Prophets, Priests, Apostles, Elders, and Women

This is going to be a shorter article, because I have much more research and study to do on it. I’ll put out my thesis, but I have not yet done the full survey of Scripture that I need to do to come up with final conclusions.

Thesis: By conflating the roles/offices of priest and prophet in the Old Testament and elder and apostle in the New, modern evangelicals (particularly around the Young, Restless, and Reformed resurgence) have conflated roles in which women were used in Scripture with roles in which they were not, the result being that all roles are open to women in egalitarian thought and none to women in complementarian thought. Both of these systems of thought miss the Biblical model which had women robustly used in ways involving verbal proclamations (prayers and prophecies) but limited them in authoritative/pastoral roles involving sacrifices in the Old and sacraments in the New.

Points to consider:

1. It’s a presbyterian/reformed thing to see Scripture as connected and coherent. The Old Testament is not a disjointed set of antiquated Laws and stories. Instead, it is the foundation for the New Testament, the first buds of the gospel story that blooms in earnest in the gospels. For instance, in reformed thought, the New Testament practice of baptism is closely tied to the Old Testament practice of circumcision.

2. What if New Testament elders are tied to the ministry of Old Testament priests and New Testament apostles more to Old (and New) Testament prophets/prophetesses? How would this change our understanding of what women can and cannot do in the Church?

3. The church polity of individual churches and denominations are varied. Rather than considering how different churches use the words apostle, elder, and pastor, we should start by simply considering how the Bible uses the words.

4. Women were clearly prophetesses in both the Old and New Testament (Ex. 15:20, Judges 4:4, 2 Chron. 34:22, Luke 2:26, Acts 21:9).

5. Women clearly spoke (prayer and prophecy) during worship gatherings in the New Testament church (I Cor. 11:5).

6. Women were forbidden from either all speaking in services or a certain type of speaking in I Cor. 14: 34 and I Timothy 2.

7. A woman, Junia, may have been an apostle, depending on how you read Romans 16:7.

8. Priest in the Old Testament and Elder in the New were official roles with very specific qualifications. Only men are named in either role. New Testament qualifications for elder are less strict than Old Testament qualifications for priest.

9. Neither prophet/prophetess in the Old or apostle in the New have clearly specified qualifications (at least not on par with priest and elder). There are no qualifications in Scripture around their gender.

Points 5 and 6 are important – either Paul wrote a convoluted mess of instructions to the church at Corinth, or he didn’t. I personally don’t think he did, and I think we can use the different things he says to refine what each instruction means, using the Bible as commentary on itself. Whatever keeping silent means in I Cor. 14 and teaching with authority means in I Timothy 2, it apparently doesn’t mean a woman can’t pray or prophesy publicly in church. I have seen churches which don’t allow women as elders that are more and more asking women to lead in prayer during worship service. I think that is closer to the practice of the New Testament church.

In general, I think the conservative gender resurgence of the last few decades involved a charismatic element that conflated the office of elder with the general gift/role of apostle. Mark Driscoll saw himself as receiving direct words from the Lord. He believed the charismatic gifts were still for today and, in my humble opinion, played loose with the phrase, “God told me ….” C J Mahaney and John Piper, I believe, are both open to charismatic gifts for today. I personally don’t have strong convictions either way – I see in Scripture both the argument for and against apostolic/charismatic gifts for today. I tend toward a belief that direct words from God were shut off when the canon of Scripture was set.

This conflation of the priestly and prophetic serves the egalitarian argument that everything is open to women. My friend Jeremiah says it this way – “Complementarians who maintain the lazy conflation of priestly and prophetic don’t realize they’ve conceded the argument to egalitarians if they won’t begin to distinguish the two roles from the OT forward.”

Personally, I have no problem that Junia is talked about like she was an apostle. I can concede that to egalitarians and still believe the authoritative office of elder in the church is for qualified men only. I also don’t have a problem with the ministry of women like Beth Moore or Joyce Meyer, at least not because they are women (in contrast, I disagree with how both handle Scripture). Neither has attempted to take a spiritually authoritative role of elder (that I know of). They don’t exercise church discipline. In fact, I watched an episode of Joyce Meyer speaking with her husband and noted the deference and respect she gave him (whom I think actually oversees her ministry).

In conclusion, I think we see women throughout Scripture speaking to God’s people—prophesying in the Old (and New) and praying in services in the New. I’m wondering how a triperspective view of elder as prophet, priest, and king, a thought that took off over the last decade in Mark Driscoll’s circles, confused us about what women can and can’t do by lumping all of those under the auspices of one specific role in the church, the authoritative role of elder.

I have much more thinking and research to do on this, and if you have thoughts or input, please add them. I always grow from reading comments.

(Unless you want to tell me what’s wrong with Beth Moore or Joyce Meyer. Please don’t do that. That will only distract from the important discussion over what women did and did not do in the Old and New Testament.)

29 Responses to Prophets, Priests, Apostles, Elders, and Women

  1. Alistair May 1, 2016 at 9:40 pm #

    Hi Wendy. I haven't reached settled conclusions on this stuff myself, but since you asked for input…

    I have always seen the role of a female prophet as exercised differently from a male prophet. All of the woman prophets in the Old Testament and New were sought out and seemed to be based in one place. Male prophets were far more itinerant. (Miriam, of course, was moving with the whole nation, so that doesn't really count 🙂 ).

    To my mind, this feeds into (but does not fully explain) Deborah's reluctance to lead Israel to war.

    I am uncomfortable with the idea of women apostles due to Paul's appeal to his apostleship as the basis of his authority in the churches. It seems to me that apostles have greater authority than elders, which would then cause problems with 1 Tim 2:12, should Junia be an apostle.

    One solution may be to see a difference in exercise of apostleship between men and women apostles as well.

    That's all I've got for now.

  2. Wendy May 1, 2016 at 9:46 pm #

    Thanks, Alistair. I shall chew on that.

  3. Curious Thinker May 2, 2016 at 12:48 am #

    I don't want to go into debate over women's roles in the church regarding elders but I do believe women in the early church were often overlooked as well as female prophets and Junia a female apostle. I also believe Phoebe was a deacon regardless on what others have said. I also feel chauvinism and patriarchy has played a significant factor why history women in the bible and during the early church is the reason women has bee often ignored and misrepresented. Hopefully that is changing even in the complementarian camp. God Bless.

  4. Bailey May 2, 2016 at 12:08 pm #

    It's definitely true that more women are silenced in complementarian churches because of conflating certain roles. This was an interesting read. I will just add that “apostle” and “prophet” in the NT are two separate roles, so I'd disagree that apostle is the NT version of OT prophets.

  5. Wendy May 2, 2016 at 12:40 pm #

    I see them similar in the proclamation of a message from God, but not exactly the same. More overlap between them than elder and prophet or apostle though.

  6. Wendy May 2, 2016 at 12:45 pm #

    I should also point out that while a lot of churches have women serving as deacons (which I think is vital for Scriptural faithfulness), at issue here is the place for women to speak in worship.

  7. Helen Louise Herndon May 2, 2016 at 3:26 pm #

    Interestingly, in I Timothy 3: 1, It says if “anyone aspires/desires to oversight . . .” Then it goes into the fact that if it is a man, he must be the husband of one wife. When one really looks at the Greek, it is sad to see English words inserted that do not exist and look suspiciously biased.

  8. Helen Louise Herndon May 2, 2016 at 3:26 pm #

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  9. Helen Louise Herndon May 2, 2016 at 3:29 pm #

    Certainly Paul would have distinguished upfront if “any man aspires/desires . . .”

  10. Anonymous May 3, 2016 at 6:03 am #

    Thanks for your series and thoughts. I think it's interesting to think of the function of prophecy in both the old and new testament. In the OT, prophets declared God's judgement on his people for failing to living up to their side of the covenant relationship. They exhorted God's people to live as God's people, to remain set apart for him, holy. And they pointed to the Messiah for their salvation.
    In the NT, I think we see in 1 Cor 14 that this role continues. Prophecy is for the strengthening, encouragement and comfort (14:3), for edification of the church (14:4), to convict of sin (14:24-25), for instruction and encouragement (14:31). While inspired by the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:21), Scripture doesn't talk about prophecy having to be a 'new' word from the Lord. In fact, it is to be weighed carefully (1 Cor14:29; 1 Thess 5:20-21). What are we to weigh it against? Scripture doesn't specifically say, but I would hazard a guess we are to weigh prophecy against the Word of God. Is what has been said consistent with Scripture?
    In that prophecy is a Holy Spirit inspired word for the instruction, edification, encouragement etc of the church, and is to be weighed (IMO against Scripture), then, I would say that this is what happens in many churches on a Sunday – we just call it preaching.

    Safiya.

  11. Dalaina May 3, 2016 at 10:39 am #

    Thanks for the read, Wendy. I think it probably all rests on how you understand authoritative. I think if you are trying to see a modern church equivalent in the early church, you will probably wind up confused because they didn't have the offices and roles of formal church structure like we do today. As an overseas worker involved in brand new fellowships, it's so much easier to see how fluid and non-official things are in the beginning of the Church.

    But if you are just trying to determine who spoke with authority over men and women, it seems to be a lot more simple… and women show up easily. For example, Phoebe. We know she was a deacon, but what did that mean back then? I think a heckuva lot more than it does now. Phoebe was THE person who took Paul's letter to the Romans, and from what we know of messengers of the time, she didn't just hand it to them. No, she probably didn't just read it to them. She very likely explained it to them. This means that a female gave the first sermon on Romans to the Church. That's pretty powerful to me.

    But as far as authority goes, I don't think men OR women have authority over the church. I think that is God's alone, and we speak authoritatively so long as what we say is in line with God's word. A child can do that. A woman can do that. And a man can do that. If you just look at church discipline, I can't see that as an elder only position either because all believers are called to admonish one another, judge one another rightly, and participate in confrontation as needed.

    (For more on Phoebe, this is a great resource. http://newlife.id.au/equality-and-gender-issues/was-phoebe-a-deacon-of-the-church-in-cenchrea-part-1/)

  12. Wendy May 3, 2016 at 10:52 am #

    I like your explanation, Safiya. I think you are right about prophecy submitting to Scripture and maybe today's parallel is simple instruction/exhortation from Scripture. I just don't see that as exactly the same as authoritative preaching behind a pulpit. Or I think we could treat it the same unless we made a distinction, which I think we should make. I distinguish between what Beth Moore does at a Saturday teaching event and what a southern baptist pastor does behind the pulpit on Sunday. For instance, when I have taught an adult Sunday school class or even at times writing on this blog, I see a similar type of explaining of the word that prophets did, that Priscilla did. But I don't do it with an expectation of how people will receive it. I don't think readers will be judged if they disagree with me. I attribute to my elders (and again, I am in a denomination with a clear authority structure by choice) the authority to discipline me formally if I speak heresy or defiantly disregard the instructions of Scripture. But I do not share similar authority over those to whom I minister.

  13. Wendy May 3, 2016 at 10:54 am #

    I can see what you are saying, Dalaina, especially from an overseas context with such fluidity. Maybe this discussion is more relevant to those of us with more of a liturgical conviction about church governance.

  14. Anonymous May 3, 2016 at 1:08 pm #

    Perhaps I am thinking too pragmatically, but authoritative teaching from the pulpit is authoritative in as much as the listener gives it authority in their lives. If the listener discerns that the application of Scripture to life that the preacher has made is not consistent with his/her understanding of Scripture, then the listener may choose not to receive it as authoritative. As a missionary in West Africa, I sit under the authority of the local church, but when the pastor says it is ok to for a man to use physical force to bring his wife into submission, or when he says that a woman's role is to make a good sauce and procreate, and if she doesn't do that well, no wonder the man's eyes will wander… well, I believe that I am able to judge what is being said from the pulpit, assess it as consistent with Scripture or not. I think that the reality is that may people around the world are in this position, and cannot just change churches when they no longer want to submit to the authority of one particular church leadership. Do you feel the tension I mean? I want to humbly submit to my local church leadership, which Scripture tells me God has ordained, but I do not submit without discernment. Part of my loving and upholding the local church is to continue in fellowship with them, encourage people to read Scripture for themselves, knowing that in doing so they may see that they can't always take what the preacher says as authoritative, as it is sometimes contrary to Scripture.

  15. Wendy May 3, 2016 at 4:23 pm #

    I definitely understand your tension. It goes back to the last post on headship. When men in authority don't leverage their strength and power to protect the vulnerable, they erode their foundation for authority.

  16. Wenatchee the Hatchet May 4, 2016 at 2:02 am #

    in the period of the judges there was some prophetic activity but it has been paraphrased, more or less, in Judges. It's worth noting that in the Torah and in Judges we don't see any prophetic activity that would have a directly eschatological component to it and, as you pointed out Safiya, prophecy tended to be a challenge to be obedient to existing revelation as much as any new insight. I would suggest that one of the problems in how prophecy is discussed in the NT is a presupposition that it was common or normative when we can't be entirely sure that this was the case in the OT. The role of prophets in the OT can often appear to be occasional, intermittent and ad hoc. THe role of the congregation in assessing the validity of what a teacher might say is in line with arguments made by Zwingli and Bullinger that there is in some sense a prophetic role every believer in a local church can play.

  17. Jamie Duguid May 4, 2016 at 11:10 am #

    Thanks for this post! It is really thought-provoking.

    I do think that the New Testament uses a prophetic model to understand the ministry of preaching. It is hard not to see Isaiah 61:1 behind 1 Peter 1:12, for instance (and Greek Isaiah 61:1 might very well be where the NT gets its word for “preaching”). And I think Ezekiel 37 is definitely behind 1 Peter 4:6. Also, Paul calls Timothy “man of God” in 1 Tim. 6:11, which is just an OT term for prophet (used especially of Elijah). I guess that last one depends on what exactly you think Timothy is though.

    All this to say, I am not sure that you can draw a straight line from prophet to apostle, and priest to elder, without any overlap. But although this complicates your argument, I think it still works. After all, we do want to make some distinction between what Ezekiel is doing and what a preacher is doing; they are not on the same level.

    I think the key difference here might be in the mode of the Spirit's influence: the Spirit inspires the prophet so directly that his/her words and actions are simply God's words/actions. Although there are cases in which the priesthood mediated direct revelation as well (through the Urim and the Thumim), this office is generally more one of interpreting and applying the Law.

    Whether I am putting it together exactly right or not, the difference between gender rules for OT prophet and priest seems like a key insight. Thanks for pointing it out!

  18. Anonymous May 4, 2016 at 3:08 pm #

    It is true that modern church structures have cause more confusion over the role of women in the church. In the Baptist churches I have attended, the deacons function more as elders, making it difficult for them to accept the idea that women could be deacons.

    Though a Baptist, I agree that the Old and New Testaments are a cohesive whole. However, I see some difficulty with tying priest and elder, prophet and apostle in the way suggested. First, the office of priest is given to all believers in the New Testament – in I Peter 2:16, we are called a royal priesthood – with Christ as our High Priest (Hebrew 8). So, as a woman, I am firmly convinced that the office of elder is reserved to men, but I am already a member of the priesthood in Christ.

    There is some equivalency between OT prophets and NT apostles. R. Laird Harris, in 'Inspiration and Canonicity of the Bible, observed that the OT was written by prophets (even David had the gift of prophecy), while the NT was written by Apostles or those who worked in close association with them (Mark with Peter, Luke with Paul). Nevertheless, the New Testament prophets and apostles are listed as separate gifts, with Paul listing apostles as first in I Corinthians 12:28. In seeing how the word apostle is used, it refers specifically to the Twelve (Luke 6:13) and then more generally to both the Twelve and those who worked closely with them (Acts 15), for example, Barnabas with Paul in Acts 14:14. So, Andronicus and Junia (both held the same position) were probably close associates of the Twelve and were held in respect for that position, but that does not mean they carried the same authority as Paul did when he reminded the Corinthians of his apostleship (I Corinthians 9:1).

  19. Wendy May 4, 2016 at 3:16 pm #

    Jamie, thanks for adding some things for me to think about. The one feedback I have is that I would change your last sentence in the 2nd paragraph to “make some distinction between what Ezekiel is doing and what an elder is doing …” Preaching is done by a lot of different people in Scripture, depending on how you define preaching. I'm interested in the difference in prophet and the spiritually authoritative office of elder more than prophet and preacher. Preacher seems to generic to me.

  20. Wendy May 4, 2016 at 3:17 pm #

    Thanks for adding, anonymous. I'm going to think through this.

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  22. Charis May 11, 2016 at 1:45 am #

    Thanks for this post! I am new to all these discussions about women and the church, and I can't tell you how much I appreciate your posts, as well as your insights into Bible study and interpretation. Thank you.

  23. Tamie May 17, 2016 at 10:45 pm #

    Yes, I think the 'liturgical conviction about church governance' is key to see here, Wendy and Dalaina. As you say above, Wendy, one of the strengths of the reformed movement has been a commitment to see Scripture as coherent. One of the dangers has been using the 'regulative principle' to make what we find in Scripture prescriptive for church polity today.

  24. Tamie May 17, 2016 at 10:51 pm #

    I'm really just adding a comment here because blog comments don't have 'like' buttons! The apostleship of James appears to be different from that of Paul which appears to be different from that of Junia…

  25. Tamie May 17, 2016 at 11:04 pm #

    Hi Wendy

    I'm not sure I'm with you on how the dis/continuity between the OT and NT works out, but I think this is a super valuable discussion. When we conflate all these roles into one little package (often called “the church planter” in my circles), we automatically disqualify women from roles the Bible clearly allows!

    There are big questions here about where authority is derived. John Dickson's 'Hearing Her Voice' argues for women giving sermons in church on a Sunday, for example, and many complementarians here in Australia have no problem with women preaching in church at least occasionally because if they're invited by the pastor, they're still preaching under his authority.

    The other commenters have raised a stack of great issues so I won't repeat their thoughts here, but here are two I don't think have been mentioned yet:

    1. The fivefold ministry in Ephesians 4 (apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, teachers)

    2. There are also roles that are there in Scripture that never seem to be named. For example, take the Jerusalem Council, where it appears James has some kind of leadership role, possibly associated with his leadership of the Jerusalem church.

  26. Wendy May 17, 2016 at 11:45 pm #

    These are great thoughts, Tamie. I need to think on them some more. I definitely see the Biblical case for women speaking (even preaching) in Sunday morning church under the authority of the pastor. I saw that for myself when I taught adult Sunday school classes at the request of my elders.

  27. KateHerbert May 21, 2016 at 11:46 pm #

    Tamie…yes! As a person who just naturally feels very uncomfortable with liturgy and fixed structures I find many church meetings a difficult and alienating experience. Im certainly not a fan of chaos or eveyone vying to get their word in all the time, but I feel like a lot is missed by the presbyterian structure I am a part of.

  28. Whitney Cox May 23, 2016 at 12:00 am #

    Thank you for your writings and discussions. I don't really have anything to add. But I have found the teachings on the Corinthians and Timothy passages telling the women to be silent to be frustrating to listen to and sit under. I don't feel like the men teaching have really grappled with the topic. Also as a woman, who believes in complementarianism and also has been given gifts of leadership and teaching, I have found these passages challenging. How do I honor the scripture and use my gifts? I have asked for pastors I worked under when I worked on staff at a church to work through these passages and women's roles in the church and to come to consensus because I was receiving conflicting messages from them. I was told I asked too much.

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