• Women elders in New Testament churches.


    Were there women elders in New Testament churches?


    Three times this past week I’ve been in online conversations where a person has stated that women were not leaders in early churches. Here’s what Doug told me: “A church elder or bishop of that period would have been a man . . . fact.” Nick wrote, “There are no NT examples of women elders or pastors serving over men.” (Not sure how any follower of Yeshua legitimately serves over another person.) And on Twitter, David wanted proof that women were elders (presbyteroi), or bishops (episkopoi), or pastors.

    Women elders in New Testament churches.

    Despite the assertions of Doug and Nick, the New Testament is sketchy about which individuals, male or female, were actually called elders, bishops, or pastors. (The exception is 2 John 1:1 and 3 John 1:1 where the author identifies himself as “the elder”.)

     It is fair to say that men were more likely to be bishops and elders, yet Paul mentions women elders (using the feminine of presbyteroi) in his first letter sent to Timothy in Ephesus. Priscilla seems to have been a leader in the house church she hosted with her husband in Ephesus and, later, in her house church in Rome. She was certainly prominent in the Christian communities at Ephesus and Rome.

     When Apollos was teaching in Ephesus, it was Priscilla, with her husband, who corrected his theology (Acts 18:24-26). And Apollos accepted their correction. No one else is mentioned as being involved. Was the couple acting as elders? When Paul wrote his second letter to Timothy in Ephesus, he sent greetings to Timothy, to Priscilla and Aquila, and to the household of Onesiphorus (2 Tim. 1:2; 4:16). No other Christians in Ephesus are greeted. Were these four named people the leaders of the Ephesian church? When Paul sent greetings to the church in Rome, the very first person he greeted was Priscilla (Rom. 16:3-5).

     There were women elders in the Ephesian church. Priscilla was most likely one of them.

     Women were ubiquitous in the missions of Paul, and he refers to some of these women with his favourite ministry terms: coworker, apostle (apostolos), and minister/deacon (diakonos). Paul does not identify any of his male or female colleagues as elder, bishop, or pastor. Nevertheless, I suggest women, as well as men, functioned as elders, etc, in New Testament congregations, especially in the early decades of the church.

     Later, women were largely excluded from such ministries. Yet there are some surviving inscriptions from the first few centuries of the common era which mention Christian women called “elders”. Perhaps the biggest clue that a few churches—and not necessarily heterodox churches—had women elders is found in the Council of Laodicea (circa 360). In what I believe was a misguided move, this council banned the ordination of women elders.

     It is not allowed for those women who are called ‘elders/priests’ (presbytides) or ‘those women presiding’ (prokathēmenai) to be ordained (kathistasthai) in the churches.
    Canon 11 of the Council of Laodicea.

     This canon acknowledges that in the fourth century there were women called elders and that some presided in congregations under the jurisdiction of the Council of Laodicea. Other councils and canons also restricted or banned women elders. I suspect the prohibitions against women elders had more to do with cultural prejudices than anything else.

     It’s well past time for Christians to acknowledge that:



      • Some New Testament women were leaders and their ministry was valued by Paul.


      • 1 Timothy 2:12 and 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 addressed bad behaviour and were not meant to silence godly women and stifle their ministries. Note that these verses do not mention elders, bishops, or pastors. (These verses are discussed elsewhere on this website.)


      • Various New Testament churches had differing, and sometimes fluid, leadership “structures” and they did not all use the same ministry terms. Furthermore, Paul encouraged corporate participation in church meetings.


      • The church is weaker and the world is poorer for not allowing appropriately gifted Christian women, women such as Priscilla, to lead.


     I haven’t written about women elders until now because there is little information about them in the New Testament, and evidence outside the New Testament, such as inscriptions, need specialist skills to be correctly understood in context.

     Also, the topic of elders seems to be tied to the topic of ordination. I rarely write about ordination as there are various traditions concerning this, and some (many?) have little in common with how people were recognised, chosen, or commissioned for ministry in the New Testament. Moreover, while the New Testament does show that some leaders in the church were called elders, it gives little indication of what these people did. It may be that many ordained elders today have little in common with elders of churches founded by Paul.

     Today’s post is based on a short reply I gave to Doug, and then rehashed in a reply to Nick. But, because misleading statements about women elders continue to be made, I hope to write another post about these women soon. In the next post, I’ll look at women elders in the church at Ephesus and take a longer look at Canon 11 of the Council of Laodicea.

     Image: Image is an excerpt of a mosaic that reads Episcopa Theodora: “Bishop Theodora”. This ninth-century mosaic is in the Church of Saint Praxedis (or Santa Prassede) in Rome. Theodora was the mother of Pope Paschal I. (Image source: Wikimedia Commons)



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