women ministry leaders in the new testament

Written by Mark Lafler

B.A., Global University; M.C.S., Regent College I am currently serving as a youth minister at our church in Sarasota, FL. I am married to Tera (15 Years +) and we have 3 beautiful daughters.

May 6, 2011

woman, women, ministry, church

Usually when one considers gender leadership issues in the New Testament the first place to look is the well-known verses of Paul that seem to suggest that women should either be quiet in the church or that they should not hold any leadership positions over men.

However, before one makes overall conclusions about women in ministry leadership based on these verses one should consider the following women that ministered in the early church.

In Romans 16, 5 of the 9 women that Paul greets were ministry colleagues.  Paul calls them “co-workers” (Romans 16:3, 6-7, and 12).

Phoebe is one of these women whom Paul calls a deacon (Romans 16:1).  The church fathers Origin and John Chrysostom describe this text as referring to her position (or rank) in the church.

Junia (in some translations Junias) in Romans 16:7 is a female.  The text may be read that she and Adronicus are “outstanding among the apostles” instead of “well known to the apostles.”  the former is the better translation rather than the latter because it is more consistent with early Christian translations and other Greek texts of the same period.

Euodia and Syntyche (both females) were singled out in Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi (Philippians 4:2).  They labored with Paul and are apparently leaders in the Philippian church being that the letter is a public letter to be read aloud in the church assembly.

Both Priscillla and Aquilla are greeted as co-workers with Paul (Romans 16:3-5 and 2 Timothy 4:19).  Linda L. Belleville writes concerning this couple:

What is unusual is the order of their names.  As in our “Mr. and Mrs.” nomenclature, the Roman husband’s name typically appeared first.  When New Testament writers refer to their occupation of tentmakers and to “their house,” the order is “Aquila and Priscilla” (Acts 18:2; 1 Corinthians 16:19).  But when ministry is in view, the order is “Priscilla and Aquila” (Acts 18:18; Romans 16:3; cf. 2 Timothy 4:19).  This is also the case with the instruction of Apollos (Acts 18:26), suggesting that Priscilla, possessed the dominant ministry and leadership skills of the duo (Discovering Biblical Equality, 122).

There is also Nympha.  She was a patronage of a house church, which was an authoritative role (Colossians 4:15).

Philip’s four daughters prophesied in Acts 21:9 and there is no indication that they prophesied to women only.  Luke, the author of Acts, does not use “prophecy” as some impromptu, ad hoc utterance that is lightly noted.  He uses “prophecy” as a vehicle for the Holy Spirit to direct the early church (i.e. Acts 13:1-3).  Cross-reference this verse with Ephesians 2:20-21 where apostles and prophets are the foundation of the “church” and Christ being the cornerstone.

As one may clearly see by the above examples, Paul and other male church leaders accepted female leadership and supported their ministry in the church.

It should also be clear that none of the above texts suggest that these women leaders only led and ministered to other women.  They were simply gifted by the Holy Spirit to teach, give prophesies, lead, and shepherd all the people that God put within their care.

We should consider these early leaders of the church and the implications that these Biblical examples have on our own contemporary leadership issues.  It seems to me that having women in ministry leadership is a Biblical position and should be in full practice today.


  1. Jezamama

    Thank you for listing all of these women! I’ve watched churches split over Paul’s few chosen words. Rarely does anyone list all the New Testament women and what they really did. I wonder if Paul could see how his words have been used, how they have been taken and the women that have been smeared and hidden because of a line or two… I wonder if he would have written something different?

    • Mark Lafler

      Good thoughts! I wonder the same thing. Paul’s letters are in fact letters – adressed to a particular people and setting. We should always keep that in mind. Context is important for interpretation and application.

      • Jezamama

        After reading a book by Philip Yancey I finally realized what to call what we “do” to women in the church today. Much like our churches before and during the civil rights movement that chose racism and bigotry as a way of “dealing” with those who weren’t white. I believe that we have a great deal of chauvenism that has taken over how we treat women.

        Even Ann Graham Lott (evangelist Billy Graham’s daughter) who is a gifted Bible teacher, speaker and author in her own right, has discussed in her books getting up to speak before a crowd consisting mostly of male pastors. They actually invited her to speak, but when she stood to take her place behind the pulpit the entire room literally turned moved their chairs so that they had their backs to her.

        Is this what Paul intended? Is this the heart of Jesus towards women?

        • Mark Lafler

          I agree that we STILL have a great deal of chauvenism in the church. Unfortunately, this might take a few more generations to overcome. More prayer is needed to see God work within the hearts of Christian leaders.

          That is a powerful story you share of Ann Graham Lott. My goodness! Certainly that is NOT the gospel that Paul preached or an example of the Kingdom that Jesus preached. Thank you for sharing this story.

  2. Yvette

    There is an excellente book titled “Why Not Women” by Loren Cunnungham and David Joel Hamilton that explains the culture and background of Pauls words in the Bible and what he was really saying in these verses. When one goes against women preaching, teaching or speaking, they are really shutting down the gospel from going forth.
    Blessings for a great post!

    • Mark Lafler

      Thanks for the book info. I agree – to prevent women from preaching, teaching, and/or speaking is to “shut down” the progress of the gospel. I would suggest that it also works against the ministry of the Holy Spirit who has gifted women with the abilities and calling to minister the gospel.

      Thanks for the comments!

  3. J. Armstrong

    This is fascinating food for thought. I definitely need to do some more reading about the conflicting concepts of complimentarianism vs. evangelical feminism. Your arguments, along with a few others, have already gone a long way towards dispelling some of my misunderstandings of the so-called ‘problem texts’ of Paul. Still, I want to know more about both sides of the debate.

    Certainly it could be easy to demagogue the issue in favor of either side, painting one side or the other with a crude caricature — if not outright misrepresentation — of their actual, nuanced views. I, myself, was raised with a more conservative evangelical outlook on the issue, but have found that I am drawn to egalitarianism in most things, and thus am sympathetic to the arguments of evangelical feminism. Throughout it all, though, I believe we must remember that while good people of honest and open hearts can disagree in their search for God’s truth, in the spirit of very general intra-Christian ecumenicalism, to not let that split us apart. I would quote Augustine’s famous line, but I’ve found some Christians even have an issue with this (as some feel it presupposes that any part of the Bible isn’t ‘essential’), and then the irony would be too thick to cut! So I won’t…

    • Mark Lafler

      Thank you for the comments J. Armstrong. I agree that both sides of this issue need to respect each other and minister the gospel of Jesus Christ. Unfortunately, for some people (or groups) the debate has become bigger then the body of Christ, the love of Christ, or Christian witness.

      Nevertheless, a good, friendly, respectful debate is helpful and may bring change for some people.

      Good thoughts!

  4. Andy Carlson

    In my consideration of the topic, and my consternation at
    history, it is the reticence of men (and likewise their – our – false sense of
    empowered superiority) to actively and effective love women as Christ loved the
    church with balance encouragement and shared equal ability and responsibility,
    which as resulted in a turbulent struggle for importance.

    Subsequently, the opportunity and need for
    women, who have stepped up to the plate to fill the void, is great and by

    In accepting the need to fill
    the void often women have actively become as equally imbalanced as men…to the
    point that we have those (men and women) whom God has created vying, in a vacuum
    of leadership, for the perceived position of importance. I am thankful that
    women are growing into their own sense pride and ability while accepting and perusing
    greater opportunities….to be supported and encouraged.

    Can we find a live in a Scriptural balance.

  5. Debbie Kelly

    Thank you, Mark. This brought tears to my eyes.

  6. Abhi

    I have a question:
    What of Paul’s recommendation that women should “cover her head” while praying or prophesying? Need it be followed?
    And what of the reason given for it, “because of angels”?
    What explanations could there possibly be for these?
    I personally think of these exhortations as being very specific to the culture in Corinth.

    • Dan King

      That’s a passage I would have to study more in context, particularly the historical context. Paul certainly spoke frequently to things specific to the time, place, and culture… and those principles are applied differently today in a different time. place, and culture.

      I can say that this isn’t something my wife typically practices.


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women ministry leaders in the new testament

by Mark Lafler time to read: 3 min