Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity Without Hierarchy. A Book Discussion. (Index here)
Part II: Looking to Scripture (The Biblical Texts)
Chapter 6 – Women Leaders in the Bible. Linda L. Belleville.
Dr. Belleville opens her essay with this:
Studies of women leaders in the Bible can be readily found. Yet three research tools are now in hand that make revisiting the topic both prudent and worthwhile. First, there are recently published Qumran papyri and Greco-Roman inscriptions, which challenge considerably the common stereotype of women in both Jewish and Greco-Roman circles as little more than chattel. Second, there are current sociohistorical studies that show that there were more women leaders in antiquity, particularly in formerly male-dominated arenas, than has commonly been acknowledged. Third, Greek computer databases permit a more informed and accurate understanding of women’s roles in Scripture than has been attainable previously. (110-111)
With this introduction Belleview lifts up three examples of women leaders from the Old Testament: Miriam, Deborah, and Huldah. She notes that some have discounted women like these based on a presumption that they became leaders due to a vacuum of strong leadership from men. She writes:
It is sometimes remarked that God permitted women to lead at times when Israel lacked adequate male leadership. But the examples of Miriam, Deborah and Huldah, who ministered in the context of other renowned male figures (Moses, Barak, Josiah, Jeremiah, etc.), demonstrate the opposite. (113)
Other passages in the Bible speak of unnamed female prophets and female prophets were well known in antiquity. She points out that far from being exceptional cases, it is more likely that these women “…were only the tip of the leadership iceberg.” (114)
Moving to the New Testament, Dr. Belleville notes the impact of Pentecost.
The result was a major paradigm shift from the male priesthood of the Jewish cult to the charismatic worship format and gender-inclusive leadership of the early church. [In a footnote here she refers readers to Chapter 16 which we have yet to cover.] “When you assemble,” Paul states, “each one has a psalm, has a teaching, has a revelation, has a tongue, has an interpretation” (1 Cor 14:26 NASB) (115)
No gender distinction is made here for participation in worship or for being a worship leader.
Belleville lifts up several women and their authoritative positions in the church. One of the most striking passages is the reference to Junia in Romans 16:7, as being “outstanding of among the apostles.” Junia is a feminine name. The masculine form would be Junias, much like Julia and Julius. Some English translations have rendered the name Junias to suggesting that a man was being referred to here. The reality is that no where in the surviving ancient literature do we find the name Junias . Junia is always used in reference to a woman. Furthermore, I know from other studies, that while there are some early manuscripts that render the name "Julia," the “Junias” translation is not found in manuscripts before the 13th century. The Early Church fathers like Origen of Alexander (185-253), Jerome (340-419), and John Chrysostom (347-407), wrote about Junia as a woman.
(Hierarchicalist Wayne Grudem and John Piper point to Epiphanius (315-403) who claimed Junia was male and use this as evidence for lack of certainty about gender. What they fail to reveal is that Epiphanius also wrote that "Prisca" was a male, which is absurd. He also wrote “the female sex is easily seduced, weak and without much understanding. The Devil seek to vomit out this disorder through women. … We wish to apply masculine, reasoning and destroy the folly of these women.” (See, “Romans 16:7 – Resolving the Interpretive Issues.” p. 2))
Belleville goes on to show that the claim by some that the wording means “outstanding in the eyes of the apostles” instead of “one of the outstanding apostles.” According to her analysis only the latter is possible.
For one, episemos is the adjective “notable” and not the passive verb “well known to.” Two, it is a compound of epi (upon) and sema (mark), yielding the literal sense “having a mark, inscription,” “bearing the marks of,” and the metaphorical sense “remarkable, notable” (LSJ s.v.). This would make Junia a “distinguished” or “remarkable” member of (not simply known to) the apostles. Three, overwhelming usage of the preposition en and the personal dative (inside and outside the New Testament) bears the local meaning “in/among.” (119)
Belleville writes about the deacon Phoebe. In Romans 16:1, Phobe is identified as the one delivering the letter and while diakonos is elsewhere translated as deacon, it is rendered servant in many modern English translations. There is no basis for this other than beginning with the presumption that a woman could not be a deacon. Belleville notes that, “A Church’s welcome was based on the presentation of credentials. This is why Paul routinely provided credentials for his letter carriers (e.g., 2 Cor 1:16-24; Eph 6:21-22; Phil 2:25-30; Col 4:7-9)” (121). The diakonos label was to indicate her status and credibility. Origen understood Phoebe to be a deacon and Chrysostom understood deacon to be a term of rank.
Belleville mentions the “church planters” Priscilla and Aquila” and Paul’s peculiar practice (by ancient standards) of naming the wife first, almost certainly indicating her prominent status. Belleville also raises the issue of Nympha (Col 4:15) who had a church meeting in here home. Bellville writes, “Patronage of a house church was an authoritative role. The household in Greco-Roman times was automatically in charge of any group that met in his or her domicile." (123) Other studies I have read show that Romans were not allowed to assemble of their own accord. Only approved voluntary associations known to the state were permitted. Household associations were one permitted form but they could only be formed by the householder who was in turn responsible for the activities of the association.
Dr. Belleville has only touched on some of the more prominent examples of from scripture and I have not touched on the examples she has given. Still, these examples alone give us clear evidence of women serving in leadership capacities.
Linda L. Belleville received her M.A. from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and Ph.D. from the University of Toronto. She is professor of biblical literature at North Park Theological Seminary and an ordained minister with the Evangelical Covenant Church. Her publications include 2 Corinthians (IVPNTC), Women Leaders in the Church: Three Crucial Questions and a contribution to Two Views on Women in Ministry.
Before commenting please read Prefatory Comments.