The Distaff
The Work of Women in the Local Church

Deborah L. Rowen

The work of women in the local church must be defined by gospel standards and not by our culture. The way we live is vastly different from New Testament times but God has permanently set the pattern for work and organization of the church outside of time and human influence. Regardless of how much more social freedom women have today, the work of women in the church is the same as it was when Priscilla traveled with her husband, when Dorcas made clothes for the needy, and when Phoebe was serving the church in Cenchrea. To learn our role, we must go the Bible and follow its examples and commands. This article will attempt to study all of the positive roles that women played in the New Testament.

Women with Jesus

Before the church was established, women assisted in the life of Jesus by providing for his needs from their substance. Luke mentions Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna, and many other who helped him this way (Luke 8:1-3). Domestic duties, from clean clothes to good meals, help workers to do their job whether they are carpenters or evangelists. These women were blessed that they were able to serve Him and the disciples this way.

Mary Magdalene stayed with Him to the cross as did his mother, aunt, and Mary the wife of Clopas. After his death, these women may have helped Joseph and Nicodemus prepare his body. Mary Magdalene was still visiting his tomb on the first day of the week and she wouldn't leave even when she discovered his body was missing. I'm glad the two angels and Jesus himself appeared to her there. She was a woman of great devotion (John 19-20).

Women in the Early Church

Early in the days of the church, the apostles were in one accord with the women (Acts 1:14). Believers were added both men and women (Acts 5:14). Christian women were dragged off to prison by Paul (Acts 8:12). The disciples gathered at the house of Mary, mother of John Mark, to pray while Peter was in prison and there Peter came to them (Acts 12:12). In Philippi, Paul and company went to the river on the Sabbath day to speak to the women who met there. Lydia was baptized and took them into her home (Acts 16:13-15). In Thessalonica, Paul preached in the synagogue and a great multitude including leading women joined Paul and Silas (Acts 17:4). In Berea, many believed including prominent women (Acts 17:12). In Athens, Paul spoke at the Areopagus and some believed, among them a woman named Damaris (Acts 17:34). Paul met up with fellow tentmakers, Aquila and Priscilla, in Corinth and stayed with them. Aquila and Priscilla had been forced out of their home in Rome by the emperor Claudius. They used adversity to spread the gospel everywhere they went, Acts 18:1-3. When Apollos came to Ephesus, Aquila and Priscilla taught him the way of God more accurately (Acts 18:26).

There are many women named by Paul in Romans 16:

In Philippians 4:3, Paul said "help these women who labored with me in the gospel", speaking of Euodia and Syntyche. Paul greeted our sister (or beloved) Apphia in Philemon 2. Those of Chloe's household told Paul of trouble at the church in Corinth(1) (1 Cor. 1:11).

Paul sent greetings to Claudia as well as Priscilla in 2 Timothy 4:19-21. He reminded Timothy of his faith, which dwelt first in his grandmother Lois and mother Eunice ( 2 Tim 1:5).

This exhaustive list shows that women were prevalent and important in the early church. They taught the gospel personally, as did Priscilla in exile with her husband, and often they are extended hospitality to evangelists in their homes.

Family and Home

The majority of work for women that is spoken of in scriptures involves work within the marriage and home. "Wives, submit to your own husbands as is fitting in the Lord" (Col. 3:18). Peter said that wives are to be submissive to their husband so that the unbelieving husband may be won by her chaste conduct (1 Peter 3:1-6). She is to cultivate inner beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit (which is precious to God) rather than concentrate on outward beauty. The older women are to be "reverent in behavior, not slanderers, not given to much wine, teachers of good things," (Titus 2:3-5). The older women are to teach the younger women to love their husbands and children, to be "discreet, chaste, homemakers, good, obedient to their own husbands".

In the context of which widows should be supported by the church, Paul instructed Timothy that a qualified widow must have done good works, "brought up children, lodged strangers, washed the saints feet, relieved the afflicted, and diligently followed every good work." The younger widows were to "marry, bear children, manage the house, and give no opportunity to the adversary to speak reproachfully" in contrast to being idle, wandering from house to house, gossiping, being busybodies, and saying things they ought not (1 Tim. 5:9-14). In Joppa, Dorcas was raised from the dead. She was "full of good works and charitable deeds". The widows were displaying the tunics and garments Dorcas had made (Acts 9:36-39).

We can see the work of a Christian woman has a lot to do with her behavior: be chaste, submissive, quiet and gentle, reverent, loving, discreet. Her life is dominated by caring for a home and children. However, she should reach beyond her own home with charitable deeds: relieving the afflicted, caring for needy, and serving the saints (washing the saint's feet). Paul emphasizes good works for godly women.

The Deaconess

A roommate of mine at Harding University came home from bible class one day very excited about being a deaconess. Her Bible professor had told the class that a deacon is simply someone who serves the church, that anyone who is a servant is a deacon, referring to Phoebe in Romans 16:1:

"I commend to you Phoebe our sister, who is a servant of the church in Cenchrea".

He said Phoebe was a deaconess and there is no such thing as the office of a deacon. My roommate was bubbling over until I asked her about the office a deacon mentioned in 1 Timothy 3. Her face fell as she read the passage and she said no more. There is a lot of shame here; it is a shame that a Bible professor should be so deceitful and it is a shame that a Bible student didn't remember 1 Timothy 3. It is also a shame that it took the official title of a deaconess to excite her so about her work in the church. Our work is no less valuable because it doesn't come with a title. Fortunately, we had a King James Version of the bible that day because more modern versions such as the New King James(2) and New American Standard have taken out the "office of a deacon" while leaving in the "office of a bishop" in the same context:

"then let them use the office of a deacon" (1 Tim. 3:10 KJV)

"For they that have used the office of a deacon well..." (1 Tim. 3:13 KJV)

There could be a lot of word study about these passages but that is beyond the scope of our subject. In any case, 1 Timothy 3:12 closes the subject of women as deacons: "Let deacons be the husbands of one wife". (Beware of mistranslation of verse 11; "Likewise their wives" has been changed to "Women" in the New American Standard.)

Concerning Phoebe in Romans 16:1: Paul said she was a servant of the church. The Greek word used here for servant is diakonon (literally a minister) which is used to refer to servile work and domestic duties in other New Testament passages.(3) In light of other scriptures we have reviewed about women in the early church who assisted with physical needs of the saints, it is proper to assume that Phoebe's service was in the same manner and there is no reason to place her in the office of a deacon.

Since I have heard of churches appointing women as elders, I will point out that the elder must be the husband of one wife. I suppose that if a church would go so far as to have a woman elder it serves no purpose to remind them that she would have to keep silent in the church (1 Cor. 14:34-35).

Praying and Prophesying

"Now this man had four virgin daughters who prophesied" (Acts 21:9).

We know that in the early days of the church the Holy Spirit was working through men with miraculous gifts to edify the church. Simon saw that through the laying on of the apostle's hands the Holy Spirit was given (Acts 8:18). Timothy was given his gift through the laying on of the hands of the presbytery (1 Tim. 4:14). We understand that these gifts were for revelation and confirmation of the word.

These gifts were given to some women as foretold in Joel 2:28-32: "Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy." This created some difficulties in the Corinthian church, which Paul sorted out in his first letter. The subject of authority became involved with prophecy and prayer by women:

"But I want you to know the head of every man is Christ, the head of woman is man, and the head of Christ is God" (1 Cor. 11:3).

"But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head" (1 Cor. 11:5).

"For this reason the woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels" (1 Cor. 11:10).

Therefore when these women were prophesying or praying by the Holy Spirit, they were to cover their heads as a symbol of man's authority over them.

Should we wear a head covering today? If you have been given a miraculous gift of the Holy Spirit to prophesy or pray, then yes. Otherwise, it is a moot point, and we understand that miraculous gifts have ceased since that which is perfect (the revealed will of God) has come (1 Cor. 13:10).

Speaking in Church

"Let your women keep silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak; but they are to be submissive, as the law also says. And if they want to learn something, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is shameful for women to speak in church" ( 1 Cor. 14:34-35).

The phrases "in the churches" and "in church" come from the Greek word ekklesia literally meaning an assembly or congregation. In 1 Corinthians 14:26, Paul addresses the subject of when you "come together". This was a continuation of handling spiritual gifts in the assembly (see verse 19). Paul is instructing the Corinthians on proper behavior in worship services. Paul said if there is no interpreter, the one speaking in tongues should keep silent in church, prophets should prophesy one by one, and the women should keep silent. All things are to be done decently and in order (vs 40).

When writing to Timothy, Paul gave instructions about women:

"Let a woman learn in silence with all submission. And I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man, but to be in silence" (1 Tim. 3:11-12)

This echoes Paul's instructions to Corinth about behavior in the assembly and it would pervert the passage to say that a woman could never ask questions in a bible study or never teach children and younger women as they are commanded (Titus 2).(4) It would be logical to tie these two passages together and say that women are not to address the public worship service: not as an announcer, song leader, or preacher. In worship services she is to worship. She is given no other role. This does suggest that we should have our open discussion bible classes outside of the worship service.

What about the female prophets who Paul addressed in 1 Corinthians 11? To whom were they to prophesy? Where could they do it? Prophecy was for the edification of the saints. These women could have had an audience of men and women. However, it would violate the passages in chapter 14 to say that they were praying or prophesying in the assembly. For this reason, I would suggest that these women were praying and prophesying outside of their worship services. We know that they could control when and where they prophesied: "And the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets" (1 Cor. 14:32). Even so, they were to have their heads covered as a sign of authority.(5) Remember we must never interpret two passages so that they disagree with each other.


Women may gather much work from the passages discussed. We know a lot about what our work is not: not to have authority or teach in the assembly. Much of the work specific to women is in the home. We are also expected to reach outside of our family to help others. God expects many more things of Christians whether they are men or women and that could be another study. Along that line, I will close with a passage from 1 Peter 3. After Peter gave his instructions to wives and husbands, he says to everyone:

"Finally, all of you be of one mind, having compassion for one another; love as brothers, be tenderhearted, be courteous; not returning evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary blessing, knowing that you were called to this, that you may inherit a blessing"(6) (I Peter 3:8-9).

1. Chloe's household acted as a watchman for the church in Corinth. When they saw wrongdoing, they told Paul, a preacher qualified to do something about it. Some today would censure such action as meddling with church autonomy but there is a biblical precedent for sounding the alarm when a congregation is having trouble.

2. Caution: The New King James Version is still in a state of flux. There are undocumented word changes from the earliest edition of the NKJV to the latest.

3. W. E. Vine, Vine's Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, pp. 274, 756.

4. Priscilla helped her husband to teach Apollos (Acts 18:26). Eunice and Lois taught Timothy (2 Tim. 1:5).

5. See Truth Commentaries, First Corinthians, by Mike Willis for a much more complete explanation.

6. Note: All Scriptures are quoted from the New King James Version unless noted otherwise.

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