What roles did women play in the early church?

The Book of Acts is our primary source for learning about some of the roles women filled in the early church. The list of women in Acts includes Dorcas, Mary the mother of John Mark, Lydia, Prisca (Pricilla) and Philip the evangelist’s four prophesying daughters (21:8-9). Paul mentions others in his letter to churches – Phoebe, Junia, Tryphena, Tryphosa, Persis, Rufus’ mother, Julia, another Mary, Syntyche and Euodia as being among those he had worked with in ministry. The list in Romans 16 of those he calls co-workers, has as many women in it as men.

Some of the women in the early church were apparently well-to-do owners of larger-than-average houses where churches met. Mary the mother of John Mark was an early example of these women who headed up a household and hosted a church. (Acts 12:12-17). In Jerusalem at the time, the church was already persecuted and so this church-in-a home must have been a dangerous undertaking. Lydia in Philippi was also one (Acts 16:11-15), a businesswoman dealing in luxury purple cloth and an early convert in Paul’s first evangelistic stopover in Europe. When she became a Christian, she made her house available as the meeting place for the new Christians in her city. Two other women, Nympha (Colossians 4:15) and Chloe (1 Corinthians 1:11) are also spoken of in the same way. That these prominent women were named as heads of households probably also meant they came to be seen as the leader of the house church in their home.

Later in Acts, we meet Aquila and his wife Prisca (18:1-26), who as fellow leatherworkers, shared travel and ministry with Paul and hosted a house church (1 Corinthians 16:19). It is not long before Prisca (her formal name – Priscilla is the familiar form) is named ahead of her husband Aquila, indicating that she became a widely-accepted leader and teacher in her own right, if not the leader of the team (Acts 18:18; 2 Timothy 4:19).

Paul concludes his letter to the church in Rome with a series of greetings and commendations of his co-workers. Romans 16 begins with Phoebe, whom he highly praises as a deacon (the only time in the New Testament a deacon is named) and rich benefactor. The word used in verse 1 for benefactor has the meaning of patron, leader or ruler. Paul is asking that when she comes to Rome, perhaps carrying his letter to the church there, they receive her as fitting her standing as a church leader in the city of Cenchreae. The practice of the time was that when significant letters were delivered, they were read aloud to the receiving congregation by the bearer, who then explained the latter and answered any questions raised by the hearers. So Phoebe possibly was the one who first spoke to what has been considered the most intense and comprehensive theological treatise of the early church, one we return to again and again to comprehend the depth of God’s plan of salvation for us.

Paul’s list of commendations in Romans 16 also includes Junia. She is named an outstanding apostle alongside Andronicus (probably her husband). They had suffered persecution for their ministry, even sharing a prison with Paul. Apostles at this time were not the original ‘Twelve’ but evangelists like Paul (who called himself an apostle) who had the responsibility to travel and share the gospel widely, perhaps planting churches as they went. They were travelling missionaries, frequently gifted by God to perform miracles of healing. Junia was one of these.

Scot McKnight in his discussion of reading the Bible, suggests that before we launch into the more difficult passages New Testament passages used to limit women teaching and leading in the church, we should ask the question from the Scriptures: What Did Women Do (WDWD) in those times? He even suggests wearing a WDWD wristband to remind us of this basic approach!

What roles did women play in the early church? This brief overview demonstrates there were many women in significant general leadership in first-century congregations, highly commended by Paul and the other church leaders. Their ministries included hosting and overseeing congregations in their homes, providing financial support, expounding the Scriptures, teaching publicly, travelling as evangelists, church planting, and in Phoebe’s case, explaining the writings that were emerging and which later became our New Testament.


For further reading on women’s roles in the early church, see

The blue parakeet: Rethinking how you read the Bible by Scot McKnight (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008, 2011. Kindle)

Junia is Not Alone: Breaking our silence about women in the Bible and the church today also by Scot McKnight (Patheos.com, 2011. Kindle)

Outrageous Women Outrageous God: Women in the first two generations of Christianity by Ross Saunders (Brunswick East, Victoria: Acorn, 2017. Kindle)

Questions in this series:
1. How do we read the Bible to decide what to do today?
2. What principles of interpreting Scripture should we apply to understand the passages that are used to limit women’s leadership in the church?
3. What roles did women play in the early church?
4. Did Jesus have female disciples?
5. Does the Holy Spirit give spiritual gifts to all Christians?
6. How can men pave the way for women to have greater opportunities in the church?
7. Why is it important to hear women preach and teach Scripture?
8. I am uncomfortable with the fact that women are restricted from leading and teaching men in my church. What advice can you give to help me raise this issue at my church?

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