In our study of this subject I regard the teaching of the Bible as the only binding authority. At the same time it will help us to understand the biblical teaching if we take only a glance at early church history. Practically all Protestant church historians are agreed that there was a very rapid and marked change in the church after the close of the Apostolic Age. The critical point in all this change was the development of the belief that the Lord’s Supper was an act of sacrifice, wherein the ordained priests of the church changed the bread and wine into the literal body and blood of Christ. It is necessary to insist upon this point, because it marks an acute division between the New Testament church and the church of the bishops which rapidly began to rise after the death of the apostles.
This doctrine of transubstantiation made other new doctrines of ecclesiasticism seem both reasonable and necessary. It made it seem necessary that the minister of the gospel should be a priest, and separate from the laity. It also created the impression that a woman ought not to be a minister of the gospel, in as much as there were no women priests in the Old Testament. Although these were both false conclusions, they were very powerful and tended automatically to wipe out the ministry of women very early in the ancient church. However, the Montanists who arose in the latter part of the second century protesting against the growth of officialism and professing to be the conservative, old-fashioned party in the church, encouraged women preachers, or prophetesses, and had quite a number of such workers in their ranks.
Although The Acts of Paul and Thekla are in their present form largely an issue of childish legend dating in its present form from the latter part of the second century, Sir William Ramsey is of the opinion that this book goes back ultimately to a document of the first century. The significant thing about this ancient document is that it represents Thekla as being a female preacher who labored as an assistant to Paul. It is this very fact which caused Tertullian, about A.D. 195, to attempt to prove the book a fraud. It was already a time so far removed from the Apostolic Age that Tertullian notwithstanding that he finally accepted Montanism, was nevertheless opposed to women preachers. To make our point clear, it is not even necessary to establish the authenticity of the Acts of Paul and Thekla. It is enough to know that the Christian community of the first and second centuries was ready to believe that a woman preacher assisted Paul in his work. Certainly they would never have given any credence to a book which taught this were it not that such a custom was not contrary to the Christian tradition of that time.
When we come to the New Testament itself probably no one feature of the church life of that age is more clearly revealed than the fact that women preachers were acknowledged and accepted by the New Testament church. Much stress has been laid on the following words of Paul: “Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law. And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church.”CI Cor. 14:34-35.
These words have no reference to women preachers. They were addressed to a congregation only recently converted from heathenism and quite unaccustomed to the respect and reverence due in Christian public worship. The most careful reading of this text will show that the writer meant to caution these new converts against interrupting the services by asking questions of the preacher during the season of worship. This is made clear by the injunction to ask their husbands at home if they wish to learn anything.
Convincing proof that the apostle did not mean here to prohibit the preaching of women is shown by the fact that in the same book he specifies the conditions under which a woman shall preach. He says, “But every woman that prayeth or prophesieth with her head uncovered dishonoreth her head: for that is even all one as if she were shaven” (I Cor. 11:5). Here the woman is commanded to wear the veil if and when she prophesies.
We may ask, “What is prophesying?” The answer is found in the words of Paul himself. “He that prophesieth speaketh unto men to edification, and exhortation, and comfort” (I Cor. 14:3). Here the apostle himself gives us a definition of prophesying which is identical with that act of Christian worship which we now call preaching the gospel. The evidence is therefore conclusive that when Paul stipulated how a woman should dress and behave when prophesying, he at the same time authorized women to preach.
That there were numerous women preachers may be inferred from other passages of Scripture. For instance, Paul writes: “I commend unto you Phebe our sister, which is a servant of the church which is at Cenchrea” (Rom. 16:1). Here the Greek word for servant is diakonos which, while it probably did not have an official meaning at that time could, nevertheless, be translated “minister” or “deacon.” While this text in itself is not proof that Phebe was a woman preacher, taken in connection with other women workers mentioned in the same chapter, it is at least significant. Paul seems to refer to other women preachers when he writes: “And I intreat thee also, true yokefellow, help those women which labored with me in the gospel, with Clement also, and with other my fellow laborers, whose names are in the book of life” (Phil. 4:3).
In the Book of Acts we get a remarkable insight into the fresh, bright, joyous, and vigorous life of the early church. We find the apostle Paul and his company on the road to Jerusalem: “And we entered into the house of Philip the evangelist, which was one of the seven; and abode with him. and the same man had four daughters, virgins, which did prophesy” (Acts 21:8-9). Here were women preachers of the Apostolic Age all in one church, and this, too, in an age which constantly placed women on a lower level than men.
As a matter of fact, the prevalence of women preachers is a fair measure of the spirituality of a church, a country, or an age. As the church grows more apostolic and more deeply spiritual, women preachers and workers abound in that church; as it grows more worldly and cold, the ministry of women is despised and gradually ceases altogether.
It is of the nature of paganism to hate foreign people and to despise women, but the spirit of the gospel is exactly opposite as expressed by Paul: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.”CGal. 3:28.
In the church of Christ there is no room for these ancient forms of prejudice and discrimination. We live in an enlightened age wherein women often have equal talent and more opportunity than men for artistic and social work. Probably one of the greatest sources of the weakness of the modern church is that it has refused to women the opportunity for distinguished service within its ranks. By thus closing the door in the face of millions of its most talented and consecrated workers, it has diverted their strength into hundreds of other social agencies and thus robbed itself of an incalculable source of strength and influence in the modern world.
Brown, C.E. (May 1939). Women Preachers. Gospel Trumpet, 27, 5 &13.