When we think about influential leaders in the New Testament, plenty of names immediately come to mind.
The twelve apostles are usually at the top of the list (or at least the ones we can name off the top of our heads). Men like Timothy, John Mark, Barnabas, Silas, and Luke also come to mind. These leaders were pivotal in shaping the narrative arc of the New Testament and the early Church.
But we don’t often think about the myriad other leaders who were also there in the early days of the Church. Many people whom we would consider “minor characters” actually had incredible impact and influence on their communities, as well as the first generation of the Jesus movement at large.
And, in fact, many of these influential leaders were women. We don’t always know a ton about the lives of these female leaders (or many of the leaders of the New Testament whom we admire), but what we do know suggests that these women were key in the growth of the Church and the spreading of the message of Jesus.
Here are 9 influential female leaders in the early Church as found in the New Testament.
 Mary (the Mother of Jesus)
When we first meet Mary at the beginning of Luke’s gospel account, she’s the second recipient of news regarding a miracle birth.
The first was her relative, Zechariah. Zechariah was a priest and was serving in the temple at Jerusalem when an angel came to him. And the angel told him that his wife would bear a son, and that this son would prepare the way for the coming Messiah. Since Zechariah was old, and his wife was barren, he responded with disbelief.
In the very next part of the story, the angel visits young Mary, who was betrothed to be married to Joseph. And the angel tells Mary that she will bear a child, even though she was a virgin. And her son would be the Messiah, the Savior of his people—and all people. And Mary responded immediately with faith.
The strong, wise, respectable, faithful spiritual leader of the community had responded with doubt, while the uneducated, unmarried, insignificant girl had responded with resounding faith.
The point of the story is that faithfulness, not prestige, is what God honors. And Mary is at the center of that story. And the son she would bear would be none other than incarnate God himself.
Mary also appears as an important female leader among those who gathered to replace Judas Iscariot with Matthias as an appointed apostle, and when the Holy Spirit fell on the Church (Acts 1:14).The point of the story is that faithfulness, not prestige, is what God honors. Click To Tweet
 Mary (the Sister of Martha & Lazarus)
Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, was another leader whom God used to confuse expectations and empower those who had previously not been esteemed. In Luke 10, Jesus is at Mary and Martha’s home with his disciples. And while Jesus is teaching, Mary sits at his feet.
Martha, who was working to host and feed Jesus and his followers, found this greatly upsetting. She was laboring diligently in the cultural duties of a woman, and she could use all the help she could get.
Mary, on the other hand, was taking upon herself the cultural role of a man—a disciple, a learner, an active follower of Jesus and a participant in his movement. This wasn’t something women did in the culture of the day.
But when Martha tries to get Mary to come back to her womanly duties, here’s what Jesus says.
Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her. (Luke 10:41b-42)
Mary serves as an example of how Jesus came to empower women to be full fledged partners in the work he came to do.Mary serves as an example of how Jesus came to empower women to be full fledged partners in the work he came to do. Click To Tweet
Whenever we hear of Priscilla in the New Testament, it’s most often alongside her husband, Aquila. The couple was a dynamic team of teachers and church leaders.
They not only were very capable teachers in their own right, but they also played a pivotal role in the raising up of other leaders–including Apollos, who became widely known for his powerful and effective preaching (Acts 18:18-28).
Interesting to note is that almost every time the couple is mentioned, Priscilla is named first (e.g., Acts 18:18, 26; Romans 16:3). In the culture of the day, whenever naming a team of leaders, the most prominent among them would always be named first—suggesting that Priscilla, even as a female leader, experienced a higher place of prominence even than her husband.Almost every time the couple Priscilla and Aquila are mentioned, Priscilla is named first, suggesting that she had a higher place of prominence even than her husband. Click To Tweet
Lydia was a successful businesswoman whom Paul and his missionary team met while in Philippi. After Paul preaches to her, she comes to faith in Jesus and immediately becomes a supporter and friend to Paul.
She and her whole household were baptized, and a group of believers began meeting in her home as a house church (Acts 16:15, 40). When someone hosted a church in their home, they often became the leading administrator, as well as a shepherd to the group. Already having been an effective leader and entrepreneur in the past, it is likely that Lydia took to these roles easily.
The church in Philippi became incredibly generous financial supporters in the mission of Jesus, and Lydia likely also played a key role in that (Philippians 1:3-5).The church in Philippi became incredibly generous financial supports in the mission of Jesus, and Lydia likely played a key role in that. Click To Tweet
When the Apostle Paul wrote letters to the churches throughout the Roman Empire, he had no government postal service by which he could send them. So he appointed trusted partners to deliver these important letters that not only served the churches that received them, but have become part of our holy scriptures.
One of Paul’s most important letters (and his longest) was his letter to the churches in Rome—essentially the capital of the known world at the time. And he entrusted this important letter to none other than Phoebe (Romans 16:1).
Whenever a person would deliver a letter, they would read it out to the recipient group, as well as explain further the intent and meaning behind the letter. Phoebe conceivably played this important role as well. And that means that the first person to ever do a verse-by-verse bible study through Romans was a female leader.Phoebe was likely the first person to ever do a bible study on Paul's epistle to the Romans. Click To Tweet
 Lois &  Eunice
Paul commends Lois and Eunice in his second letter to his young friend, Timothy. The two women were his grandmother and mother, respectively. Here’s what Paul has to say about them.
I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that dwelt first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, dwells in you as well. (2 Timothy 1:5)
While it’s unclear whether these two women led in any official capacity, their faithfulness played a vital role in influencing the next generation for Jesus. Timothy went onto be an incredibly influential leader, not only in a local context, but throughout an entire region. His successful ministry was due in part to the presence of strong female leaders in his life.While it's unclear whether Lois and Eunice led in any official capacity, they played a key role in influencing the next generation for Jesus. Click To Tweet
 Euodia &  Syntyche
It may seem strange to include these two leaders, when the only time we see their names in scripture, Paul is actually scolding them. But Euodia and Syntyche were key leaders in the church at Philippi. And when Paul writes to that church, he brings up an apparent disagreement between the two of them (Philippians 4:2-3).
We don’t know the exact nature of the disagreement, because Paul doesn’t mention it. But it’s conceivable that the dispute had to do with how best to lead the church. If it had been an issue of sin, Paul would have likely pointed out who was in the wrong.
But perhaps nobody was really in the wrong. They were two faithful female leaders trying to lead the church in the direction they saw best. So in their disagreement, Paul encourages them to seek unity through prayer and rejoicing. (You can read more about their situation here.)
In this list, there are many that I have failed to mention, and still many others whose stories are not even told on the pages of scripture. And yet their leadership made an eternal impact.
In the book of Acts, Luke describes the faith of unnamed and unnumbered “women of high standing” and “leading women” (Acts 13:50; 17:4, respectively). We will never know many of their stories on this side of eternity.
But what we do know is that women played a larger role in the foundation of the Church than we often realize or pay attention to. Strong female leadership is nothing new in the Church.
And though we don’t know all of the stories of strong female leaders in the early Church, there are many stories of female leaders that we do know. We see them leading in our families, communities, and churches. You are often underappreciated. But I want you to know that you are seen, known, and loved. And your impact is far greater than you can know.
OTHER RESOURCES TO CHECK OUT
If you found this article helpful, these books might be useful resources to you.
- Women of the Bible: A One-Year Devotional Study by Ann Spangler and Jean E. Syswerda explores is a one year devotional that explore the life and impact of 52 women in the bible.
- Jesus and Women – Bible Study Book: In the First Century and Now by Kristi McLelland is an in depth study of Jesus’ relationships with the women in his life and what that means for us today.
- EnGendered by Sam A. Andreades explore the biblical understanding of what it means to be male and female.
- Neither Complementarian nor Egalitarian: A Kingdom Corrective to the Evangelical Gender Debate by Michelle Lee-Barnewall seeks to move beyond the two basic sides of the gender role debate in the Church in favor of something more holistically biblical.
This Post Has 2 Comments
I’d encourage you to include Junia, who is named as being “prominent among the apostles,” which is high praise indeed coming from Paul, who is named Romans 16: 7. I feel your list is incomplete without mentioning her.
Good call, a worthy inclusion for sure!
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