Who’s Who Among Biblical Women Leaders

This is the fifth post in our series, One In Christ: A Week of Mutuality, dedicated to discussing an egalitarian view of gender—including relevant biblical texts and practical applications.  The goal is to show how scripture, tradition, reason, and experience all support a posture of equality toward women, one that favors mutuality rather than hierarchy, in the home, Church, and society. 

The reason I want to highlight the “who’s who” among biblical woman leaders today is this: Later, we will be discussing 1 Timothy 2:11-15, the passage in which Paul forbids Ephesian women from teaching in church.Unfortunately, when it comes to womanhood, many Christians tend to read the rest of scripture through the lens of 1 Timothy 2:11-15 rather than the other way around. By highlighting the many female leaders and teachers in scripture, I’m hoping to set the stage so that we see 1 Timothy 2 for what it is—an anomaly. It’s hard to argue that Paul’s statements there are meant to be universally applied when so many women from scripture are honored by God and praised by their community for teaching and exercising leadership. 

But before we begin, a disclaimer:  There is no doubt that the Bible was written in a patriarchal culture.As a result, men are named significantly more often, men serve as protagonists in the biblical stories more often, and men hold positions of leadership more often. In addition, there are stories and laws found in scripture regarding women that are profoundly troubling: women are identified as property (Exodus 20:17, Deuteronomy 5:21, Judges 5:30), rape laws require fathers to be paid for damages and the female victim to marry her rapist (Deuteronomy 22:28-29), virginity expectations focused almost exclusively on girls, women are valued less in vow redemption (Leviticus 27:1-8), the birth of girls represents a greater impurity assessment in the Levitical Purity Codes (Leviticus 12:2-4), women are considered spoils of war (Numbers 31:32-35, Deuteronomy 20:14, Deuteronomy 21:10-15, Judges 5:30, Judges 21:11-23), adultery laws subjected women to more scrutiny and punished them more severely than men, polygamy was common, owning concubines was common, and impregnating slave women was common.  Furthermore, stories surrounding women like Tamar of Genesis, Dinah, Hagar, the dismembered concubine of Judges 19, Jephthah's daughter, Tamar of the Davidic narrative, and so on reveal the profound inequity that characterized day-to-day life for women living in the ancient Near East. 

Sometimes egalitarians, in their enthusiasm for advancing the equality and dignity of women in the Church, gloss over such passages or try to explain them away. I’m not interested in doing that. I can’t do that. I’ve tried, and frankly, it feels like I am dishonoring the suffering and the bravery of these women by pretending their oppression wasn’t really so bad. (I spend a lot more time discussing and wrestling with the “texts of terror” in A Year of Biblical Womanhood.) Still, it’s astounding that, in the midst of such a patriarchal culture, so many women are honored as leaders and teachers in scripture. This speaks volumes about the remarkable wisdom, resourcefulness, courage, and godliness it would take to teach and lead in such times, and says a lot about the value God places on women even when the world does not.

What follows is not a comprehensive list by any stretch. There are far too many women of valor found in the Bible to list in a single blog post, so I’ve tried to focus specifically on teaching and leading. 

Deborah  


In the midst of the violent and turbulent aftermath of Joshua’s conquest of Canaan,  “the Lord raised up judges” to provide leadership for the kingless people (Judges 2:16). One such leader was Deborah. At the beginning of Judges 4, the text reports that “Deborah, a prophet, the wife of Lappidoth, was leading Israel at that time.”  As both prophet and judge, Deborah exercised complete religious, political, judicial, and militaristic authority over the people of Israel. She was essentially Israel’s commander-in-chief, said to issue her rulings from beneath a palm in the hills of Ephraim. 

Judges 4-5 famously recounts Deborah’s successful military campaign against Sisera. With the help of Deborah’s doubtful military commander, Barak, and another very gutsy woman named Jael (who exhibited her “gentle and quiet spirit” by driving  a tent peg through Sisera’s  skull), the Canaanite armies are defeated. Israel’s victory is punctuated in scripture by the Song of Deborah—one of the ancient Near East’s oldest military poems. Under Deborah’s continued leadership, the people of Israel enjoyed forty years of peace before the cycle of violence began again. 

Miriam

The prophet Micah identifies Miriam as one of the three leaders sent by God to bring Israel out of Egypt (Micah 6:4). Like Deborah, Miriam is identified as a prophetess, and she seemed to have held special responsibilities in leading the Israelites in worship. Her song, in Exodus 15 is especially beautiful.  Ironically, there are complementarian churches that forbid women from reading Scripture aloud in church, even Scripture like Miriam’s song, Deborah’s song, the reflections of the Shulamite girl in Song of Songs, the Prayer of Hannah in 1 Samuel 2:1-10, and, of course, the Magnificat—all of which reflect the thoughts and ideas of women.

Huldah

Described as Israel’s last good king, Josiah reigned for thirty-one years during a final period of peace before the Babylonian exile. About halfway through his reign, Josiah learned that the long-lost Book of the Law—the Torah—has been discovered in the temple. Upon hearing the words of the Torah read aloud, Josiah tore his robes in repentance and summoned a prophet, for he saw how far Israel had strayed from God’s ways. It’s important to note that contemporaries of Josiah included the famed prophets Jeremiah, Zephaniah, Nahum, and Habakkuk. But Josiah did not ask for help from any of those men. Instead he chose Huldah, a woman and prophet who lived in Jerusalem. “Huldah is not chosen because no men were available,” writes Scot McKnight in The Blue Parakeet,  “She is chosen because she is truly exceptional among the prophets.”  Huldah first confirmed the scroll’s authenticity and then told Josiah that the disobedience of Israel would indeed lead to its destruction, but that Josiah himself would die in peace. Thus, Huldah not only interpreted, but also authorized, the document that would become the core of Jewish and Christian Scripture. Her prophecy was fulfilled thirty-five years later (2 Kings 22).

Other Prophetesses:

The Bible identifies ten female prophets in the Old and New Testaments: Miriam, Deborah, Huldah, Noadiah,  Isaiah’s wife, Anna,  and the four daughters of Philip. In addition, women like Rachel, Hannah, Abigail, Elisabeth, and Mary are described as having prophetic visions about the future of their children, the destiny of nations, and the coming Messiah.  

When the Holy Spirit descended upon the first Christians at Pentecost, Peter drew from the words of the prophet Joel to describe what had happened, saying, “Your sons and daughters will prophesy...Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days,  and they will prophesy" (Acts 2:17–18). Thus, the  breaking in of the new creation after Christ’s resurrection unleashed a cacophony of new prophetic voices, and apparently, prophesying among women was such a common activity in the early church that Paul had to remind women to cover their heads when they did it. While some may try to downplay biblical examples of female disciples, deacons, leaders, and apostles, no one can deny the Bible’s long tradition of prophetic feminine vision.  And I believe this prophetic vision is as important today as it was in the days of the early church. We would do well to heed the words of Jesus: “Whoever welcomes a prophet as a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and whoever welcomes a righteous person as a righteous person will receive a righteous person’s reward” (Matthew 10:41). For more on this, see “...Your daughters will prophesy...

Ruth

I remember attending a conservative Christian conference as a twenty-something, where a speaker told a room full of teenagers that a girl initiating a friendship with a boy was a violation of biblical principles that require men to be the leaders in a relationship. (One of the other girls in attendance started crying because she had invited a boy to prom!) I didn’t realize it then, but that speaker really needed to re-visit the book of Ruth, in which Ruth and Naomi hatch the plan to get Boaz’s attention, and in which Ruth is the one to approach Boaz under the cover of night and essentially ask for his hand in marriage. 

Other women who showed leadership in their personal relationships with men include Sarah (God told Abraham to “listen to your wife Sarah”), Rebecca, Rachel, Tamar, Leah, Abigail, and Bathsheba.  

The Shulamite Girl 

Another great example of a woman exhibiting leadership in her marriage is the Shulamite girl of Song of Songs. There’s too much to say about her here—I spent much more time on Song of Songs in my book—but suffice it to say, this girl knows exactly what she wants, and isn’t afraid to tell her lover to make it happen! 

The Shulamite girl is the first to speak in the poem, declaring, “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth” (1:1). She actively seeks out the handsome shepherd in his fields, saying “Why should I be like a veiled woman beside the flocks of your friends?” (v. 7). When the two are separated, she goes out into the streets, looking for him, and at one point is accosted by the city guards. When she finds him, she brings him into a private room. There, she says, “I held him and would not him go” (3:4).  It is she who initiates a sexual encounter in a vineyard in the countryside, and it is she who offers her lover a frank invitation to drink her wine and to enter her “garden” to taste its choice fruits. Indeed some of the most beautiful lines of the poem—and arguably of the Bible—are hers: “Place me like a seal over your heart, like a seal on your arm; for love is as strong as death” (8:6).

Alise Wright wrote a great post for our Week of Mutuality about the inconsistency of preaching mutuality in the bedroom, but not in other areas of life. (See “You don’t have to take your clothes off to be egalitarian.”)

Esther

Esther was something of an unwitting biblical leader, but an incredibly brave and wise one nonetheless. She was forced, along with perhaps thousands of virgin girls from Susa, into King Xerxes harem, where she became one of the king’s favorites.  

Despite some recent (and truly horrendous) complementarian interpretations that say Esther’s story is about godly submission in marriage, it is Esther’s defiance to her husband in speaking to him without being summoned (at the risk of death), that ultimately saves the Jewish people.

(I wrote more about Esther and complementarianism in a post entitled “Esther and Vashit: The Real Story”) 

Rizpah

Rizpah a sort of Old Testament Antigone, who protested the massacre of her sons by publicly mourning, night and day, at the site where their bodies had been left to the elements.  She cried out for months, “from the beginning of the harvest till the rain poured down from the heavens on the bodies,” keeping watch over her sons and fending away wild animals and birds (2 Samuel 21:10). Her unrelenting despair won the solidarity of a war-weary people and finally moved King David to grant the men a proper burial, thus ending the famine that had swept the land.  She serves as an amazing example of the effectiveness of prophetic protest. 

Mary of Nazareth  

I loved what Mike Zosel wrote about Mary in his response to John Piper’s call for a “masculine Christianity”:  

“God did not consider woman’s flesh as something to be despised or ignored or covered up. No.  God selected it to be the very vessel of our salvation in Jesus Christ.  God saw fit to honor women by entering the world through one of them.  God partnered with a woman, in her flesh, to become flesh... So, all of this talk about the Church’s ministry being a ‘masculine ministry’, as  if women are primarily ‘alongside’ men (read: nonessential)?  Please.  In order to bring salvation to all men, even God needed the help of a woman.  In fact, God could never have done it without her!” (Read the resthere.) 

In addition to being charged with the task of bringing the Son of God into the world, Mary exhibited great leadership in the formation of Christianity. In the Magnificat, we see that Mary boasted a strong familiarity with scripture as well as a striking prophetic vision for what it meant (Luke 1:16-55). Mary’s clear passion regarding justice for the poor and marginalized undoubtedly influenced the teachings of not only Jesus, but also his brother James. (I realize Catholics will disagree with me on this!) It was Mary who urged Jesus to perform his first miracle, and it was Mary who must have provided information to the writers of the gospels concerning Jesus’ birth. 

Martha

Martha was one of Jesus’ closest friends and disciples. According to the gospels of Luke and John, she opened her home to Him, shared meals with Him, and stood by His side as He raised her brother, Lazarus, from the dead. John reports that “Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus” (John 11:5). That Martha’s name appears before her brother’s suggests that this woman garnered considerable respect among the earliest followers of Jesus. 

Mary of Bethany

Rabbi Eliezer wrote in the first century that, “Rather should the words of the Torah be burned than entrusted to a woman...Whoever teaches his daughter the Torah is like one who teaches her obscenity.”(JT Sotah 3:4, 19a)

Jesus unabashedly defies this tradition by teaching the Torah to women, perhaps most notably Mary of Bethany. The fact that Mary is described by Luke as “sitting at the feet of Jesus” clearly identifies her as a disciple. And when Martha challenges Mary to get back to the more traditional role of serving from the kitchen, Jesus gently admonishes Martha to allow her sister to stay put.

“Martha, Martha,” he said, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” This is one of many, many examples of Jesus defying social norms to welcome women into his ministry. Any woman who is a follower of Jesus should remind herself now and then that, no matter what others may say, our esteemed status in Christ’s Kingdom cannot be taken away from us.  

“The Women” (female disciples of Jesus)

When referring to the earliest followers of Jesus, the Gospel writers often speak of two groups of disciples: the Twelve and the Women. The Twelve refer to the twelve Jewish men chosen by Jesus to be his closest companions and first apostles, symbolic of the twelve tribes of Israel. The Women refer to an unspecified number of female disciples who also followed Jesus, welcoming him into their homes, financing his ministry, and often teaching the Twelve through their acts of faithfulness and love. Just as Jesus predicted, most of the Twelve abandoned him at his death (John 16:32). But the women remained by his side—through his death, burial, and resurrection. (For more on why Jesus’ choosing of the twelve male disciples should not exclude women from leadership see Daniel Kirk’s post, “On Jesus Choosing Twelve Males)

Mary Magdalene

According to the gospels of Mark and Luke, Jesus cleansed Mary Magdalene of seven demons, after which she became a devoted disciple. She is mentioned by Luke in the same context as the Twelve as one who traveled with Jesus and helped finance his ministry. All four gospel accounts identify Mary Magdalene as among the first witnesses of the empty tomb. She is the one to breathlessly describes what she has seen to the male disciples, who initially discount her declaration, “I have seen the Lord!”, as the babblings of a foolish woman.

 It has been noted that Mary’s  announcement, “I have seen the Lord,” is the same credential used by Paul to insist on his own authority as an apostle:” 'Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lored?” (1 Cor. 9:1).  For her valor in twice sharing the good news to the skeptical male disciples, the early church honored Mary Magdalene with the title of Apostle to the Apostles.  That Christ ushered in this new era of life and liberation in the presence of women, and that he sent them out as the first witnesses of the complete gospel story, is perhaps the boldest, most overt affirmation of their equality in his kingdom that Jesus ever delivered. (For more, see “Women of the Passion, Part 4: Mary Magdalene – Apostle to the Apostles)


Tabitha 

A stalwart force in the first-century effort to restore the dignity of widows was a woman named Tabitha.  Likely a widow herself, but with means, Tabitha lived in the port city of Joppa at the time when Peter and Paul were busy spreading the gospel throughout Asia Minor. She was a renowned philanthropist, known throughout the land for “always doing good and helping the poor” (Acts 9:36). She was also a master seamstress, making robes and other clothing for the many widows in her care, presumably imparting on them the skills of the trade.

When first we hear of her in Luke’s book of Acts, she has succumbed to an illness, her body washed and prepared for burial. So critical was Tabitha’s ministry to the early church that Peter himself was summoned to her bedside, and when he arrived, he found widows from all across Joppa weeping together in Tabitha’s home. They showed him all the clothes she had made for them. Peter sent everyone out of the room and fell on his knees to pray. Apparently, God agreed that Tabitha was indeed indispensable, for Peter turned toward the body and said, “Tabitha, get up” (v. 40).  Tabitha opened her eyes and sat up. Peter took her by the hand and helped her to her feet. Then he called for the widows, who ran into the room to find Tabitha alive. It is one of just two resurrection stories in the book of Acts.  To Tabitha belongs the worthy distinction of being the only woman in the New Testament identified with the feminine form of the word “disciple”—mathetriaThe word literally means “pupil,” or “apprentice,” which may suggest that at some point, Tabitha studied directly under Jesus, like Mary of Bethany. 

Junia 

Although her name appears just once in Paul’s letter to the church at Rome, the Apostle Junia is perhaps the most silenced woman of the Bible. 

“Greet Andronicus and Junia,” Paul wrote in Romans 16:7, “my fellow Jews who have been in prison with me. They are outstanding among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was.” Junia is the first and only woman in Scripture to be explicitly identified as an apostle. (Mary Magdalene’s status as apostle is debatable.)  Apostles in the New Testament were disciples of Jesus devoted to spreading his teachings abroad. In addition to the original twelve apostles, the Bible speaks of apostles who served as traveling missionaries, teaching and leading the early church as it endured persecution and struggled through religious growing pains. Paul, Timothy, Barnabas Silas and Apollos were all apostles, as were Andronicus and Junia.

The fourth-century bishop of Constantinople, John Chrysostom, said of Junia, “To be an apostle is something great. But to beoutstanding among the apostles—just think what a wonderful song of praise that is! . . . Indeed how great the wisdom of this woman must have been that she was even deemed worthy of the title of apostle”(emphasis mine).

But as time went on, the mention of a female apostle in Scripture became inconvenient for the increasingly hierarchal Church, so a medieval theologian found a creative solution to the problem: he turned Junia into a man. "Andronicus and Junia" became "Andronicus and Junias." This was no small error. The masculine name Junias does not occur in a single inscription, letterhead, work of literature, or epitaph in the Greco-Roman world, while the feminine name Junia is everywhere. None of the Greek manuscripts suggests that a masculine form of this name should be used, and for the first thousand years of church history, Christian theologians ranging from Chrysostom to Origen to Jerome all identified the apostle Junia as a woman. But the myth caught on, especially after Martin Luther used Junias, rather than Junia, in his German translation of the Bible and identified the pair of former prisoners as male. To this day, one can find English translations of the Bible that turn the apostle Junia into a man. She’s just a little too inconvenient. (For more on this crazy story,check out Junia is Not Alone by Scot McKnight and Junia: The First Woman Apostle by Eldon Jay Epp.)

Phoebe

In Romans 16:1-2, Paul writes, “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon in the church in Cenchreae. I ask that you receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of his people and give to her any help she may need from you, for she has been the benefactor of many people, including me.” 

Phoebe was one of many women in the early church to play an important role in directing the churches that met in their homes. Phoebe is not mentioned alongside a husband, so there’s a good chance she was single or a widow. She is identified as a deacon, which in the New Testament referred to a teacher and leader in the church, whether that person was a man or woman. (Yep, a “deaconess” is something we made up much later on.)  In Paul’s letters, deacons are connected to ministry and service of the word (1 Corinthians 3:5-9).

In The Blue Parakeet, Scot McKnight notes that “it is possible that Phoebe, a benefactor or wealthy patron of Paul’s ministry of bringing the gospel to the Roman Empire, was responsible for getting his letter to the right people. Most today think Phoebe was Paul courier for the letter to the Romans. Since couriers were charged with responsibility to explain their letters, Phoebe probably read the letter aloud and answered questions the Roman Christians may have had...Phoebe, to put this graphically, can be seen s the first ‘commentator’ on the letter to the Romans.” 

Again, how ironic that some complementarian churches forbid women from reading Scripture aloud in church when a woman may very well have been the first person to read the book of Romans aloud!

Priscilla

I was once asked if there was a marriage in scripture that I especially admired and would want to emulate in my own relationship with Dan. I immediately thought of the marriage between Priscilla and Aquilla. Complete with rhyming monikers, Priscilla and Aquila were the it couple of the early the church, always described as doing something interesting together— traveling, planting churches, teaching new converts, running a business. It’s unusual to find texts from the ancient world in which a woman’s name precedes her husband’s, but in the letters of Paul, Priscilla is often named before her husband, Aquila. Really, the two names appeared to be somewhat interchangeable in the minds of the early Christians. What a team these two must have made!

 When Paul set out on a mission trip across Asia Minor, he took the couple with him, leaving them in Ephesus so they could minister to the church there.  In Ephesus, Priscilla and Aquila met Apollos, “a learned man, with a thorough knowledge of Scripture” who was preaching in the synagogues. They invited him into their home and together “explained to him the way of God more adequately,” making them some of the earliest known teachers of Christian theology. Apollos would go on to be one of the most influential apostles of the day. It appears the couple then planted a church in the region, for when Paul writes back to the Christians in Corinth, he passes along greetings from “Aquila and Priscilla and the church that meets in their house.”  (It’s hard to imagine that Priscilla, a gifted teacher, would have been prevented from speaking in her own home!)

Paul always spoke affectionately about Priscilla and Aquila, calling them his “co-workers in Christ Jesus,” and noting in Romans that the two “risked their necks” for him. “Not only I, but all the churches of the Gentiles are grateful to them,” he writes (Romans 16:3-4). Some scholars are convinced that Priscilla wrote the mysterious, anonymous letter to the Hebrews found in the New Testament.  They’ve got some interesting evidence to support that conclusion, but the jury’s still out.  My personal theory is that Priscilla and Aquila wrote it together

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Additional Resources: Women of the Passion SeriesWomen of the Torah: Matriarchs and Heroes of Israel (Ancient-Future Bible Study: Experience Scripture through Lectio Divina) by Stephen J. Binz,  Women of the Gospels: Friends and Disciples of Jesus (Ancient-Future Bible Study: Experience Scripture through Lectio Divina) by Stephen J. Binz, Junia is Not Alone by Scot McKnight, The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible by Scot McKnight, Women's Bible Commentary: Expanded Edition by Carol A. Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe, The Gospel of Ruth: Loving God Enough to Break the Rules by Carolyn Custis James, Women in Scripture: A Dictionary of Named and Unnamed Women in the Hebrew Bible, the Apocryphal/Deuteroca... Books, and the New Testament by Carol Meyers, Toni Craven and Ross Shepard Kraeme.) 

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