Over the past few weeks or so I have written far more often than I would have liked on the question of women in the church. Yet this particular issue seems to strike at a variety of fault lines and it is therefore something that I find myself being involved in over and over again as a result of being a patient listener and someone willing to engage and ask questions. Among the more contentious concerns in the contemporary church of God is the question of the role of women. In particular, the question is whether women have a suitable place in the various offices of authority in Ephesians 4:11-12: “And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ.” It is the view of many people that only men are to be considered for these roles of authority, on the basis of a couple of passages from the writings of Paul, namely 1 Timothy 2:11-12 and 1 Corinthians 14:34-35. Such extrapolation, though, is a lesser basis of evidence than a direct example of there being the office of prophetess in the early Church of God.
We know without a doubt that there were prophetesses in the Old Testament, namely Miriam, the brother of Moses, Deborah the Judge, and Huldah, who lived during the time of Josiah. We also know that there were prophetesses up to the time of Christ, namely that of Anna, an elderly widow who lived and served in the temple. Yet despite this clear record, which demonstrates that prophetesses were perhaps less common than prophets but certainly not unheard of, there are some who wish to posit a discontinuity by which women had an office open to them under the old covenant that they did not under the new covenant. Obviously, if they believed that women had an office of authority, then they would have to consider themselves to be wrong in denying such an office. When I sent the links to my four-part study on 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, I noticed that one of my examples of women serving in a prophetic role had been neglected. It is worth citing and reflecting upon this passage, Acts 21:7-14: “And when we had finished our voyage from Tyre, we came to Ptolemais, greeted the brethren, and stayed with them one day. On the next day we who were Paul’s companions departed and came to Caesarea, and entered the house of Philip the evangelist, who was one of the seven, and stayed with him. Now this man had four virgin daughters who prophesied. And as we stayed many days, a certain prophet named Agabus came down from Judea. When he had come to us, he took Paul’s belt, bound his own hands and feet, and said, “Thus says the Holy Spirit, ‘So shall the Jews at Jerusalem bind the man who owns this belt, and deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles.’” Now when we heard these things, both we and those from that place pleaded with him not to go up to Jerusalem. Then Paul answered, “What do you mean by weeping and breaking my heart? For I am ready not only to be bound, but also to die at Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.” So when he would not be persuaded, we ceased, saying, “The will of the Lord be done.””
What is going on in this scene? Paul and his companions, including Luke, are on their way to Jerusalem and had reached the brethren at Caesarea. They stayed at the house of the noted early Church leader Philip, who had been one of the seven first deacons. After this we find out that his four virgin (because unmarried and virtuous) daughters prophesied. After that we find that another prophet named Agabus came and delivered a prophecy about Paul’s upcoming trials and difficulties, which were soon to pass. The entire atmosphere is one where prophetic ministry occurs as a rather ordinary event. Philip himself was a godly leader, his daughters prophesied, and he was happy to host other prophets and leaders. The warning that Agabus provided came to pass exactly as foretold and the fact that Philip’s daughters prophesied was itself a fulfillment of a prophecy in Joel 2:28-29: “And it shall come to pass afterward that I will pour out My Spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions. And also on My menservants and on My maidservants I will pour out My Spirit in those days.”
It should be noted that there is no specific mention of any women in the New Testament, aside from the self-appointed Jezebel in Revelation 2, serving as prophetesses. There is, however, a general promise that men and women will prophecy as a result of the gifts of the spirit, and that promise is shown as having been fulfilled, which we have also noted in our discussion of 1 Corinthians 11 and 14 demonstrate the universality of prophesying among those who have been given the gift of the Holy Spirit. What we are left with, therefore, is a bit of a conundrum. It is a genuine mystery that the gifts of the spirit should be so strikingly and notably egalitarian, and the interpretation of who is fit for various offices should be strikingly the opposite. It is a genuine mystery that the prophetess was clearly an acceptable office in the “patriarchal” system of the Old Testament and the Second Temple period before the time of John the Baptist and Jesus Christ but is apparently not an acceptable office for women when “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus,” as Paul says in Galatians 3:28. I will leave it to the reader to decide for himself or herself whether this mystery has any other origin than the desire of some to monopolize offices and to oppress others, and to God to judge, as He alone knows the hearts and minds of others and ourselves and a deep awareness of all of our complex motives, which color our judgment and interpretation of everything in this life.