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 elders, bishops, or pastors, 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.
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 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 seems to indicate that Priscilla was also a leader in the church at Rome.
Even though Paul does not identify any of his male or female colleagues as elder, bishop, or pastor, I suggest women, as well as men, functioned as elders, etc, in New Testament congregations, especially in the early decades of the church.
Later, women were largely excluded from such ministries. Still, there are some surviving inscriptions from the first few centuries of the common era which 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. Other councils and canons also restricted or banned women elders. I suspect the prohibitions against women elders had more to do with cultural prejudices than anything else.
It’s well past time for Christians to acknowledge that
- Some New Testament women were leaders and their ministry was valued 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. 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). 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.” 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). 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.
Notes to postscript
 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).
 Ute E. Eisen, Women Officeholders In Early Christianity, Epigraphical and Literary Studies (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press-Michael Glazier, 2000), 133.
Excerpt from a fresco in Pompeii showing a first-century literate woman.
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Were there women elders in New Testament churches? (part 2)
The First-Century Church and the Ministry of Women
Otto of Vercelli on Female Priests/Elders in the Eerly 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?