The one thing women leaders in the Bible had in common

Marg Mowczko writes: At the moment, I’m preparing a message on 1 Timothy 2:12. For one of my points, I have made a list of godly Bible women who ministered to men. As I was making the list I saw something I had not noticed before: all the women, except for one,[1] are described in Scripture as being prophetesses or having a prophetic gift.

These are the women on my list.

Deborah (Judges 4:1-5:31) was a prophetess and judge who led Israel. Barak, the general of the army, respected Deborah and followed her orders, and Israel prospered under her leadership. (One of the perennial arguments from people who have a problem with Deborah being the leader of Israel is that God probably only allowed her to be the leader because there were no men who were available, willing, or suitable to take the job. The fact that Deborah was a woman is not especially highlighted in the text, and there is not the slightest hint anywhere in the Bible that her gender was a problem. Rather, the Israelites recognised her authority. They came to her, whenever they wanted justice and guidance, to her seat just north of the crossroads of busy trading routes in the centre of Israel (Judges 4:5). Unlike many of the other judges, Deborah did a great job as leader and prophet.)

Huldah (2 Kings 22:14-20; 2 Chronicles 34:22-28) is another prophetess who also exercised authority in her ministry. This is what John Dickson says about her in his book Hearing her Voice [2]:

Huldah is “a particularly curious example of spiritual leadership. Not only did she deliver an authoritative message to King Josiah concerning all Judah, but she also validated the authority of the newly rediscovered “Book of the Law of the LORD”. One contemporary scholar has remarked that Huldah’s endorsement of the document “stands as the first recognizable act in the long process of canon formation.”

Linda L. Belleville (2004:113) writes:

The size and prestige of the embassy that sought her counsel indicates something about not only the seriousness of the situation but also Huldah’s professional stature: the High Priest (Hilkiah), the father of the future governor (Ahikam), the secretary of state (Shaphan) and the king’s officer (Asaiah). Huldah’s counsel was immediately heeded, and sweeping religious reforms resulted (2 Kings 22:8-20; 23:1-25).

King Lemuel’s Mother (Proverbs 31:1ff) taught her son, a grown man and a king, an inspired message that is contained in the sayings of Proverbs 31:2-9, and possibly Proverbs 31:10ff. Her message is described in various English translations as an oracle (NASB, HSCB, ESV), an inspired utterance (NIV), a vision (WYC), a declaration (YLT), a prophecy (KJV), translated from the Hebrew word massa. Massa is used frequently for Isaiah’s prophecies (e.g., Isa. 13:1), and is used for Nahum’s, Habakkuk’s, and Malachi’s prophecies (Nah. 1:1; Hab. 1:1; Mal. 1:1). By being a part of Scripture, the sayings of this woman continue to authoritatively instruct men and women, and even kings.

Anna (Luke 2:37-38) was a prophetess who never left the Temple in Jerusalem “worshiping with fasting and prayer, night and day.” After seeing the baby Jesus she began speaking about him “to all who were waiting for the redemption (or deliverance) of Jerusalem.” Surely this “all” included men—particularly in such a public setting as the Temple—as well as women.

Philip’s Four Daughters (Acts 21:8-9) are barely mentioned in Scripture but are mentioned in significant ways by other early church writers which show that these women were well known and respected in the early church as prophets. Eusebius calls the women “mighty luminaries” and associates them with apostolic gifts, teaching, and foundational ministry. The ministry of these four women prophets should not be underestimated.

There are other women I could have added to the list, women such as Miriam who was regarded as both a prophetess and leader of Israel. Even Abigail, a courageous woman by anyone’s estimation, prophesied when she gave directives to David.[4]


I don’t know exactly what the ministries of these prophetic women looked like, but I think they did more than just deliver an inspired message from time to time. Rather, it seems that “prophetic” described who they were, and that the title “prophetess” denoted a woman with spiritual authority in her community.

What struck me in reading about these women is that there was a place for them in Israelite society—a prominent place. It seems that their community recognised their God-given authority and that women with prophetic abilities were respected, even esteemed. The Bible shows us that the ministry of these women was well received by men.

The biblical record indicates that these women prophets mostly ministered to men, and there is not the slightest hint anywhere that any man was offended by a woman prophesying to, or directing him. Barak, for example, relied on Deborah’s commands and company; Huldah’s expertise was sought out by a delegation that included the most powerful men in the country; David praised Abigail’s words and wisdom.

Furthermore, the inspired songs, prayers, praises and teachings of Miriam (Exod. 15:20-21), Deborah (Judges 5:1ff), Hannah (1 Sam. 2:1ff), Abigail (1 Sam. 25:28-31), King Lemuel’s Mother (Prov. 31:1-9), Mary (Luke 1:46ff) and Elizabeth (Luke 1:41ff) are all considered prophetic and are included in Scripture, which shows that the writers of the Bible (who were presumably all, or mostly, male) recognised the authority of  the words of these prophetic women. This is important to note, as many Christians believe Scripture has the highest level of authority.

In the Bible we see that there was a place for prophetic women leaders in Israelite and Jewish society, and in the first decades of the church within Israel. What saddens me is that in many Christian communities today there is no longer a place for women leaders. In most churches, gifted women are not even being recognised, let alone being encouraged and permitted to lead and speak. Some are even offended by the idea of women leaders. The church and the world are suffering because the prophetesses—women with God-given spiritual authority—are being silenced and sidelined.

What can you or your church do to make a place for gifted women leaders?

What can you do to encourage a woman to move beyond the side-lines?


ENDNOTES

[1] The exception is Priscilla. Priscilla is on my list of women who ministered to men but she is not referred to as a prophetess or as having a prophetic gift in the New Testament. In fact, no legitimate female Christian minister outside of Israel is called a prophetess in the New Testament. I wonder if that is to avoid making any connection between godly, Christian women and the prophetesses in the pagan, Greco-Roman world.

[2] John Dickson, Hearing Her Voice: A Case for Women Giving Sermons, Kindle Edition 2012-12-25, Kindle Locations 145-149. A review of this book is here.

[3] Linda L Belleville, “Women Leaders in the Bible” in Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity without Hierarchy, Ronald W. Pierce and Rebecca Merrill Groothous (ed) (Leicester: InterVaristy Press, 2004) 110-125.

[4] According to the Megillah (one of the tractates of the Talmud), the rabbis regard Abigail as one of seven prophetesses who prophesied to Israel. The other six women prophets are Sarah, MiriamDeborah, Hannah, Huldah, and Esther. (See Megillah 14a and 14b.)

First published on Marg’s site; reproduced here with permission.


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30 thoughts on “The one thing women leaders in the Bible had in common

  1. Interestingly, though, some headship evangelicals will also support this ministry for women. They are used as vessels by God and not interpreting or adding … it leaves some headship evangelicals still able to restrict pulpit exposition of the scriptures to men based on 1 Tim 2:12’s application. Women’s place in the church has more to do with a careful analysis of authentein if it is to derive some justification from 1 Tim 2:12 too which has always been the clumsily exegeted passage prohibiting women’s leadership.

  2. Yes – I believe the NFI church family encourage women to prophesy but do not permit them to preach. However, many conservative evangelicals who believe preaching is prophecy don’t allow women to preach even though the scriptures state they prophesied. What strikes me is that if the church is built on the prophets (and if in eph2v20 that Is a reference to the NT charism and not the OT scriptures) then women in leadership/leadership are critical to the growth of church.

    • As a former member, you are correct in your distinction about Newfrontiers. Prophesy is a gift of the Spirit and thus open to all, where preaching is a distinct (and critically, authoritative) form of teaching and a specific function of Elders, an office that is considered gender-restricted. This is a simplification of course.

      There are two caveats to add though.

      First, while NF might not allow female ‘Elders’, NF does not define ‘Eldership’ as the only legitimate form of leadership, though it is perhaps the primary one. Women can, and are, considered ‘leaders’ in NF churches, if not of, and as having authority commensurate with that role. There were plenty of mighty women in the church I grew up in, and while they may never have preached, they undoubtedly made their wisdom and influence felt in other ways and their ministry left it’s mark on me.

      Second, it is my perception that there is some grey area within NF regarding the office of ‘prophet’, in the sense that NF recognises that individuals may have a particular gifting in prophesy and are given dispensation to act in that role. Unlike an ‘Elder’, or someone in ‘Apostolic oversight’ (broadly the equivalent to a baptist area minister, I am not sure the CofE has an equivalent.) the title of ‘prophet’ does not appear to have been gender-restricted.

        • I am not so sure…which is why i hesitated to make the comparison. 😉

          A person in “Apostolic oversight” has a much more limited role than a Bishop, being mainly one of direction and/or vision for a group of churches, rather than having a direct pastoral or managerial role. I cannot speak in detail on the matter though, as it is not talked about very much.

          I have other issues with the NF categories too. I dislike the use of the term “Apostolic Sphere/Area” to describe a group of churches, and equally dislike the term “Apostolic Team” to describe the leadership of that group. Subtly, NF does not label the members or leaders of that team “Apostles”, but that is what they consider themselves to be.

    • Given that many conservative churches and denominations grow (and have grown in the past), I’m not sure it can really be said that ‘women in leadership are critical to the growth of church’.

    • Also, a few comments RE Ephesians 2:20

      My understanding is that this verse is firmly set in the context of the formation of the church though history, culminating with the reunion of Jew and Gentile into one family, one people. Paul talks of outsiders being “included in the promise”, and of God, through Jesus, “destroying the barriers” of ethnic division; both messianic expectations prophesied in the OT. The point here is not about the specific roles of each (prophets/apostles) but about continuity between the two; one past one present (from Paul’s perspective anyway), held together by the person and ministry of Jesus. The church is “built on the prophets” because the church is in continuity with, and fulfillment of, their prophecy.

        • Hmm, interesting, I suppose yes I am, at least in a sense…

          The argument Paul makes in Ephesians 2:20 is about continuity and inclusion between the old and new, a point his illustrates by linking the role of prophet with that apostle. The point he is making in Ephesians 4 is not a comparative one (between two things), but nessecitative (dependent on something): the list of people being those necessary to the building of the church.

          I did not say that prophets in Eph 2 could only be OT prophets, but that is is likely given the wider argument that this is what he meant.

          Is that such a strange distinction?

          • I have always thought that Paul may be referring to OT prophets here (hence my suggesting that earlier) – however, if they were OT prophets, presumably Paul would have mentioned Prophets first and then Apostles? (this is how the NET translators notes read it). Paul’s ordering of apostles then prophets in ch2 is the same as in ch4 and there the prophets are clearly NT prophets as they are gifts of the ascended Jesus. I think therefore it reasonable to see Apostles and Prophets as foundational ministries in the church, and women can be prophets.

          • “I think therefore it reasonable to see Apostles and Prophets as foundational ministries in the church, and women can be prophets.”

            Of course, I am not arguing against that. My point is that the context of the two are different, and your point is better made with scripture from elsewhere, Will’s use if 4:11 is better.

          • Except that 2:20 speaking of foundational implies a much stronger leadership role than might be inferred from Eph4. Terry Virgo often made much of Eph4 ministries and presumably was able to rule out women in leadership. However, if the Eph4 prophets are the same as the Eph2 prophets and the
            Eph2 prophets are clearly ‘foundational’ to the church, then women as prophets are foundational in leadership.

    • I’d be interested to hear what Ian thinks about the difference between preaching and teaching.

      As I understand it, evangelizo is always used in the NT in the context of preaching the gospel to unbelievers, whereas didaskalo (is that the right Greek?) is about teaching believers truth to help our walk in the Lord. Unfortunately in English we use the word “preaching” loosely to cover evrything – but this is unhelpful to understanding the theology.

      In my view, therefore, Paul isn’t happy about women teaching believers, whereas there is absolutely no prohibition against women preaching the gospel to unbelievers (or prophesying.)

      • Yes, correct on the Greek terms—but there is no clear hard-and-fast separation in the NT between teaching and preaching, and the form event we call ‘preaching’ with a ‘sermon’ didn’t appear to exist in this form as far as we can see.

  3. Is that based on the separation of prophecy as foretelling and prophecy as forth-telling? Is it OK for women to foretell but not forth-tell? If Priscilla was the one entrusted by Paul with his letter to the Romans then she would have done one but not the other maybe.

  4. Can I make a case for Phoebe of Romans 16? She is diakonos (a word which John Collins has shown is rather more elevated than a mere ‘servant’) and described as ‘prostatis’, a word related to the verb ‘prostemi’, which is related in some contexts to leading and authority (Rom 12:8, 1Thes 5:12, 1 Tim 5:17).

    Also, should not Junia (Romans 16:7) get a mention?

    I listened online a few years back to a talk by Simon Ponsonby at St Aldates on Romans 16 (not available any more, I think). I recollect that he suggested that if we started with passages like this, and then read passages like 1 Tim 2 and 1 Cor 14 in their light, we might have a different view of women’s ministry.

    • I have Simon’s (excellent) book ‘God is for us’, and his comments on Romans 16.1-7 ‘Is Christianity Male?’ in there are, I believe, a distillation of that talk.

  5. I would suggest that more should be made of the NT exception (Priscilla), especially since she is actually not a lone case. As several others have suggested, both Phoebe and – even more – Junia have to be taken into consideration. In Pauline terms, to describe a woman as an “apostle” (and there is little doubt that Junia was a woman – see Cranfield’s scathing comments on attempts to argue for the male form “Junias”!) is surely highly significant.

  6. Thanks for this Ian – a very timely post for me. We sadly lost both our long serving male churchwardens last year, and I’m currently pondering who to approach to fill one of the vacancies. Realising we’ve not had a female warden in the 13 years I’ve been in this parish, I’ve felt it’s important to put that imbalance right, and your comments have helped to turn a feeling into a determination.

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