What about women in the church? What were their roles then, in the first churches? And what should be their roles now, in this day and age? The New Testament spotlights Jesus as the model. He treated women with respect and dignity, included them in spiritual matters, and involved them in religious work. New Testament theology—God’s words about women and their roles—teaches that the Holy Spirit equips all people (male and female) for God’s work. New Testament history depicts the first-century church at worship. It describes women as full participants in the services, equal recipients of spiritual gifts, and leaders at all levels—even identifying female ministers by the same titles as their male counterparts.
The New Testament lists three categories of spiritual gifts in three passages of Scripture. Though each category is distinct in its purposes, all gifts share the following elements: (a) Each gift represents a unique way God’s grace enables individuals to effectively do His work in the world and in the Church. (b) God’s gifts are not given as badges of honor to those who deserve them, but are unmerited gifts of grace. (c) Spiritual gifts are given for the common good, that is, to serve the needs of others, for the building up of the body of Christ, and for ministry in the marketplace. (d) Thus, all gifts are to be operated with love1 (e) God has poured out His Spirit on sons and daughters alike, equipping both genders in every category of gifts.
Supernatural Gifts: 1 Corinthians 12-14
First Corinthians 12-14 discusses the nine supernatural gifts of the Spirit: a message of wisdom, a message of knowledge, faith, gifts of healing, miraculous powers, prophecy, distinguishing between spirits, speaking in different kinds of tongues, and the interpretation of tongues. The Holy Spirit makes the choice of which gifts He gives to which individuals (1 Cor 12:11), and those spiritually-gifted persons comprise God’s gifts to the Church. “God has placed the parts [in this context, spiritually-gifted people] in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be” (1 Cor 12:18). Gender has no bearing on the choices He makes.
The members of the body of Christ and their spiritual gifts are diverse, yet together they form a unified whole. God’s plan is that “there should be no division in the body” (1 Cor 12:25). Every part (person, including their gifts) is needed; every part is to be valued; every part is to be honored and cared for—and every believer is a part of the Body (1 Cor 12:27). Scripture warns against devaluing God’s gifts (1 Thess 5:20; 1 Cor 14:39).
The gifts are so beneficial to the Church that Scripture encourages all of Christ’s followers to seek them, especially certain gifts. Paul writes, “Eagerly desire the greater gifts;” that is, “those [gifts] that build up the church,” and “eagerly desire spiritual gifts, especially the gift of prophecy” (1 Cor 12:31; 14:1, 12 [compare 6-11]). “Therefore, my brothers and sisters, be eager to prophesy” (1 Cor 14:39). If the apostle Paul is suggesting any ranking of supernatural gifts, the “greater” gift seems to be prophecy.
Prophecy is a spiritual gift with which the Holy Spirit gifted women in the New Testament (1 Cor 11:5). First Corinthians 11:5 says that prophesying women were active in the worship service. Female prophets were among those the Holy Spirit gave to the New Testament church (Acts 21:9). Scripture explains that though not every person is a prophet (1 Cor 12:29), any person (male or female) can be gifted by the Holy Spirit to prophesy (1 Cor 14:31). Furthermore, prophets are authorized to judge the authenticity of utterance gifts (1 Cor 14:29). Thus those who prophesy have authority in the supernatural gifts. Since the Holy Spirit gifted women in the New Testament with prophecy—perhaps the highest of supernatural gifts—it follows that all the rest of the supernatural gifts are available to women as well.
Motivational Gifts: Romans 12:3-8
Like spiritual temperaments, the motivational gifts are the inner inclinations that influence why individuals think and act the way they do. They are the very core of what motivates a person.
These motivations are graciously given by God to each member of the Body in order to serve Him with joy. For example, the motivational gift of prophesying involves a drive to perceive the will of God and speak it out to others. Serving involves the joy of helping meet the needs of others. Teaching involves a love for research and communicating truth in an effort to see lives changed. Encouraging involves being a positive influence to help people live victoriously. Giving involves finding joy in investing resources to benefit others and advance the gospel. Leading involves thriving on organizing, facilitating, and directing. Showing mercy involves the desire to heal hurting hearts.
To paraphrase the apostle Paul, “Whatever your motivation, exercise it for all you’re worth!” (Rom 12:6-8). All Christ’s followers, male and female, have been graciously gifted with unique motivations.2 It grieves the Holy Spirit to see the passionate involvement of a person He had spiritually motivated rejected by the body of Christ.
Equipping Gifts: Ephesians 4:4-16
Ephesians 4:4-16 discusses the equipping gifts. Scripture specifies that it is the grace that Christ gives to a believer (Eph 4:7) that qualifies him or her to be Christ’s gift to the Church. The five3 gifts (sometimes called “offices”) are identified as apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers. God gives grace to meet the Church’s needs with these gifts through the people God sends as their leaders. These leaders’ work is to equip the members of the Body for ministry, so that the Church might grow in unity, orthodoxy4 and maturity—growing into complete Christ-likeness. Apostles establish works for God. Prophets speak as mouthpieces for God. (A person who prophesies with regularity and is judged to be accurate and anointed may come to be recognized as a prophet.) Evangelists proclaim the “good news,” helping people come to Jesus in salvation. Pastors care for the flock of God. Teachers train the flock of God.
In the New Testament, the highest spiritual leadership gift is an apostle. If a woman could serve as an apostle, it would follow that she could serve in any other office. Were there any women apostles in the New Testament? Yes, Junia in Romans 16:7.
What is the New Testament theology of spiritual gifts and women? Robert Clinton, noted author on leadership, concludes that “both males and females can lead and exercise leadership with gifted power.”5 The New Testament teaches that those gifted by God are responsible to employ their gifts for one another as good stewards of God’s great grace (1 Pet. 4:10).
Destined to become one of the great female evangelists, Maria Underwood [Woodworth-Etter] felt God’s call at age thirteen (1858). She said,
I heard the voice of Jesus calling me to go out in the highways and hedges and gather in the lost sheep… I had never heard of women working in public except as missionaries, so I could see no opening—except as I thought, if I ever married, my choice would be an earnest Christian and then we would enter upon the mission field.6
Her marriage to an ex-soldier/farmer did not result in ministry, so she struggled with her call. They lost five of their six children to illnesses before Maria’s rededication to the Lord in 1879. She was “baptized with the Holy Ghost, and fire.”7 Still she hesitated and tried to study further, even as she prayed for her husband’s permission to go out in ministry. In her struggle, she thought, “If I were a man it would be a pleasure for me, but for me, a woman, to preach, if I could, would subject me to ridicule and contempt … and bring reproach upon our glorious cause.”8 After seeing a vision of Jesus, finding examples in the Bible of how God used women to lead, and studying Acts 2, Maria was convinced that “women are required to work for the advancement of Christ’s cause.”9
She began holding revival meetings in Ohio and planting churches. During the first year and a half, she “held four revivals, organized two churches—one of them with about seventy members—and a Sabbath-school of about one hundred scholars … had preached in twenty-two meeting houses and four school-houses, for eight different denominations, and had delivered two hundred sermons.”10
In 1885 Maria Woodworth began conducting healing services as well, eventually traveling widely with an 8,000-seat tent, attracting publicity and winning converts around the country. She remained a highly respected evangelist in the Pentecostal movement the rest of her life.
In her autobiography, Signs and Wonders God Wrought in the Ministry for Forty Years, Woodworth-Etter explains the reason for her bold obedience to God: “When a woman is called by God, how can she be obedient without answering the call? How can you doubt the call when God himself confirms it with miraculous power?”11 She used the same logic the first-century apostles and elders used to conclude that Gentiles may become Christ’s followers—the evidence of the Holy Spirit’s work of grace and power (Acts 15:6, 7-9, 12). How did the Jerusalem Council perceive that God makes no distinctions between people? They witnessed God’s grace in salvation and God’s power in signs and wonders. So they concluded, “We should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God” (Acts 15:19).
As the first church concluded, may today’s church also say, “We should not make it difficult for the women who are obeying God.”
- Note that in close proximity to all three gifts passages is an emphasis on love (1 Cor. 13:1-13, Rom. 12:9-12, and Eph. 4:15).
- Don and Katie Fortune, Discovering Your God-given Gifts (Grand Rapids, MI: Chosen Books, 1987), 16.
- It may be more accurate to count the equipping gifts as four since the Greek text seems to identify “pastor-teachers” as one spiritual gift to the Church.
- Orthodoxy: accurate or right teaching, conforming to established doctrine.
- J. Robert Clinton, Gender and Leadership: My Pilgrimage (Altadena, CA: Barnabas Publishers, 1995), 12, 20.
- Maria Woodworth, Life and Experience of Maria B. Woodworth (Dayton, OH: United Brethren, 1885), 18
- Maria Woodworth-Etter, Signs and Wonders God Wrought in the Ministry for Forty Years, rep. ed. (Bartlesville, OK: Oak Tree, 1916), 28.
- Woodworth, 38.
- Woodworth, 41.
- Woodworth, 54.
- Woodworth-Etter, 30-31.