Women as religious leaders
References in the Bible &
in early Christian writings
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
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.
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.
- 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
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"
- A memorial from the 3rd century for Ammion the elder (presbytera).
- A 4th or 5th century Sicilian inscription referring to Kale the
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:
- Hans Kung, "Christianity: Essence, History and Future", Continuum, New
York NY, (1995), P. 121
- J. Migne, "Patrologia Graeca" (Greek Fathers)
- J. Migne, "Patrologia Latina" (Latin Fathers)
- Kurt Rudolph, "Gnosis: The Nature and History of Gnosticism", Harper,
San Francisco, (1987), P. 211
- Hans Kung, op cit., Page 156
- K.J. Torjensen, "When Women Were Priests", Harper, San Francisco
(1995), P. 9
- Article, "National Catholic Reporter", 1996-NOV-15
- Frank Daniels, "The Role of Woman in the Church." part of the Religious
Heresy Page at: http://www.scs.unr.edu/~fdaniels/rel/women.htm
- "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
Latest update: 2011-NOV-11
Author: Bruce A. Robinson