Women played a larger role in the early church than we often give them credit for. We go looking for them around Mother’s day but they often go overlooked the other 51 weeks of the year. Women played a vital role in the ministry of Jesus and in the early church. I want to highlight a few ladies from the book of Acts just to give you an idea. When we think of women in the New Testament Luke comes quickly to mind because he seems to have an eye for including stories that mention women. It shouldn’t surprise us, then, that he does so not just in his Gospel but also in his second volume, Acts.
Acts 1 tells us that after the ascension of Jesus the disciples met together in Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives to an upper room (1:12),
“Those present were Peter, John, James and Andrew; Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew; James son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. 14 They all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers.” (1:13)
When Acts 2 kicks off we learn the disciples “were all together in one place” when the Holy Spirit came on “each of them.” “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.”
If you are following the story closely Luke tells us that male and female disciples were present at Pentecost (“they were all together”) and that they all received the Holy Spirit’s power enabling them to speak in other languages (“came to rest on each of them”). The only way around this is if you link the pronouns back to the end of chapter 1 and make all refer to the apostles as they replaced Judas. However, there is one more point that knocks that line of thinking off its feet and that is the fulfillment of prophesy. Peter quotes Joel 2 in his explanation and saying “this [event] is what was spoken of by the prophet Joel…”
“‘In the last days, God says,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your young men will see visions,
your old men will dream dreams.” (Acts 2:17/Joel 2:28).
This all points to prophesying women at Pentecost. If that troubles you, then you should be aware that there are other “troubling” verses. My point is, I hope it doesn’t trouble you but if it does then there is more to consider about what actually happened back there in Acts that is very plain in the text but that we don’t hear about very often. This wasn’t a “one off” event in Acts. We later find out in Acts 21:9 that Phillip has four daughters who prophesied. If we think about it for a moment, there were women who were prophets in the Old Testament as well but we will save that for another time. What is more we know that Paul later instructed the ladies of Corinth in how to pray and prophesy (1 Corinthians 11:1-16). That is paired with Agabus who gives his own prophesy regarding Paul’s future in 21:10-11 which is a mirror of Acts 2 where both men and women are prophesying. Prophesy is not always or even usually future telling. Prophesy is inspired teaching for the edification of the body of Christ.
That brings us to the next point. In Acts we have women who are able to teach others the Gospel. This is not reserved for Acts 2 or for Phillip’s daughters. We find a lady named Priscilla in Acts 18 who, along with her husband, teach Apollos more specifics about Jesus than the baptism of John.
We have ladies who open their homes for the gathering of other Christians. We saw this in the ministry of Jesus and we saw this throughout Paul’s letters (Nympha, Phoebe, Aquila and Priscilla, etc). We also see this in Acts 12 where Mary’s (the mother of John) house is being used for the Christians to gather and pray for Peter’s release (12:12). When Peter miraculously escapes from prison he heads to the house and is “greeted” by Rhoda who is called a servant. The word there is paidiske which means a female slave and the gate she opens is not the gate into the home but a gate from the street into the interior courtyard of the house. Mary must have been fairly well to do and able to provide space for these Christians to assemble and worship.
That brings us to another common theme in the New Testament. The women often financially back a lot of ministry. You see this in Jesus’ ministry in Luke 8:1-3 where Luke lists women who supported Jesus financially. You see this in the ministry of Paul with Phoebe. Most of our discussion around Phoebe centers around what it meant for Paul to call her a diakonos (deacon or servant) but Paul also calls her a prostasis which means a benefactor. Phoebe probably bankrolled some of Paul’s ministry.
Women are all over these stories if we are willing to stop and listen. This shouldn’t come as any surprise. We shouldn’t look for these stories once a year. We all know how vital a role women play in church life today. They are half of the body and without them the body would not be the body.