Lynn Cohick looks at evidence that the first Christian women were deacons, bishops, apostles, martyrs, and prophets.
In early Christianity, women held important roles. When we look at, for example, the first generation of Christians, we look at the New Testament, we’ve got women who are called deacons; there may even be women bishops. Euodia and Syntyche, who are mentioned in the letter to the Philippians – they’re mentioned by name – and Paul also, at the beginning of Philippians, addresses all the church, and then also the bishops and deacons who are there (or the overseers – sometimes the translation of the term is overseer), and I think a case can be made that Euodia and Syntyche are perhaps in that group of overseers and deacons.
You have even one woman who is called an apostle – this is Junia, along with (presumably her husband) Andronicus, are identified as apostles. So you have women who are co-workers of Paul. You have women who are given deep theological truths by Jesus. You have these women who are very much a part of the teaching and the leading of the earliest church.
That continues in some way through the second and third century, as you have women who pay the ultimate price, as martyrs, for their faith. And these women are teaching the church – their words are considered authoritative. We have an example of Blandina, a slave woman, who when she’s in the arena, she stretches her arms out, much like Jesus looked when he hung on the cross. And that’s how she’s described, as someone who is modelling for other Christians the very life and death of Jesus.
So women played an important role in how Christians thought about ethics, how they thought about discipleship. Christians also who had money sponsored others. Christian women prophesied. We see this in Corinth, as Paul talks about women praying and prophesying; we also know of Philip’s four daughters, who were prophets. And this idea of women speaking honestly and prophetically about the gospel continue[s] up through these early centuries in the church.