Your Daughters Will Prophesy: The New Testament Case for Women in Ministry
In three critical, revelatory moments we see most clearly the shared place of women and men in fulfilling the work of God’s people.
BY KARI BRODEN
From its inception, the Assemblies of God has experienced and recognized the Holy Spirit’s empowerment of both men and women for gospel ministry. As a Pentecostal New Testament scholar quipped, when our efforts in hermeneutics fully developed to catch up with our Spirit-inspired experience, we discovered that our understanding and practice were in fact thoroughly biblical.
Many capable scholars have set forth in detail the New Testament case for women in ministry.1 I will highlight the contours of this case by means of a threefold, and indeed Trinitarian, framework: creation, Christ, and charismata (gifts of the Holy Spirit). In these three critical, revelatory moments we see most clearly the shared place of women and men in fulfilling the work of God’s people.
Since the New Testament is firmly rooted in the Old Testament, beginning with creation is appropriate. Through the Son and with the Spirit, God the Father brought the universe into being and formed in His image the human beings, male and female, who were creation’s crown. To them jointly He gave dominion: the responsibility to act as His stewards in righteous rule, caring for the Earth and its creatures (Genesis 1:26,27).
Creation displays no hint of hierarchy or subordination in ontology or function between the man and the woman. In Eden we see God’s intent for the harmonious mutuality of relationship between the man, incomplete alone, and the perfectly corresponding woman who would share in his task — a God-given helpmate.
Not until the Fall do we see the marring of God’s harmony, with dire consequences for the pair. Into what was once a shared dominion, sin introduces domination (Genesis 3:16). In the remaining Old Testament story, we observe evidence of, and response to, this sin-spoiled relationship. For example, as Jesus told the Pharisees, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning” (Matthew 19:8).
“He comes to make His blessings flow far as the curse is found.” Isaac Watts’ beautiful carol proclaims the joy we celebrate at Christmas: Christ “reverses the curse” of sin at every turn. If God’s intent was truly the mutual partnership of His male and female co-image-bearers, we may expect to see this in the life and teaching of Jesus, and in those under the influence of His advent. We do.
The Gospels bear witness to the new creation ethos of the kingdom of God inaugurated in Jesus’ first coming. Luke’s birth narratives are among the first signals of its significance for women: Elizabeth, Mary, and Anna take their places alongside Zechariah, Joseph, and Simeon as the prophetic voices of women are lifted in Spirit-inspired speech heralding the upside-down Kingdom that stands worldly values and hierarchies on their heads (Luke 1, 2).
Jesus’ baptism (Matthew 3) and first sermon at Nazareth (Luke 4) announce the anointing of God’s Messiah and the agenda of His Spirit-filled ministry that is good news for the oppressed who turn to Him. As the narratives of His life unfold, many women are among those who do turn to Jesus.
Jesus not only treats women in remarkably affirming ways, He also calls them to share in His mission. Women in various healing accounts (e.g., the woman subject to bleeding, the Syrophoenician mother) and other encounters with Jesus (the widow’s offering, the women who anointed Him for burial) serve as models for faith and discipleship.
In John’s Gospel, two women are favored with participation in perhaps the most theologically profound of Jesus’ conversations. The woman at the well in Samaria (John 4) keeps pace with Jesus’ intriguing references at least as well as Nicodemus a chapter earlier. What is more, she continues her probing inquiries to the point not only of her own discipleship but also of evangelistic activity. Her testimony brings an entire village to faith. Later, Martha responds to Jesus’ revelatory words with a confession of Him as Messiah and Son of God (John 11:27) that parallels Peter’s great statement recorded by the other three evangelists.
Mary, Martha’s sister, earns Jesus’ praise for choosing “what is better” by sitting at His feet in the customary position of a disciple, counter to the prevailing norms for women (Luke 10:38–42). Like the Twelve, many women accompanied Jesus as disciples throughout His itinerant ministry (Luke 8:1–3). Those with the financial means were able to contribute support, in a manner corresponding to the discipleship sacrifices made by the Twelve (Luke 18:28,29).2 It stands to reason that women such as these were among the 72 Jesus sent out, two by two, to announce the kingdom of God (Luke 10:1–16).
Why, then, did Jesus not select any women as part of the Twelve? A specific answer could only be conjecture, but perhaps it was due to practical concerns, or to their symbolic mirroring of the twelve sons of Jacob (Matthew 19:28).
Certain women disciples who had followed Jesus from Galilee were present at His crucifixion: Mary Magdalene, Mary of Clopas, Salome, Mary the mother of James and Joses, Joanna, Mary the mother of Jesus, and the mother of Zebedee’s sons.3 And in a striking move that could not have escaped notice in the first century Jewish context where a woman’s testimony was not admissible in court, God entrusted the initial witness and proclamation of Jesus’ resurrection to women. The commands of the angel at the empty tomb and of Jesus himself to “go and tell” (Matthew 28:7,10) essentially make Mary Magdalene and the “other Mary” apostles to the apostles.
While taking care not to misrepresent the historical-cultural context of the first century as unremittingly misogynistic, one must not overlook the tremendously uplifting and empowering message of Jesus for women.4 With the incarnation of Christ, the light of God’s self-revelation is shining full beam. Jesus’ treatment of women, His acceptance of them as disciples, and His commissioning of them to bear witness make plain the egalitarian nature of relationships and of ministry calling and service in God’s economy.
The events and effects of the Day of Pentecost provide a climactic demonstration of God’s intention that women and men jointly minister in the new covenant. The Holy Spirit fell on the men and women (Acts 1:14) who waited in Jerusalem in obedience to Jesus’ command and in expectation of His promise. They spoke in languages they had not learned, declaring the wonderful works of God to the gathered representatives of the nations.
Peter identified this event as the fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy: “In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy” (Acts 2:17,18).
The time of fulfillment of God’s promises, the eschatological era (“last days”) has arrived, and this quotation from Joel is programmatic for the mission of God’s prophetic people, His Church. Craig Keener says, “Joel’s prophecy declared the eradication of any gender barrier in the Spirit of prophecy.”5
Later in Acts (21:9) we learn of the four prophesying daughters of Philip, and when Paul writes to the Corinthians some years later, his regulations prove that in the gathered assemblies women are indeed prophesying alongside men (1 Corinthians 11:2–16). That this is a crucial and authoritative ministry in the Church is clear from Paul’s statements in Ephesians that prophets along with apostles are the foundation for God’s household (2:19,20) and that Christ gives them to equip His people (4:11–13).
In 1 Corinthians 14:26, all in the body of Christ — “each of you” — may not only prophesy but exercise all the charismata, the Holy Spirit’s gifts. Giftedness, not gender, qualifies God’s servants to minister. As F.F. Bruce says, “The Spirit, in his sovereign good pleasure, bestows varying gifts on individual believers … with ‘undistinguishing regard,’ on men and women alike ― not on all women, of course, nor yet on all men.”6
In the New Testament we encounter a number of women ministering in the churches.7 In Ephesus, Priscilla and Aquila, the wife and husband tent-making ministry team, taught Apollos, explaining to him “the way of God more adequately” (Acts 18:26). The placement of Priscilla’s name first in five of the seven mentions of this couple, uncommon for the time, may suggest that she acted in a more prominent ministry role than her husband. At any rate, she was certainly a known leader who, with her husband, worked alongside Paul in Corinth, hosted house churches in Ephesus and Rome, and taught Apollos.
In Philippi, where a number of prominent women were among Paul’s first converts and where Lydia likely exercised a leadership role (Acts 16), Paul addresses two women, Euodia and Syntyche, who he says strove alongside him in the gospel (Philippians 4:2,3). The verb conjures up the athletic image of team members working together. Their disagreement, which is sometimes depicted dismissively as a petty squabble, was likely a substantive dispute over theology or practice between two leaders Paul calls upon to agree with one another in the Lord (Philippians 4).
Paul describes Phoebe (Romans 16:1,2) as a diakonos in the church at Cenchrea, near Corinth. Paul uses this term of other ministers (Tychicus in Ephesians 6:21 and Colossians 4:7; Epaphras in Colossians 1:7; and Timothy in 1 Timothy 4:6) and of himself multiple times.8 Paul’s commendation of Phoebe, who was entrusted with carrying Paul’s letter to the Romans, may well authorize her to speak authoritatively regarding his meaning in this powerful epistle. Her further designation as a prostatis, or patron/benefactor, of “many people” suggests substantial influence and an authoritative role without reference to gender.9
Nine of the 25 individuals Paul greets by name in Rome are women (Romans 16), and his descriptions affirming them as his co-workers “in the Lord” parallel what he says of the men. Most notable is Junia, whom Paul describes along with Andronicus (her husband, perhaps) as “outstanding among the apostles.” Those who approach this text convinced that Paul could only have considered men to be apostles have two basic responses to the difficulty it presents them. Some claim the second name is a man’s name, either positing the existence of an otherwise unknown masculine name Junias or arguing that it reflects an otherwise unattested shortening of the known Greek masculine name Junianos. Others focus attention on the meaning of the descriptive phrase “outstanding among the apostles” and maintain that this doesn’t mean Andronicus and Junia are included as members of that group. They instead argue that it means only the apostles knew the couple. Although the complexities of the original language allow that either of these possibilities could be true, by far the most natural and straightforward way to understand the text is that Paul describes a man and a woman, Andronicus and Junia, as apostles. This was the uniform understanding of the passage from the patristic period onward until conjectures for masculine names began to arise in the 13th century. (The only exception is the 4th century bishop Epiphanius, whose credibility is weakened by his description of Priscilla, too, as a man.)10
Although the context of Galatians 3:28 is not one of ministry, Paul’s resounding statement as to unity surely has some bearing in the matter: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
It is not coincidental that Paul addresses the three chief divisions of his day and age. As the apostle to the Gentiles, his mission was chiefly shaped by the first of these divisions, but all three received his attention and in all three he acted out of a new creation paradigm in Christ. His concerns were not restricted to the sphere of salvation. Consider his resoluteness over the eating situation at Syrian Antioch (Galatians 2) and his admonitions to Philemon regarding Onesimus. Similarly, Paul’s affirmation of and cooperation with women ministers of the gospel spring from his conviction that this profound unity in Christ reorients life and ministry in the age of the Spirit.11 (Regarding Pauline texts that appear to limit women’s roles in the churches see the article in this issue of Enrichment by George Paul Wood.)
Amid the Bible’s grand, sweeping narrative of God’s story, three moments stand out for their revelatory clarity: the Father’s creation, the Son’s redemptive ministry, and the Spirit’s outpouring. It is in these moments that we should expect God’s plan for humankind to be most clearly exhibited. And it is in these moments that we most unequivocally view the mutual and equal partnership of women and men in all the good works God has for them both to do.
I am deeply thankful that the Assemblies of God officially — and so many of my pastors, teachers, colleagues, and other mentors personally — affirm the scriptural validity of my calling as a woman who teaches the Bible. My heart and prayers go out to my sisters in other situations whose gifts and potential contributions in ministry may be truncated or untapped altogether.
1. See, for example, the excellent biblical overview by two noted scholars in our own Movement: Deborah M. Gill and Barbara Cavaness, God’s Women — Then and Now (Springfield: Grace & Truth, 2004).
2. English translations may obscure the direct parallels between the Twelve and the women in this passage. See Richard Bauckham, Gospel Women: Studies of the Named Women in the Gospels (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 110–113.
3. Bauckham, Gospel Women, 21, argues that the gospel writers usually preserved the names of Jesus’ disciples who were well-known in the early Christian communities, and suggests that the numbers (nine women and about 24 men) may be roughly indicative of the ratio of female and male leaders at the time.
4. David M. Scholer, “Women,” in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, Joel B. Green, et al., eds. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1992), 880–887.
5. Craig S. Keener, Acts: An Exegetical Commentary, Volume 1 (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2012), 882. See also the full chapter in his introduction titled “Luke’s Perspective on Women and Gender” (597–638), where he concludes: “Luke expects women … to declare the word of the Lord and regards this as normative.”
6. F.F. Bruce, “Women in the Church: A Biblical Survey,” Christian Brethren Review 33 (1982): 11–12. See also Gordon D. Fee, “The Priority of Spirit Gifting for Church Ministry,” in Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity Without Hierarchy, Ronald W. Pierce, et al., eds. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2004), 241–254.
7. Kenneth Bailey, a New Testament scholar who applies his extensive study and experience in Middle Eastern cultures, argues that the expansion of leadership activities for women explains their inclusion in Acts 8:3 as targets of persecution. While women had earlier appeared at Jesus’ crucifixion without risk, when apparently the male disciples could not, authorities now perceived and knew the women as leaders. See further his “Women in the New Testament: A Middle Eastern Cultural View,” in Theology Matters 6 (January–February 2000): 1–10.
8. First Timothy 3 translates the plural diakonoias “deacons,” and the nearly parallel descriptions in verses 8 and 9 (deacons) and verse 11 (women) probably indicate that verse 11 describes women deacons in Ephesus.
9. Lynn Cohick, “Benefactors and the Institution of Patronage,” in Women in the World of the Earliest Christians (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009), 285–320.
10. Eldon J. Epp,Junia: The First Woman Apostle (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2005).
11. David M. Scholer, “Galatians 3:28 and the Ministry of Women in the Church,” Theology, News and Notes (June 1998), 19–22.