Exploring the biblical theology of Christian egalitarianism

Women prophets

At the moment, I’m preparing a message on 1 Timothy 2:12. For one of my points, I have made a list of godly Bible women who ministered to men. As I was making the list I saw something I had not noticed before: all the women, except for one,[1] are described in Scripture as being prophetesses or having a prophetic gift.

These are the women on my list.

Deborah (Judges 4:1-5:31) was a prophetess and judge who led Israel. Barak, the general of the army, respected Deborah and followed her orders, and Israel prospered under her leadership.

Huldah (2 Kings 22:14-20; 2 Chronicles 34:22-28) is another prophetess who also exercised authority in her ministry. This is what John Dickson says about her in his book Hearing her Voice[2]:

Huldah is “a particularly curious example of spiritual leadership. Not only did she deliver an authoritative message to King Josiah concerning all Judah, but she also validated the authority of the newly rediscovered “Book of the Law of the LORD”. One contemporary scholar has remarked that Huldah’s endorsement of the document “stands as the first recognizable act in the long process of canon formation.”

King Lemuel’s Mother (Proverbs 31:1ff) taught her son, a grown man and a king, an inspired message that is contained in the sayings of Proverbs 31:2-9, and perhaps also Proverbs 31:10ff. Her message is described in various English translations as an oracle (NASB, HSCB, ESV), an inspired utterance (NIV), a vision (WYC), a declaration (YLT), a prophecy (KJV), translated from the Hebrew word massa. Massa is used frequently for Isaiah’s prophecies (e.g., Isa. 13:1), and is used for Nahum’s, Habakkuk’s, and Malachi’s prophecies (Nah. 1:1; Hab. 1:1; Mal. 1:1). By being a part of Scripture, the sayings of this woman continue to authoritatively instruct men and women, and even kings.

Anna (Luke 2:36-38) was a prophetess who never left the Temple in Jerusalem “worshipping with fasting and prayer, night and day.” After seeing the baby Jesus she began speaking about him “to all who were waiting for the redemption (or deliverance) of Jerusalem.” Surely this “all” included men—particularly in such a public setting as the Temple—as well as women.

Philip’s Four Daughters (Acts 21:8-9) are barely mentioned in Scripture but are mentioned in significant ways by other early church writers which show that these women were well known and respected in the early church as prophets. Eusebius associates them with apostolic gifts, teaching, and foundational ministry. The ministry of these four women prophets should not be underestimated.

There are other women I could have added to the list, women such as Miriam who was regarded as both a prophetess and leader of Israel. Even Abigail, a courageous woman by anyone’s estimation, prophesied when she gave directives to David.[3]

I don’t know exactly what the ministries of these prophetic women looked like, but I think they did more than just deliver an inspired message from time to time. Rather, it seems that “prophetic” described who they were, and that “prophetess” denoted a woman with spiritual authority in her community.

What struck me in reading about these women is that there was a place for them in Israelite and Jewish society—a prominent place.[4] It seems that their communities recognised their God-given authority and that women with prophetic abilities were respected, even esteemed.

The biblical record indicates that these women prophets mostly ministered to men, and there is not the slightest hint anywhere that any man was offended by a woman prophesying to, or directing him. Barak, for example, relied on Deborah’s commands and company; Huldah’s expertise was sought out by a delegation that included the most powerful men in the country; David praised Abigail’s words and wisdom.

Furthermore, the inspired songs, prayers, praises and teachings of Miriam (Exod. 15:20-21), Deborah (Judges 5:1ff), Hannah (1 Sam. 2:1ff), Abigail (1 Sam. 25:28-31), King Lemuel’s Mother (Prov. 31:1-9), Mary (Luke 1:46ff) and Elizabeth (Luke 1:41ff) are all considered prophetic and are included in Scripture, which shows that the writers of the Bible (who were presumably all, or mostly, male) recognised the authority of the words of these prophetic women. This is important to note, as many Christians believe Scripture has the highest level of authority.

In the Bible we see that there was a place for prophetic women leaders in Israelite and Jewish society, and there was a place for them in the church. What saddens me is that in many Christian communities today there is no longer a place for women leaders. In most churches, gifted women are not even being recognised, let alone being encouraged and permitted to lead and speak. Some are even offended by the idea of women leaders. The church and the world are suffering because the prophetesses—women with God-given spiritual authority—are being silenced and sidelined.

What can you or your church do to make a place for gifted women leaders?
What can you do to encourage a woman to move beyond the sidelines?

Footnotes

[1] The exception is Priscilla. Priscilla is on my list of women who ministered to men but she is not referred to as a prophetess or described as having a prophetic gift in the New Testament. However, her ministry may still have been within the parameters of prophetic as described by Paul in 1 Corinthians 14:3 CSB.
In fact, no legitimate female Christian minister outside of Israel is called a prophetess in the New Testament (cf. Jezebel of Thyatira). I wonder if that is to avoid making any connection between godly, Christian women and the prophetesses in the pagan, Greco-Roman world. Nevertheless, we know that some first-century women did prophesy in churches outside of Israel (see 1 Cor. 11:5).

[2] John Dickson, Hearing Her Voice: A Case for Women Giving Sermons, Kindle Edition 2012-12-25, Kindle Locations 145-149. A review of this book is here.

[3] According to the Megillah (one of the tractates of the Talmud), the rabbis regard Abigail as one of seven prophetesses who prophesied to Israel. The other six women prophets are Sarah, MiriamDeborah, Hannah, Huldah, and Esther. (See Megillah 14a and 14b.)

[4] Throughout the Bible we see that there was a recognised place for female prophets in their communities, with at least one female prophet mentioned in each period of Israel’s history. Some of the prophetesses were good, but others were not. Miriam was a prophet and leader during the time of the patriarchs (Numb. 12:1-2: Mic. 6:4). Deborah was a prophet and leader when Israel was ruled by Judges (Judg. chs 4 & 5). During the monarchy, Huldah was a prophet and an advisor to the king (2 Kings 22:13-40). During the exile, both male and female prophets were condemned for speaking falsely (Ezek. Ch. 13). In the post-exilic period, the prophetess Noadiah, along with other prophets, tried to frighten Nehemiah (Neh. 6:14). Then there was Anna who ministered in the temple at Jerusalem and spoke to all about the redemption of Jerusalem when Jesus was born (Luke 2:36-38). In the church age, the daughters of Philip are mentioned in a positive light (Acts 21:9), while Jezebel of Thyatira is presented in a negative light (Rev 2:20-25).

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25 thoughts on “Many women leaders in the Bible had this one thing in common

  1. Thank you for this article. All of these women prophets remind me of Acts 2:17-18. NIV:  ”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.”

    1. Absolutely! 🙂

  2. Well done, Marg. Thanks for this. I hadn’t seen it that way. I’m reposting to Kyria… I appreciate your scholarship.

    1. I hadn’t seen it before either. There are still so many things to glean from the Scriptures.

      Thanks for reposting it. I loved the recent article in Kyria.

  3. Wonderful insight.

    and true!…We live in dark days for the church when half its members are discarded like cast off rags…instead of having a place for us we are told to KNOW YOUR PLACE…and it is in a silent corner…but bring us your money!

    I can hardly think this is pleasing to God.

    1. It’s interesting that in patriarchal Israel they recognised and respected women with God-given spiritual authority, but many modern churches are too scared to let women lead supposedly because of one or two verses that were written to local churches experiencing their own specific problems. They are stuck on these one or two verses and can’t see all the examples of Bible women who did lead and teach, and did a good job of it,

      1. I suspect that sometimes it is not the Scriptures that influence people against supporting women leaders. I suspect that some leaders are too gutless to engage with people who might be ‘offended’ by women in leadership/teaching/ministry positions

        1. You have a valid point, Ross.

          1. This is so valid a point.

            In my experience most churches have one or two strong drivers behind female subjugation and the rest of the men are afraid of them because they are so condemnatory of others and call them names…spineless jellyfish, cowards, effeminate and so on… if they are friendly to female equality. In my experience these men are very misogynistic and I have been insulted “privately” when no one is looking by some of them who are so sarcastic to my face when no one is listening, and polite otherwise…this type of ‘leader’ is also very nasty to other men…it is time most men (who are the majority, in my experience) stood up to these autocrats and taught them a lesson…that IT SHALL NO BE SO AMONG YOU!!!!

  4. You may need to be a bit careful with this. Some will point out that “prophesying” and “praying” were both considered inspired speech, and so were permissible for women (but they still had to have their heads covered). They were distinct from preaching and pastoral roles. So in the OT, women could be prophetesses, but not priestesses, and in the NT women could be prophetesses but not pastors or teachers. Be prepared for push-back along those lines.

    I see it much differently. I do not see pastoral and teaching “offices” as NT relatives of the OT sacerdotal priesthood. I believe such a priesthood “within” the general priesthood of believers no longer exists. Meanwhile, Acts 2 parallels Luke 4. Luke 4 served as a concise “program” for the whole of Jesus’ earthly ministry, and Acts 2 serves as a concise “program” for the Church. All ministry is Spirit-empowered and “prophetic” at least in the general sense. So the passage twice informs us men and women are equal in the prophetic anointing, which includes every form of ministry.

    1. Hi NorrinRadd, Yes, women in OT times could be prophetesses but not priestesses, yet prophets were often more influential in their communities than priests whose main vocation was often confined to rites within the Tabernacle or Temple. Prophets also played an important role as advisers to Kings.

      The wearing of head coverings while praying and prophesying is only mentioned once in the Bible, in 1 Corinthians 11, and that is debatable as there is no word for “head coverings” in the Greek. This passage is difficult to interpret. The custom of head coverings varied from culture to culture. I don’t think that all prophesying women always or necessarily covered their heads.

      I also don’t see NT ministry as being a relative of the priesthood, but I do take your last point.

  5. Very true marg and thank you for the other emails I’ve received that explain the word thoroughly on women in leadership. Its sad that many churches believe that apostle paul silenced women and said to stop all women to preach or teach in churches. The bible says many of us believers in christ do error in scripture. That’s why there are denominations because they don’t read the surrounding verses that explain the context and reason why paul silenced women. Paul supported women in ministry because in Romans16:3-5, paul gives thanks to Priscilla & her husband for their church who they gave their lives online for him in preaching the Gospel. Also in philippian 4:3 it says to thank the women who labored & worked in spreading the Gospel.

  6. To NorrinRadd, the verse which says women had to wear head coverings, if you continue reading the scripture it says “For her hair is given to her as a covering”. Where does it say her head has to be covered?

    And a prophet or prophetess is speaking the word of God. A message from God is speaking his word even as women did in the scripture. A prophet or prophetess can preach the scriptures as well, they don’t just prophecy alone. They preach the Bible to speak & give a revelation to listeners and give a phrophetic word that God gives him/her to whomever.

  7. Hi John, The meaning of 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 is not clear and there are many interpretations of this passage by good people. I’ve written several articles on this passage:
    https://margmowczko.com/category/equality-and-gender-issues/1-corinthians-11-2-16/

  8. Thanks, I needed the list!

    I wonder if one of the problems faced in the NT, had to do with the fact that the men of Judea, especially certain religious classes were quite enthralled with Greek culture. Women were treated like dirt by this time, by the ancient Greeks.

    1. The Greeks had a low view of women, there’s no doubt about that. And they left their mark on all the lands they conquered, including Israel. The Sadducees certainly seemed more Hellenized (“Greekified”) than other sectors of 1st-century Judaism in Judea, though.

      Some prominent and influential Jewish men (such as Philo of Alexandria, Ben Sirach, the author of The Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs, etc) clearly echoed Greek sentiments on women in their writings. They stated terrible things about women indicating their supposed moral inferiority (and that’s putting it lightly!)

      I quote or mention these writers here:
      https://margmowczko.com/equality-and-gender-issues/portrayal-of-women-and-biblical-inspiration/

      1. Hi Marg,
        Do you more about the roles of women in Judea as compared to their role in Greek territory at the time of Jesus? I have heard different interpretations, both that Jews gave more and that they gave less rights to their women than Greeks.

        1. Hi Karin,

          I think there are some differences.

          Some Greek thinkers promoted the idea that girls should be educated until they were married. And some Greek girls from wealthy families were taught by intelligent, well-educated tutors such as Plutarch. However, Greeks believed that women were intellectually and morally inferior to men.

          Unfortunately, this Greek belief was adopted by many 1st-century Jews. Some Jewish girls received an education from their mother, which depended on how educated their mother was, but it was rare for a Hebrew girl to be taught by an educated tutor. Many women in 1st-century Israel had less freedoms and status than in previous times.

          The relative freedom, or seclusion, of girls and women depended on their social status and local customs. Wealthier women, widows, and girls of marriageable age were generally more secluded than poorer women, artisans, and young girls, etc.

          It seems that women in Macedonia (e.g. Philippi and Thessalonica) had more freedoms than women in other places of the Greco-Roman world.

  9. There are a variety of understandings of 1 Cor. 11, including differing translations and differing notions of relevant cultural background. Some don’t involve “head coverings” at all. My main point was that some patriarchalists will rather freely allow women to engage in “inspired” speech — prayer and prophecy — but not other sorts. For them, arguing from the basis of “prophetesses” did this or that will not be persuasive by itself, because they place prophecy in a separate category.

    I see things differently. I see Luke using “prophesy” as an umbrella term for every kind of ministry done in fulfilling the Great Commission. And in 1 Cor. 11, I tend to agree with Fee that Paul is using “pray” as a generic umbrella for all speech directed from humans to God, and “prophesy” as a generic umbrella for all speech directed from God to humans.

    1. I agree with you that prophecy and prayer can be taken as broad terms which effectively encompass all spoken ministry – one is speaking for God, and the other is speaking to God.

  10. I’m glad you wrote this article. Women prophets are mentioned in the Bible and it is sad they are often ignored in some churches. I also would like hear about known women ministers in the ancient times besides that of Junia and Phoebe the deacon. Another excellent post.

    1. Thanks, Curious Thinker.

      You might like this article about Nino of Georgia. She wouldn’t have regarded herself as a leader, but she is fairly ancient (she was born in the late 200s:
      https://margmowczko.com/equality-and-gender-issues/nino-of-georgia/

      Or this one about Philip’s daughters and what early church writers said about them:
      https://margmowczko.com/equality-and-gender-issues/philips-prophesying-daughters/

  11. Hi there,

    Could I please have your permission to translate this article in order to publish it on my blog and possible in our church magazine?

    1. Hi Irene,

      That will be fine. I just ask that you acknowledge me as the author and that you provide a hyperlink back to the original article.

  12. Israel was supposed to be a “nation of priests” which meant that men and women were all considered equal in God’s eyes and that the actual priest was just a symbol. The symbol became worshipped and the meaning became lost.
    Many women showed the real purpose of a priest eg Naaman’s slave girl.
    Exodus 19:6 “and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the people of Israel.”

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