The Apostolic Church: The Place of Women

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Any unbiased reader of the New Testament may easily convince himself that for the Christians of the first century the movement of the Spirit of God was the supreme authority in all the work of the church. Throughout the ages the Apostle Paul has been cited as authority for denying to women the right to preach the gospel; but can we ever forget that it was the Apostle himself who canceled prejudice and privilege for all times in the Christian democracy by the memorable words, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus”?


Certainly Paul was aware of the fact that women had possessed the prophetic spirit and fulfilled the prophetic office in the Old Testament time and time again. (See Exod. 15:20; Judg. 4:4; II Kings 22:14; II Chron. 34:22; Neh. 6:14.) And in the New Testament a prophetic woman is introduced at the very beginning of the gospel story (Luke 2:36). It would be a strange thing if women should share in the privileges of the prophetic gifts and office throughout the whole Old Testament era and be denied that privilege with the dawning of the brighter day of Christianity.


To make our progress sure let us remember that to preach and to prophesy are the same thing. The term “prophesy” meant “preaching” in the English language in the age when the Authorized Version was made. That it meant preaching in New Testament times is abundantly evident from the words of Paul, “He that prophesieth speaketh unto men to edification, and exhortation, and comfort” (I Cor. 14:3). The Christian minister who speaks to edification, exhortation, and comfort is therefore prophesying in that act, and in doing so he is a prophet. Many of the modern English translations render the term “prophesying” as “inspired preaching.”


In I Corinthians 11:5 the Apostle Paul writes: “But every woman that prayeth or prophesieth with her head uncovered dishonoreth her head.” This passage amounts to an acknowledgment that women did pray and prophesy in public, and it also constitutes an ordinance prescribing the nature of their attire while they were doing so.


Undoubtedly the customs have changed from those of ancient days when a woman unveiled was regarded as of bad character. The restrictions as to dress applicable under those circumstances no longer are binding upon a Christian woman, but the permission to prophesy is still valid.


In the Acts of the Apostles (8:5–12) we read of a famous evangelist named Philip, who conducted a marvelous revival at Samaria. We find this same man mentioned many years later as the man who had “four daughters, virgins, which did prophesy” (21:9). In other words, this faithful minister of God reared four Christian girl preachers in his home. Every one of them was, like himself, gifted with the prophetic fire. Who would not be proud of such a family? Who would dare forbid women preachers to do that work in the twentieth century which they did so capably under the very eyes of the founders of the Christian church?


But it is said that Paul commanded the women to keep silence in the church. I feel convinced that these prohibitions were directed toward heathen converts, or heathen wives who had not been converted, who were unfamiliar with the decorum and sober behavior consistent with Christian worship. They talked and asked foolish questions, and upon them the Apostle imposed silence, but never upon mature, holy, and spiritual women gifted with the spirit of prophecy.


In this connection it is interesting to note that some of the great liberal scholars, who perhaps never heard a woman preach in their lives, have been forced by the sheer weight of the facts to acknowledge that women preached in the apostolic church. J. Weiss says:


But it is always noteworthy that the Apostle does not object to female prophetical speakers and leaders in prayer (I Cor. 11:5).


Harnack writes:

In Romans 16:1f. a certain Phoebe is commended, who is described as “one who ministers to the church at Cenchrea.” From the subsequent description of her as one who “has proved herself a succorer of many and of myself,” it is likely that she was a woman of property and a patroness (not an employee) of the church at Cenchrea. This recommendation is followed by the charge to “greet Prisca and Aquila, my fellow laborers in Christ Jesus, . . . Greet also the church in their house” (Rom. 16:3f.). Here the name of Prisca stands first, as also is the case, we may add, in II Timothy 4:19. Plainly the woman was the leading figure of the two, so far as regards Christian activity, at least. It is to her that thanks and praise are offered in the first instance. She was a fellow laborer of Paul, i.e., a missionary, and at the same time a leader of a small church. Both of these injunctions imply that she taught, and she could not take part in missionary work or in teaching, unless she had been inspired and set apart by the Spirit. Otherwise, Paul would not have recognized her . . . .

Even after the middle of the second century women are still prominent, not only for their number and positions as widows and deaconesses in the services of the church, but also as prophetesses and teachers. The author of the Acta Theclae is quite in love with his Thekla. It never occurs to him to object to her as a teacher. He rather extols her. As we know from Tertullian that this author was a presbyter of Asia Minor, it follows that there were even ecclesiastics about A.D. 180 who did not disapprove of women teaching and doing missionary work, or of them acting as prophetesses in the gatherings of the church.


In another place Harnack shows the play of forces that shut the door of the ministry to women in the church. The church muzzled women preachers in its war against Gnosticism:


It was by her very opposition offered to Gnosticism and Montanism that the church was led to interdict women from any activity within the church—apart, of course, from such services as they rendered to those of their own sex.


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