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This blog post is the first of three taken from my chapter “Women and Men and Ministry in First-Century Churches” in Co-workers and Co-leaders: Women and Men Partnering for God’s Work, Amanda Jackson and Peirong Lin (eds) (WEA Global Issues Series, Vol. 22; Bonn: CPI Books/ Wipf and Stock, 2021), 59–73.

This book can be purchased through Amazon USA and Amazon UK. A short interview about the book is on YouTube, here. I was delighted to be involved with this publication.


For most of the church’s history, and in most Christian movements and denominations, only men have been permitted to serve as official ministers and leaders in churches. Some women have served in recognized positions but usually with more restrictions and fewer responsibilities than men. Furthermore, their responsibilities have typically been limited to women and children. But it was not always this way.

In the pages of the New Testament, we see that both men and women cared for local churches, and both men and women were missionaries and evangelists. These ministers often braved hardships and dangers in order to protect congregations and in order to spread the message of Jesus in a world that could be suspicious and hostile towards new religious ideas.

In this chapter [or, series of blog posts] I look at some of the women mentioned in the book of Acts and in Paul’s New Testament letters, highlighting their participation in the first-century apostolic church. My aim is to demonstrate that some women were prominent members of their churches. I will further show that women, as well as men, and often with men, were leaders in congregations and in missions. I will also discuss Paul’s theology of ministry and his words in 1 Timothy 2:11-15. 1 Timothy 2:12, in particular, is a verse that is often understood as prohibiting women from teaching and leading men. Did Paul limit the ministry of women?


From the very beginning of the Christian movement, women probably outnumbered men. The Synoptic Gospels tell us that many women followed Jesus around Galilee during his ministry. Many also followed him to Jerusalem where they watched his crucifixion (e.g. Mt. 27:55-56). Women were devoted to Jesus and many sponsored his ministry with their own money (Mk 15:40-41; Lk 8:1-3). In the birth and passion narratives, especially, we see that women were with Jesus from his birth to his death and resurrection, and they cared for him and served him in a manner not described of the male disciples.

After Jesus’s ascension, women were with the Twelve and with Jesus’s brothers praying in the upper room (Acts 1:13-14). Mary the mother of Jesus was there and other women who probably included Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna, Salome, and several other Marys. In Acts 1:15, we are told of a gathering where about 120 believers met together. Perhaps half of these 120 were women. If information from early church documents, as well as church statistics from more recent centuries, are any indication, however, there would have been more women than men. This gives us the rough figure of sixty-plus female followers of Jesus in Jerusalem at this point in time.

A few days later, on the day of Pentecost, the believers were together again when the Holy Spirit was poured out. In his speech given on that momentous day, Peter quotes from the prophet Joel and he mentions women as well as men.

And in the last days, God says, ‘I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
And your sons and your daughters will prophesy,
And your youth will see visions and your seniors will dream dreams.
And indeed on my male servants and on my female servants I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy.’ Acts 2:17-18 (own translation)

Women and men received the empowering of the Holy Spirit and were witnesses of the birth of the church at Pentecost.


Women were not a small or marginalized group among the first Christians. Still, the church in Jerusalem seems to have been primarily led by men. The author of Acts, traditionally thought to be Luke, mentions the twelve apostles by name in Acts 1. Peter, who ministers with John, is the focus of the narratives in Acts chapters 2-5 while the other apostles are referred to more generally and as a group. (After Acts 1, most of the Twelve are never mentioned by name again in the New Testament.) The twelve male apostles were proclaiming the gospel, teaching new believers, healing people, and performing miracles. They were meeting daily with the community of believers in the temple courts and in homes (Acts 2:46; 5:42).[1] Then in Acts 6, seven men are chosen to minister to the Greek-speaking widows. What were the women doing?

Luke tells the stories of only some people in the Jerusalem church. He does not tell us about the activities of Mary the mother of Jesus or of Mary Magdalene or Joanna, for example, yet we can assume these women were doing at least some of the same things that the men were doing. In Acts 12, however, Luke does tell us that when Peter was released from prison he went directly to the house of a woman, Mary of Jerusalem.

II.a Mary of Jerusalem

As well as being the mother of a minister (John Mark) and the aunt of a minister (Barnabas), Mary was involved in ministry herself. She held church meetings in her own home in Jerusalem. Acts 12 tells us that despite the threat of persecution—Herod Agrippa had killed James and imprisoned Peter—she held a prayer meeting.

Up until the 300s, there were practically no church buildings, so providing a home base for a congregation was a vital ministry. Most congregations in the first century were house churches and they were not large, consisting of between a dozen to sixty members. Relatively wealthy believers opened their homes and cared for the physical and spiritual wellbeing of congregations. They also opened their homes to visiting apostles, prophets, teachers and other ministers who brought words of encouragement and instruction, as well as news from other churches.[2] Several women and men mentioned in the New Testament hosted and cared for congregations in their homes. Some scholars believe these people were the first church overseers (Greek: episkopoi).[3]

We do not hear much about the women of the church in Jerusalem or in Judea, or in nearby provinces. Still, we know women were ministering as hosts: Mary in Jerusalem; as carers or benefactors of widows and the poor: Tabitha in Joppa (Acts 9:36-42); as prophets: Philip’s daughters in Caesarea Maritima (Acts 21:9). We hear even less about the women in Syrian Antioch. But as we move northwest from Syria―to the Roman provinces of Asia, Macedonia, Achaia, and to Rome itself―the names of women are mentioned in the New Testament in increasing numbers. Most of these women were associated with the apostle Paul. One of them is Lydia.

II.b Lydia in Philippi

Lydia was a gentile woman but also an adherent to Judaism. She was in a Jewish prayer-house in the Macedonian city of Philippi when Paul and his team turned up and brought the message of Jesus. Luke records that ‘The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message’ (Acts 16:14). She was Paul’s first convert in Europe.

Lydia was a dealer of expensive purple fabric, a luxury product, and she appears to have had a relatively spacious home. After she and her household were baptized, Lydia hosted Paul and his team. It seems she also hosted the Philippian church in her home, as Paul and Silas encouraged the brothers and sisters in Lydia’s home before they moved on to the next city to carry on their mission (Acts 16:40). Lydia is the only Philippian identified by name in Acts 16, indicating that she played a significant role in the church, most likely continuing her role as the host of the first Philippian congregation.

What might the women and men who hosted first-century churches have done? Margaret Y. MacDonald comments on gatherings in Roman homes, including church meetings.

In the Roman world, it was normal procedure for the person in whose house a group met to preside, select the meal, and organize the entertainment to follow, which could include a visiting philosopher or wisdom figure. It is reasonable to conclude that women such as Lydia in Philippi and Phoebe in Cenchreae were presiding in their homes as they entertained Paul and his fellow workers.[4]

We look at Phoebe in the following section [in the next blog post].


[1] Some argue that because the Twelve were all men, women cannot be church leaders. I discuss this idea on my website. https://margmowczko.com/the-twelve-apostles-were-all-male/

[2] The Didache (circa 100) speaks about itinerant teachers, apostles, and prophets, and gives guidelines about receiving them. The lady and her congregation (literally, ‘her children’) who receive the letter known as 2 John are warned not to host ministers who bring unsound teaching (2 John 1:10). See my article, The Elder and the Lady: A Look at the Language of Second John. https://margmowczko.com/elder-lady-language-2-john/ 

[3] For example, in a discussion on 1 Timothy 3, Kevin Giles writes, ‘The argument that the bishops [episkopoi] and deacons are house-church leaders is now the prevailing scholarly consensus’. Giles, Patterns of Ministry among the First Christians (Eugene OR: Cascade Books, 2017), 61.
Most episkopoi were men, and Paul’s words in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 reflect this. However, none of the qualifications in these verses in the Greek text states that only men are permitted to be episkopoi. More on these qualifications here: https://margmowczko.com/pauls-qualifications-for-church-leaders/

[4] Margaret Y. MacDonald, ‘The Religious Lives of Women in the Early Christianity,’ Women’s Bible Commentary, Third Edition, Carol A. Newsom, Sharon H. Ringe, Jacqueline E. Lapsley (eds) (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012), 640-647, 642.

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Women and Men and Ministry in First-Century Churches

Part 1: Female Followers of Jesus and Church Overseers
Part 2: Paul’s Diakonoi and Coworkers
Part 3: Difficult and Dangerous Ministries and 1 Timothy 2:12

Explore more

Many Women Followed Jesus—Many!
The Holy Spirit and Equality in Acts
Apostles in the New Testament Church
3 Views on the Ministry of the Seven in Acts 6
“Must Manage His Own Household” (1 Tim. 3:4-5) (On the role of overseers.)
Tabitha: An Exemplary Disciple (Acts 9:36-42)
Lydia of Thyatria: The Founding Member of the Philippian Church
The First-Century Church and the Ministry of Women


15 thoughts on “Women and Men and Ministry in First-Century Churches

  1. Yes! Women were filled with the Holy Spirit and anointed for ministry on the Day of Pentecost, just as the men were. Yet, we accept the notion that these women (and the anointing upon them) just faded away into obscurity?! I think not!

    Interesting too that women were acknowledged more often in different geographical (and ethnic) areas. This could be a sad comment on the effects of twisted Scripture and misogyny among the Jews. 🙁 Gentile believers did not start with the legalism of Judaism; they abandoned paganism and started anew with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Men and women alike found the freedom and power of the Holy Spirit and lived for His glory.

    As for the notion that because the Twelve were all male, all subsequent religious leaders must also be male? Well! All of them were Jews too, correct? Yet Gentile men are accepted for positions of leadership all the time.

    …and it would appear that the Twelve were supported mainly by the contributions and labor of …. women.

    1. … and they were often accompanied by women (1 Cor. 9:5 KJV).

      The first believers in areas north and west of Judea were usually Jewish, or they had a connection with the Jewish community. And the first Christian missionaries were Jewish. So I don’t think the problem was simply a supposed Jewish misogyny.

      I look at the argument of the 12 being a model for church leadership here: https://margmowczko.com/the-twelve-apostles-were-all-male/

      “Men and women alike found the freedom and power of the Holy Spirit and lived for His glory.” Indeed!

  2. a little more about Lydia and purple—-

    When you mention purple, the artist in me takes note–that purple was made sea snails’ excretions. It took a lot to make small amounts but the color did not easily fade. Lydia’s business made her among the elite and highly respected of the area.
    The everyday person did not buy purple. It was purchased exclusively by royalty and the rich. Rome passed laws that only the elite could wear the color. Hence today we associate the color with kings and queens.
    And since the high and low classes did not socially mix it was ground breaking that rich and high class Lydia opened her home to all who believed and thus erased the barrier of class distinctions. She continued the work of the cross that women, slaves and the poor to all be equals with the dominant classes. In essence, she broke the patriarchy, at least in her town.

    1. Thanks Esbee. I have quite a bit about purple in my article on Lydia too.

      I’m not sure exactly what the regulations were about wearing purple in the mid-first century, but they become more restrictive over time. Already by this time, however, only the emperor could wear a completely purple toga and high-ranking senators had a purple “stripe” on their white togas.

  3. I keep forgetting this, but men were in the majority among Gentiles, because of female infanticide.

    Also, Sandra R. Joshel, “Work, Identity, and Legal Status at Rome, a study of the occupational inscriptions” surveyed inscriptions in Rome and found 55 men employed in transportation, but not a single woman. Women rarely, if ever, travelled, except with male household members. I doubt that Jesus would have wanted to expose women to harassment by sending them as apostles. Purely practical considerations required that the 12 apostles be men, I think.

    1. Hi Richard, I’m not exactly sure what Joshel means by “employed in transportation.” Does she mean people like dock workers, or people who travelled? Phoebe, Priscilla and Junia travelled to and from Rome.

      Regarding the statement that “Women rarely, if ever, travelled, except with male household members.” Few people travelled alone. It seems a considerable number of Christian missionaries in the first and second centuries travelled in male-female pairs or groups that included men and women: https://margmowczko.com/believing-wives-female-co-workers-of-the-apostles/

      Chrysostom, who probably didn’t have an entirely accurate picture of the situation, nevertheless wrote, “For the women of those days were more spirited than lions, sharing with the apostles their labours for the gospel’s sake. In this way they went travelling with them, and also performed all other ministries.” (Homily 31 on Romans; PG 60, 669)

      Still, we do have evidence that ancient women travelled for their own interests and reasons, including ministry reasons. We have extant papyri letters from the fourth century (admittedly much later than the first century) which are letters of recommendation written to churches that introduce women travellers. For example, P.Oxy. 36.2785 recommends a Christian woman named Taion leading a small band of travellers in Egypt. http://papyri.info/ddbdp/p.oxy;36;2785> P.Oxy. 56.3857 introduces a woman traveller named Germania.  <http://papyri.info/ddbdp/p.oxy;56;3857
      See V.K. McCarty, Phoebe as an Example of Female Authority Exercised in the Early Church, presented at The Sofia Institute, Third Annual Conference, Union Theological Seminary Campus, New York City, 2010.

      I’m sure Phoebe travelled with men for protection. Priscilla and Junia travelled with men. Mary went to visit Elizabeth in the hill country of Judea, travelled to Bethlehem, fled to Egypt, went from Egypt to Nazareth, and visited Jerusalem for Passovers, presumably in the company of men even before she was married. The women who followed Jesus around Galilee and to Jerusalem travelled with men. Not to mention the stories of certain women in the Apocryphal Acts which may echo some reality.

      I have a bit more on early Christian women and their bravery in light of the 12, here.

      1. The 55 employed in transportation are subdivided by Joshel thus: animal tenders and baggage handlers (13), runners and bearers (40), drivers and boatmen (2).

        I don’t doubt the women’s bravery. I think it was too dangerous for even men to be apostles, except for those who had the legal protection of Roman citizenship.

        1. It makes sense that these job which require muscle and physical stamina were done by men. So I’m not sure of the point.

          Yes, travelling was difficult and dangerous in the first-century, but less so than in previous and successive centuries. (I wish I could remember an excellent quotation that’s in the back of my mind about the relative safety of first-century travel.)

          1. Though she gives some possible exceptions, Margherita Carucci, “The Dangers of Female Mobility in Roman Imperial Times” page 188 writes “when women travelled, they did so as
            wives (Seneca’s aunt, Regilla, Antonia, Urbanilla, Zenobia), sisters (Septimius
            Severus’ sister, see below), mothers (Monica), or slaves of a man (perhaps the
            wet-nurse Chreste). Roman women may also have travelled in the company
            of (male) servants or hired protectors. As Tacitus suggests in his description of
            the mutiny of the German legions that forced Agrippina to flee the fort, a centurion
            or a soldier for protection was part of the customary retinue that accompanied
            high-status women.50 The rhetoric of safety and morality that seems so
            intimately connected to women’s mobility is still embedded in contemporary
            discourse on solitary women travellers.51 A woman who embarks on a journey
            without being escorted by a husband or another appropriate male companion
            is very likely to be perceived as making herself vulnerable to harassment and
            other male attacks that put at risk not only her safety but also her morality.”

          2. This sounds right. I don’t know why any ancient woman would travel unescorted by a man, or without the support of a group of people, in the ancient world.

          3. So doesn’t this explain why the 12 apostles had to be men? What would the alternative have been?

  4. Hi Richard, I give a few reasons why it makes sense that the 12 were all male here.

    One of these reasons is that the 12 were given the (collective ?) role of being Jesus’s witnesses/ testifiers. Here’s an excerpt from the article.

    These men were witnesses—witnesses of Jesus’ ministry, his miracles and his death and resurrection. “Witnesses” is a word that comes up frequently for the ministry of the Twelve (e.g., Luke 24:48; John 15:27; Acts 1:8; 2:32; 4:20, 33ff; 5:32). The fact that women were not considered credible witnesses in the first century is probably a significant reason why women were not among the Twelve.

    Also, the fact that women, such as Peter’s wife, did travel with the apostles (1 Cor. 9:5), means that the difficulties of travel isn’t a reason to exclude them. Many people, including Origen, suggest that women, such as Junia, were among the 72 who did much the same job as the 12.

    Compare Luke 9:1ff where Jesus calls and commissions the 12 to Luke 10:1ff where Jesus appoints 72 others: Μετὰ δὲ ταῦτα ἀνέδειξεν ὁ κύριος ἑτέρους ἑβδομήκοντα δύο καὶ ἀπέστειλεν αὐτοὺς ἀνὰ δύο δύο πρὸ προσώπου αὐτοῦ εἰς πᾶσαν πόλιν καὶ τόπον οὗ ἤμελλεν αὐτὸς ἔρχεσθαι (Luke 9:1).

    In commissioning the 72 in Luke 10, Jesus explicitly mentions that they are to go out as pairs (δύο δύο). Mark 6:7ff mentions the 12 being sent out in pairs (δύο δύο).

    Men didn’t travel alone if they could help it. See also Matthew 21:1 where Jesus sends 2 disciples for a more local job (cf. Matt. 18:20).

    I can’t imagine that Mary Magdalene, and other women like her, stayed home after the amazing year or two she’d spent with travelling with Jesus. (I don’t give any credence to the legends about her.)

    1. That’s an interesting point about the credibility of female witnesses. Did females have more credibility in some provinces than in others? Do you know of any studies on this? I am wondering which regions would have been more fruitful for female apostles.

      If Jesus had sent a woman with a man who was not her husband, wouldn’t it have caused scandal? Sending a married couple would be a better idea. If a woman had been named as one of the 12, it is doubtful that her husband would have been willing to travel with her, especially if he was not given the same honour of being included in the 12. If they had both been included in the 12, they would have represented different tribes of Israel, I suppose, which is a bit awkward. Also, a married couple would not have illustrated Jesus’s preference for singleness.

      1. Here’s a quotation from Josephus.

        “But let not a single witness be credited, but three, or two at the least, and those such whose testimony is confirmed by their good lives. But let not the testimony of women be admitted, on account of the levity and boldness of their sex. Nor let servants be admitted to give testimony, on account of the ignobility of their soul; since it is probable that they may not speak truth, either out of hope of gain, or fear of punishment.”
        Josephus, The Antiquities of the Jews, 4.8.15, §219
        (I quote this in a footnote in my article on why the 12 were male.)

        I’d love to know more about this too. I imagine that women in Roman cities and Roman colonies were better accepted as witnesses than women in more eastern-influenced cities. And ancient women did give evidence in courts.

        I don’t know why the many women travelling around with Jesus and his male followers didn’t cause a scandal. My hunch is that there was some cultural acceptance of religious groups, especially ascetic religious groups, travelling around the countryside the way Jesus’s followers did.

        1. That’s helpful. Thanks.

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