The Witness of Scripture and Tradition | CBE International

You are here

The Witness of Scripture and Tradition

On April 30, 2008

Many of you have heard the argument that there is no evidence in either Scripture or in church tradition that women served aspresbytera, or elders in the early church. Archaeological evidence of women leaders in the early church is available. In fact, according to scholars like Dorothy Irvin, the historical evidence of women leaders as presbyters, deacons, and priests appears abundant. The question is, why is it ignored?

Unlike the biblical texts, some of which we know have been badly translated with when it concerned the leadership of women, it is much harder to obscure the evidence in beautiful mosaics, funerary inscriptions, and other such evidence carved into stone. Among these we find proof of women like Rufina, a second century president or elder in her synagogue outside Smyrna. From the New Testament period, the Louvre Museum in Paris offers a mummy tag—highlighting the family relations and occupation of a woman called Artemidora who, the tag tells us was a Christian presbytera. There are many others including Guilia (Julia) Runa, a presbiterissa from present day Algeria, where Augustine worked as bishop. Veronica was also named in stone carvings as a presbytera, as was the woman Hale—a presbytera from Sicily, Italy.

Does Scripture parallel this archaeological evidence? The terms we associate with church authority include elder, shepherd, deacon, priest, overseer, and leader. Yet, there are only two individuals in the New Testament who bear these titles. Peter calls himself an elder, and Paul refers to Phoebe as a deacon. Why would the New Testament describe the moral and spiritual qualities of such leaders and mention only two by name? Perhaps the answer lies in the important observations made by Linda Belleville in her book Women Leaders and the Church. Leadership in the early church had more to do with service than authority. Every Christian is called to serve, and many served in more than one area. For example, Priscilla taught Apollos the way of the Lord more perfectly; she also opened her home to the church in Ephesus, and she risked her neck for the gospel. Similarly, Paul called himself an apostle, yet his favorite way of referring to himself was as a servant or slave of Jesus. Christ said he came to serve and give his life for many. Paul, in the same tradition, recognized that leadership and authority in the church was not like that of the surrounding culture. In contrast to the Gentiles who lord it over others, followers of Jesus must be ready to serve others sacrificially. Like Christ, Paul understood authority as service, and every Christian is given the authority to serve.

I often wonder if ministries like CBE would be necessary if the church understood authority in terms of service.

Join the Cause

CBE advances the gospel by equipping Christians to use their God-given talents in leadership and service regardless of gender, ethnicity, or class. Together with supporters and ministry partners from 100 denominations and 65 countries, CBE works to inspire and mobilize women and men with the Bible’s call to lead and serve as equals.

Learn More