The New Testament tells us of women laboring in evangelism, acting as hostess to the church in their houses, prophesying and speaking in tongues, and acting as deaconesses. This prominence of women continued, as we have seen, in the second century. Sometimes it would be exercised through public speaking, sometimes through martyrdom.
Although the New Testament does not directly designate a specific woman as an elder or bishop, we do find women acting in the kind of leadership functions normally associated with this office. Women exercised the authority of prophets, teachers, and apostolic coworkers. Stanley J. Grenz and Denise Muir Kjesbo write,
Paul readily spoke of women, as well as men, as his coworkers. He never cautioned his recipients to view only the men as possessing authority or being worthy of honor. Rather, his readers were to "submit to … everyone who joins in the work, and labors at it" (1 Corinthians 16:16).
The New Testament paints a clear picture of women's role in ministry in the house to house group ministry that was prevalent in the early church. Some in the modern era, like Wesley and Cho, have rediscovered the value of women in small-group ministry.
As the body of Christ at large allows women to assume their rightful place in Christian ministry, the church will more fully reap the harvest and fulfill the words of Jesus, "The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field" (Matthew 9:37-38). Let us elevate women and men, as Jesus did, to work in the harvest. In doing so, we will follow the example of the early church.
—Joel Comiskey is author of 2000 Years of Small Groups: The History of Cell Ministry in the Church and an advisor for SmallGroups.com.
Photo credit: Saint-Petersburg Orthodox Theological Academy/Flickr