3 New Testament Female Leaders: Phoebe, Junia, Prisca

Ian Hyde

lightstock_329212_medium_andrewpeters

Subscribe to the Junia Project Blog

Get content on biblical equality straight to your inbox. And get our free guide: 5 Pillars of Biblical Equality

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.
3 Female Leaders in the New Testament (2)

I’ve had many great conversations with my fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, many of whom disagree with my belief that in Rom. 16:1-7, Paul commends Phoebe as an ordained deacon, Junia as an Apostle, and Prisca as the pastor of a local church (along with her husband). They contend that these women in Romans 16 were NOT female leaders who held positions of authority in the New Testament Church.

In my opinion, each of their arguments is based on either a misreading of the text out of context, faulty manuscripts, or mistranslations of the Greek. It is my hope that, as I address each of these arguments,  I present a convincing defense of my belief that not only should women be ordained today, but that God has always called women to ordained ministry and the Church is just now waking up to that fact.

An Apostle, a Deacon, and a Pastor Walk Into a Bar

Junia the Apostle
I believe that in Rom. 16:1-7, Paul commends Junia as an apostle.
The argument presented against this claim is that, due to a misplaced accent mark in Rom. 16:7, the feminine name “Junia” may actually be “Junias,” a male name(1).

First, though the Catholic Answers site cited above maintains it is unclear whether we should read Romans 16:7 as referring to the female name “Junia” or the male name “Junias,” I disagree. The early papyrus P46 (from ca. 200 CE) as well as the early Coptic (3rd  century), Vulgate (4th  century), and Latin (5th  century) all use the feminine name “Julia”; while the Codex Sinaiticus, the earliest complete copy of the Bible from the 3rd century uses the female name “Junia” (2).

Likewise, the early Fathers uniformly recognize that this passage refers to a woman named Junia (3). As John Chrysostom writes,

To be an Apostle is something great. But to be outstanding among the Apostles – Just think what a wonderful song of praise that is! They were outstanding on the basis of their works and virtuous actions. Indeed, how great is the wisdom of this woman that she was even deemed worthy of the title of Apostle. (4)

Some have argued that Paul merely meant that Junia and Andronicus were missionaries “sent” to minister in a general sense (“apostolos” means “one who is sent”), and did not mean that they were Apostles in the proper sense.

But it is clear that Paul intends to communicate that Junia and Andronicus are Apostles because he mentions them by name. The only other Apostles he ever mentions by name are the Twelve, himself, Barnabas, Silvanus, and Timothy; all of whom have been recognized as ordained clergy in the apostolic line of succession by the later Church. It goes to follow then, that Junia and Andronicus are as well (5).

Some contend that the fact that the Twelve were all men demonstrates women were not apostles in the same sense. I argue that the Twelve were not only all male, but all Jewish. If we used the reasoning that the Twelve were men to prohibit the apostolic ministry of women, then we must use the same reasoning to prohibit the apostolic ministry of Gentiles.

It seems to me that Jesus chose twelve male, Jewish apostles (and not twenty, or four, or three) because he was restoring a new Israel from the old. Just as the old Israel had twelve sons from which the nation sprang, so the new Israel had twelve new sons from which would spring the Church. And just as the old Israel expanded to include many sons (rather than remaining only twelve always), so the new Israel would expand to have many apostles, but now with both women and Gentiles equally among their number, among the first being Junia. And if the bishops (used interchangeably with “elder” in scripture) are the successors of the apostles, then surely there must be female bishops and elders just as there were female apostles.

Phoebe the Deacon
In the case of Phoebe, it has been argued that she did not hold the official position of “deacon”, but that she may have been a “deaconess” (6), or that she was a servant or even hand-maid, as the Greek word for “deacon” can also mean one of these (7).

That Phoebe is a deacon and not a deaconess is clear from the Greek, where Paul uses specifically the generic male noun “diakonon” to describe her – the exact same noun he uses to describe his own office in Romans 15. The fact that many of our English translations call her a “servant,” while translating the same word as “deacon” when referring to men, betrays a bias on the part of the translators who assume the title should only be given to men.

Furthermore, Phoebe bears the authority to act as Paul’s representative in Rome, as evidenced by Paul’s introduction of her in Romans 16.1-2, and his use of the Epistolatory formula “systemi de hymin” to commend her as “adelphe hymon” or “our sister,”(8).

Prisca the Pastor
And in the case of Prisca (or Priscilla), it has been argued that she cannot be called “pastor” because she and her husband must have led something akin to a Bible study in their home and not an actual local “church” in the full sense of the word. But it is clear from Paul’s writings that he considers her church as an organized, local congregation, evidenced by his technical use of the word “ekklesia” in Romans 16.5 to describe it (9).

It is also clear that Paul considers Prisca and her husband equals in ministry, as is strongly suggested by his description of them as “fellow workers” in Romans 16:3, by the fact that both Aquila and Prisca correct Apollos’ teaching in Acts 18:26, and by the fact that both are frequently mentioned together in Paul’s writings (Prisca being mentioned first, more often than not) (10).

The Punchline

I am convinced that God has always called women to ordained ministry and that God is calling women to ordained ministry today. Please understand, my position is not the result of postmodern influences or attempts to make Christian leadership more socially acceptable. My position is an exegetical corrective and not a social one. To maintain that women should not be ordained and should not lead congregations is to ignore the evidence for female leaders cited above, and stands in opposition to the work of the Holy Spirit.

Given all of the evidence, it seems clear to me that women were definitely ordained to official ministry during the Apostolic era of the Church. As a result then, women not only can, but should speak in Church, and women not only can, but should lead congregations.


Footnotes
(1) Fr. Grondin, Charles. Was Junia a Female Apostle? Catholic Answers. Web. Written April 06, 2018.
(2) Preato, Dennis J. “Junia, A Female Apostle: Resolving the Interpretive Issues of Romans 16:7”. God’s
Word to Women. Web. Retrieved Oct. 22, 2018.
(3) Thorley, John. “Junia, A Woman Apostle.” Novum Testamentum. Vol. 38, Fasc. 1 (Jan. 1996), 18.
(4) Chrysostom, John. In Epistolam ad Romanos, Homilia 31, 2, in Patrologiae cursus completus, series
Graeca, ed. by J. P. Milne, cited by B. Brooten, 141.
(5) Thorley. “Junia, A Woman Apostle,” 18.
(6) The Revised Standard Version’s translates Phoebe’s title in Rom. 16:1 as “deaconess.”
(7) See Rom. 15:8, where in the English Standard Version, Christ is referred to as “a servant to the
circumcised.”
(8) Greathouse, William M. and George Lyons. New Beacon Bible Commentary: Romans 9-16. (Kansas
City: Beacon Hill Press, 2008), 264-265.
(9) Ibid.
(10) 
Acts 18:18, Rom. 6:3, 2 Tim. 4:19; cf. Acts 18:2-3; as well as Acts 18:26 and 1 Cor. 16:19 where
Aquila is mentioned first.

Ian Hyde

Women and the Bible

Revisiting the Woman at the Well in John 4

Gail Wallace

The story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well is told in chapter…

Personal Stories, Women and the Church

Those Who Protect a Woman’s Call

Sarah Sparks-Franklin

Thank God for those who protect a woman’s call! “I’m not sure I can continue…

General

Awaiting the Refugee King: A Christmas Reflection

Christiana Rice

This Christmas, I’m pondering the grittier, truer side of the nativity narrative through the lens

Subscribe for our free guide

5 Pillars of Biblical Equality

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

16 Comments

  • I agree with you that women in the Bible had leadership positions and should be allowed to do so today but I am not as supportive regarding “ordination.” I come from a denomination that does not use the term and where any man who knows the Bible and who has the ability to speak can stand behind the pulpit and deliver a sermon. Rather than push for ordination, a word I don’t think is found in scripture, the goal should be to allow women to speak and to lead.

  • Wonderful article! I praise the Lord for sisters in the ministry of our Lord Jesus Christ!

  • Thank you for your clear article. Speaking of Phoebe, no less scholars than NT Wright and Scot McKnight believe that her naming in Romans 16:1-2 indicates that Phoebe was the carrier of the letter to the Roman church; which also would have meant that she was to both read and interpret this letter to the church there. If this is correct, then this means that Phoebe was the first ever commentator on Romans!

  • Hmmm?

    “3 NEW TESTAMENT FEMALE LEADERS:” ???

    But, in the Bible….
    Jesus taught **His Disciples,** male and female…
    NOT to be called “Leaders.” For “ONE” is your leader, Christ.

    Seems Jesus has a unique take on “Leaders” for **His Disciples.**

    “ONE”

    And, His Disciples must have believed Jesus… Because…
    In the Bible, NOT one of **His Disciples,** male or female…
    Called them self “Leader.” Called another Disciple, “leader.”

    Mat 23:10-12 NASB
    Do NOT be called leaders;
    for “ONE” is your Leader, that is, Christ.
    But the greatest among you shall be your “Servant”.
    Whoever exalts himself shall be humbled;
    and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted.

    Humble – a modest or low estimate of one’s own importance.

    Know many? any? who take the postion of Leader?
    Who are Humble?
    Having a modest or low estimate of their own importance?

    Jesus also said…

    John 5:41 – I receive *NOT* honour from men.
    John 5:44 – How can ye believe, which receive honour one of another,
    and seek not the honour that cometh from God only?

    When someone aknowledges you as a “Leader?”
    Or church leader? Or spirirtual leader? Or christian leader?

    Are you, “Receiving Honor” from men?

    Jesus also said…

    John 7:18 – He that speaketh of himself seeketh his own glory…
    John 8:50 – And I seek not mine own glory…

    When you let people know, you’re a “leader?”
    Or church leader? Or spirirtual leader? Or christian leader?

    Is that, “seeking your own glory?”

    Why do you want to be known as a “leader?”
    Why do you want people to follow you?
    And NOT follow Jesus?
    ——-

    Isa 3:12 KJV
    …O my people, *they which lead thee* cause thee to err,
    and destroy the way of thy paths.

    Isa 9:16 KJV
    For *the leaders* of this people cause them to err;
    and they that are led of them are destroyed.

  • Thank you; fabulous, succinct and great scholarship which leads me to a truthful perspective. I appreciate this so much.

  • This is the clearest article I have read on this subject. Yes to all the reasons. My only objection is the use of ‘ordained’ in reference to qualification of New Testament leaders. The word is not used in that sense anywhere I can find in the NT. I don’t know when the practice started, but I doubt seriously it was in the first century. My other question, and this one will probably get more push-back, is the assumption that ‘pastor’ (literally shepherd) was an office within the NT church. Can’t see any use of that word in that sense either in the NT. Pastor is listed as one of many spiritual gifts in Ephesians 4, like prophet and teacher. There is no sense of authority like it is commonly thought of today.

    • Julie Coleman, You have a very good point. I agree that the authority that Paul is speaking of in Scripture is quite different than the authority commonly thought of today. I believe that in light of the huge increase in world population the practice of ordination is a reasonable one. But it is not required for service in the body of Christ or should not be. The authority that is spoken of in Scripture appears to be directly related to Holy Spirit anointing and calling. As such all the five-fold ministries would carry the authority type that God is giving to each individual.

    • Pastor in NT terms is synonymous with elder, bishop, overseer, shepherd or presbyter (episkopas or presbyteros) and is the office Paul wrote about in Titus and I Timothy. The pastor is responsible for the care and nurturing of the flock, those within the church. It is unfortunate that in current practice pastor is used to refer to the preacher, a person whose responsibility is to present the word to the people, both within and without the church, that is, the saved and the unsaved. When Paul wrote about elders or bishops he spoke in terms of men holding the office (although some would dispute that based on their understanding of I Tim 3:11) but when it comes to preaching the word both sexes were involved. I see women preachers and women elders or pastors as two separate issues.

  • I thank you for these truthes comming from a Baptist background.

    Pastors who believed that Abba called women but they couldn’t liscense or ordain them because of the denomination. I have been through family members who lied to me saying they believe women can preach and then find out but shouldn’t sit on the pulpit. Other family members of another church said women can preach but can’t be pastors. It’s always something!! But I have studied and have been led by Ruach into the truth. I agree with this ministry and anything you can find out biblically language wise is a plus!! May Abba continue to open every door of enlightment and favor!
    In His Grip.
    Apstle Denise Hayes, Facebook. They left out the “o” lol!

  • Thank you for your thorough research and articulate arguments. I have heard some of these arguments before but never seen the research. I appreciate and agree with your work. It is also very encouraging to hear from a man (pastor, husband and father!) on this issue!

  • Well said, Ian. The evidence in support far outweighs the arguments against. God used women in positions of spiritual authority in both Old and New Covenant settings.

  • Even if women were never ordained in apostolic times, religious patriarchy is a cultural tragedy that is becoming a doctrinal travesty and a pastoral disgrace in the Catholic and Orthodox churches. Current doctrines are conflated with patriarchal gender ideology. Patriarchal biblical texts and church traditions need to be understood and reconsidered in their cultural context. Apostolic succession is not dogmatically contingent on masculinity. Now we need women priests and women bishops in the Catholic and Orthodox churches. For your consideration:

    Summary Points for Meditation on the Ordination of Women
    http://pelicanweb.org/CCC.TOB.html#SUMMARY

  • I’ve just finished my MA on this topic. My thesis has been nominated for an award in excellence and I’m already working on my “popular” additional chapter before I publish it in book form. Your analysis is absolutely correct. The erasure of women is such a habit that many don’t even notice when it’s happening.

    On the topic of Phoebe, the term “deaconess” wasn’t in use until the early 4th century and only in the Eastern part of the church. The West didn’t use that term until much later, so there is no way any translation can authentically say the world should be ‘deaconess’ – it didn’t exist in their vocabulary.

Comments are closed.

Scroll to Top