Harnack’s positive descriptions of New Testament women leaders.

Some Christians think that the acceptance of women as leaders and teachers in churches is a recent phenomenon backed by innovative, faulty interpretations of the Bible. So I was interested to read that Adolf Harnack, a staunch Lutheran and respected church historian, was honest and approving in his appraisal of the ministry of New Testament women in his work Die Mission und Ausbreitung des Christentums in den ersten drei Jahrhunderten.[1] Especially as this work was published more than a century ago, in 1902.

Harnack begins his section on women in ministry with, “It is quite clear that women appeared in the local assemblies with the consent of the apostle [Paul] and that they prayed and prophesied in public” (1 Cor 11:5f). (p. 217) He then mentions several women by name with a few lines describing each of their ministries.

Here are brief excerpts about some of the women mentioned.

Phoebe: It is “probable that she was a woman of property and a patroness (not an employee) of the church at Cenchrea.” (p. 219)

Prisca: “She was a fellow-labourer of Paul i.e. a missionary and at the same time the leader of a small church, and both of these injunctions imply that she taught.” (p. 219) Harnack has quite a few things to say about Prisca (or Priscilla). He even has her name in a footnote on page 223 as the possible author of the letter to the Hebrews. (More on this here.)

Nympha: “From Colossians 4:15 we learn that there was a conventicle in Colosse presided over by a woman called Nympha, for it was in her house that the meetings took place.” (p. 220) (‘Conventicle’ means a small religious meeting.)

Jezebel: “From the Apocalypse we hear of a Christian, though heretical, prophetess at Thyatira called Jezebel who seduced the church. Which tacitly presupposes that women could be, and actually were, prophetesses.” (p. 223)

Alke and Gavia: Harnack mentions these two women from the church at Smyrna, who he associates with the ‘chosen lady’ in 2 John. (p. 223-224) Alke and Gavia were prominent women in the Smyrnean church in the early second century. They were possibly house church leaders or in charge of a group of celibate women. Alke and Gavia are mentioned in the collection of writings known as the Apostolic Fathers.

The Chosen Lady: Harnack notes that this woman, who was a recipient of John’s second letter, held “a prominent position in an unknown church in Asia.” He adds, “She appears to have been distinguished for exceptional hospitality, and the author therefore warns her in a friendly way against receiving heretical itinerant teachers into her house.” (p. 224)

Junia: Unfortunately Junia is absent from Harnack’s discussion. Ever since Luther’s German translation of Junia’s name as “den Juniam” (which is masculine), many Germans, including Harnack, have wrongly supposed that Junia was a man. Nevertheless, Harnack acknowledges in a footnote that Chrysostom took Junia to be a woman with the feminine name “Junia”. (More on this here.) Not including Junia, Harnack counts fifteen women and eighteen men who were greeted by Paul in Romans 16. (p. 220).[2]

Despite recognising that women were ministers, and even claiming that Prisca could qualify for the title “apostle” (p. 219), Harnack is conflicted about a few of Paul’s instructions concerning women and ministry. He offers the suggestion that Paul allowed women to pray and prophesy in an ecstatic state “over which no one could exercise control”, but that they were forbidden from public instruction. (p. 218) I don’t accept this explanation. Paul did not allow uncontrolled charismatic ministry in church meetings (cf. 1 Cor. 14:26-40).

Harnack also makes an interesting comment about the prominence of women in heretical Christian groups: “Among the gnostics especially, the women played a great role, for the gnostic looked not to the sex but to the Spirit.” (p. 229) I’m not sure if Harnack is correct here, and the source of their spiritual inspiration is dubious, but the principle is sound as it is gifting, especially spiritual gifting, and not gender, that qualifies a person for Christian ministry. With gifting in mind, Harnack correctly notes that Prisca could not have taken part “in missionary and in teaching unless she had been inspired and set apart by the Holy Spirit.” (p. 219) This holds true for men as well as women ministers.

I don’t know a lot about Harnack,[3] but I have shared these quotations here because they demonstrate that the understanding that women were leaders and teachers in New Testament churches is neither new nor novel. Over one hundred years ago, well before equality was accepted as a social ideal in Germany and other parts of the western world, Adolf Harnack acknowledged that the New Testament presents certain women as the leaders and teachers of their churches.


[1] I’m quoting from the English translation by James Moffatt of Harnack’s The Expansion of Christianity in the First Three Centuries, Vol. 2 (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 1998), 217ff. The quotations come from volume 2, book 4, chapter 2, section 4 of The Expansion. (Online source.)

[2] Harnack wrote, “. . . no fewer than fifteen women are saluted, alongside of eighteen men [in Romans 16], and all these must have rendered important services to the church, or to the apostle, or to both . . .” (p.220). However, I can only count ten women and, unlike Harnack, I include Junia. These ten women are Phoebe (Rom. 16:1-2), Prisca (v.3-5a), Mary (v.6), Junia (v.7), Tryphena, Tryphosa, Persis (v.12), Rufus’ mother (v.13), Julia, (v.15), and Nereus’ sister. Who are the other six who Harnack thought were women?
Are “Hermas” (v.14) and “Olympas” (v.15) actually the feminine names “Herma” and “Olympa”? (The more usual feminine forms are “Hermia” and “Olympia”.) I’ve seen it suggested that “Herodion” (v.11) is really the feminine name “Herodiana,” but I can’t see that this is possible. Many of the names in Romans 16, such as Herodion, are given with a description, and the grammatical gender of the description helps us to ascertain the actual gender of the person, but other names such as Herma(s) and Olympa(s) give us no clues of their gender.

[3] Harnack was a respected historian but I disagree with some of his theological views. Unlike Harnack, I believe in Jesus’ incarnation and miraculous ministry. I have a collection of statements from evangelical scholars about women in ministry here.

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