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Women as religious leaders

References in the Bible &
in early Christian writings

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Topics covered in this essay:

Female prophets, disciples, ministers & apostles mentioned in the Bible:

Women in the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) were frequently considered property belonging either to her father before marriage or to her husband after marriage. However, there were a few powerful women mentioned in the Bible who exhibited religious leadership.

  • Genesis 2:18: Eve is described in the original Hebrew as an "ay'-zer" -- a co-worker of equal status to Adam. This has been translated as a "help meet" or "helper" in most English translations of the Bible (ASV, ESV, KJV, The Message, NASB, NCV, NIV, NLT, NWT, etc.) Many would interpret this translation as indicating that Eve held a position of inferiority relative to Adam.

    Some more recent translations (CEV, NRSB) have broken from tradition and described Eve as a "partner."

    "Peter," minister of the Second Reformed Church of Irvington, NJ gave his own amplified literal translation in a sermon:
    "I will make him a helper in front of, corresponding to, equal to and adequate for him." 9
    It would appear that English translations of the Bible describe Eve either as a co-equal partner of Adam or a mere helper, depending upon how the translators interpreted the Hebrew word "ay'-zer."

  • Exodus 15:24: Miriam, the daughter of Aaron was a prophet and one of the triad of leaders of Israel during the Exodus from Egypt.

  • Judges 4 & 5: Deborah, a prophet-judge, headed the army of ancient Israel.

  • 2 Kings 22:14; 2 Chronicles 34:22 Huldah, a prophet, verified the authenticity of the "Book of the Law of the Lord given through Moses" - the Book of Deuteronomy.  She triggered a religious renewal.

Women in the Christian Scriptures (New Testament):

These are important passages because some Christian denominations refuse to ordain women, citing as a reason that Jesus only chose male apostles. The Roman Catholic Church has repeatedly stated that it does not have the authority to ordain women as priests for that reason.

  • Acts 9:36 The author of Luke referred to a female disciple of Jesus by her Aramaic name Tabitha, who was also known by her Greek name Dorcas. She became sick had died; St. Peter brought her back to life.

  • Acts 21:8: Philip the evangelist had four unmarried daughters who were prophets.

  • Philippians 4:2: Paul refers to two women, Euodia and Syntyche, as his co-workers who were active evangelicals, spreading the gospel.

  • Romans 16:1: Paul refers to Phoebe as a minister or deacon of the church at Cenchrea. The Greek word which describes her function is  "diakonos" which means literally "official servant." She is the only deacon in the Bible to be identified by name. Some translations say "deaconess;" others try to obscure her position by mistranslating the Greek as a simple "servant" or "helper". Paul later refers to Phoebe as a woman, calling her "our sister." This prevented later church leaders from hiding her gender as they did with Junia by changing her name and implying that she was a man.

  • Romans 16:3: Paul refers to Priscilla as another of his "fellow workers in Christ Jesus" (NIV) Other translations refer to her as a "co-worker". But other translations attempt to downgrade her status by calling her a "helper". The original Greek word is "synergoi", which literally means "fellow worker" or "colleague." 1 It is worth noting that Paul refers to Priscilla and her husband as "Priscilla and Aquila" in this passage and as "Aquila and Priscilla" in 1 Corinthians 16:19. It would appear that the order is not important to Paul. As in Galatians 3:28, he apparently believed that there is no distinction between male and female among those who have been baptized into Christ.

  • Romans 16:7: Paul refers to a male apostle, Andronicus, and a female apostle, Junia, as "outstanding among the apostles" (NIV) Every Greek and Latin church Father until Giles of Rome (circa 1000 CE) acknowledged  that Junia was a woman. 2,3 After that time, various writers and translators of the Bible resorted to various deceptions in order to suppress her gender. For example:

    • The Amplified Bible translates this passage as "They are men held in high esteem among the apostles" The Revised Standard Version shows it as "they are men of note among the apostles". The reference to them both being men does not appear in the original Greek text. The word "men" was simply inserted by the translators, apparently because the translators' minds recoiled from the concept of a female apostle.

    • Many translations, including the Amplified Bible, Rheims New Testament, New American Standard Bible, and the New International Version simply picked the letter "s" out of thin air, and converted the original "Junia" (a woman's name) into "Junias" (a male form of "Junia"). Again, it was probably inconceivable to the translators that Paul would recognize a woman as an apostle. Incidentally, there are no Junias' mentioned in ancient literature and inscriptions; it was apparently an unkown and unused name.

Female leaders mentioned in early Christian writings:

There are many Gospels and other early Christian writings that never made it into the official canon. Some shed light of the role of women in various early Christian groups:

  • The Christian Gnostic tradition represented one of the three main forms of early Christianity - the others being Jewish Christianity and Pauline Christianity. Gnostic texts show that women held senior roles as teachers, prophets and missionaries. They conducted rituals such as baptism and the Eucharist. They performed exorcisms. 4

  • The Gospel of Philip, was widely used among early Christian congregations. It portrayed Mary Magdalene as the companion of Jesus, in a position of very high authority within the early Christian movement.

  • The Gospel of Mary described Mary Magdalene as a leader of Jesus' disciples. She delivering a passionate sermon to the disciples after his resurrection. This raised their spirits and inspired them to start evangelizing the known world.

  • Philoumene, a woman, headed a Christian theological school in Rome during the second century CE. 5

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Examples of female Christian leaders found in the archaeological record

Author Karen Jo Torjensen cites: 6

  • An ancient mosaic which shows four female figures. One is identified as Bishop Theodora. The feminine form for bishop (episcopa) is used.

  • A 3rd or 4th century burial site on the Greek island of Thera contains an epitaph referring to Epiktas, a "presbytis" (priest or presbyter). Epiktas is a woman's name.

  • A 2nd or 3rd century Christian inscription in Egypt for Artemidoras, whose mother is described as "Paniskianes, being an elder" (presbytera).

  • A memorial from the 3rd century for Ammion the elder (presbytera).

  • A 4th or 5th century Sicilian inscription referring to Kale the elder. (presbytis).

Prohibition of women from positions of power by the early church

During the 4th and 5th century, the Christian church gradually extinguished women's access to positions of power in the church:

  • Council of Laodicea (352 CE): Women were forbidden from the priesthood. They also were prohibited from presiding over churches. They decided that "One ought not to establish in the church the women called overseers (presbutidas)....women must not approach the altar."

  • Fourth Synod of Carthage (398 CE) "A woman, however learned and holy, may not presume to teach men in an assembly...A woman may not baptize."

  • Council of Chalcedon (451 CE). Canon #15 of the Council states: 7 "No woman under 40 years of age is to be ordained a deacon, and then only after close scrutiny." Apparently, the council wanted to start restricting the ordination of deaconesses, which must have been a common practice at the time. And, of course, anyone ordained to the Holy Order of Deacon would be eligible for later ordination to the priesthood as well. 8

Related essay on this web site:


  1. Hans Kung, "Christianity: Essence, History and Future", Continuum, New York NY, (1995), P. 121
  2. J. Migne, "Patrologia Graeca" (Greek Fathers)
  3. J. Migne, "Patrologia Latina" (Latin Fathers)
  4. Kurt Rudolph, "Gnosis: The Nature and History of Gnosticism", Harper, San Francisco, (1987), P. 211
  5. Hans Kung, op cit., Page 156
  6. K.J. Torjensen, "When Women Were Priests", Harper, San Francisco (1995), P. 9
  7. Article, "National Catholic Reporter", 1996-NOV-15
  8. Frank Daniels, "The Role of Woman in the Church." part of the Religious Heresy Page at:
  9. "Peter," "Created for one another," sermon, Second Reformed Church of Irvington, NJ, 2008-SEP-14, at:

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Copyright © 1996 to 2011 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance. 
Latest update: 2011-NOV-11
Author: Bruce A. Robinson
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