Tell Her Story: How Women Led, Taught, and Ministered in the Early Church

Tell Her Story: How Women Led, Taught, and Ministered in the Early Church June 18, 2023

For those of you who have read my work on women in ministry – God’s View of a Woman and Rethinking a Woman’s Role of the Church along with The Day I Met Jesus – you will be interested to know that there is a new book written by Nijay Gupta that equally affirms the incredible role that women played in functioning in God’s house.

The book is called Tell Her Story: How Women Led, Taught, and Ministered in the Early Church.

I caught up with Nijay recently to discuss the book.


When someone hears about a book and they ask, “What is your book about?” what they are really asking is, “What’s in it for me?” In other words, what will I get out of reading your book? What is the pay off for my time and energy and the cost of the book? What’s in it for me? Please answer that for readers. What’s in it for them?

Great question! I’m trying to approach the women in the Bible/women in ministry question from a new angle—instead of focusing on a few prohibition (“women can’t/shouldn’t”) passages, I focus on what women actually did—and they did a lot! I hope readers will be amazed by what the Bible actually says about the named women in Scripture who taught, served as Israelite judges, prophesied, went to prison, fought on the front-lines of ministry, led house churches, and more!

There is a sad impression by some today that women “belong in the home.” Now, I live by home, there are important things both women and men do in the home (like care for our children or show hospitality to others), but the Bible also calls men and women out of the home in leadership, ministry, work, and mission. I try to point out the faith and courage of these women who leave the confines and comforts of home to follow where God leads.

Have you gotten any push book so far from critics? If so, what where their criticisms and what is your reply to them?

Yes, plenty! I get a lot of readers and reviewers saying “Nijay uses a lot of ‘maybes,’ ‘perhaps,’ and ‘imagine this…’ sort of statements! He is speculating.” Yes, I actually do  say these words and phrases, because there are some things in the biblical story that are unknown (what happened to Joseph of Nazareth?), some things that are unclear (what is going on in Ephesus that led Paul to write 1 Timothy) and some things that need to be set into cultural context (what do letter-carriers do?).

I wanted to be honest with readers, I didn’t want to give off a false sense of certainty, I do think some things are clear (Deborah was a virtuous judge and prophet of Israel), but other things are less clear but still worth talking about (Nympha was probably a house church leader in ancient Laodicea). I argue that the cumulative evidence is clear: God called, empowered, and sent women to participate in the gospel mission in high levels of leadership.

Give us two or three “aha!” moments that came to you when you were doing the research for the book, things that really impressed you that you didn’t know before.

First, Deborah (Judges 4-5) was a singular luminary in one of the darkest times in ancient Israel’s history. She was prophet and judge—which gave her executive, judicial, and spiritual oversight over all Israel—and the Song of Deborah (Judges 5) interprets her ministry as a resounding success. She defies ancient and modern stereotypes of the quiet, domesticated wife and mother; she sat on the highest seat of Israel, called by God, and brought peace to her people.

Mary of Nazareth: it’s amazing how important she is, not only in the life of Jesus, but she is at the cross and at Pentecost (Acts 1:14). When Jesus kicks off his ministry, Joseph is already gone (dead?), but Mary follows Jesus (like a disciple), and sticks with him to the bitter end and beyond. The Song of Mary (Luke 1:46-55) shows her deep theological intelligence, and it is astounding to consider that when Jesus was working on his sermons, he certainly drew from her wisdom.

Junia of Rome: Given that Paul says (Rom 16:7) she is Jewish, became a believer even before Paul, went to prison for the gospel, and is famous as an apostle, at least one early Christian writer (Origen) argues that she was a disciple of the earthly Jesus who was sent out as part of the 70 in Luke 10. That paints a vivid picture of Jesus’ ministry, we know women followed Jesus (Luke 8:1-3). Much of Christian tradition has erased these women from our memory of Jesus’ ministry, but Scripture reminds us that they were there.

I’d like to discuss three women you discuss in the book. Let’s take them one at a time.

Greet Andronicus and Junia, my fellow Jews who have been in prison with me. They are outstanding among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was. Romans 16:7

Would you say that the consensus among scholars is that Andronicus and Junia were husband and wife and they both were apostolic workers?

I would say the vast majority of scholars now assume Junia is a woman and that this was a husband-wife ministry pair. As for “apostles,” there is less agreement. We might say a good number of conservative evangelical scholars say no, but if we polled all New Testament scholars, there is a clear majority saying yes. Personally, I think the Greek wording is pretty clear; the most natural reading is “they are noteworthy among the apostles” (as in, they are among the highest respected as apostles).

Some translations have “my relatives” instead of “my fellow Jews” in Romans 16:7. Is that a legitimate translation, in your view? And if so, how do you suspect they were related to Paul? 

The Greek word (syngenēs) refers to a shared people group. “My relatives” is confusing – in modern English we use this for direct relatives like cousins and people that show up to a family reunion. “Fellow Jews” is much closer – clearly Paul felt a special link to them as Jesus-followers who share the same Jewish identity as him.

Let’s talk more about Junia. Suppose the directors of The Chosen have selected you to be the chief historical adviser for their rendition of Paul. They want you to make the story historically accurate in those areas where we have enough information to be certain, but historically plausible in those areas where we do not have enough information to be certain.

So with that as a backdrop, how did Junia know Paul of Tarsus? Give us a likely (plausible) scenario.

Another good question! Yes, we need to use some imagination here and fill some gaps. Rome (where Junia lives) is not too far from Corinth, and Paul spent significant time in Corinth, so there could be a connection there. Paul also says Andronicus and Junia are “fellow prisoners,” which could mean they actually shared a prison cell and their times of incarceration overlapped. It would be quite a thing for THE CHOSEN to have a scene where they meet in prison!

What put Junia and Andronicus in prison? Give us a likely or plausible scenario.

I think about something like the potential riot in Ephesus (Acts 19): the town clerk has to calm down the mob that is whipped up by Paul’s ministry. The clerk warns the people that if mob violence gets the attention of Roman authorities, the whole city could be punished. In just these kinds of scenarios, people like Paul could get rounded up by authorities and be thrown in prison (where they await a trial, but in the meantime could be subject to severe beatings). This is a very plausible scenario for Andronicus and Junia.

Do you believe that Junia and Andronicus shared prison space with Paul? If so, what is a likely scenario concerning where and when?

We have too little information for any kind of certainty. I take the language of “fellow prisoner” to involve a kind of mark of distinction of Christians who were willing to be tortured for the sake of the gospel. I don’t assume they were together, but at the least very least they are honored for sharing the same scars of incarceration for the gospel.

Let’s move on to “the dynamic duo” in the New Testament.

Greet Priscilla and Aquila, my co-workers in Christ Jesus. They risked their lives for me. Not only I but all the churches of the Gentiles are grateful to them. Romans 16:3-4

Again, creating a historical plausible scenario, how did Priscilla and her husband Aquila risk their lives to help Paul? What is your best guess? How would you construct the story?

I wish we had more details, this is fascinating stuff to think about! In 1 Cor 15:32, Paul talks about fighting “wild animals” in Ephesus. It very well could be a metaphor, as in, “ferocious persecutors,” or something like that. Priscilla and Aquila may have suffered great violence and hostility in their preaching. Or, perhaps Paul was in hot water with the authorities, and this couple tried to intervene on his behalf, at the risk of them getting into trouble as well.

Let’s move on to Nympha.

Please give my greetings to our brothers and sisters at Laodicea, and to Nympha and the church that meets in her house. Colossians 4:15

Beyond that she hosted the ekklesia of Laodicea in her home, do we know anything else about Nympha in the New Testament or from church tradition?

It was a relatively common name, so it is hard to know if a later Christian writer was talking about the same person (we have this issue with the names Mark and John as well). And some ancient manuscripts have this as a male name Nymphas (note the “s”). This verse is our only record of her, but what this verse does tell us is that she was a key leader of a house church in the Lycus Valley (Asia Minor, modern day Turkey).

Now we come to Phoebe.

I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church in Cenchreae.  I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of his people and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been the benefactor of many people, including me. Romans 16:1-2

Pheobe is described as a “deacon” in Romans 16:1. In your view, what exactly was a deacon in the New Testament? While the word means servant, aren’t all believers servants? So what makes a deacon different from all the other believers who are serving in a local assembly? And can you give some examples of the difference?

The Greek word diakonos refers to someone who “serves.” In its most generic uses, it can refer to someone who carries out menial tasks, but it can also be used of people who “serve” in high positions like magistrates (as Paul uses this word in Romans 13).

It developed into a technical term in early Christianity, in part thanks to Jesus’ use of service language. So, when Phoebe is called a “diakonos,” it means she has a leadership position in her hometown church. I created my own terminology trying to express this: “ministry provider” (along the lines of our modern American language of “medical provider; a respected professional who serves others and has expertise an training).

This leads us to a related question, what was Phoebe’s role exactly in your view?

It’s hard to say, because the responsibilities of a ministry provider are not laid out explicitly, and because they may have difference a bit from one place to the next (kind of like how “deacons” today mean different things in different traditions). I would simply say she was one of the primary leaders in her church, but probably not the main leader, because she was leaving for Rome and was going to be gone a long time!

Do you believe that Phoebe was a businesswoman traveling to Rome from Cenchrea?

That is an older view, based on Paul’s language of “pragma” in Rom 16:1, which could refer to her being in Rome for “business matters,” but is a very generic term, so could refer to any “matter,” including ministry needs. Personally, I agree with scholars like Robert Jewett who argue that she was in Rome long term to establish the Roman church as a key base of operations for Paul’s gentile mission.

In the book, you address what some call the “limiting passage” in 1 Timothy 2. Can you give us a quick summary of how you interpret that text, specifically the part where Paul allegedly says he doesn’t want women to teach men?

Oh boy! So much to say! But I will keep it brief. First a word about theological method. Many times we see a text like 1 Tim 2 and we say, “I have a verse, that solves it.” But what we are called to do as biblically-faithful Christians is to study a topic in light of what the whole of Scripture has to say, not just one verse.

That is what my book is about, reading the many stories of women leaders alongside these prohibition texts. So, when someone says, “1 Tim 2 clearly says women can’t teach or lead men because they are easily deceived,” I respond: then why did Paul call Junia to be an apostle? Why did God make Deborah a prophet and judge? Why did God put his precious Son Jesus into the hands of Mary, when Joseph was going to disappear from the picture?

Okay, back to 1 Timothy. In brief: we need to keep in mind why Paul writes this letter. There is a major false teaching sweeping through the church in Ephesus, Timothy needs Paul’s counsel for stamping out this heresy. We don’t know exactly what happened, but we know this false teaching preyed upon women, taught them to reject marriage, and questioned to teachings of apostles like Paul. So, what we read in 1 Timothy 2 is not generic teaching on doing church, it is an emergency situation (you will get a sense for that by reading all of 1 Timothy).

Paul was not calling women to be quiet and submissive as a general rule, but to stop trying to re-teach the church and correct the male leaders. One of the key words in 1 Tim 2:12 is authenteo – which is sometimes translated as “have authority.”

But in more recent years, scholars have worked harder to pinpoint the exact meaning of this verb, and I am convinced it is a negative term – a harmful and destructive form of power. In that case, Paul was telling women that they shouldn’t try to domineer over men. That is not a NEW reading, it is actually a more dominant reading throughout history. The King James has “usurp authority.”

Also, explain the bit (in that same passage) about childbearing. That she shall be “saved through childbearing?” What on earth does that mean?

Childbearing – it’s unclear, I still have questions! It could refer to physical safety – the local patron deity in Ephesus was Artemis, and she was known as protector of women in childbirth. Perhaps some Christian women worried that if they turned from Artemis to Christ, they would not survive physical birth of their babies.

Another possibility is that some of these Christian women buying into the false teaching were renouncing marriage and family life. Paul was pointing them back towards the goodness of family life. Sadly, we (today) lack enough information from Paul to know for sure what he was talking about.

What about the other limiting passage in 1 Corinthians 14? What’s your take on that passage?

Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church. 1 Corinthians 14:34-35

One thing we know: The Corinthian church was pretty messed up! There was some kind of “gender wars” going on (as we see in 1 Corinthians 11).

Craig Keener has proposed that women (perhaps women prophets) were interrupting the church service to correct the men, or perhaps some women were noisily asking questions about the teachings in a disruptive manner. Again, we don’t know the situation. But Paul affirms women publicly praying and prophesying in the church in Corinth, so Paul wasn’t wanting women to be absolutely silent. He wanted harmony and order.

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