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Published Date: July 30, 2014

Published Date: July 30, 2014

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Editor’s Reflections | Summer 2014 (28.3)

During daily devotions, even the most harried or casual reader arriving at the second and third epistles of John (2 John and 3 John) is struck by the similarities of structure and style. In 1912, Canon A. E. Brooke, in his International Critical Commentary volume, showed us exactly what we are noticing by listing all the parallel Greek phrases in these letters, demonstrating “the following phrases show the close similarity of their general structure.”1 For him, since “it is hardly necessary to discuss the question of their common authorship, . . . the Second and Third Epistles of S. John naturally form a pair.”2 What is true of one is true of the other. 

Third John, we notice, is written to “the beloved Gaius, whom I love in truth.” Second John is written to “The Elect Lady (kuria) and her children, whom I love in truth, and not I only but also all those having known the truth.”3 Can this mean that a woman was presiding over a church in the lifetime of Jesus’s disciple John? Clement of Alexandria thought “Electa” was the proper name of the recipient, while J. Rendel Harris collated information from ancient personal letters in the Oxyrhynchus and Fayum Papyri to argue “Kuria” was actually the recipient’s name.4 Others speculate, in the words of the great exegete Theodor Zahn, “2 John is really directed to a local Church which the author addresses as a chosen mistress, as the mother of its members, wedded to the Lord Christ.”5 Canon Brooke, who does not appear to fathom the idea that a woman can be presiding over a church, agrees, “The general character of the Epistle is almost decisive against the view that it is addressed to an individual.” Why is that? Because, “the subjects with which it deals are such as affect a community rather than an individual or a family, though much of its contents might be regarded as advice needed by the leading member of a Church on whom the duty mainly fell of entertaining the strangers who visited it.” Another reason he proffers is, “The substance of what is said in vv. 6, 8, 10, 12 is clearly not addressed to children. The ‘children’ of the ‘Elect Lady’ must certainly have reached the age of manhood.”6 Now, that really is a curious set of objections and tells us something about the limitations, down through history, under which even the most able exegetes unconsciously struggled. For someone who just assured us that John the Apostle wrote all three letters attributed to his name, he is so baffled by the obvious female references in regard to the recipient of 2 John that he assumes that, if the “Elect Lady” is indeed an individual woman and not a church, then her “children” must be her actual family members. But, what is apparently not entering into his thought is that the author of this letter, John, refers all through his first epistle to the church members in the circuit over which he served as overseer as “my dear children” (e.g., 1 John 2:1, 18, 28; 3:7, 18, and on throughout the letter) and even includes himself among God’s “children” (3:1). The simple conclusion appears to be that, in 2 John, the apostle was addressing a church presided over by a faithful, gifted, and chosen woman. 

Do we have any precedents for such a situation in the early church? Can we find evidence of women leading congregations?

In Beyond the Curse, Aída Besançon Spencer agrees, “2 John is most likely to be addressed to an individual since the letter heading is so similar to 3 John.” This is not a mere speculation for her; she provides proof:

Readers today should not be at all surprised that “the elect lady” was a woman overseeing a church in her house. Of course, all churches met in homes until the third century. Even the earliest church buildings were built to imitate guest rooms in homes. Almost all Christian assemblies mentioned in Acts and in Paul’s letters are in houses of women or, if not, of couples: Chloe (1 Cor 1:11), Lydia (Acts 16:40), the mother of John Mark (Acts 12:12), Nympha (Col 4:15), Prisca and Aquila 
(Rom 16:3-5; 1 Cor 16:19); Philemon, Apphia, Archippus (Philem 1–2) and possibly Stephana (1 Cor 16:15, 17).

Further, in AD 112, we have evidence of women church leaders living in the time of the Emperor Trajan, into whose reign, Irenaeus tells us, the Apostle John lived,8 so these women leaders were contemporaries of John. The Governor of Bithynia, Pliny the Younger, in a letter to Trajan, explains he arrested and tortured these two, whom he calls in Latin ministrae, in order to learn the truth about Christianity.9

Henry Bettenson and Chris Maunder, the editors of Documents of the Christian Church, explain ministrae, the Latin term Pliny uses, “probably represents the Greek diakonoi.” From ministrae, we derive our English term “minister” and, when applied to Timothy, in 1 Timothy 4:6, diakonos is translated “minister,” as we see in the New International Version (NIV) rendering. So, in AD 112, these were clearly women ministers of the church.

Since the phrasings and structure of 2 and 3 John are so similar, as Canon Brooke has pointed out to us, and no one questions the parallel reference to the “beloved” Gaius as being addressed to an individual and not a code name for a church, the indication is that “the Elect Lady” is also the leader of the church over which she presides and for which she is responsible. That John does not name this elect female leader (as he may be doing openly, if “Gaius” is indeed the proper name of the recipient of 3 John) is coupled with the fact that John does not name her city either. Since both these letters are speculated to have been written circa AD 85–95,10 one does not have to search arduously for an explanation. These are the years of the bitter rule of the emperor Domitian (AD 81–95), referred to as “the tyrant” by Clement of Alexandria.11 Domitian, of course, was the one who exiled John to Patmos. In fact, Eusebius notes, “Many were the victims of Domitian’s appalling cruelty.”12 Robert Leoline James and Guy Edward Farquhar Chilver amplify our understanding of Domitian’s modus operandi in The Oxford Classical Dictionary: “In his later years, feeling that he could trust nobody, he turned to persecution.” Eventually, “a vicious circle was thus set up; every unsuccessful plot caused more executions, which in their turn, led to another plot. Finally the Emperor’s own wife, Domitia . . . feeling herself insecure, joined with the two praetorian prefects and some of the court officials in a plot which succeeded, and Domitian was murdered.” Since his rule “culminated in a Terror,” 13 it is small wonder John might protect his contact in a city where the Emperor’s wrath was currently being felt. 

But, once we have observed all this, what strikes us most when we see references to these women in leadership in the New Testament and afterward is that, as here in the example of John, the language contains not a spirit of disapproval, condescension, or expediency, but of high esteem, appreciation, and affection. In fact, such a spirit is evident as well in the Old Testament when the Israelite General Barak will not move into battle without Deborah, who, Judges 4:4 tells us, was “ruling (or governing, or administering [shapat])” Israel. Barak is willing to give up the glory of the credit for victory to assure she will go with him (4:8–10). As a general, Barak was no doubt concerned about the morale of his army and nothing would boost that like bringing along Deborah, whom everyone knew was a prophet (nebi’ah, 4:4) who received her revelations directly from God.14 In the New Testament, faithful women church leaders were held not only in the highest regard, but in gratitude, as Paul did, beginning his personal greetings in Romans 16 by “commending” (sunistēmi) Phoebe in strong terms of approval (vv. 1–2) and following by expressing his most tender appreciation for Prisca and Aquila, a gratitude (eucharisteō), he adds, that was shared by “all the churches of the Gentiles.” Paul’s handsome tribute to the ministry of Phoebe and Prisca parallels John’s tender reference to the presiding Lady as one whom he and all who hold the truth love (2 John 1). Luke in Acts, by the way, obviously shared Paul’s affection for Prisca, because he always refers to her, not by her formal name, but by her nickname Priscilla (Acts 18:2, 18, 26). And, when women of such caliber fall out, Paul is deeply concerned, as we see in his gentle plea to Euodia and Syntyche in Philippians 4:2 to reconcile. He does not reproach them as he does the Corinthians, but appeals (parakaleō) to them, while recalling their ministry with him and that their “names are in the book of life” (v. 3).

Clearly, all of us should cultivate a similar appreciation and affection for the faithful women who labor so diligently to lead our churches today. That such diligently ministering women are not always treated with similar respect, esteem, and tenderness by men (or by other women) is a great sin of this fallen world. Righting this injustice and returning to the spirit we see in the Bible’s promotion of women of true faith is the theme of this issue, which focuses on how the style of the Holy Spirit–inspired biblical authors promotes the voices and place of women in the Bible records. 

Our issue begins with an unusual book to study for our pages: the Song of Songs. In a careful analysis, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary New Testament Professor Aída Besançon Spencer demonstrates that the text promotes the voice of its female protagonist and commends monogamy as superior to polygamy, a pertinent message for today’s world. Attorney and Greek scholar David Malick, who in a previous article in our pages presented an intriguing study of Mark’s intercalations, returns with an equally fascinating comparison of John’s and Luke’s treatment of women and men in three narratives. Next, historian J. G. Brown also returns to our pages to analyze the differences between the Bible’s positive treatment of Deborah and the reluctance of some interpreters to recognize the full implications of the sacred text. We have the delight to introduce in this issue Baylor University PhD student Brendan Payne, son of author Philip Payne, leading off our book review section. Ambrose Seminary Professor Beth Stovell returns to our pages, analyzing a new book on Hispanic evangelical women scholars, and the Rev. John Lathrop completes the section reviewing a book wherein Pentecostal women ministers tell their own stories. Our poem is contributed by myself and my wife as a kind of bookend to my work here as editor at Priscilla Papers

A decade ago (in the Autumn 2004 issue) I opened my first issue as editor with a poem and, as this issue completes my tenth year as editor, I thought it might be appropriate to close it with a poem that my wife and I wrote one night after returning from a Bible study we were teaching to Spanish-speaking inmates at a maximum-security prison during the years we lived in Trenton, New Jersey. 

Empowering women in ministry does not happen by magic. It takes cultivating a sense of gratitude and the wisdom to respond with humility and appreciation to the calling and gifting of God. Barak paid a sacrifice in public opinion to include Deborah. Paul, by his own acknowledgement, depended on Phoebe, Prisca, Euodia, Syntyche, Junia (Rom 16:8), who was in prison with him, Tryphena and Tryphosa, whom, he notes, “worked hard in the Lord” (Rom 16:12), Lydia, Mary, who also “worked hard” for the Romans (Rom 16:6), Persis (Rom 16:12), and so many more. Paul and John cultivated hearts filled with gratitude, which expressed themselves in tender terms of public approval to the women who shared with them the task of serving the gospel. And Paul was open about placing himself under the protection and/or authority of one such woman (Rom 16:2). 

If we want to get gender relations correct in the biblical way, we need to start by praying for hearts that can be humble and grateful, eyes that are touched by God’s gift of sight to see who is truly laboring hard for the Lord around us, and then the courage to speak out and celebrate these often unsung leaders among us.


  1. Rev. Canon A. E. Brooke, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Johannine Epistles, International Critical Commentary (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1912), lxxiii.
  2. Brooke, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary, lxxiii.
  3. All Bible translations are by the present author, unless noted.
  4. Noted by Brooke, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary, 167. 
  5. Theodor Zahn, Introduction to the New Testament, vol. 3, trans. John Moore Trout et al. (Minneapolis, MN: Klock & Klock, 1977), 379.
  6. Brooke, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary, 168–69.
  7. Aída Besançon Spencer, Beyond the Curse: Women Called to Ministry (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2012), 112.
  8. Irenaeus, cited in Eusebius, The History of the Church (New York, NY: Penguin, 1989), 83 (3.23).
  9. Pliny the Younger, “Plin. Epp. X (ad Traj), xcvi,” in Documents of the Christian Church, 4th ed., ed. Henry Bettenson and Chris Maunder (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 4.
  10. See, for example, Donald W. Burdick’s note in Zondervan TNIV [Today’s New International Version] Study Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2006), 2109.
  11. Clement in “The Rich Man Who Finds Salvation,” cited in Eusebius, The History of the Church, 83 (3.23). 
  12. Eusebius, The History of the Church, 80 (3.13.17).
  13. Robert Leoline James and Guy Edward Farquhar Chilver, “Domitian,” The Oxford Classical Dictionary, 2nd ed., ed. N. G. L. Hammond and H. H. Scullard (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970), 360.
  14. For my further thoughts on Barak’s response to Deborah and to God, see my editorial in Priscilla Papers 25, no. 1 (Winter 2011): 2–4.

P.S. Beginning next issue, our dear brother, Dr. Jeff Miller, Professor of New Testament at Milligan College (, will assume the duties of editor of Priscilla Papers. Brother Jeff is a long-term CBE member and contributor to the journal. I discovered the high caliber of his work in my second issue as editor (Winter 2005) when we published his article “Can the ‘Father of Lights’ Give Birth?” Then he was back five years later with “Asking the Wrong Questions” (Summer 2010) and won an Evangelical Press Association first place award for Priscilla Papers with his latest contribution “What Can We Say about Phoebe?” published in our Spring 2011 issue. Many of you have also met Jeff in person at our annual conferences. God has put Priscilla Papers in good hands.

For myself, I am by no means leaving CBE, but simply shifting over to a more advisory capacity. Back in 2004, when I was asked to edit, I actually made a five-year commitment to work with PP, intending to keep that agreement. But President Mimi Haddad, Mary Gonsior, Liz Beyer, and all the many devoted office staff over the years proved to be such delights as coworkers that I ended up doubling my stay! For my first issue, I simply edited what I could find, but then I formed my own vision of building themed issues that addressed a number of egalitarian topics toward the ends of nourishing and supporting the advancement of our own scholarship, creating an accessible and symbiotic forum that encouraged more sustained work on topics, thereby helping nurture an evangelical egalitarian think tank drawn from our own CBE (and related) constituency that could bring our mutual vision of equality in Christ into many arenas of thought. This is the heart of what I, my wife, who has served as book review editor, and Deb Beatty Mel, our associate editor and graphic designer, our team at Priscilla Papers, have pursued for these ten years. Now it is time to make room for the next wave of ideas to take CBE’s publishing into its next phase of mission. I believe with all my heart that we are stronger than we have ever been with our superb CBE board of directors, our wonderful, seasoned, and astute president, our key mix of excellent office staff veterans I named as well as new stars in Tim Krueger, among others, our wonderful staff of volunteers and interns, and, of course, our incomparable company of first-rate CBE authors who fill our pages with godly wisdom and life-changing insights. The next decade will bring new challenges, but we are well positioned to meet them and take Jesus’s message of equality to a new generation. 

For myself, I am delighted to have had the privilege to helm this wonderful, life-enhancing publication for a full decade and to be able to cheer it on through the next. Priscilla Papers and CBE continue to have my full support, and I know all of you will continue to support our new editor with the same gracious comradeship with which you supported me.

Someday, all of us will stand before God and account for how we have used our time on earth. Once and for all, the question of which was the right choice—equality of women and men or subjection of the former and elevation of the latter—will be solved completely. At that moment, I would prefer to state my case as, “Lord, I sought to empower 100 percent of your church to use the gifts you gave them and minister fully without limitations,” than to defend myself with “Lord, I worked hard to keep 60 percent of your church from doing anything meaningful, and, where I failed, I at least made sure they didn’t get any credit for their work!”
In the meantime, may God bless each of us richly with every gift and grace demanded to do our parts to empower 100 percent of Christ’s church to fulfill its mission on earth, ambassadors through whom God works, as God reconciles the world to God’s own self (2 Cor 5:19–20).

Blessings and love in Jesus from your brother in Christ; 

Rev. Dr. William David Spencer
Priscilla Papers Editor (Autumn 2004–Summer 2014)

Secreted in Her Heart

A lyric poem
By William David Spencer and Aída Besançon Spencer

In her arms lies the sweet Jesus, sleeping, helpless,
     Ruler of all,
Gift of love, sent from the Father, wondrous to
Lord of all, love of the universe, Lord of all that is.
Surely he has borne my grief, surely born to grieve
     for me.

In her arms lies the sweet mystery, whispering,
     singing, lulling to sleep.
In her arms lies the sweet Jesus, wounded, given
Lord of all, Love of the universe, Lord of all that is.
Surely I will see him exalted as he exalted me.

In her arms lies the sweet Jesus, in her arms lies the
     sweet Jesus . . .