Exploring the biblical theology of Christian egalitarianism

women preachers in the Bible, preaching words

Watercolour and ink portrait of Martha of Bethany by Sarah Beth Baca.
Used with permission of the artist. All rights reserved.
Prints of this portrait can be purchased here.

In the past few days, I’ve seen or been involved in online conversations about whether or not there are New Testament women who preached. The way “preaching” words are used in the New Testament, however, is different from what many Christians today regard as “preaching.” This difference causes problems when arguing from scripture about what women supposedly can and cannot do in the church. In this article, I look at how “preaching” words (particularly those in the kērug– family) are used in the New Testament and I mention the men and women who preached.

The “Preaching” Nouns

Kērux: herald, proclaimer, preacher

The Greek noun translated as “preacher” is kērux and it has the sense of “a herald.” In first-century usage, a kērux is a person with a message to proclaim publicly. This connotation of public proclamation is seen in all words in the kērug– family (which includes kērux).

In the New Testament, this noun occurs only three times. It is used of Paul (twice) and Noah (1 Tim. 2:7; 2 Tim. 1:11; 2 Pet. 2:5). So technically, Paul and Noah are the only people in the New Testament who are actually called “preachers.” Other people—John the Baptist is one clear example—ministered like heralds.

Kērugma: proclamation, preaching

The related abstract noun kērugma refers to the message of heralds.[1] C.H. Dodd studied this word in the New Testament, especially in the context of Christianity, and explains that the preached message, the kērugma, is primarily concerned with the lordship and resurrection of Christ. Dodd defines preaching (kērugma) as “the public proclamation of Christianity to the non-Christian world.”[2]

The Samaritan woman had become increasingly aware of who Jesus was during their long conversation recorded in John 4. At the end of the conversation, Jesus revealed to her that he was the Messiah, the Christ (John 4:25-26). In response, she went and publicly announced to the townfolk of Sychar: “Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Messiah?” (John 4:29) Further in John 4 it says, “Now many Samaritans from that town believed in [Jesus] because of the woman’s word (logos) when she testified (martureō), ‘He told me everything I ever did’” (John 4:39).[3]

Mary Magdalene also had a message to proclaim which is encapsulated in the words, “I have seen the Lord” (John 20:17-18). She delivered this message when the gospel was brand new. She proclaimed it to people who did not know that Jesus had come back to life. In fact, near the end of all four Gospels, women are sent by Jesus or by angels to tell the other believers that Jesus is alive, perhaps the most important message ever.

The Samaritan woman and Mary Magdalene were witnesses of Jesus. And while kērug– words are not used of their speech in the Gospels, they spoke about what they knew to a group of people who did not yet know about the lordship or resurrection of Jesus.[4] Their important messages fit the pattern of New Testament preaching (kērugma).

The “Preaching” Verbs

The verb for “preach/proclaim,” kērussō, and verbs with similar meanings―euaggelizomai (“tell/preach the gospel/good news”) and kataggellō (“announce/preach a message”)―are used of the ministries of John the Baptist (Acts 10:37), Jesus, the Twelve, the Seventy-Two, Philip the evangelist (Acts 8:12), and Paul the apostle and his companions.[5]

In Matthew 10, Jesus gives the Twelve several instructions including, “As you go, preach/proclaim this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near’” (Matt. 10:7; cf. Mark 6:12-13; Luke 9:1-2; cf. Acts 10:39-43; Matt. 10:27). The larger group of his disciples, the Seventy-Two, are given the same message. Jesus told the Seventy-Two, “Tell them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you’” (Luke 10:8-9).

The Seventy-Two, most likely, included women. Women were among Jesus’ most faithful disciples. And from the beginning of the Christian mission, there were male-female missionary couples such as Priscilla and Aquila, Andronicus and Junia, and Peter and his unnamed wife (cf. 1 Cor. 9:5).[6]

Richard Bauckham writes,

If we read on from Luke 8:1-3 in the company of Joanna and the other women, it will not be possible to read Luke 10:1-20 where Jesus sends out the seventy-two disciples to participate actively in his own mission of preaching and healing, without assuming that women are included among these disciples.[7]

In Acts and in Paul’s letter, the verb kērussō is used several times for Paul’s ministry. As soon as he was converted, he started preaching that “Jesus is the Son of God” (Acts 9:20). In his letters, Paul sometimes says, “I preach(ed) …,” but at other times he uses the plural, “we preached …” (Rom. 10:8; 1 Cor. 1:23; 15:11; 2 Cor 4:5; 11:4; 1 Thess. 2:9.) And he tells Timothy to preach (2 Tim. 4:2).

There’s no reason to think that when Paul says “we preached” he does not include women like Priscilla, Euodia, Syntyche, Phoebe, or Junia. Women such as Priscilla went on missionary journeys with Paul (Acts 18:18-19; Rom. 16:3-5; etc). Women such as Euodia and Syntyche ministered “in the gospel” with Paul (Phil. 4:2-3). Women such as Phoebe travelled and represented Paul to others as his agent (Rom. 16:1-2). Junia, as one half of a missionary couple, may have often preached the gospel and, at least once, it landed her in prison with Paul (Rom. 16:7). These women, and others, were also involved in ministry in their local churches.

It is important to note that Paul uses the same ministry terminology for these female ministry colleagues (who he identifies by name) as he does for his male ministry colleagues (who he identifies by name): coworker, minister (diakonos), apostle, brother/sister, labourer. I’ve previously written about this here.

Women Speaking and Preaching

Church gatherings in the first century looked very different to how church services are run today. Most congregations used a house as their base for all kinds of meetings and operations, and these houses were sometimes overseen by a woman such as Nympha or Lydia. And in at least some churches associated with Paul, if not all, both men and women participated and contributed spoken ministries, sometimes spontaneously (1 Cor. 14:26; Col. 3:16).[8]

Moreover, in his lists of ministries in Romans 12:6-8, 1 Corinthians 12:28, or Ephesians 4:11, Paul never says that some of these ministries are off-limits to women, this includes the ministries of teaching and leading.[9] Paul doesn’t include “preaching” in his lists of ministry gifts and functions. Perhaps because preaching is not something that usually happened in church gatherings. It was not a ministry to fellow believers. Preaching in the New Testament, in the context of Christian ministry, is practically synonymous with evangelising. And from the beginning, women preached the gospel to their families, friends, communities, and further afield.

Beth Allison Barr observes that women did not stop preaching the gospel even though they were often hindered by official church policy.

… regardless of whether the ecclesiastical establishment recognized their work, women persisted in preaching the gospel and ministering in the service of God…. From Mary Magdalene to Waldensian women, Ursuline nuns, Moravian wives, Quaker sisters, Black women preachers, and suffragette activists, history shows us that women do not wait on the approval of men to do the work of God. We can hear women’s voices in our Christian past, and despite all the obstacles in their way, nevertheless, “they are preaching.”[10]

Conclusion

When we use scripture to discuss what women can or cannot do, we need to understand and use scriptural terms in the way the original authors understood and used these terms. When we do this, we see that the idea that New Testament women didn’t preach is flawed. We also see that New Testament preaching has little bearing on ministry within the local church in either the first century or today.

Instead of looking at what the Bible doesn’t say about women, an argument from silence, it is more profitable to look at what the Bible does say about women: women such as Deborah, the wise woman of Abel Beth Macaah, Huldah, King Lemuel’s mother, Mary and Martha of Bethany, Mary Magdalene, the Samaritan woman, Tabitha, Priscilla, Phoebe, Junia, Nympha, Lydia, and many others.[11]

We should also look at what the Bible says about Christian ministry in general and at the verses that apply to gifted women as well as to gifted men: Acts 2:17-18; Romans 12:6-8; 1 Corinthians 12:28, 14:26; Ephesians 4:11; Colossians 3:16, etc. Some New Testament women performed the ministries listed in these verses. And some women preached the lordship and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Let’s not deter women from preaching the gospel.

“For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. How, then, can they call on him they have not believed in? And how can they believe without hearing about him? And how can they hear without a preacher? And how can they preach unless they are sent? As it is written: How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news.” Romans 10:14-16 CSB (Italics added)

Footnotes

[1] Information on the word kērugma is here. All occurrences of kērugma in the NT are here.

[2] C.H. Dodd, The Apostolic Preaching and Its Developments (Harper and Row, 1964), 261.

[3] The Greek word logos is also used for Jesus’ words in John 4:41. Martureō (“testify/witness”) and its cognates are words often used for the ministry of the Twelve. One of the main ministries of the Twelve was to be a witness of the ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
The Samaritan woman’s message, as recorded in John 4, is short and sounds vague, but it may have been a clever and disarming way of introducing Jesus to the people in her town.

[4] While the women are not given “preaching” words in the Gospels, Origen recognised that the Samaritan woman preached. In Book 13 of his commentary on John, Origen says of the Samaritan woman, “Kindly she ‘began preaching’ (ekērusse) about the Messiah to the townsfolk”: φιλανθρώπως Χριστόν τοῖς πολῖταις ἐκήρυσσε (PG 14.449C).
And, “Here indeed, a woman ‘preached the gospel of’ (euaggelizetai) the Messiah to the Samaritans”: Ἐνθάδε μὲν δὴ τοῖς Σαμαρείταις γυνὴ εὐαγγελίζεται τὸν Χριστόν (PG 14.449D)
Origen then compares Mary Magdalene with the Samaritan woman, “And at the end of the Gospels, in particular the resurrection of the Saviour, the woman saw it before all and ‘related the account’ (diēgeitai) to the apostles. (PG 14.449D)
In the fourth century, Ephrem of Syria wrote a beautiful hymn in Syriac about the Samaritan woman which includes this line: “Your voice, O woman, first brought forth fruit, before even the apostles, with the kerygma.” “Hymn 23,” Ephrem the Syrian: Hymns, translated by Kathleen E. McVey (Classics of Western Spirituality; New York: Paulist Press, 1989), 363. (Google Books)

[5] Information on the word kērussō is here. All occurrences of kērussō in the NT are here.

[6] More about Paul’s reference to “sister-women” in 1 Corinthians 9:5 here.

[7] Richard Bauckham, Gospel Women: Studies of Named Women in the Gospels (London: T. & T. Clark, 2002), 200.

[8] The way women were respected in the ancient world varied from city to city. In some cities, especially Roman colonies and cities in Macedonia, it wasn’t an issue for women to speak and lead in house churches. Philippi was a Roman colony in Macedonia and we see women being leaders in the church at Philippi. More about women church leaders in Philippi here. More about the ministry of women in first-century churches here.

[9] Paul’s restrictions in 1 Corinthians 14:26-40 and in 1 Timothy 2:11-15 are in reference to unedifying, disorderly speech in the Corinthian Church and about the faulty teaching and bad behaviour of a woman in the Ephesian Church. I have written about these verses here and here.

[10] Beth Allison Barr, The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2021), 213-214. (More on this book here.)

[11] I have written about all these Bible women, and more. Use the search field to find articles on these women or click here.

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27 thoughts on ““Preaching” words in the NT and the women who preached

  1. Excellent! I am so grateful for the work you put in that gives me a focused place to start on important topical studies. I love clicking all your links and diving deep!

    1. Thanks, Debby!

      1. Thank you very much my sister in the Lord. Truly this teaching is a powerful and transforming one. What I have never come across I’m getting it here as I share it with the church. May God anoint you more. Furthermore you blessed us with ten bibles. May God bless you so much.

        1. Hello Paul, I’m glad my work is useful to you and your church in Kenya. I hope the ten Bibles will be a real blessing.

  2. Hi I can not see any reason why woman can not take a full part in all aspects in the Church, no sin here, I think when Paul said woman should not speak and talk to their husbands after the meeting, we must remember that at that time many of the apostle were meeting in private houses because they were still being persecuted by many, a small room and everyone talking would of been a problem, so just maybe they wanted to limit who spoke as at that time everyone could join in you did not have a preacher like we do now.

    1. Hi Leslie, Paul silences three groups of people in 1 Corinthians 14:26-40. He silences unedifying and disorderly speech. I personally don’t think room size has much to do with it. Talking over another person is a problem regardless of how big the room is.
      I have a short post on this here. https://margmowczko.com/1-corinthians-1434-35-in-a-nutshell/

      1. Hi Marg Thankyou for the information I will study it. being Paul was not married as far as we know, do you think maybe he was a little anti woman of course we should not add to scripture and at the end of the day it matters not.

        1. Hi leslie,

          Paul was not in any way anti-woman. He loved his sisters-in-Christ and valued his female coworkers. He mentions at least eighteen women in his letters, sixteen by name. (I mention these women here.)

          Paul softened the prevailing Greco-Roman codes by telling those with more power (husbands, fathers/mothers, male/female masters) to love, and not provoke or threaten, those with less power according to the society of that time (wives, sons/daughters, male/female slaves). (I write about the household codes in Ephesians 5-6 and Colossians 3 here.)

          Paul championed the underdogs in the church. These included the poor, some women, and most slaves. He wanted these people to be honoured. Female slaves were especially pitiful in the first century. (More here.)

          Paul prohibits the speech of women in the Corinthian Church who were speaking in an unruly and unedifying manner, but he also prohibits the speech of two other groups in 1 Corinthians 14:26-40 which included men. (More here.)

          And Paul disallows the teaching of a woman in the Ephesian church, who needed to settle down and first learn, and he disallows her domineering behaviours towards a man, probably her husband. (All my articles on 1 Tim. 2:11-15 are here.)

          Paul criticises the behaviour and ministry of men and women who were immoral, disruptive or teaching rubbish. But he did not restrict the ministry of godly, gifted and well-behaved women.

          1. Hi Marg, what great knowledge you have, and please keep teaching online for we all benefit because there are still things I not sure about and believe you me I study every day. I know of at least one church here in England that will not let any woman take part and I sure there are many more. I think they are wrong however we are not to judge.

          2. Thank you, Leslie. 🙂

            Yes, there are many churches that restrict the ministry and participation of capable women. I think they are wrong too.

  3. Marg,
    Thank you. This article is well done. We really MUST take into account the context of ancient near-east and Mesopotamian culture in order to avoid placing our western filters on these texts.

    1. And understanding the first-century Greco-Roman culture is especially valuable in understanding the backdrop to Paul’s letters.

      The customs and values of all these cultures are so alien to the customs and values of modern western society.

  4. Hi I just wanted to add that the Apostle Paul gives us a list of sins in which one will not enter the kingdom of heaven and as far as I can see that apples to both men and woman and we know that God himself made all Mankind equal.

    1. True. 🙂

      And women preaching isn’t on any of these vice lists.

      1. So does that mean that in view of the fact I have committed some of those sins, that I cannot enter heaven?

        1. Hi Chris,

          The good news, the gospel, is all about Jesus dying so we can find forgiveness in him, and about Jesus coming back to life again so we can have eternal life in his kingdom.

  5. Marg,

    Thank you for all you do going back to the foundation of the formation of the people who wound up being called Christians. This is the seed work for the development of a sound theology and its dialogue with science. Critical Work!

    1. Thank you, Albert.

    2. Thank you, I read your writing and I am bookmarking this page to study further. I am 62 and for 35 years I have lived right next door to a SBC Seminary and the stories I could tell.

      I have started and then deleted words ( paragraphs) from this comment twice so I will just say………………

      I have so much to learn.
      So much to re-learn.

      1. Welcome, Tammy!

  6. How many of these women were Jewish with knowledge of scripture?

    1. Hi Elaine,

      Most of the New Testament women named in this article were Jewish with some knowledge of Old Testament scripture.

      ~ The Samaritan woman seems to have been cluey and she had an interest in theology. She is aware of both Jewish and Samaritan theology regarding worship.

      ~ Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and other female disciples, who were all Jews, would have heard Jewish scripture read and recited in synagogues and they learned a lot from hanging out with Jesus. Jesus did not teach a dumbed-down theology to women. More on this here. Tabitha probably had a lot in common with these women.

      ~ Lydia, a Jewish proselyte, would have learned a lot when Paul and his fellow missionaries crashed at her place at Philippi. I don’t know how much she knew about scripture before Paul’s visit, but we might assume there was some reading or recitation of scripture in the prayer house at Philippi.

      ~ Priscilla, a Jew, was probably an educated woman. She knew enough about theology to be a prominent minister in Paul’s circle and to correct the doctrine of Apollos an eloquent teacher. It’s a fair guess she knew scripture well. Some speculate she wrote Hebrews.

      ~ Junia was a Jew and an outstanding missionary with her husband Andronicus. She may have known scripture well too.

      I don’t know about the Jewishness or scripture knowledge of Phoebe, Nympha, or Apphia. Though Phoebe was well-versed with Paul’s letter to the Romans.

      The majority of Jesus’ followers in the first few decades of the church were Jewish or, like Lydia and the Samaritan woman, already had some sort of connection with Judaism.

      At least some house churches in the first century were led and cared for by people who did not have had an extensive knowledge of scripture. This is why the ministry of travelling apostles, teachers, and prophets, and letters from people such as Paul, were so important.

  7. Thanks again Marg.

    I am in a church where women have preached. Alas they were only allowed to preach to their gender. So there was a series in the evening service where the congregation was split in two with a women preaching to the women and a man to the men. It has only happened once but allows for the minister to claim ‘we let women preach’.

    On another matter. Can you tell me please how many different words in the original language of the bible are translated ‘preach’ as we read it in English. I heard someone say there were 20 but I never checked it out. I recall one of the words they quoted – from memory (which isn;t always good) was ‘dialogus’ (my spelling – which is even more questionable than my memory). This word sounds like ‘dialogue’ and to me implies a conversation between two people. But does any of that check out with your understanding?

    1. Hi George,

      I’ve included, in the article, all the Greek nouns and verbs that typically have a sense of preaching/public proclamation in the New Testament.

      The KJV translates the verb dialegomai in Acts 20:7 as “preach” but this is not its usual meaning. (You can check this here.)

      There are many more words when it comes to teaching or exhortation. Skilled writers like the author of Acts, for example, tried not to overuse particular words, so a variety are used.

      The following is a sample of verbs used in the New Testament to describe the transmission and teaching of the gospel and Christian doctrine:

      parrēsiazomai means “speak openly, boldly or freely”
      peithō means “persuade”
      martureō means “testify” or “bear witness”
      legō or laleō simply means “speak,” “talk,” or “tell”
      dialegomai means “discuss,” “reason,” or “dispute”
      parakaleō means “exhort” or “encourage”
      kērussō means “proclaim” or “preach”
      euaggelizomai means “proclaim the good news or gospel”
      nouthetō means “admonish,” “warn,” or “exhort”
      ektithēmi means “put forth” or “explain”
      disdaskō means “teach”

      Plus there are a bunch of words with an aggel– stem and with different prefixes (one occurrence in the New Testament with no prefix) that can mean “report” or “announce,” etc.

      I made this list for a footnote in my article Did Priscilla Teach Apollos? But there are still a few more words that could be added.

  8. My observation is Samaritan women went to Men !!!.. and said Come and see a Man !!!… this is so profound.. why didnt she go to women?
    Before that Jesus said you have five husband and present one the sixth is not your husband now she is talking to the 7th man.. looks she found a perfect man !.

    1. Hi vil,

      I appreciate your comment. That’s interesting about the numbers.

      The Greek word translated as “men” in some older English translations of John 4:28 is anthrōpoi and it means “people” or “humans.” It doesn’t imply that these people are a group of only men. (Older English translations often use the words “men” and “man” to refer more broadly, or generically, to people.)

      So a correct translation of John 4:28 can be, “Then the woman left her water jar, went into town, and she says to the people . . .” It’s reasonable to assume that some women were among the people in town.

      Similarly, “man” in the next verse can be accurately translated as “person”: “Come, see a person who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Messiah?” (John 4:29).

      Jesus is a man, he is male, but the word here, anthrōpos, does not mean an adult male person, but simply a person. Nevertheless, since we know Jesus is a man, most translations have translated anthrōpos as “man” in this verse and in others.

      Jesus is typically referred to in the New Testament as an anthrōpos (“person/human”); he is rarely referred to as an anēr which, depending on context, means “man” (i.e. adult male person) or “husband.”

      Jesus is never referred to in John 4 as an anēr, which occurs five times in John 4:16-18.

      Jesus came to earth as a human (anthrōpos) so he could be the saviour of humanity (anthrōpos), of both men and women.

  9. Another helpful article as usual, Marg ~ thank you for sharing your love for God’s Word and your teaching gift with us!

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