If I were to make a biblical case for women in church leadership, I would start with the stories of women in scripture. Women who acted independently of male authority. Women who did the work of God.
I would tell you about Eve, the mother of the living, who was created fully in the image of God and charged to rule over the rest of creation (Gen 1:26ff).
I would tell you about the matriarchs. I’d start with Sarah because God told Abraham to listen to or obey her—the only time a spouse is called to obey the other in scripture (Gen 21:12).
When I told you Moses’ story, I’d start with the five women who saved his life—Shiphrah and Puah, the midwives who disobeyed pharaoh and let the Israelite baby boys live. His mother, Jochebed, who somehow hid him for three months. His sister, Miriam, who watched him in the reed basket, interceded for him with the princess, and recruited his mother to nurse him until he was weaned. I would tell you about his wife Zipporah who stopped God from killing Moses by interceding with her son’s foreskin. Yes, it’s a weird story, but it seems that without her, Moses would have been killed by God’s wrath. These women were ingenious workers for the kingdom. And Miriam was one of the leaders God sent to bring the people out of slavery (Ex 1-6, Micah 6:4).Five women saved Moses’ life. Would there have been an Exodus without their courageous, independent action? Click To Tweet
If I were to make a biblical case for women in church leadership, I would tell you about Deborah, the only judge who is also called a prophet. We’d read the biblical text and find nothing that makes her spiritual and political leadership illegitimate because of her sex. Her leadership was such that Barak wouldn’t go into battle without her, even though she prophesied his victory. And this story wouldn’t be complete without telling you about Jael, who led the enemy leader into her tent, gave him milk when he asked for water, and drove a tent peg through his temple as he slept. A tent peg driven through a skull—can you imagine the brute force of this woman who receives the glory of this battle? (Judges 4-5)
I would tell you about Ruth who courageously left all she knew to follow her mother-in-law back to Bethlehem. And then she went and got herself a man. She did NOT wait for Boaz! She made that happen, friends! And Boaz agreed.
I wouldn’t let you miss Abigail. Her husband insulted David when David asked for food, so the servants, afraid for their lives, told Abigail the story and she went to work. Without telling her husband she took loads for food to David. She rode a donkey to him, praised him, prophesied his success, and succeeded in saving her husband and all the men. She acted decisively, wisely, and as a leader (1 Sam 25).
And then I’d tell you about Huldah, the prophet to whom all Josiah’s men went to for leadership. They went to her even though Jeremiah and Zephaniah were prophesying at that time. They went straight to Huldah to hear from the Lord. And she confidently gave them the word for the King (2 Kings 22, 2 Chronicle 34).
And oh, I would tell you about Esther, the queen who challenged the king, and in so doing contradicted the king’s previous ruling, saved her entire people from certain death, and got a job for her cousin Mordecai.
I would include the Proverbs 31 Woman, even though she was not a real person; she was an ideal that most of us could not be. She was rich, married, and had servants. Still, she provided for her family and was a businessperson.
I’d be sure to mention Jesus’ close female disciples. It’s important to read scripture thinking that unless it specifically states the twelve, Jesus was with a group of male and female disciples. Otherwise, he would have no need to call them his “brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3:35)
We’d start with the Mary’s. So many of them with the same name, that history has confused them. Mary, the mother of God, the God-bearer, the Theotokos. I mean, we talk about having Jesus in our hearts, but Mary very literally had Jesus, God, in her body below her heart. They say that he whom the entire universe could not contain was contained in her womb. And she influenced him, first as his mother—mothers influence sons, don’t they? She influenced his first miracle. It was kind of gratuitous: water to wine at a wedding. Though he initially resisted his mother’s influence, it seems as if he gave in and did what she wanted (John 2). And she keeps showing up. She’s at the cross, and in the upper room at Pentecost.
And then there’s Mary of Bethany who was honored as a learner at Jesus’ feet. Her sister, Martha, was the only one to whom Jesus revealed one of the “I am” statements: “I am the resurrection and the Life.” Martha, also confesses Jesus as Messiah, the Christ. Peter’s the only other disciple to do that, and we make a big deal of it. What about Martha’s confession. Sorry—had to throw Martha in the midst of the Mary’s (Luke 10, John 11-12).MARTHA and Peter are the only two disciples who confess Jesus as the Christ Click To Tweet
The third Mary is the Magdalene. She’s one of a group of women who finance Jesus’ ministry. And she’s clearly close to Jesus. History calls her the apostle to the apostles, because she stays at the tomb, confused as to where Jesus was. He reveals his resurrection to her—the greatest story every told, and he sends her to tell Peter and the others. She’s the first preacher of the gospel, the first to know the gospel. Her words convert Peter, the rock on whom the church is built (Luke 8, John 20).Mary Magdalene’s words convert Peter, the rock on whom the church is built Click To Tweet
And then there’s Photini—you know her as the Samaritan woman. The Greek name Photini is what history names her, a name having to do with light. She’s the first evangelist. She tells everyone about Jesus, they believe her and come, and then they believe out of their own experience (John 4).
I would tell you about Priscilla, who taught Apollos, whose name generally comes before her husband, denoting prominence and leadership (Acs 18, Paul’s letters).
And then there are Paul’s coworking women, whom he writes about in Romans 16. Deacon Phoebe, his benefactor, the leader of the church in Cenchrae, the one he sends with the letter to the Romans. Phoebe would have been letter’s interpreter to the recipients. She had to know Paul, been trained by Paul, and then released to bring his most important letter.
The other women in Romans 16 are described in a similar way to the men who work with Paul. Especially important is Junia, an apostle.
If I were to make a biblical case for women in church leadership, I would tell you about the women who prayed and prophesied in Corinth. They had a covering on their own head that denoted the blessed authority of God on them as they spoke (1 Cor 11).
Now, I’m not saying that all women in scripture exercised the leadership well, in fact, Paul had to tell Timothy not to let teach in a domineering manner, but he let Priscilla teach Apollos. And he wanted women and men to exercise their spiritual gifts.
Friends, it’s not hard to make a biblical case for women church leadership. Women spiritually lead both men and women throughout scripture. Are they perfect? No. Both male and female are human. And both female and male teach and lead God’s people. None of the stories of women are introduced as odd or only there because no men were available. These women acted independently of male authority. They did the work of God.
If you don’t know their names, you need to ask yourself why. I think we’ve recently learned the power of saying names. They’ve always been there, but what is the lens by which you approach scripture?