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Role of Women in the Church
Part Two: Jesus and the Book of Acts
By Gary F. Zeolla
Part One of this four-part series introduced the debate on the role of women in the Church. It looked at passages from the Old Testament. This second part will study the ministry of Jesus and the Book of Acts.
For convenience sake, those who believe that there are limitations on women teaching and preaching in the church will be refereed to as "traditionalists" abbreviated "trad." Those who believe women should be able to function fully equal to men in aspects of ministry will be referred to as "egalitarians" and abbreviated "egal."
Jesus and the Apostles
Jesus' attitude towards women is very important in this discussion. And both sides will appeal to His practices in this regard.
The strongest point on the trad's side is that when Jesus chose the 12 apostles, He chose all men (Luke 6:13-16). Jesus did not choose any women to this vital role. And Matthew (one of these twelve) tells us, "Then having summoned His twelve disciples, He gave to them power over unclean [or, defiling] spirits so as to be casting them out and to be healing every disease and every malady" (Matthew 10:1). So it was only to men that Jesus gave this authority.
Matthew further describes their ministry:
5These twelve Jesus sent out, having given strict orders to them, saying, "You* shall not go into the way of the Gentiles, and you* shall not enter into a city of the Samaritans, 6but be going rather to the sheep, the ones having been lost from [the] house of Israel. 7Now be going, be proclaiming, saying, ‘The kingdom of the heavens has drawn near!' 8Be healing [ones] being sick, be cleansing lepers [or, [ones] with a skin disease], be casting out demons; freely you* received, freely give" (Matthew 10:5-8).
So Jesus chose only men to preach the kingdom of heaven. And Paul tells us that the Church was "built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets" (Eph 2:20). So it was men that initially preached the Gospel with Jesus, and it was on men that the Church was built.
Jesus and Women
However, egal's will respond that women do have a prominent place in the ministry of Jesus. And this is especially surprising given the cultural basis against women at the time. Jesus seemed to flaunt these conventions and elevate women to a much higher role that they had in society in general.
First, Jesus freely spoke with women in public, including a Samaritan woman. And in this discussion, Jesus spoke of theological issues with the woman (John 4:4-26). This simply was not done at the time. This can be seen from the disciples' reaction, "… they were marveling that He was speaking with a woman" (John 4:27).
Second, it was primarily women that supported Jesus' ministry financially (Luke 8:1-3). Third, some of Jesus' closest companions were women. Mary and Martha are two of the most notable (Luke 10:28-32). And in this passage, Jesus can be seen teaching Mary. So Jesus had no qualms about teaching women.
Third, Jesus freely healed women as well as men (e.g. Matt 9:20). He also responded to a woman's cry for the healing of her daughter (Matt 15:21-28). And one of His recorded resurrections is of a female (the daughter of Jarius, Matt 9:18-26). So Jesus made no distinctions in His ministry between men and women.
Fourth, at His death and burial, it was the women who stood by His side while most of the men fled. "55Now many women were there watching from a distance, who followed Jesus from Galilee, ministering to Him, 56among whom was Mary the Magdalene [or, Mary, a woman from Magdala], and Mary the mother of James and of Joses, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee" (Matt 27:55-56).
Fifth, after His resurrection, women first came to the tomb. They found the tomb empty but were greeted by an angel.
5Then answering, the angel said to the women, "You*, stop being afraid! For I know that you* seek Jesus, the One having been crucified. 6He is not here! For He was raised, just as He said! Come, see the place where the Lord was lying. 7And go quickly, say to His disciples, ‘He was raised from the dead!' And listen! He is going before you* to Galilee; there you* will see Him. Listen! I told you*." 8And having gone out quickly from the tomb, with fear and great joy, they ran to report to His disciples (Matthew 28:5-8).
So the first persons that were instructed to preach the Good News of Jesus' resurrection were women. And the angel had no qualms about telling these women to preach this Good News to men.
The story continues:
9But as they were going to tell to His disciples, and look!, Jesus met them, saying, "Greetings!" So having approached, they take hold of His feet and prostrated themselves in worship before Him. 10Then Jesus says to them, "Stop being afraid! Be going, report to My brothers that they should go away to Galilee, and there they will see Me" (Matthew 28:9-10)
So the women were on their way to do as the angel instructed, but then Jesus Himself appears to them. And He gives them the same instructions as the angel, go and tell the men what has happen and give them instructions on what they should do. So Jesus seems to fully approve of women teaching men.
The Book of Acts
We now come to the Book of Acts and the beginnings of the Church. After the ascension of Jesus, the eleven remaining apostles and other disciples gathered together. The text tells us, "14These all were continuing with one mind in prayer and petition, together with [the] women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with His brothers" (1:14). So egal's point out that women had a part in the initial gathering of believers.
However, trad's will respond that when it came time to pick a replacement for Judas, it was a man, Peter, who took the lead (1:15). And he addressed his remarks to "Men, brothers" (1:16). So it appears only men took part in the choosing of Mathias to replace Judas (1:26).
Then on the Day of Pentecost, the text tells us "… they were all with one mind at the same [place]" (2:1). The text does not specify who the "they" are, if this included the women mentioned in chapter one or not. But most commentators assume that it does.
It was then that the Holy Spirit fell on the entire group. This can be seen from the "tongues of fire" sitting on "each one of them" (2:3). The text then says, "And they were all filled of [or, with] [the] Holy Spirit, and they began to be speaking with different tongues [fig., foreign languages], just as the Spirit was giving them to be declaring boldly!" (2:4). So it would appear that the Holy Spirit fell freely on both the men and women, and that both the men and women began to speak in tongues.
The people who gathered due to the commotion were amazed that they could all hear the people speaking in their native tongues (2:5-12). "But others mocking, were saying, "They have been filled with sweet wine!" (2:13). Peter responds to these reactions by quoting the prophet Joel:
17And it will be in the last days (says God), [that] I will pour out of My Spirit upon all flesh [fig., all of humanity]; and your* sons and your* daughters will prophesy, and your* young men will see visions, and your* old men will dream dreams. 18And even upon My slave-men and upon My slave-women, in those days I will pour out of My Spirit, and they shall prophesy. 19And I will give [fig., show] wonders in heaven [or, in the sky] above and signs on the earth beneath-blood and fire and vapor of smoke. 20The sun will be turned into darkness and the moon into blood before the great and glorious Day of [the] Lord comes. 21And it will be [that] every[one] who himself shall call on the name of [the] Lord will be saved! [Joel 2:28-32] (2:17-21).
So in quoting Joel, Peters says that "your daughters" and God's "slave-women" will prophesy. So this seems to confirm that women were in fact present in the upper room when the Holy Spirit descended. And it shows that women were among those preaching to the crowd. And it should be noted that Peter addressed this crowd as "Men, Israelites!" (2:22). So apparently, the women were preaching to men. But still, trad's will respond, that it is a man, Peter, who takes the lead role in the preaching, not a woman.
Throughout the Book of Acts, "… both men and women were baptized" (8:12). So although (as was discussed in Part One) in the Old Testament the sign of the Covenant, circumcision, could only be performed on men, in the New Testament, the sign of the New Covenant, baptism, can be performed on both men and women.
Later in Acts, Luke records about himself, Paul, and Timothy, "13And on the Sabbath day we went forth outside of the city, by a river, where prayer was customarily to be [fig., made]; and having sat down, we began speaking to the women having assembled" (16:13). So Paul and his companions freely taught women.
Then in Acts 18 we are introduced to Aquila and his wife Priscilla. More will be said about this couple when we get to the writings of Paul in Part Three. But here in Acts 18, we are also introduced to Apollo.
24Now a certain Jew, Apollos by name, an Alexandrian by race [or, a native of Alexandria], an educated man [or, a man skilled in speech], being mighty in the Scriptures, arrived at Ephesus. 25This [man] had been instructed [in] the way of the Lord, and boiling [fig., being fervent] in his spirit [or, in the Spirit], he was speaking and teaching accurately the [things] concerning the Lord, knowing only the baptism of John. 26And this [man] began to be speaking boldly in the synagogue. But Aquila and Priscilla having heard of him, they took him aside and explained to him the way of God more accurately (18:24-26).
So here you have a man, Apollo, who is preaching the word of God, but with incomplete knowledge. So Aquila and Priscilla together teach him "the way of God more accurately." So we have a woman teaching a man theology. However, trad's will respond this was only done with Priscilla under the authority of her husband. But more will be said in that regard in Part Three.
But continuing in Acts, we are told about Philip "Now to this [man] were daughters, four virgins prophesying." (21:9). So Peters declaration at the beginning of the book seems to have come true, "daughters" were prophesying.
So egal's will emphasize that in Book of Acts, we have women prophesying, being baptized and brought into the New Covenant, being taught, teaching others (including men), and even prophesying.
However, trad's will again point out that as was the case with prophets, judges, and kings in the Old Testament, what has been discussed above are the exceptional cases. Throughout the book of Acts it is men who are doing the bulk of the preaching, first Peter, then Steven (chapter 7), Phillip (chapter 8), and most of all Paul.
Moreover, at the first Church council in Acts 15, it was first Peter then James who took the leadership roles. And their remarks were both addressed to "Men, brothers" (verses 7,13).
And when their decision was reached, we are told, "22Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole assembly, having chosen men from them, to send to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas, Judas (the one being called Barsabbas) and Silas, leading men among the brothers, 23having written by their hand these [things]." And the accompanying letter begins, "The apostles and the elders and the brothers."
It should be noted that the word rendered "men" in these verses is aner. This word most specifically refers to adult males. It differs from anthropos in that the latter can mean adult males or it can mean human beings in general, both males and females (Friberg).
In my Analytical-Literal Translation of the New Testament, I consistently translated aner as "man" while rendering anthropos "human being" or some similar translation unless the context clearly indicated a male was being referred to. So Luke uses the word that most specifically refers to men. As such, it appears that only men took part in the first Church council.
Conclusion to Part Two
So there are events in the life of Jesus and the early Church that can be appealed to by both sides to support their positions. Part Three of this four-part series will look at Epistles and what they have to say on this subject.
Elwell, Walter. A. Evangelical Dictionary of Theology. "Woman, Biblical Concept of" (pp.1175-1180), "Women, Ordination of" (pp.1180-1182), "Women in the Church" (pp. 1182-1185). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1984.
Friberg, Timothy and Barbara. Analytical Greek New Testament. Copyright © 1994, as found on BibleWorks™ for Windows™. Copyright © 1992-1999 BibleWorks, L.C.C. Big Fork, MT: Hermeneutika. Programmed by Michael S. Bushell and Michael D. Tan.
Kuhns, Dennis, R. Women in the Church. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1978.
Mickelsen, Alvera, editor. Women, Authority, & the Bible. Madison WI: InterVarsity Press, 1986.
All Scripture verses are quoted from the Analytical-Literal Translation of the New Testament of the Holy Bible: Second Edition (ALT2). Copyright © 2005 by Gary F. Zeolla of Darkness to Light ministry (www.dtl.org). Previously copyrighted © 1999, 2001 by Gary F. Zeolla.
Role of Women in the Church. Copyright © 2006 by Gary F. Zeolla of Darkness to Light ministry (www.dtl.org).
For Personal Bible Study and Teaching the Bible
By Gary F. Zeolla
The above article first appeared in the Free Darkness to Light
It was posted on this site March 30, 2006.
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