I decided to jot this down after reading an essay by Scot McKnight of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Chicago. The point of his essay is that for whatever reason (he gives a few but I don’t necessarily agree) these women are pushed to the margins of both biblical studies and church teaching and have there for much of Christian history. A few names on this list are familiar, but most I know only through scattered references and some not at all. Even of the prominent, their true role as portrayed in Scripture and the implications of that role are almost universally minimized. Simply put, I’m writing this post to stop being part of the problem. After reading through the following I hope what I mean here will become clear. I am not trying to advocate for any certain theology or way of life. I just think it is time we start telling these remarkable stories.
WOMEN DISCIPLES There can be little doubt women are as important to Jesus’ ministry as men. In Matthew 12: 46-50 Jesus refers to a mixed group of people sitting in front of him as his brothers, sisters, and mother. This probably means women were following Jesus as disciples. There is also of course the famous story of Mary sitting at the Lord’s feet in Luke 10:39.
Most striking of all, in Luke 8:1-3 we learn women, most famously Mary Magdalene, travel with Jesus and the disciples as part of the latter’s ministry. Additionally, we learn here Jesus’ team is financially supported by wealthy female patrons.
Jesus also used metaphors and images of women repeatedly in his teaching and parables, a practice unusual at the time and unnecessary if women were not with him learning as his disciples.
Additionally, the feminine form of disciple is used in Acts 9:36 and applied to a woman named Tabitha.
Of course this doesn’t mean, these women disciples served as authoritative teachers later in the church. However, why haven’t we heard of them? Why don’t we talk about them?
See Ken Bailey’s books for more, especially Jesus and the Prodigal.
PHOEBE (Romans 16:1-2) Phoebe is described as a deacon of the church in Cenchreae and a patron of Paul and others. She likely provided Paul with funds for his trips and maybe with protection as well. She must have had immense influence since Paul commends her so highly and trusted her to deliver his letter to the Roman church.
PHILIPS’S DAUGHTERS (Acts 21:9) While traveling through Caesarea, Paul stays in the house of Philip, one of the original seven deacons. Philip’s four unmarried daughters are briefly mentioned as prophets. I’m honestly not sure what to make of this, but probably, “sharing a word,” or “giving testimony” are terms we use for this type of prophecy today.
PRISCILLA (Acts 18:2-3, 18-19, 26; Romans 16:3-4; 1 Cor. 16:19; 2 Tim. 4:19) Priscilla is the wife of Aquila. Together they make up the most potent missionary team in the pages of the New Testament, training leaders, teaching, supplying and protecting Christians, and leading churches from their home. Paul repeatedly stresses his thanks for their selflessness, knowledge, and steadfastness in gospel work. Interestingly Priscilla is often mentioned first and Paul makes no differentiation between her work and Aquila’s calling them both his “fellow workers.”
JUNIA (Romans 16:7) Read Romans 16:7 in several different translations. I’d love to hear what others think.
CHLOE (1 Corinthians 1:10-11) Chloe’s people were Paul’s source of information regarding dissension in the Corinthian church. We don’t know much about her, but she must have been a person of some influence.
LYDIA (Acts 16:11-15, 40) A wealthy merchant, Lydia became the first known European Christian and consequently the first European church met under her watchful care. She also became a patron and protector of Paul and Silas.
MARY, MOTHER OF JOHN MARK (Acts 12:12) While her role is not specified, Mary was at the very least responsible for protecting the embattled faith community of Jerusalem for a time and displayed unflappable courage by opening her home. It was to her Peter fled after escaping from prison and Herod’s clutches.
NYMPHA (Colossians 4:15) Paul sent his greetings to the church of Nympha’s home. Again, her exact role is not clear. However, there can be no question she was a very important leader for the church of Laodicea.
EUODIA AND SYNTYCHE (Philippians 4:2-3) These two women assisted Paul’s church planting efforts in the Roman colony of Philippi. Paul describes them as having “contended for the Gospel by my side” and lumps them in as “coworkers.” While Euodia and Syntyche’s exact role is unknown, the women’s importance was such that their dispute threatened to divide the church and necessitated Paul sending a meditator.
CONCLUSION Many of these verse are admittedly obscure references, but taken together one cannot help but think we are missing something today. And besides, are they any more obscure than the two references which limit women’s roles in the church that we so often hear (1 Cor. 14:33-35; 1 Tim. 2:11-15)? How all this fits together I am not sure, but we (SBC, evangelicals, Christians, us, me) must stop building entire world views on a handful of verses one way or the other. We must instead begin to more humbly seek the holistic arc in the story of Scripture.
One last challenge, even if some hold the traditional view that ordained church leadership is for spiritually mature men only, how many male pastors today have women co-workers they could describe in the same terms Paul describes his? I’m guessing not many.