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 (poimēn).
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. 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 overseers (bishops) or elders.
- When Paul closes his first letter to the Corinthians, which he wrote from Ephesus, he mentions greetings from the churches and from the brothers and sisters in Ephesus and surroundings, but he only names Aquila and Priscilla (1 Cor. 16:19-20). Clearly, this couple was well-known to the Corinthians, presumably because of their ministry.
- 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 main 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 in Rome.
Priscilla and Aquila were well-known in Ephesus, Corinth, and Rome. I suggest the only thing that stops us from recognising that Priscilla and her husband were senior leaders, elders of the church, is prejudice because of Priscilla’s sex and a faulty understanding of a few New Testament verses.
Even though Paul does not identify any of his male or female colleagues as elder, bishop, or pastor, both women and 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.” (Women elders are also mentioned in a few early church documents such as canons and church manuals.)
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 (More here.)
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. (See below.) I suspect the prohibitions against women elders had more to do with cultural misconceptions about women rather than anything else.
It’s well past time for Christians to acknowledge that,
- Some New Testament women were leaders in their churches and their ministries were 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 2:8-15 and 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 are discussed here and here.) And note that 1 Timothy 2:11-12 was about a woman in Ephesus who needed to learn, but there was no issue with Priscilla’s ministry in Ephesus; she was able to correct Apollos.
- 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, such as inscriptions, needs 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.
© Margaret Mowczko 2017
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Excerpt from a fresco in Pompeii showing a literate first-century woman.
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
Women Elders in Ancient Christian Texts (3-part series)
The Role of Overseers in First-Century House Churches (1 Tim. 3:4-5)
More on Priscilla here.
Paul’s Qualifications for Church Leaders (1 Tim. 3)
Women Church Leaders in the New Testament
The Means of Ministry: Gifts, Grace, Faith . . . Gender?