Women's Ministry in the New Testament
Dr. Elizabeth Leelavathi Manasseh
God used men and women, both in the Old Testament and in the New Testament for the benefit of people, as per God’s will and purpose, for His glory.
To understand and appreciate Women’s Ministry in the New Testament, it is important to reflect upon a practical definition of Ministry/Ministries and certain texts in the Pauline epistles
A Practical Definition of Ministry and Ministries
Ministry can be defined as any act of service for the benefit, welfare, edification, empowerment and development of others – both Christians and people of various Faith Communities, motivated by the love of the Risen Lord Jesus Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit to fulfill the will and purpose of God.
Ministries refer to specific tasks taken up to serve the Body of Christ – the Church. For example, Pastoring is one of the ministries of the Church and not THE MINISTRY. Likewise, Proclamation is one of the ministries of Church.
2 Corinthians 3:28: “When anyone is united in Christ, there is a new world. The old order has gone and the new order has already begun” (RNEB):This is an intensely personal letter where Apostle Paul pours out his feelings and faith as he faces disappointment, counters slander and disloyalty, while carrying out the Great Commission. Although Apostle Paul is talking about himself in this text, that his outlook has been transformed and made new by ‘being in Christ’, his favourite expression for a Christian. All the possibilities of being in Christ are open to women also with all its potential and the resources for the New Creation.
The new age has dawned with the advent of Jesus Christ and of how we view women and men, young and old by overcoming barriers, e.g. of gender, race, creed, class, authority and power, prestige and position. Jesus Christ calls us to live in a community where there is unity and a total acceptance of each other. With no second class citizens. The call is to overcome barriers in creating the new community. Thus, Apostle Paul in writing to the Galatians illustrates this point clearly.
There is neither Jew not Greek
there is neither slave nor free
there is neither male nor female
for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
This is thought to have been a baptismal creed in use in the early Church, which Paul has used to illustrate that all racial, class and gender barriers are broken down in Christ (read verse 27).
In the society of Apostle Paul’s day, there was a tremendous difference in the social status and sense of personal worth and human dignity between the paired categories of people mentioned here. Therefore, every Jew recited the three-fold daily rabbinic prayer (Swidler:323):
Praised be God that he has not created me a Gentile!
Praised be God that he has not created me a woman!
Praised be God that he has not created me a slave!
(Tosephta Berakhoth 7, 18)
Thus, Apostle Paul points out that that faith in Christ has brought a new relationship to God which is accompanied by a new relationship of believers to one another, namely, Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female which encompasses all humanity.
Romans 16: 1-16: Talking about women’s engagement and involvement in the Ministry, Romans 16:1 clearly shows that Apostle Paul’s actions were consistent with his theology expressed in Galatians 3:28. In Romans 16, of the 28 people Apostle Paul names and greets as “Co-workers”, 10 are women. It is simple evidence of the fact that Apostle Paul worked alongside women, recognized their leadership and considered that the Lord Jesus Christ (Gospel) gave women, the freedom to exercise their gifts alongside men, for the furtherance of God’s Kingdom.
Of the three groups which Apostle Paul declares as equals in Christ, it is with regard to equality between women and men that the Church continues to wrestle today. Therefore, it is important to hold 2 Corinthians 5:17 and Galatians 3:28 together in drawing out implications for creating a new community where men and women serve God, side by side as well as separately.
Women in Ministry in the New Testament
In the New Testament, we see how women, called by God, served in the power of the Holy Spirit, alongside men in various contexts.
The uniqueness of women in the New Testament is that they played their traditional roles, perhaps, following the examples of women in the Old Testament, as mother, wife, daughter etc. Listing below some prominent and not so prominent women the mentioned in the New Testament and their unique roles in
Prophecy and Proclamation
Prophecy means ‘speaking for God whether about the past, the present or the future’. One of the primary functions of the prophets in the early Church as mentioned in Acts 15:32 was ‘to encourage and strengthen brothers and sisters”. It is the gift of inspired instruction shared both verbally and through exemplary life.
Proclamation is proclaiming the message of God or sharing the Good News of glad tidings of great joy.
The following women teach us how God uses women wholly surrendered to him.
Mary (Matthew 1-2 ): We find Mary, a young Hebrew woman fulfilling God’s Prophecy through Prophet Isaiah (9:7) and Proclaiming the good news to the entire world that obedience to God brings blessing to the people and nations.
Approximately, four hundred years after God’s last visit to His people through the prophets, the New Testament opens with the incarnation of God’s only begotten Son as the fulfillment of God’s promise to the people. Mary was the chosen vessel in God’s plan of salvation for the world and establishing God’s Kingdom on the earth. Blessed among women, Mary is a blessing to all, as the joys and sorrows experienced by her continue to empower people within the Church and Society. Later she became the wife of Joseph, leads a normal family life with him, as per God’s will and purpose. Thus, Mary is a beautiful example for both unmarried and married women.
Elizabeth (Luke 1:1-80): Elizabeth and Mary were of great support and inspiration to each other. What about us today? Elizabeth mentored Mary who was younger. Are we mentoring younger women? God chose Elizabeth and Zechariah to prepare John the Baptist to respond to the Call of God upon his life. Elizabeth cooperated with her husband, encouraged their son and released him for God’s Mission. If God calls our children for God’s Mission in another district or State or Country, are we willing to prepare and release them for the same?
Elizabeth, through her life, proclaims the power of God, in giving birth to a child much late in life, as she with her husband implicitly obeyed God.
Anna (Luke 1 & 2; Acts 15:32): In Israel, an unmarried woman stood under the protection of her father and a married woman under her husband. But a widow was deprived of any protection. Therefore, in the Old Testament, God gave clear guidelines to the people of Israel, to care for widows. Perhaps, the Jewish temple was a place of refuge for Anna. After many years, people may have discovered the gift of prophecy that God had given to Anna. Anna was a prophetess, who, alongside prophet Simeon, witnessed the dedication of the infant Jesus in the Temple and spoke of Him, as the expected Redeemer or Messiah of Israel.
A. Evangelism and Missions: God empowers women to be engaged in Evangelism and Missions. Once again, the biblical stand “Obedience to God brings blessings to people” is emphasized.
Evangelism is the spreading of the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ by personal witness or/and public preaching.
Missions is the vocation or calling of Christian individuals or Christian Groups or Organisations, to go out into the world and spread the Christian faith.
Mary Magdalene ( John 20- 1 to 8): was healed of seven demons and left everything to follow Jesus. She was last to see Him on the cross and first to see the Risen Lord Jesus Christ. It was to Mary from Magdala, that Jesus’ word came powerfully, “Go and tell my brothers”. Mary Magdalene obeyed, thus making her the first Evangelist to spread the Gospel, that Christ was Risen.
The Samaritan Woman (John 4:1-42): A Jewish man did not engage in conversation with a woman he was not related to, with a non-Jewish woman, anyone of disrepute, or a Samaritan. The Jews would rather burn a copy of the religious Law than give it to a woman. A good Pharisee would not be seen talking with a woman. The Samaritan woman is thoroughly unworthy in the eyes of the first century Jews. The lack of a name only adds to her unimportance in the then society. Probably, this Samaritan Woman was childless and therefore, five husbands rejected her one after another. She came to the well at noon to avoid the snares and gossips.
In the Old Testament, the imagery of wells often refers to God’s relationship with Israel. When the woman met Jesus at the well, the conversation revolves around a misunderstanding about the water and spirit. As the conversation continues, Jesus reveals that He is the true Messiah, to a non-Jew and a person of earthly disrepute, because she is thirsty for true knowledge. Jesus gives her hope to live an abundant life, and commissions her to evangelise and spread her faith in Jesus. She moves into the public arena for making an impact for CHRIST! Thus, fulfills the mission of God.
B. Commerce/Business and Wealth (Acts 16:1-40 & Philippians 1:1-4, 23 and Acts 18): Women in the New Testament knew business and commercial transaction, as did women in the Old Testament.
Lydia (Acts 16): was the first Christian convert in Europe and a successful business woman. A native of Thyatira of Asia Minor, a city known for its purple dyes. By trade, she was a dealer in purple cloth, a luxury fabric for which the dye was extracted, not from plants, but from shellfish. Perhaps, for business reasons, Lydia may have moved to Philippi in Macedonia. There was no synagogue in Philippi, which probably means that the Jewish Community there was too small to have a synagogue. In other words, a minimum of ten males is required to start a synagogue. Lydia urges Paul and the others to become her guests, and this would give them plenty of opportunity to disciple the new believers.
Priscilla (Acts 18): was a tent maker, alongside her husband. She was also preacher, missionary and teacher of theology. Priscilla and her husband Aquila were Jews of the Dispersion. They complimented each other. Priscilla had a more prominent role in the early Church. Although she may have been a talented, gifted and intelligent woman, she always worked alongside her husband, as devoted wife. She was hospitable and extended her ministry to Apollos, and taught him theology and preaching skills. She was a risk taker for God in any situation.
Both Priscilla and Aquila were skilled tentmakers. Priscilla made many sacrifices in the spreading of the Gospel. She lived at a time when Christians faced great persecution. She, willingly gave up her comfort and security of a permanent residence to travel with her husband and Paul, the Apostle.
C. Theology: As women reading the Bible and studying it, we become women doing Theology. As we look at Jesus, we see that Jesus in stark variance with religious practices of his time, considered theology an extremely important task for women.
Women doing Theology: We realize Mary of Bethany (Luke 10, John 11, 12) seated at Jesus’ feet in the traditional position of learning from a male teacher, was actually doing theology and as such was commended by Jesus. We hear Jesus in deep theological dialogue with the Syro-Phoenician woman (Matthew 15. Mark 7), the Samaritan woman (John 4) and Martha (John 11: 20-27), we hear these women questioning Jesus, and ultimately recognizing the truth of His Messiahship.
D. Leadership in the Church:
Women played a significant role in the ministry of the early Church and worked alongside men and women. All we know is their names and that they served God with gladness.
Phoebe (Romans 16), was a deacon in the Church commended by Apostle Paul. Other women who hosted House Churches, were Mary, the mother of John Mark (Acts 12), Lydia (Acts 16), Euodias and Syntyche (Philippians 4), Chloe (I Corinthians 1), Rufus’ mother (Romans 16), Junia (Romans 16), Rhoda (Acts 12), Salome (Mark 16), Sapphira (Acts 5), Susanna (Luke 8), ad Tryphea and Tryphosa (Romans 16). Thus, we see how God used all these women along with their leadership gifts in the ministry of the Church.
This shows that God has given women also the gift of leadership. Therefore, women must discover and develop it for the edification of all in every local Church. It is the responsibility of men as well as women in leadership in the Church to encourage women to use the gift of leadership.
E.Worship and Generous Giving:
Worship is the act of attributing reverence and adoration to God. In the New Testament, various words are used to refer to the term worship. One is proskuneo – ‘to worship’ which means to bow down to God (fall prostrate before God). Christians believe in a triune God - the Father God, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
Generous Giving is an act of kindness that is shown in sharing hard earned God-enabled resources in kind and cash with those who are in need. They may belong to any cross section in the Family, Church and Society (other Faith Communities, too). Generous giving also includes keeping one’s home open for guests. These acts of kindness emerge from our daily worship.
In Luke 8:1–3, we learn that Jesus and the disciples had patrons, and they were often wealthy women. Luke tells us that Joanna and Susanna were among “many others” who “provided for them out of their means” (Luke 8:3). They had enhanced worship in their own homes and extended hospitality to all who were there.
Similarly, Paul’s ministry was financed by women (Romans 16:2). Phoebe, a deaconess, is identified as Paul’s “patron” (ESV), or “benefactor” (NIV), a term that literally means defender or protector. She also used her money and influence to help the missionaries to fulfill their calling. Others—like Prisca (Romans 16:5) and Lydia (Acts 16:14)—voluntarily offer their homes for holding worship and discipleship training programmes. God entrusts wealth to women, and they joyfully use it for the expansion of God’s Kingdom.
F. Teaching and Edifying: Some women have the gift of teaching, deploying it in prudent and acceptable ways to certain people in the local Church and other contexts.
In Luke 2:38, Anna the prophetess is introduced as a woman who served the Lord by staying in the temple and worshiping. She would also teach the people, and “to speak of him to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem.”
Earlier in Luke’s Gospel, Mary sings a theologically rich song in Luke 1:46–55 that has become a source of constant encouragement and teaching for the Church.
Timothy received training from his godly grandmother Lois and his mother Eunice in the doctrines of the faith (2 Timothy 1:5). They gave him instruction in “the sacred writings” which made him “wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 3:15). Godly women who can serve, teach, and disciple are essential in every local Church. God uses women like Priscilla to help influential men like Apollos and “explain the way of God more accurately” (Acts 18:26).
G. Caring as Co-workers in the Lord: God cares for all. God helps men and women to work diligently, as Co-workers in caring for people.
Jesus was often in the company of women who “followed him and ministered to him” including Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Salome (Mark 15:40–41). Women comprised his ministry support structure.
In 1 Timothy 3, the word “ministered” is translated “deacon.” Some of these women appear again in Mark 16 when they arrive to serve the Lord by anointing his body after the crucifixion. At the end of Romans, we also read about Rufus, a man with a remarkable mother (and father, since he was the one who carried Jesus’ cross). Paul says that she was like the adoptive Church mother, and like a mother to him as well (Romans 16:13). Tabitha was likely the same kind of woman, “full of good works and acts of charity” (Acts 9:36).
H. Men and Women serving side by side: as courageous and faithful Partners for the sake of the Gospel.
Prayer is the integral part of Christian Ministry. Women and men do ministry with much prayer backing.
Romans 16:3–4 mentions Priscilla and Aquila again, this time as “fellow workers” who “risked their necks” for the gospel. This is followed by a commendation of Junia in 16:7, who worked so closely with Paul that she suffered as a “fellow prisoner.” Their commitment proves that Paul appreciated working alongside women during a dangerous mission for the Gospel. He ends Romans with warm and personal greetings, deeply thankful for the service and sacrifice of women.
The Magnificat: Women in Ministry to move forward:
Mary’s song in Luke 1:46-55 is called the “Magnificat”. Because it opens with the Greek verb, which in English, means “Magnifies”. The song is the reflection of Old Testament Psalms and is similar to the song of Hannah (1 Samuel 2:1-10). Mary rejoices in God who has shown mercy and raised he from her lowly and humble state to a state where people will call her blessed henceforth (vv 46-49). She feels humbled and honoured. Her personal worship of God leads her to contemplating God and the attributes of God.
Dear Sisters, let us take time to praise God for elevating us from the day we had a personal encounter with the Lord Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. Let us recall our journey as disciples of Lord Jesus Christ – growing in the grace and knowledge of the Lord, discovering and developing our spiritual gifts and talents, responding to the call of God upon our lives for Ministry. Let us fully surrender ourselves asking God to continue to help us to “Walk the Talk and Talk the Walk” bringing blessings to people, for God’s glory. Amen.