emissary of Paul’s ministry, Phoebe likely would have read the Book of Romans aloud to congregations as a normal duty of a courier for that time period.

It’s All Greek to Me: Paul used the masculine Greek work diákonos (meaning “minister” or “servant” depending on the English translation) to describe the ministries of Phoebe, Paul, Stephen and Philip (compare Romans 16:1-21 Corinthians 3:52 Corinthians 3:6,6:411:23Ephesians 3:76:21Colossians 1:723251 Timothy 34:6 and the Greek Lexicon). The term “deacon” has various meanings to different denominations today; therefore, when looking at an New Testament character like Phoebe in relation to her role in early church leadership, it is important to understand the original Greek terms and context compared to similar Scripture passages.

The Greek word prostatis means “female guardian”, “protector/protectress”, “patroness” and “caring for the affairs of others and aiding them with her resources” (see “Strong’s Greek: 4368”, Bible Hub). When reviewing the meaning of this word, it may be helpful to review its context through the lens of epigraphical evidence to understand the complete Biblical implications of this statement (McCabe, Elizabeth).

MARY MAGDALENE THE APOSTLE TO THE APOSTLES

Matthew 27:61; Mark 15:47, 16:9; Luke 23:49, 55; John 19:25; John 20:1, 11, 16, 18; Acts 1:14; Acts 2:1-5

St. Thomas Aquinas famously said, “Just as a woman had announced the words of death to the first man, so also a woman was the first to announce to the Apostles the words of life.” (Pope Benedict XVI).

Mary of Magdala (The Magdalene) is famously known as the severely afflicted and demon possessed woman that Jesus miraculously healed. After He removed the demons, she became a devoted disciple, traveled with Him and the Twelve, and she became one of Jesus’s closest friends.

Mary is well known for her devotion to Jesus. The depth of her commitment to Him is best exemplified through her presence during His crucifixion and burial. Unlike most of the other disciples who fled or denied their association with Jesus during crucifixion for fear of being arrested or killed, she never abandoned or denied Him.

True to Jesus’s cultural taboo-crushing nature, He bestowed the high honor of heralding His resurrection to a woman — Mary Magdalene — earning her the title “Apostle to the Apostles” in early church history (Biblical Archaeology Society). This may not seem like an extraordinary event to us in our modern times; but in those days, a woman’s word was often discredited.  Women were typically not well-educated; and it was not considered socially appropriate for women to learn or debate spiritual truth with men.

According to scholars and based on Luke’s references to the women in his Gospel account, Mary was also likely present with the Twelve and the other female disciples in the upper room as they awaited the coming of the Holy Spirit’s pouring upon all flesh (Elliot, Paul).

MARY OF BETHANY SITS AT A PLACE OF HONOR

Luke 8:35, Luke 10:38-32; John 11:1-44; John 12:1-8

Jesus exalted women as worthy friends and disciples in a society that considered such behavior inappropriate. Like Mary Magdalene, Mary of Bethany was one of Jesus’s closest friends, a disciple, a financial supporter of Jesus’s ministry and present at Jesus’s crucifixion and tomb.  She is famously known as the sister of Martha and Lazarus and the woman who anointed Jesus with extravagant nard perfume.

Jesus exalted women as worthy disciples and broke several cultural norms when He and the Twelve went to Martha’s home for fellowship and discipleship. The act of visiting the house of a woman was not considered culturally appropriate. In addition, although Martha was fulfilling the female cultural expectation of preparing dinner for a guest’s visit, Jesus commended Mary for sitting at His feet to learn.

To Sit at the Feet of a Rabbi: The idiom to “sit at someone’s feet” is used to describe a student being formally trained as a disciple by a respected rabbi. This story illustrates Jesus’s respect for Mary because He gave her permission to sit at His feet. Women were considered to be a lower class of citizen than men and her primary role was to work in the home. As a student, Mary would have likely been actively engaged in learning and asking questions along with the male disciples (Attenberry, Shawna).

MARY THE MOTHER OF JESUS

Luke 1-8; John 2:5; Acts 1:13

Mary is one of the most intriguing women in the Bible because we know so much about her.  In fact, we know more about her than any other disciple. Her name mean’s “wise woman”, and the Biblical accounts of her certainly appear to justify her name.  Through the New Testament, we are taught her life story.  God chose and entrusted Mary to bring salvation to the world. She was familiar with the Scripture and had prophetic gifting for what it meant. We are also told Mary was at Jesus’s crucifixion, burial and resurrection; and she was present in the upper room on the day of Pentecost. She is sometimes referred to as Jesus’s first disciple. Through the development of Christian traditions over the centuries, she is regarded as a saint and an intercessor within the Catholic Church.  (Women in the Bible).

TABITHA THE RESURRECTED DISCIPLE

Acts 9:36 – There was a believer in Joppa named Tabitha (original Greek: Dorcus, meaning “gazelle”). She was always doing kind things for others and helping the poor. About this time she became ill and died. Her body was washed for burial and laid in an upstairs room. But the believers had heard that Peter was nearby at Lydda, so they sent two men to beg him, “Please come as soon as possible!”

Tabitha is one of only two people recorded in the Book of Acts as being resurrected. She is the only woman in the New Testament identified with the female version of the word “disciple” (mathetria).

PROPHETESS ANNA

Luke 2:36-38 – Anna, a prophet, was also there in the Temple. She was the daughter of Phanuel from the tribe of Asher, and she was very old. Her husband died when they had been married only seven years. Then she lived as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but stayed there day and night, worshipping God with fasting and prayer. She came along just as Simeon was talking with Mary and Joseph, and she began praising God. She talked about the child to everyone who had been waiting expectantly for God to rescue Jerusalem.

Anna, the only named prophetess of the New Testament, was present at the Temple for the purification ceremony for the baby Jesus. Anna recognized Jesus and prophesied about His significance to everyone who was “waiting expectantly for God to rescue Jerusalem” (v. 38).

LYDIA FROM THYATIRA

Acts 16:13-15 – On the Sabbath we went a little way outside the city to a riverbank, where we thought people would be meeting for prayer, and we sat down to speak with some women who had gathered there. One of them was Lydia from Thyatira, a merchant of expensive purple cloth, who worshiped God. As she listened to us, the Lord opened her heart and she accepted what Paul was saying. She and her household were baptized, and she asked us to be her guests. “If you agree that I am a true believer in the Lord,” she said, “come and stay at my home.” And she urged until we agreed.

Paul met Lydia, a merchant of expensive indigo cloth, from Thyatira (modern day Turkey) on his second missionary journey through Philippi. She holds the distinction as the first person to convert to Christianity in Europe.

An Indication of Her Wealth: The Scripture specifically states that she bought and sold expensive materials which would mean she had the money necessary to purchase expensive wares.

An Indication She was the Sole/Primary Leader of Her Household: She is never mentioned as being married, but she has a household is responsible for making decisions on their behalf. She decided to follow Christ and had her family baptized along with her. She invited Paul and others into her home.

EUODIA AND SYNTYCHE CHURCH LEADERS IN PHILIPPI

Philippians 4:2-3 – Now I appeal to Euodia and Syntyche. Please, because you belong to the Lord, settle your disagreement. And I ask you, my true partner (“companion” or “yokefellow”), to help these two women, for they worked hard with me in telling others the Good News. They worked along with Clement and the rest of my coworkers (sunergoi), whose names are written in the Book of Life.

Paul’s public letter to Euodia (her name means “prosperous journey” or “fragrant”) and Syntyche (her name means “fortunate”) serves as reminder to the Church about how to resolve disagreements and build unity within the body of Christ. Some scholars believe these two women were deacons or held some other significant leadership role in their church. They are mainly remembered for their dispute; however, Paul’s interest in their quarrel speaks to their role in the church’s leadership according to antiquity scholars (New Life).

Early church bishop John Chrysostom, who was in no way a champion of women, made this statement about Euodia and Syntyche: “These women seem to me to be the chief of the Church which was there, and he commendeth them to some notable man whom he calls his ‘yokefellow,’ to whom perchance he was wont to commend them, as to a fellow-worker, and fellow-soldier, and brother, and companion, as he doth in the Epistle to the Romans, when he saith, ‘I commend unto you Phebe our sister, who is a servant of the Church that is at Cenchrea.’ (Romans 16:1)” You can read Bishop Chrysostom’s homilies at Bible Hub.

THE “OTHER” FEMALE DISCIPLES OF JESUS

Matthew 12:48-50; 20:20-28; 27:56; Mark 10:35-40 15:40-41; 16:1-2; Luke 8:1-3; John 19:25

Jesus asked, “Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?” Then He pointed to His disciples and said, “look, these are my mother and brothers. Anyone who does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother!”

Jesus referred to His disciples as his mother, brother and sister. Jesus chose twelve men as disciples, symbolic of the twelve tribes of Israel, but Scripture also references an unspecified number of women who followed Jesus as disciples in addition to Mary Magdalene, Mary of Bethany and Martha who were close friends of Jesus. The other named female disciples are Susanna, Joanna, Mary Salome, and Mary of Clopas known as “the other Mary.” Some scholars also include the “sinful woman”, the “bleeding woman” who traveled 30 miles to receive healing and the mother of the demon possessed child; however, the Bible does not directly call them disciples or specifically talk about them following His ministry. Many of the women became Jesus’s followers after they were healed from demons and infirmities. Some of these women were wealthy and supported Jesus’s ministry financially out of their own private means and were frequent traveling companions (Bible Gateway).

JUNIA THE APOSTLE

Romans 16:7 – Greet Andronicus and Junia (Iounian), my fellow Jews (“compatriots”, “kinsmen” or “relatives”) who were in prison with me. They are highly respected among the apostles (episemoi en tois apostolis meaning “regarded as apostles” or “outstanding among the apostles”) and became followers of Christ before I did.

Bishop John Chrysostom (345-407 A.D.) famously stated this about Junia: “To be an apostle is something great! But to be outstanding among the apostles – just think what a wonderful song of praise that is! They were outstanding on the basis of their works and virtuous actions. Indeed, how great the wisdom of this woman must have been that she was even deemed worthy of the title of apostle.”

Junia/Junias Lost in Translation: Some translations of Scripture call Junia (Julia) the uncommon masculine name “Junias.” As a result, the enigmatic Junia is fiercely debated among modern theologians because if she was indeed a she, it would mean a woman was directly acknowledged by Paul as an apostle. The oldest ancient manuscripts use the common feminine name “Junia” while newer manuscripts (the masculine form of Iounian first appeared during the Medieval period) use the less common “Junias.” In fact, there are no known ancient manuscripts or literature that mention the name “Junias” in Latin or Greek (Preato, Dennis).

NYMPHA OF LAODICEA

Colossians 4:15 – Please give my greetings to our brothers and sisters at Laodicea, and to Nympha (Nymphas) and the church that meets in her house.

Nympha led the church in Laodicea that met in her house. The passage indicates Nympha was likely a female pastor of a church that met at her home. Like Junia, the gender of Nympha is greatly debated and was altered to a masculine name and pronoun in the Middle Ages. This was likely not done intentionally to purposefully corrupt the Scripture, but instead was corrected because it was thought to be a mistake. By the Middle Ages (several hundreds of years after Christ walked the earth), the traditions of men leading the church had become well established, and it was assumed women were not allowed in church leadership roles (New Life).

Was Nympha accidentally written into the original Greek as a woman, therefore, justifying the correction by the scribes in the Middle Ages centuries later? At this point, the gender identities of Junia and Nympha are impossible to know with all certainty and will likely be debated by theologians until Christ returns, yet another reason why we as Christian brothers and sisters should be careful not judge each other’s opposing convictions.

TRYPHENA, TRYPHOSA, PERSIS, MARY, JULIA, NEREUS’S SISTER, AND PHILIP’S PROPHESYING DAUGHTERS

Joel 2:28-29; Acts 1:13a, 14; 2:17-18; Romans 16:6, 12, 15

Philip the Evangelist had four unmarried daughters who proclaimed God’s will and truth (Acts 21:7-9). They have been added to this list of influencial women because God appeared to use these women to fulfill the prophecies in Joel and Acts of the pouring out of the Holy Spirit upon men and women after the resurrection of the Messiah.

Some scholars think Typhena and Tryphosa (Greek pagan names meaning “delicate” or “dainty”) were likely twin sisters or close relatives who were likely missionaries or deaconesses. Paul asks the congregation in Rome to greet them as two of many friends or co-laborers in the Lord. Bible Gateway has an interesting commentary about their names and their prominence and influence in the early church.

Persis, Julia and Nereus’s sister are also listed as women “who worked hard in the Lord” or supported home churches. I have included these women on this list because, when compared to early church history outside of the Scriptures, it seems evident these ladies, along with others mentioned on this list, were the first of many women who led or co-led home churches or at the very least were prominent figures within their churches.

SAMARITAN WOMAN FROM SYCHAR

John 4:1-30

It would be easy to pass over the story of the Samaritan woman at the well who speaks with Jesus. For those of us in the West, our society see the verbal exchange between the woman and Jesus as trivial because we don’t tend to see how violating the woman’s behavior would have been of social norms of that day. I find it intriguing that she was at the well by herself as it was uncommon for woman to go out in public alone. Also, she openly held a discussion with a controversial Jewish rabbi named Jesus. After her encounter with Jesus, she shared her testimony with her community. Women in the Bible has a great article on the Samaritan woman.

 

INFLUENTIAL WOMEN OF THE OLD TESTAMENT

DEBORAH A “MOTHER OF ISRAEL”, JUDGE AND PROPHETESS

Judges 4:4-5 – Deborah, the wife of Lappidoth, was a prophet who was judging Israel at that time. She would sit under the Palm of Deborah, between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim, and the Israelites would go to her for judgment.

Judges 5:7, 31 – (v. 7) There were few people left in the villages of Israel — until Deborah arose as a mother for Israel. (v. 31) “Lord, may all your enemies die like Sisera! But may those who love you rise like the sun in all its power!” Then there was peace in the land for forty years.

Deborah, who was considered a major judge in the Old Testament, acted as a commander-in-chief for ancient Israel. In addition to her powerful leadership role over the ancient nation, she was a gifted prophet. She prophesied the ruthless and oppressive Canaanite King Jabin would fall at the hands of the Israelites. When her commander, Barak, failed to have faith in God’s provision, Deborah foretold King Jabin’s armies would fall at the hands of a woman instead of him. In his fear and disbelief, Barak refused to go into battle without Deborah. As a result, she went with him and oversaw the battles against King Jabin’s commander Sisera and his armies, and led the Israelites into forty years of peace.

What’s a Judge: Judges were used by God to deliver the Israelites out of the hands of foreign oppressors. Judges served as reminders of God’s promise of mercy and grace to deliver and restore Israel from their enemies.

JAEL THE BRAVE

Judges 4:9 – “Very well,” she replied, “I will go with you. But you will receive no honor in this venture, for the Lord’s victory over Sisera will be at the hands of a woman.”

Judges 4:21 – But when Sisera fell asleep from exhaustion, Jael quietly crept up to him with a hammer and tent peg in her hand. Then she drove the tent peg through his temple and into the ground, and so he died.

Jael bravely used her husband’s friendship with King Jabin’s family to lure his commander Sisera into her tent to rest.  As he slept, she drove a tent peg through the commander’s skull. As Deborah had prophesied, Jael, a woman, is credited with delivering Israel’s victory over King Jabin’s armies.

ESTHER THE HEROINE OF THE JEWS IN PERSIA

Esther 1-8

After King Xerxes (Hebrew name: “Ahasuerus”) of Persia banished Queen Vashti for disobeying him, he gathered beautiful women from his kingdom in search of the “most beautiful woman.” He formed a haram from his selections and eventually chose Esther to be his new bride.

Some theologians don’t consider Esther a leader because Xerxes held the position of authority; however, God placed her in a strategic position of influence, and she interceded on the behalf of Israel and saved them from certain genocide. Plus, she gets extra bravery points in my mind because she spoke to King Xerxes without being summoned which was a crime punishable by death (Womeninthebible.net: Clever Queen, Foolish King).

MIRIAM THE OLD TESTAMENT PROPHETESS AND LEADER

Exodus 15:20 – Then Miriam the Prophet, Aaron’s sister, took a tambourine and led all the women as they played their tambourines and danced.

Micah 6:4 – For I brought you out of Egypt and redeemed you from slavery. I sent Moses, Aaron and Miriam to help you.

Miriam was the sister of Moses and Aaron. She bravely saved Moses by sending him down the Nile in a basket to spare his life from certain slaughter. She was also considered a prophetess, worship leader and considered part of the core leadership tetrad that led Israel out of Egypt. She was specifically acknowledged for leading the Hebrew women from Egypt (Women in the Bible, “Mariam: Her Story”).

HULDAH THE EXCEPTIONAL PROPHETESS

2 Kings 22:8 – Hilkiah the high priest said to Shaphan the court secretary, “I have found the Book of the Law in the Lord’s Temple!” Then Hilkiah gave the scroll to Shaphan, and he read it.

2 Kings 22:14 – She [Huldah] said to them, “The Lord, the God of Israel, has spoken! Go back and tell the man who sent you, ‘This is what the Lord says: I am going to bring disaster on this city and its people. All the words written in the scroll that the king of Judah has read will come true.'”

After the Book of the Law (Torah) was found during the restoration of the Temple, Huldah interpreted and confirmed the Book of the Law’s (Torah) authenticity. She must have had an exceptional reputation for her gift as a prophet since she was consulted instead of the famous Prophet Jeremiah.

Huldah’s prophetic words of impending judgment over Israel’s evil and unrepentant acts and the discovery of the Torah assisted King Josiah with leading the nation into revival.

THE SHUNAMMITE WOMAN

1 Kings 1:3; 2 Kings 4:8-37; 1 Samuel 25:2; 2 Samuel 19:33

Although the Shunammite woman’s name is shrouded in mystery, the Scriptures refer to her as someone in her community who was of high rank and wealth within her community. She is known for her hospitality and care for God’s people who were travelers through the Jazreel plain. There is lots more about the Great Woman of Shunem at Bible Gateway.

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