Women pastors in the Bible

Maryam Rostampour and Marziyeh Amirizadeh, God’s shepherds to Iranian prisons

What is a pastor?

A pastor is a shepherd. That’s what the word literally means. A pastor is someone who tends and guides spiritual sheep.

Can women pastor?

Let me answer that question with a better one: If God has gifted and called a woman to pastor, should we oppose him?

Here’s another: Since God empowered women to lead churches in the New Testament, is there any reason to expect that he has stopped doing that today?

Some may say, “No female pastors are named in the Bible.” Neither are any male pastors named in the Bible. Search the scriptures and you will find no one identified as Pastor So-and-so.

We live in the age of the celebrity pastor, but the early church had no such thing. What it did have were nameless groups of elders or overseers, such as the Ephesian elders who met with Paul, or the elders Paul greeted at the start of his letter to the Philippians.

That said, the Bible identifies at least three females who pastored. It’s time for us to meet these little-known ladies.

Pastor Prisca

Prisca was one of Paul’s closest friends. They were such dear friends that the apostle called her by the diminutive version of her name, Priscilla.

Priscilla and her husband Aquila were Jewish business people who met Paul in Corinth and travelled with him to Ephesus (Acts 18). When Paul left Ephesus, Priscilla and Aquila stayed behind and continued to preach the gospel (1 Cor 16:19). Soon they were hosting a church that met in their house. Later, they went to Rome and planted another church. We know this because of the way Paul greets them in his letter to the Romans:

Greet Priscilla and Aquila, my co-workers in Christ Jesus. They risked their lives for me. Not only I but all the churches of the Gentiles are grateful to them. Greet also the church that meets at their house. (Romans 16:3-5a)

This brief mention speaks volumes. Priscilla and her husband weren’t merely homegroup leaders; they were church planters with a multinational legacy. Such was her influence that Paul said the Gentile churches owed Priscilla a debt of gratitude.

What did Priscilla do? To quote Gene Edwards, Priscilla was “Paul’s right-hand man.” Paul considered her his equal and said she had risked her life for him (like a good shepherd).

Priscilla was not just a preacher or teacher. She was a pastor to the apostles. She trained Apollos in Ephesus and had two apostles, Andronicus and Junia, in her church at Rome. Indeed, Priscilla was not merely a pastor; she was a super-pastor who raised giants in the faith. (I guess she never got the memo about women staying silent in church.)

Nympha’s church

At a time when the church only met in people’s homes, several women were recognized as church leaders. Priscilla was one; Nympha was another.

Paul greeted “Nympha and the church that is in her house” (Col. 4:15). We know very little about Nympha. Her house was located either in Laodicea or elsewhere in the Lycus Valley. Was she a pastor? Did she lead the church that met in her house? She must have done so, for Paul greets no one else in her church.

Chloe and her people

Chloe is another one of those intriguing people who gets only a single mention in the Bible: “I have been informed concerning you, my brethren, by Chloe’s people, that there are quarrels among you” (1 Cor. 1:11).

We don’t know anything about Chloe other than she lived in Corinth and she had people.

Who were these people? Were they her companions or a church that met in her house? We can’t be sure. But in the same way that “men from James” came to Antioch, “people from Chloe” came to Paul, and he recognized her as a leader within the church community. In short, she was a pastor.

If Paul objected to women pastors, the visit from Chloe’s people would’ve presented him with the perfect opportunity to say so. To quote Tim Fall, Paul might have expressed his concerns like this:

It has come to my attention you have a woman (Chloe) presiding over a group of brothers and sisters. This must not be! Is there not a man among you who could take over? Don’t wait until I am among you to correct this abomination.

Of course, Paul said no such thing because Paul had no problem with women in leadership. Instead of rebuking Chloe’s people for putting a woman in charge, he credited them for drawing his attention to a problem.

Nice job, Chloe’s people.

Many people say women cannot be pastors and they cannot lead churches, yet women did these very things in the Bible. The New Testament church had female pastors, female apostles, female prophets, female evangelists and female teachers, because God has commissioned all of us, men and women, to proclaim the good news. Some say women can’t teach because Eve was deceived. They forget that Jesus redeemed us from whatever mistakes Eve and Adam made, and he proved it by empowering women and including them among his disciples.

“But Paul, you have forgotten that the qualifications for a pastor that Paul gave in 1 Timothy 3 exclude women.”

No I haven’t, and no it doesn’t. Although many churches exclude women from influential positions of leadership, the reasons for this have more to do with tradition than what the Bible says.

I will unpack the treasures of 1 Timothy 3 in a later article. Stay tuned.

Extracted and adapted from Dr. Paul Ellis’s new book, The Silent Queen: Why the Church Needs Women to Find their Voice.

24 Comments on Women pastors in the Bible

  1. Very good article. It’s a continuation of how Jesus elevated women and challenged the traditional attitudes toward women during His ministry on earth.

  2. Very interesting, Paul. The key passage for many, though, is 1 Tim 2:12 (about not permitting women to teach) rather than 1 Tim 3 and the credentials for overseers. How do you handle that explicit statement of Paul’s?

  3. I thank God for you, Paul Ellis.

  4. I am so blessed by this article. I have been co-pastoring alongside my husband for 30 years, although, officially, I am not recognized that way. That’s okay, because we function as a team and our hearts move in agreement as we shepherd our local church. Over the years, we have been an anomaly but I have walked secure in God’s calling and much fruit is the result. I have four daughters, two doing ministry. I always encourage them to follow God’s plan as they lead others.

    • Hi Melanie, I’m delighted to hear you and your hubby have been walking secure in God’s calling, but saddened that your calling has not been recognized by others. It’s a bit like recognizing your right arm while denying the existence of your left one.

  5. gospelprince // September 2, 2020 at 1:58 pm // Reply

    Women, have, throughout the Scriptures proved equally able as men. In some instances much more responsible and responsive to God’s mission than men – they were the first to encounter, reveal and report Jesus’ resurrection, which, according to my Heavenly understanding is much more important than Jesus’ death because Jesus is living in us now as a result of his resurrection. In Christ there isn’t Jew nor Gentile, neither is there male or female. We are all equal!

  6. thank God for ur life Sir Paul Ellis,,u’r such a wonderful gift to d Body of Christ

  7. Great article on this controversial topic. Preachers like R.C.Sproul and John McArthur (both of whose ministries have a large following) still say according to their interpretation of Scripture that “No women are permitted to preach”
    That’s why it’s important for believers to read Scripture under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

  8. Do you cover 1 Tim 2:12?

  9. In his many good articles, Dr. Ellis usually pushes some hot buttons, and this one on women pastors has been a debatable subject in recent years.The good news is that this topic doesn’t fall into the essential categories of biblical doctrines like salvation by grace alone through faith alone, the divinity of Jesus, the virgin birth, the cross and His resurrection, etc. It generally falls into the non-essential doctrines, and fits more into preferences of church government, and what each individual church desires to do.
    Some people obviously take 1 Tim 2:12 and 1 Tim 3 as stating that the functional role of women in the church, while recognizing women to be active and valuable in their ministry, DOES NOT include them to be elders/overseers/senior pastors. Others, as stated in Dr. Ellis’s discussions, give more freedom to these verses, and allow women pastors.
    While there should be healthy discussions and in-house debates on this controversial and interesting topic,there should be enough grace and freedom on both sides of the issue to allow for differences in their individual preferences without harsh critical statements. These biblical passages are discussing the functional roles of women in the church. All male/female are equal in salvation, redemption,spiritual gifts, and equality before God. As the old wise adage goes:
    In ESSENTIALS = Unity; In NON-ESSENTIALS = Liberty; and in ALL THINGS = LOVE.

    • I guess that depends on your definition of essential and the way you and your gifts are received by others. I’m also guessing you have never been the victim of discrimination. You have never been treated as second class or told to “go back to the kitchen.” Nor have I, but many women have, and far worse besides. The unholy demands of manmade religion have silenced and brutalized countless women. My strong conviction is that it is essential that all of us, victims and perpetrators alike, unite to right this ancient wrong. Thanks for your comment.

  10. Love it……

  11. gospelprince // September 9, 2020 at 4:11 pm // Reply

    Paul you are a great modern blessing! We are always praying for you that Holy Spirit adds more to what He always gives you!

  12. Thank you for all the awesome articles on women! I appreciate them because they validate me (but I honestly don’t want my identity to be tied to my gender… causing me to struggle and need comforting/confirmation, so I’m working on this). Bringing God’s true identity and character to light is what’s actually important!

    My dad introduced your work to me quite a while ago and I’ve been gratefully following. He suggested (in light of your newest book) that you might be interested in knowing that there are proponents of a theory that Pricilla actually wrote Hebrews. I was meditating on all the reasons a book’s author wouldn’t be clear and suppression came to mind — and I wound up finding those articles!

  13. I personally feel Jesus is never against women officiating in church . Some culturall practices supporting patriarchy was repeated by Paul who was knowledgeable in the law of the land. It is man law not Jesus law. I applaud all ladies who preach.

  14. I have a hard time believing that a leader of a church is almost always labeled as a pastor. Where does it say that in Scripture? Leaders of NT churches were labeled as elders. Those in charge could be teachers, prophets, apostles, etc. It seems to me that most churches borrowed the leadership style from the world. One man/woman in charge, on the top of the piramid, delegating the vision downwards, instead of a piramid up-side-down, where leaders are laying down their lives for those God had given them. Just like parents, raising up their children… Gods family

  15. The ‘elephant in the room’ here that everyone is conveniently avoiding is the fact that Jesus had 12 opportunities to select women to be disciples in His inner circle. He did not choose even one. There were obviously very capable women to choose from and Jesus had no problem doing things contrary to the cultural norms of the day.
    If we are to accept that Jesus is the “express image” of God,(Charakter in Greek), then He has sent a very clear message about God’s preference for leadership in Kingdom matters.
    We see from 1Timothy 3 that the role of leadership is something someone may desire. It is not a ‘calling’ that someone is compelled to do. Women are not being shortchanged just because they are not overseers or teachers in the church any more than the men who desire to but aren’t.
    We are all called to be saints, to be witnesses, to be examples, to put on the mind of Christ, to have the ministry of reconciliation etc etc etc. There are so many ways to be involved in the ‘body of Christ’ that don’t include teaching or overseeing.
    From my experience, the best leaders I have encountered in churches are those who are there by default or out of necessity, not out of ambition or ego.
    I’m sure there are occasions when a woman may need to take on a teaching or leading role out of necessity, and I don’t think apostle Paul … or God would have a problem with that.

    • Hi Mark, no one is ignoring this issue. I have discussed it on several threads and I cover it in my book. Jesus initially chose male apostles because first-century Jews would never have listened to women in the same way they listened to Peter and John. Josephus records the laws of the day forbidding the testimony of female witnesses in court. Women were deemed to be untrustworthy, which makes it all the more stunning that Jesus chose to give some of his greatest teachings exclusively to women.

      When the gospel began to spread beyond sexist Judea, women began to play a more prominent role in the church, hence we have women apostles, pastors, prophets and so on. Sexist Judea was the exception; not the rule.

      • richard elson // October 11, 2020 at 2:41 pm //

        Jesus didn’t seem filter his message through accepted cultural norms anywhere else. I wonder if Gen 3:16 predicted Jesus’ position on women. The curse over women wouldn’t be broken for 3 years, along with every other part of the “curse of sin and death”. The curse of relying on themselves left Adam and Eve to stand in their own strength, and judging their relationship with God from under the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

        If a women will stand in their own strength then a man will dominate them. All men/women standing in their own strength will be dominated over. “And the holy spirit will convict you of (the sin of) self reliance, because you rely not on me”, said Jesus.

  16. Trudy Collins // October 9, 2020 at 7:16 am // Reply

    Dr. Ellis, There are only twelve Apostles, period. No one, ever, will meet the Biblical requirements of Apostleship after the twelve, with the exception of Saul/Paul. There are absolutely zero “Super Pastors,” ever stated in Scriptures. Furthermore, I simply cannot understand how a woman can preach the Word of God in good conscience while knowing that the Bible clearly tells us that only men are to be pastors, (and if she does not know, she should not be preaching anyway). Obviously, that person is a hypocrite and your article is nothing short of heresy.

    • Hi Trudy, I’m not sure if you are aware the Bible names more than 12 apostles (mostly in Acts), and at least one, and possibly three, of them were female. A woman can preach if she has be called by the Lord to do so in full confidence that her gender, age, or race presents no barrier to the ministry of the Holy Spirit. In fact, in the New Testament there are dozens of scriptures exhorting women to speak and teach and preach, and not a single one that says they must remain silent.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.