Against Patriarchy, Part Fourteen: Woman as Prophet

As we have seen, women have been accepted as priests by baptism. They have drawn near to Jesus in His earthly ministry, and have ministered to Him and with Him. The two most common phrases regarding His followers are “the Twelve” and “the Women,” (Luke 8:1-3). Not only this, but we have seen that women could serve as apostles alongside the likes of Peter, Paul and the other male apostles.

But what we have said is not enough if we are to be satisfied that women are indeed free and able to serve as pastors, elders, and deacons alongside men. It behooves us, then, to examine carefully the office of prophet, to see what light it can shed on our question. We must begin by looking at what a prophet does.

What is a Prophet?

Stated most simply and directly, a prophet is not one who predicts the future, but one who takes the word of God and applies it to a new situation. This is clearly seen from the Old Testament prophets, who took Israel to task for violating the terms of the covenant with Yahweh, and for failing to keep the Torah. As a solitary aspect of this larger purpose, Yahweh often spoke directly to them, but for the most part they were ones who applied previous revelation to new situations, and who exhorted the people, explaining the Scriptures. This was often the job of the Levites: “the Levites,” writes Nehemiah, “helped the people to understand the Torah, while the people remained in their places. They read from the book, from the Torah of God, clearly, and they gave sense, so that the people understood the reading,” (Neh. 8:7-8). This became the pattern of the synagogues (Acts 13:14-16; 15:21), and of Jesus (Matt. 11:1; Luke 4:16-21; ) and of Paul also (Rom. 1:15; Col. 1:28; 2 Tim. 3:16-4:4). Thus, when the apostles preached in the Temple to deliver the news of Jesus’s resurrection they were acting as heralds and prophets (Acts 5:42). 

This is the sense in which we are to understand the prophets Paul speaks of in 1 Corinthians 14. He begins by saying all the Corinthians should “earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy,” because “the one who prophesies speaks to the people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation,” and “I would rather speak five words with my mind in order to instruct others, than ten thousand words in a tongue,” (1 Cor. 14:1, 3, 19). Commenting on this passage, Calvin writes, “By this term [prophets] he means” those who are able to instruct “for interpreting Scripture, but also for applying it wisely for present use. My reason for thinking so is this, that he prefers prophecy to all other gifts, on the ground of its yielding more edification–a commendation that would not be applicable to the predicting of future events” and “describes the office of Prophet” as one who “must devote himself to consolation, exhortation, and doctrine,” (Commentary on 1 Corinthians, 415). Elsewhere he describes the office of prophesy as “the science of interpreting Scripture, so that a prophet is an interpreter of the will of God,” and gives “interpretation made suitable to present use,” (Commentary on 1 Timothy, 299). That is, a prophet understands, interprets and applies Scripture to contemporary situations and issues. A preacher. But Paul also assumes that this was a gift not limited to a single gender: “If, therefore, the whole church comes together” and “all prophesy, and an unbeliever or outsider enters, he is convicted by all, his is called to account by all…For you can all prophesy one by one,” (1 Cor. 14:23-24, 31). Even patriachalists like Wilson must begrudgingly admit that women were allowed to prophesy in the churches by Paul in 1 Cor. 11 and 14 (Why Ministers Must Be Men, 27-28). We will let the matter of 1 Corinthians stand as it is for the moment, passing over it until we cover it in detail in the next few posts.

For now, it is enough to examine the New Testament for examples of women exercising the roles of Church leaders, pastors, elders, and so on. What we will find is that women not only could serve in such ways, but that they often did. In order to do so, we remind ourselves of the theological foundation. Baptism is a priestly ordination (Leithart, Priesthood of the Plebs) which qualifies all those baptized to serve in the heavenly Temple, in which Christ and the whole Church serves as High Priest. This ordination as priests is also the means by which we are clothed in Christ, making us all sons of God, qualified to minister in the innermost sanctuary in heaven (Gal. 3:26-29). Those called to public ministry are called in order to enable all believers, who are priests, to better minister to God, one another, and the world: “He gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, and the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry [diakonia], for building up the body of Christ,” (Eph. 4:11-12). We have already seen that women could serve as apostles in this office (Rom. 16:7). We know they could be evangelists (Acts 18:24-26). We have seen that women were free to minister to and with Jesus in the same way that the angels ministered (Matt. 27:55; Mark 15:40; Matt. 4:11; Mark 1:13), the same word which Paul used for his own ministry (Eph. 3:7; 6:21; Col. 1:7, 23, 25; 4:7). It is the same word Paul uses for the office of deacon (diakonos, 1 Tim. 3:8).

It is also a fact that women served as prophets. As has been noted above, Paul assumes the participation of women in the ministry of prophetic teaching (1 Cor. 11, 14). The reasons for this are quite clear. In the days of the Messiah’s coming, the prophet Joel writes, there will be a great leveling of the gifts of the Spirit. “And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy…Even on the male and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit,” (Joel 2:28). The apostle Peter declares that Pentacost the fulfillment of this prophesy: “this is what was uttered through the prophet Joel,” (Acts 2:16). But why would this passage come up? Because men and women were prophesying. The tongues of fire fell on all believers, not just on the Twelve. “All these with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and His brothers. In those days Peter stood up among the brothers (the company of persons was in all about 120)” (Acts 1:14-15). Immediately following this, we’re told that “when the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. … And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit,” (Acts 2:1, 4). All 120 believers were suddenly filled with the Spirit and began to prophesy and proclaim visions.

Because this number was so large, some scholars have suggested the group had actually gathered in the Herodian Temple complex to celebrate the feast of Pentecost with the Jews. We can see hints of this from the fact that the text only says they were “gathered together in one place” and the rushing wind “filled the entire house where they were sitting,” (Acts 2:1, 2). Many have simply assumed this was an ordinary house, but how could an ordinary house fit 120 people into an upper room? It is more probable the upper room of the previous chapter was some larger building on the vast Temple complex, and that they were not in this larger room in 2:1, but rather somewhere in the Temple complex celebrating the feast of Pentecost with the Jews. At any rate, Peter brings up Joel’s prophecy because women were standing alongside the men, prophesying and teaching in the Temple. This point is even reinforced by the Jews supposing they were drunk (Acts 2:13-15). When Hannah, Samuel’s mother, begged God for a child (she was barren), Eli mistook her prayer as drunkenness (1 Sam. 1:13-14), and Hannah replied, “I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before Yahweh,” (1 Sam. 1:15). The Jews of Acts 2 are behaving like Eli, mistaking God’s words coming through men and women to be the result of drunkenness. From this, it is clear that women could serve in prophetic offices also.

Not only could they serve as prophets, many did. “And there was the prophetess, Anna…She did not depart from the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day,” (Luke 2:36, 37). Jesus, in the book of Revelation, assumes that women prophets teaching in the churches was not unusual or objectionable. To the church in Thyatira He says, “I know your works, your love and faith and service and patient endurance, and that your latter works exceed the first. But I have this against you, that you tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess and is teaching and seducing my servants to practice sexual immorality and to eat food sacrificed to idols. I gave her time to repent, but she refuses to repent….But to the rest of you in Thyatira, who do not hold this teaching, who have not learned what some call the deep things of Satan, to you I say, I do not lay on you any other burden,” (Rev. 2:19-21, 24). The objection here is not that a woman is teaching, but that a woman is teaching false doctrine, Satanic doctrine, and given the context, we should probably identify Jezebel as the Judaizers who come from the synagogues of Satan (Rev. 2:9; 3:9). Nevertheless, Jesus objects to the content, not to the gender of the messenger. Likewise, in Acts 21 we encounter “Philip the evangelist,” who “had four unmarried daughters, who prophesied,” (21:8, 9).

The relationship between the office of prophet and that of teacher/shepherd/pastor/minister is very close, as we have seen from Calvin’s comments above. Calvin, in fact, barely distinguished them at all. The only difference between them, so far as Calvin is concerned, is “that the office of Teacher consists in taking care that sound doctrines be maintained and propagated, in order that the purity of religion may be kept up in the Church,” but also says that “If any one is of a different opinion, I have no objection to his being so, and will not raise any quarrel on that account,” (Commentary on 1 Corinthians, p. 416). It is difficult to see what practical difference this makes since, at the time Paul was writing, anyone could prophesy and anyone could offer an interpretation (1 Cor. 14:26, 29-32), so the function of teacher and prophet were substantially one and the same.

To those complementarians who still maintain that, despite the close unity between teacher and prophet, women should still be barred from the teaching position, it must be replied that the office of prophet was greater than the office of teacher. “God has appointed in the Church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, helping, administrating, and various kinds of tongues,” (1 Cor. 12:28). “He gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers,” (Eph. 4:11). Those who are given a higher office participate in the duties of the lesser offices. Or do we imagine that just because Paul was an apostle, he did not prophesy, evangelize, shepherd, or teach? That the office of prophet encompassed more than the office of teacher does not mean it can on that basis mean less. If women were welcomed to the role of apostle (as they were) and prophet (as they were) then how can we claim they are not welcome to the office of teacher and shepherd? In fact, we cannot. And, in fact, women served as church leaders in the New Testament also.

We note, first, Chloe. Paul writes, “For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers,” (1 Cor. 1:11). The phrase “Chloe’s people” is in the Greek “those of Chloe,” and is identical to the way Paul addressed male church leaders. “Greet those of Aristobulus” and “Greet those of Narcissus,” (Rom. 16:10, 11). Now, many translations insert the word “household” into these passages because the sense is implied, but the rendering dilutes Paul’s point, which was not those of the “family” or “household” of these people, but to greet those who attended church in their houses. This is seen by Paul’s greeting in Romans 16: “Greet Prisca [Priscilla] and Aquila, my fellow workers in Messiah Jesus…Greet also the church in their house,” (Rom. 16:3, 5). Returning to 1 Cor. 1, we can see that Chloe was, like these others, a respected leader in the Corinthian church. This seen not simply from the parallel language used to address her, but that the “people of Chloe” have sent a report to Paul, indicating an official communication from the Corinthian church to Paul, their founding apostle. That Chloe was a leader in this house church is also indicated by the fact that the Corinthians had split into several factions, named for their leaders: “For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers. What I mean is that each one of you says, ‘I follow Paul,’ or ‘I follow Apollos,’ or ‘I follow Cephas,’ or ‘I follow Christ,” (1 Cor. 1:11-12). A report was sent to Paul from those who worshiped with Chloe, who could easily have said ‘I follow Chloe.” That they are Chloe’s people indicates this, those who belong to Chloe in the faith.

Another woman in leadership was Stephana. You’ve never heard of Stephana? This is because many translations have simply assumed Stephana was male and rendered her name Stephanas or Stephanos (as does the ESV). Paul writes, “Now I urge you, brothers–you know that the household of Stephana were the first converts in Achaia, and that they have devoted themselves to the service [diakonia] of the saints–be subject [submit] to such as these, and to every fellow worker and laborer. I rejoice at the coming of Stephana and Fortunatus and Achaicus, because they have made up for your absence, for they refreshed my spirit as well as yours. Give recognition to such men,” (1 Cor. 16:18). Now, it is true that Stephanos (masculine) is used in very rare cases, but the most common rendering of the name is the feminine Stephana, which makes this the more likely rendering. The only reason Stephanos is favored is because translators have come to the text already believing that Paul could not have told a church to submit to a woman. But from the text Paul has already described all these as ministers (diakonia) just the same as the women and angels (Matt. 27:55; Mark 15:40; Matt. 4:11; Mark 1:13), the very same word which Paul used for his own ministry (Eph. 3:7; 6:21; Col. 1:7, 23, 25; 4:7) and for the office of deacon/minister/pastor (diakonos, 1 Tim. 3:8). There is no theological reason, then to favor the extreme minority report here and render the name Stephanos.

Ahh, you might say, what about the fact that Paul writes, “Give recognition to such men“? Our reply is that Paul never said that. The word “men,” either in the male sense (aner) or the corporate sense (anthropos), does not appear anywhere in the passage, which simply says “Give recognition to such as these.” It is the assumptions of the translators, once again, that has led to the insertion of words into the text which were never there.

Paul commands the church to submit (hupotasso) to Stephana and the others, to “every fellow worker [sunergos] and laborer [kopiao].” The churches are to submit to those who serve and minister [diakonia], which included women (Matt. 27:55; Mark 15:40). The other two words used here for “fellow worker” and “laborer” are used to describe Euodia, Syntchye, and Priscilla (Phil. 4:2-3; Rom. 16:3) and Mary, Persis, Tryphena, and Tryphosa (Rom. 16:6, 12). In fact, Paul mentions a grand total of 39 people with whom he worked as partners in ministry, and of that 39, 29 are men and 10 are women (Hamilton, I Commend to You Our Sister, Appendix X). There is no indication in any of this that the female co-laborers occupied a secondary or lesser sphere.

A few of these women are singled out. Priscilla, wife of Aquila, worked as a husband and wife ministerial team. Out of the six times Paul mentions this couple, he places Priscilla’s name in front of her husband’s name four times (Acts 18:18, 26; Rom. 16:3; 2 Tim. 4:19), which was shocking at the time and placed her at least at an equal level in ministry with Aquila, if not a higher one. It was Priscilla who noticed Apollos in the Temple, and who noticed he needed further educating in the gospel (Acts 18:24-26). A woman instructed an apostle (his name is mentioned alongside Paul and Cephas/Peter, 1 Cor. 1:12). Of Priscilla, John Chrysostom writes, “Paul has placed Priscilla before her husband. For he did not say, ‘Greet Aquila and Priscilla,’ but ‘Priscilla and Aquila.’ He does not do this without a reason, but he seems to me to acknowledge a greater godliness for her than for her husband. What I said is not guesswork, because it is possible to learn this from the Book of Acts,” (quoted in Why Not Women? 145). Tertullian also noted that “by the holy Priscilla the Gospel is preached,” (quoted in Pape, God and Women, 200).

Mention must also go to Phoebe, a woman pastor who served the Church. Paul writes, “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant [diakonos] of the church at Cenchreae, that you may welcome her in the Lord in a way worthy of the saints, and help her in whatever she may need from you, for she has been a patron of many and of myself as well,” (Rom. 16:1-2). A number of observations are necessary here. Paul “commends” Phoebe, and the Greek word (sumistao) literally means “to stand with,” with the sense of setting two things together or alongside one another. Paul stands with this woman, sets her alongside himself. Next, Paul describes her as a “servant of the church.” As we have observed a number of times already, the word diakonia refers to ministry or pastoral duties of servant-leadership, of which women were free to participate. Yet Paul goes a step further and tells us that she is no mere servant, but an actual diakonos, the precise word Paul uses for the deacon/minister/pastoral office (1 Tim. 3:12). She is “a minister of the church at Cenchreae.” He tells the Roman church to “receive her,” a word Paul used only once more in the whole New Testament, to describe Epaphroditus. “I have thought it necessary to send to you Epaphroditus my brother and fellow worker [sunergos] and fellow soldier, and your messenger and minister to my need…receive him in the Lord with all joy, and honor him,” (Phil. 2:25, 29). Further, Paul enjoins the Romans to receive Phoebe “in a way worthy of the saints,” a phrase Paul uses of the elder [presbyterios] who rules in the Church and who preach and teach, who are to be “considered worthy of double honor,” (1 Tim. 5:17). Thus, Paul asks the Roman church to receive Phoebe as they would a presbyterios, or ruling/teaching elder. Finally, Paul describes her as “patron” (prostasis) of many, and of Paul himself. The word prostasis is difficult to translate because there is no English equivalent with enough force to adequately communicate the sense of it, but it means something like astonishing servant-leader, one who does justice in service to others, and refers to the most noble, most gracious, Kings and Emperors and rulers. And there is only one person the New Testament ever describes in this way: Phoebe.

So were there women who served as ministers, elders, and overseers in the New Testament? There certainly were. Did they hold authority over men? They certainly did. Were they required to keep silent in the churches? Certainly not. The force of logic and exegesis is far weighted toward those who permit women to teach, and not those who deny them. As J. I. Packer (no friend to women’s ordination) wrote in 1986: “I think the New Testament papers in particular make it evident that the burden of proof regarding the exclusion of women from the office of teaching and ruling within the congregation now lies on those who maintain the exclusion rather than on those who challenge it,” (Women, Authority, and the Bible, 296).

From what we have seen thus far, this conclusion seems inescapable. The weight of the evidence rests with those who allow women’s ordination, not with those who deny it. The fact that women did serve as co-equal partners with Paul, as apostles, prophets, teachers, elders, and deacons in the Church indicates to us that whatever Paul meant by his infamous passages in 1 Corinthians 11 and 14 and 1 Timothy 2-3, they cannot be as straightforward as we might have been tempted to suspect. It is to these contested passages that we will now turn.

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