Exploring the biblical theology of Christian egalitarianism

women elders, women leaders, New Testament, church

Unfounded Assertions

Three 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 does not tell us of a named individual, male or female, who was actually called elder, bishop, or pastor, with the exceptions of 1 Peter 5:1, 2 John 1:1, and 3 John 1:1 where the authors identify themselves as elders. The apostle Paul never identifies a named individual as an elder, bishop, or pastor. His favourite terms for ministers were coworker, diakonos (minister or deacon), apostle, and labourer, and he uses each of these words for his fellow ministers, male and female.

Priscilla the Elder

It is fair to say that men were more likely to be bishops and elders than women. 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. Correcting the doctrine of a visiting teacher is usually a role of bishops or elders.
  • 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; 4:19). No other Christians in Ephesus are greeted. Were these four named people the leaders of the Ephesian church?
  • In Paul’s list of greetings to members of the church at Rome given in the last chapter of Romans, a list that includes 28 individuals, Priscilla is listed first (Rom. 16:3-5). First! This indicates Priscilla was also a leading figure in the church at Rome.

I suggest the only thing that stops us from recognising Priscilla as a senior leader, elder, of the church is prejudice because of her sex or prejudice based on faulty understandings of a few New Testament verses.

Even though Paul does not identify any of his male or female colleagues as elder, bishop, or pastor, women, as well as men, functioned as elders, etc, in New Testament congregations, especially in the early decades of the church.

Women Elders in the Early Church

Later, women were largely excluded from such ministries. Still, there are some surviving inscriptions from the first few centuries of the common era that 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 formal ordination of women who were elders.

It is not allowed for those women who are called ‘elders/presbyters/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. (Atto of Vercelli comments on this canon. See here.) Other councils and canons also restricted or banned women elders. I suspect the prohibitions against women elders had more to do with common cultural misconceptions about women rather than anything else.

Conclusion

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

  • Some New Testament women were leaders and their ministry was valued and endorsed 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 for their leaders. Furthermore, Paul encouraged corporate participation in church meetings (1 Cor 14:26; Col. 3:16). (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 about these women.

Postscript: June 16, 2020

Here is paragraph from a forthcoming paper entitled, Women Presbyters/ Elders in the NT and the Ancient Church, written by Charles Stelding.

To date, historians have found evidence for almost a dozen female presbyters dating from the second to the fifth century.[1] There were woman elders at least until the 4th century, because the Council of Laodicea (AD 363-364) forbade any more presbytides being ordained (Canon 11).[2] Atto, bishop of Vercelli (10th century), summarizes that, before the Council of Laodicea “female presbyters” “assumed the office of preaching, leading and teaching.” They “presided over the churches.”[3] The Acts of Philip (4-5th century) assumes male and female presbyters. Within that community, women as well as men served at all levels. One list mentions “presbytides” (female elders or priests) alongside “presbyters” (male elders or priests).[4] In some instances, “presbyter” refers to an administrative duty, such as the administration of burial places. In other cases, women performed liturgical functions, a practice attacked by Gelasius I at the end of the fifth century.[5]

Notes to postscript

[1] Kevin Madigan and Carolyn Osiek, eds., Ordained Women in the Early Church: A Documentary History (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005), 210. The names of some of these elders listed in this work are Ammion, Artemidora, Epiktō, Kalē, Leta, Martia, Flavia Vitalia, and Guilia Runa (pp. 169-171, 191-198).

[2] A pdf of the Council of Laodicea, with notes, is here.

[3] Epistle 8: Patrologia Latina 134, 114. (An English translation is here)

[4] Peter H. Desmond, “Fourth-Century Church Tales,” Harvard Magazine, May 1, 2000. (Online source)

[5] Ute E. Eisen, Women Officeholders In Early Christianity, Epigraphical and Literary Studies (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press-Michael Glazier, 2000), 133.


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Excerpt from a fresco in Pompeii showing a first-century literate woman.

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Related Articles

Were there women elders in New Testament churches? (part 2)
The First-Century Church and the Ministry of Women
Atto of Vercelli on Female Priests/Elders in the Early Church
The Role of Overseers in First-Century House Churches (1 Timothy 3:4-5)
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?

Further Reading

Ordained Women of the Patristic Era

43 thoughts on “Were there women elders in New Testament churches?

  1. Great response to their inquiries/positions, Marg.

  2. As always, just brilliant writing! PTL
    Ray

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

  4. 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.

    1. 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.

    2. Claiming there are “flaws” in Scripture based on the long history of human “interpretations” does not make Scripture unclear!
      Satan will continue to “muddy the waters” through human (scholarly) interpretations of The Living Word – Jesus until Jesus finallly removes him and his darkness.

      1. You’ve misread Don’s comment, Phil. He doesn’t claim that scripture is flawed.

      2. Right. I think all Scripture is inspired by God. But interpreters of Scripture may not be.

  5. 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.

    1. Hi Njogu,

      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 (= “he/his/him”) in the Greek of 1 Timothy 3:1-7 at all. None.

      More on this here: https://margmowczko.com/equality-and-gender-issues/pauls-qualifications-for-church-leaders/

      And here’s an article on the role of episkopoi (“bishops/overseers”) and 1 Timothy 3:4-5 : https://margmowczko.com/manage-household-1-timothy-34/

      1. 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…]

        1. 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.

          1. Hi, I have to disagree. You state that widows and widowers were discouraged in the early church to not wed? Then how do you explain Paul’s clear command that younger widowed women be married as to not give into to gossip and busybodies? 1 Timothy 5 9-16 with emphasis on verses 11-24. You can’t say things that are not true when it comes to the Bible.

          2. Hi Keekee,

            Yes, Paul encouraged the idle young widows in Ephesus to remarry, for the reasons you include in your comment. These Ephesian widows were not occupied with serving the Lord or the church and were being a nuisance.

            Paul did not generally encourage widowed people to remarry. But unlike later authors, he did not discourage it either. Sadly, some later Christian leaders were more severe in their thoughts about remarriage than Paul.

            The term “early church” refers to the church during the years between Pentecost and the 5th or 6th centuries. During this period, there were indeed church leaders who discouraged widowed Christians from remarrying. They even discouraged Christians from marrying in the first place if a person was serious about piety and serving the Lord and the church. After the apostles, the church got a lot of things wrong.

            My statement remains true as a general statement. In the early church, widows and widowers were discouraged from marrying again, especially if they were serious about their faith and weren’t like the idle widows in Ephesus.

      2. 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.

      3. Well that “anyone” or “someone” must have a wife. Must be a he. 😉

        1. Only if the idiom is taken literally, but most scholars, including complementarian scholars, recognise that it refers to marital fidelity and that it doesn’t necessarily exclude women. In fact the same idiom in 1 Timothy 3:12 is thought to apply to women and well as men. More on this here: https://margmowczko.com/pauls-qualifications-for-church-leaders/ Check out the footnotes too.

          Also, if each of the qualifications in 1 Timothy 3 are taken as mandatory then people such as Jesus and Paul would be disqualified from being supervisors (episkopoi) as they did not have a wife, or children, or a household of their own. The qualifications are essentially moral qualifications. Moral (and suitably gifted) people can be church leaders.

          1. I really want to believe this, but the greek works in 3:2 & 3:12 are “one woman man” and in 5:9 the words are reversed and say “one man woman”. Is that common for idioms? It looks more like it is using gender specific language there.

          2. Hi Lara,

            All Greek nouns (articles, adjective and participles) are either masculine feminine or neuter, and this grammatical gender does not always correspond with the actual gender of the subject.

            Furthermore, generally speaking, it is common in Greek to have masculine priority as the default, and these masculine expressions may or may not include women. On the other hand, when only women are the subjects, only then is feminine language used.

            For example, the masculine word for “brother” (adelphos) is used throughout the New Testament, but often verses that contain “brother” also apply to women.

            It is a bit more complicated than that, and 1 Timothy 3 probably anticipates that most episkopoi will be men, but none of the qualifications in this passage completely rule out the possibility of women being episkopoi.

            You may be interested in a more recent article on episkopoi here.

  6. 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.

    1. We are not told the identity of most of the leaders in New Testament churches. It seems to me that Priscilla, Phoebe, Junia, the chosen lady, Philip’s daughters, and other women were leaders in their congregations, whatever titles they may or may not have had. Some women were even leaders further afield.

      1. A great debate which has given me a lot of encouragement to have some of my women appointed to leadership.

        God isn’t standing over us with a big stick, so if my women edify the body from a leadership perspective and otherwise, so be it.

        Marg, your research and range of knowledge of early church studies will be a great help to many.

        Thank you in Jesus name.
        Chris

        1. Thanks, Chris.

  7. 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.

    1. 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).

      1. 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!

        1. You’re welcome, Apryl.

  8. 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.

    1. 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.

  9. 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.

    1. Hi Jeanette,

      I’m enjoying this freedom and life too. 🙂
      I have heard of Kris’s book, but haven’t read it.

  10. Hi, can you please elaborate on the context in 1 Timothy 2 : 11? Seems pretty confusing because we have a Woman leading all affair of the ministry I belong.

    1. Hi Daniel,

      There was at least one woman leading in various ministries in the church at Cenchrea in the first century, and in Philippi and in Laodicea, as just a few examples.

      I have written several articles on 1 Timothy 2:11-12. Look for the category in the sidebar on your computer (or look below if you are on a more portable device). But this article may be a good place to start:
      https://margmowczko.com/interpretation-of-1-timothy-212/

      Paul had no problem with godly, capable women as ministers. He had several female ministry colleagues who he valued and worked closely with (e.g., Priscilla, Euodia and Syntyche). But he did have a problem with a woman who was not ready to minister and teach, who was not behaving well, and needed to learn: a woman spoken about in 1 Timothy 2:11-15.

  11. Most churches met in homes. There were many more female Christians than male. Especially after they began to rescue baby girls left out to die. It seems reasonable to think women would be more mature than men.

    Ordination back then was more on anointing and gifts than a formal process. (IMO)

    In Korea 75% of all small groups are led by women. Why? They are available and willing and mature.

  12. Thank you for writing about this! I was reading the conversation on twitter and it was making me so mad I had to stop. It’s so hard for me to believe that there are people still out there that want to defend this position, that women can’t teach men in the church. Give me a break.

  13. Marg,

    Your articles have been so helpful to me. I come from a conservative, complementarian, American evangelical tradition, and am a current ministry worker and former pastor. I was raised and trained to only see the texts on gender through one lens and was told I’d be a theological liberal if I interpreted them any other way. Over the past year or so my wife and I have been on a journey to better understand gender and leadership in the Scriptures in, I think, a more holistic, faithful, and contextual way. (God was actually stirring in my heart first and I was afraid to mention anything to her!) Anyway, thank you!! I’m grateful for your ministry and help to me personally.

    1. Hi James,

      Thanks for your comment. It’s great to hear that God is stirring people’s hearts about the status of men and women in Christ. I pray your journey will be blessed!

      Allow me to just drop this link here. https://margmowczko.com/tag/esv/ 😉

      1. Thanks. I noticed you read my post. That is precisely one of the reasons I was convicted to read multiple translations. 🙁

  14. Hi Marg,

    Wonderful article as always! God is doing great things through you 🙂

    I’d love to hear your thoughts on the frescoes of Cerula and Bitalia in the San Gennaro catacomb in Naples. Might the iconography imply these women held teaching positions? I’ve been searching for male examples for comparison to see if they are depicted with the open Gospels, tongues of fire, staurogram overhead, etc. but haven’t managed to find any.

    1. Thank you, Jenna.

      I’ve also not seen funerary art of men with the Gospels, etc. I’m not convinced Cerula and Bitalia were church leaders. I think they may have been wealthy, pious women. If they were presbyters or deaconesses, I would expect those words to have been included in the fresco.

      I asked Ally Kateusz today about any similar frescoes with men, as she has made these two women famous. She replied with, “I have a chapter coming out in an Oxford University Press anthology edited by Joan Taylor later this year which will fully answer that question, but in a nutshell, that particular composition, with the open gospels painted at their head, has not elsewhere survived.”

      I really like Ally’s article about certain other artifacts that depicts women in liturgical scenes here. This article is quite compelling.

      A few years ago, lots of people were incorrectly saying that the orante, or orans, figure (a woman praying with hands raised) represents a female church leader. This figure is not uncommon in funerary art and is found in several catacombs. I agree with what this short article says.

      Similarly, some have said that the fresco Fractio Panis in the Priscilla catacomb depicts women sharing/serving the Eucharist, but I believe the image is of a funerary banquet.

      Christine Schenk is a careful scholar of ancient iconographic evidence. She has written an excellent book called Crispina and her Sisters: Women and Authority in Early Christianity. She briefly talks about her book here. I agree with Dr Schenk’s observations that some women, usually wealthy women, were hugely influential in the early church but were typically denied formal church positions that were held by men.

      After the first century, few women were recognised or ordained as presbyters in the same way men were.

      1. Thank you so much for your wonderful response and for the links. I can’t wait to dig into those articles. I’ve been meaning to order *Crispina* as well as Ally’s book *Mary and Early Christian Women*, so I really appreciate you sharing her quote with me!

        I see about Cerula and Bitalia. Such inspiring portraits in any case 🙂

  15. Wow. Stumbled on your blog looking to do exactly what you have already done… understand in context and root meaning the best explanation of some tension filled scriptures that tend to leave many of us in church leadership trying to encourage and work alongside our female ministers while also being as true as we know how to be to the written text.

    It has left our staff walking away from meetings with heavy hearts on more than one occasion. But the tension has led to humble seeking hearts in us all.

    So I want to say thank you for this incredible amount of careful work you have done in both investigating and communicating with others on this topic.

    I will be reading more of your work as I continue to prayerfully seek clarity surrounding this. Thank you again for your work and more importantly your heart and humble spirit in presenting your findings.

    Andrew

    1. You’re very welcome, Andrew. And thanks for your kinds words.

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