Jesus as a Liberator of Women

Sep 17th, 2011 | By | Category: Christian Life, Featured Issues

Without question, one of the most hotly debated issues in American evangelicalism is the role of women in the church; there are good and godly leaders on both sides of nearly every question of this debate.  One issue that cannot be debated, however, is that the Scriptures affirm the equality of men and women, both in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-27), in their position in Christ (Galatians 3:28) and as joint heirs (1 Peter 3:7).  While the Bible proclaims equality, it also argues for functional differences—role differences—within the home (Ephesians 5:22-33; Colossians 3:18-19) and within the church (1 Corinthians 11:2-16; 14:33-36; 1 Timothy 2:8-15; 3:1-13. 5:1-25; Titus 1:6-9).  Whatever the precise meanings and applications of these crucial Pauline passages, church history bears witness to an extraordinary number of women in strategic places of ministry in the early church.  The Gospel was a liberating force in the ancient world.  When challenged by the Gospel, old and established traditions, rooted in human prejudice, gradually died.  Contempt, discrimination and demeaning references often characterized rabbinic teachings about women.  Rabbis, for instance, were encouraged not to teach or even speak to women.  Also, according to Jewish tradition, women could never be a part of the count needed to establish a synagogue.  But Luke cited both men and women who were baptized and persecuted and who contributed to the growth of the church (Acts 5:14; 8:12; 9:2; 17:4, 12).  This challenge to ancient tradition began with Jesus’ earthly ministry, in which women played a most significant role.  Many women supported the ministry of Jesus and the Twelve financially and ministered to Him personally (see Matthew 27:55-56; Mark 15:40-41 and Luke 8:3).  The Gospels usually depict Mary, sister of Martha, as seated at Jesus’ feet—an honor normally given to men.  Several women had the immensely important distinction of bearing the news of Christ’s resurrection—a quite remarkable honor in light of strict Jewish teachings on valid testimony.  Not only were women involved in the ministry of Jesus, they were part of the events at Pentecost (see Acts 4:14).  Since the narrative of events in the upper room continues into chapter 2, we must assume that the women present were likewise filled with the Holy Spirit at Pentecost (2:1-4).

The Book of Acts also gives accounts of women who played active roles in the ministry of the early church:

  1. Dorcas (Tabitha) was the only woman in the New Testament to be called a “disciple” (9:36).  Her death caused a major stir in Joppa, causing Peter to come and perform one of his greatest miracles—raising her from the dead.
  2. Mary of Jerusalem, John Mark’s mother (12:12), was a wealthy widow whose house became the vital hub of the Jerusalem church.  There the young church found refuge and security during the intense persecutions of Herod Agrippa.
  3. One of the more remarkable women of the NT was Priscilla (Prisca).  She and her husband, Aquila, early converts to the faith who were banished from Rome, were intimate friends of Paul, with whom they shared hospitality and the craft of tentmaking (Acts 18:1-3).  Also, in some way they had risked their lives for Paul (Romans 16:3-5), perhaps at the same time heightening his awareness of the growing church in Rome.  Most significantly, both Priscilla and Aquila took Apollos, the eloquent preacher from Alexandria, “and explained to him the way of God more accurately” (Acts 18:26).  Obviously, Priscilla knew biblical truth and could explain it with clarity.  That the ministry of this couple was well-known and widespread is evidenced by the frequent references to them in Paul’s writings (see Romans 16:3; 1 Corinthians 16:19 and 2 Timothy 4:19).  Tradition has it that Priscilla was martyred in Rome.
  4. Another woman of the NT was Phoebe (Romans 16:1-2).  Because she was probably the bearer of Paul’s letter to the Romans, Paul commends her to the Roman church, that they “receive her in the Lord in a manner worthy of the saints,” and “help her in whatever manner she may need of you.”  He also says of her that she was a “helper” to many (v. 2).  The word “helper” clearly implies active and important functions in the church.  Was she therefore representing Paul in some official capacity, as perhaps a “deaconess” (servant of v. 1), as some have argued?  From these two verses, we simply cannot be certain that she held an authoritative office in the church at Cenchrea.  We do know that Phoebe was significant enough for Paul to go out of his way to single her out and ask the Roman church to take care of her.
  5. Two passages also indicate that women functioned as prophets in the early church.  Acts 21:9 introduces Philip the evangelist as having four daughters who were “prophetesses.”  From Paul’s instruction in 1 Corinthians 11:5, it would seem that Phillip’s daughters were not exceptions, for Paul’s instruction about women’s head coverings occurs in the context of women “praying or prophesying” in the worship service.  Whatever the nature of these ministries, women, gifted by the Holy Spirit, exercised notable responsibilities in the early church.
  6. Other women in the NT filled pivotal roles of ministry in the early church.  Euodias and Syntyche (Philippians 4:2-3) were identified as “fellow workers” with Paul, a remarkable designation when one remembers that Paul also labeled Titus and Timothy as “fellow workers.”  Paul classifies Andronicus and Junias [Junia] (Romans 16:7)—most probably a woman—as “outstanding among the apostles,” most likely a reference to their role as ones commissioned by the Roman church for special duties, not the NT office of apostle.  Finally, in the list of “fellow workers” in Romans 16, ten to the 29 people commended by Paul were women.

Women thus played a decisive role in the beginning of Christianity.  Their work both complemented the duties of men and involved some leadership responsibilities.  Although there are no recorded examples of women evangelists, elders, or formal teachers of biblical truth, their function was both vibrant and vital in the ongoing progress of the Gospel—a clear testimony to the liberating power of Jesus Christ.

See James P. Eckman in Confident Living (February 1991), pp. 18-19. PRINT PDF

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