In a post a short while ago I spoke about women’s roles in the church. It generated some good questions, one of them was about the prophetesses of 1 Corinthians 11. The answer to this question deserves something more than a reply in the comment section and will probably be more lengthy than a reply ought to be. So, instead of answering it in the comments section, I thought I make it its own posting.
Now, having said that, I will offer the disclaimer that this topic has has entire volumes dedicated to trying to answer the questions about women leading in worship; and this post won’t come close to answering every question ever posed—though I hope it answers some. If you are interested in reading more about this issue, I recommend Women in the Church, A Fresh Analysis of 1 Timothy 2:9-15 by Kostenberger, Schreiner, and Baldwin, and Evangelical Feminism & Biblical Truth, by Grudem.
To begin this facet of the study, we should probably look at the other prophetesses of the Bible to see if we can pick up any examples, commands, principles, etc. from their stories. I found six reference in the Scriptures to prophetesses of the LORD (not including the 1 Cor. 11 passage)—there are two references to false prophetesses.
The Prophetess of the Bible
The first biblical references to a prophetess I found were to Miriam, Moses’ sister. Exodus 15:20 calls her a prophetess, and says, “Miriam the prophetess, Aaron’s sister, took the timbrel in her hand, and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dancing.” While she is called a prophetess here, her work seems to be specifically among the women. A second passage of interest regarding Miriam is when she and Aaron challenged Moses’ leadership and authority in Numbers 12:1-16—both claiming to be prophets equal with Moses. While the LORD was angry at both Aaron and Miriam, it was Miriam who was struck with leprosy; and the reason the LORD gave (v. 14) had to do with the shame of her attempt to usurp authority.
Judges 4:4ff tells us of another prophetess, Deborah, who was consulted by men (v. 5), but clearly she did not preach like Samuel, Elijah, or Isaiah. Nor did she exercise any authority over men. For example, when Barak was called to lead Israel’s army, he prevailed on a reluctant Deborah to come with them—“If you will go with me, then I will go; but if you will not go with me, I will not go.”
Huldah (2 Kings 22:14 and 2 Chron. 34:22) was also a prophetess. She, like Deborah, was consulted by men for a word from the LORD after priests of king Josiah’s era rediscovered of the book of the Law in the Temple. And also Deborah she was not a preacher or proclaimer of God’s message.
Isaiah calls his wife a prophetess, though nothing is known about her ministry.
The fifth reference to a prophetess of God is found in the Gospel of Luke, the prophetess Anna, who at an advanced age never left the Temple. She saw Joseph, Mary, and Jesus in the court of the women (Mary and Anna would not be able to go any farther than this in the Temple), and recognized Jesus for who He is and “continued to speak of Him to all those who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem” (Luke 2:38)—contrasted to proclaiming or preaching.
Finally, there is a reference in Acts about Philip the Evangelist’s daughters who were prophetesses. Again, little is known about them apart from Acts 21:8, 9 “On the next day we left and came to Caesarea, and entering the house of Philip the evangelist, who was one of the seven, we stayed with him. Now this man had four virgin daughters who were prophetesses.”
OK, So What?
OK, so what data can we glean from these passages and what conclusions might we be able to draw from the data?
- Prophetesses existed in both Old Testament and New Testament times
- The prophetesses did not preach or proclaim their prophecies in an assembly
- They were occasionally consulted by men
- They spoke in small, informal settings, primarily among women (e.g., Anna).
- They demurred at the offer of leadership
- When one prophetess grasped for the exercise of authority (Miriam), she was specially punished for it by God Himself
How does the information from these examples help us understand what might have been going on among the prophetesses of 1 Cor. 11:1-16?
First, these examples show that there was precedent for women to prophesy among other women in either women-only assemblies or informal female gatherings. Could this not reasonably be the situation that Paul is addressing in his letter to the Corinthians?
Second, such leadership among men seemed to be eschewed by godly women, with the exception of Miriam, who bore the consequences of leprosy when she tried to gain leadership among God’s people.
Now Looking at the Context
In addition, a careful examination of the context 1 Cor. 11 will reveal that Paul’s instruction about women prophesying and praying isn’t really talking about what should be done when the church assembles anyway. The church’s assembly isn’t mentioned at all until v. 17—after the subject of women prophesying and praying is finished and he is changing topics to how the Lord’s Supper is to be conducted.
The main theme of the 1 Corinthians 11:1ff is about the appropriate submission of women to men. This submission, Paul says, should be shown by a godly woman in the Greek culture by the wearing of a covering on a woman’s head when she prophesies or prays. Given 1) examples and precedences from both Old and New Testaments and 2) commands forbidding women teaching or exercising authority in the mixed assembly; it’s easy to conclude that these prophetesses were 1) revealing God’s word among other women or in special consultation settings and 2) praying among other women.
Now, does this mean that women must not utter a peep in the assembly? No. In 1 Cor. 14:34-36 and 1 Tim. 2:11-14 we notice that the command to be silent applies directly to teaching and exercising authority over men. When that principle is not being violated, it would follow that it is not necessary for women to be silent in things like congregational singing, or responding to a prayer with Amen.
Someone told me recently, second-hand, that they thought that my first article was “pompous and condescending”. I was surprised, to say the least; and to my readers I would like to assure them that the attitudes that those words express were not part of my heart as I wrote them. My aim, solely, was to point out what the Scripture says about a clear biblical command that modern Christians, I believe, are being persuaded by the world to compromise. If you were one of those who took offense, please believe me that there was no offense intended; I only sought to humbly proclaim the truth of God’s word—as one who also has a role that involves submission.