There are women prophets mentioned in both the Old and New Testaments. In 2 Kings 22 when King Josiah wanted to know how soon the judgment of God was likely to fall upon the people, and if there was anything he could do to delay the experience, he sent his advisors to a prophetess named Huldah.
“Go, inquire of the LORD for me, and for the people, and for all Judah, concerning the words of this book that has been found. For great is the wrath of the LORD that is kindled against us, because our fathers have not obeyed the words of this book, to do according to all that is written concerning us.”
So Hilkiah the priest, and Ahikam, and Achbor, and Shaphan, and Asaiah went to Huldah the prophetess, the wife of Shallum the son of Tikvah, son of Harhas, keeper of the wardrobe (now she lived in Jerusalem in the Second Quarter), and they talked with her. (2 Kings 22:13–14 ESV)
Women prophets appear in the New Testament narrative as well. In Acts 21, as the Apostle Paul is making his way toward Jerusalem, he stopped at the house of Philip the evangelist. Luke tells us that: “He had four unmarried daughters, who prophesied” (Acts 21:9 ESV).
The fact that a certain amount of controversy around this question continues to exist within the modern-day church has to do with the tendency of some egalitarian voices to equate the gift of prophecy with the office of the pastorate. The argument is sometimes made that since Hulda was a prophetess in the Old Testament and Philip had four daughters who prophesied in the New Testament then clearly women can be elders and pastors in the church.
But the argument doesn’t follow.
A prophetess is not a pastor.
In the Bible prophets exist outside the normal hierarchy of the covenant community. Their job is to speak the Word of God to the people of God with the help of the Holy Spirit of God – and it is often helpful for that voice to come from outside the official structures and offices of the covenant community, which are liable to go astray. God told Jeremiah the prophet:
“Go down to the house of the king of Judah and speak there this word, and say, ‘Hear the word of the LORD, O king of Judah, who sits on the throne of David, you, and your servants, and your people who enter these gates. Thus says the LORD: Do justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor him who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the resident alien, the fatherless, and the widow, nor shed innocent blood in this place.” (Jeremiah 22:1–3 ESV)
The prophet Nathan said to King David:
“You are the man! Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, ‘I anointed you king over Israel, and I delivered you out of the hand of Saul. And I gave you your master’s house and your master’s wives into your arms and gave you the house of Israel and of Judah. And if this were too little, I would add to you as much more. Why have you despised the word of the LORD, to do what is evil in his sight? You have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword and have taken his wife to be your wife and have killed him with the sword of the Ammonites. Now therefore the sword shall never depart from your house, because you have despised me and have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife.’” (2 Samuel 12:7–10 ESV)
The job of a prophet is to speak truth to power from outside the power structures of the covenant community. To say that Jeremiah was a prophet or that Nathan was a prophet is not to say that either of those men was the king. They were not. And that was the point. Therefore, to say that the four daughters of Philip were prophets is not to say that they held office in the church. To the best of our knowledge, they did not. Not every ministry is an office. Not every gift implies formal authority within the community.
Interestingly, in the Acts 21 story, just before Luke tells us about the four women who were prophets, he says: “On the next day we departed and came to Caesarea, and we entered the house of Philip the evangelist, who was one of the seven, and stayed with him” (Acts 21:8 ESV).
Luke tells us two distinct things about Philip without confusing those two things. He tells us that Philip was an evangelist. An evangelist, in the New Testament context, appears to refer to someone who was a recognized proclaimer of the “evangel” or “Gospel”. Such a person was not attached to any one particular church, but was recognized and commended to a ministry within the wider Body of Christ.
Luke also tells us that Philip was “one of the seven”. That refers to the story in Acts 6 where a group of men were appointed to oversee the ministry of the church to Greek speaking Jews. We sometimes think of this as the origin story for “deacons” but that isn’t quite correct. I. Howard Marshall explains:
“Although the verb ‘serve’ comes from the same root as the noun which is rendered into English as ‘deacon’, it is noteworthy that Luke does not refer to the Seven as deacons; their task had no formal name. The choice of seven men corresponded with Jewish practice in setting up boards of seven men for particular duties.”
“The Seven” were essentially an oversight board; thus in Acts 6, Philip had been installed into a particular office as a sort of “superintendent”. Apparently, he was also a well known travelling evangelist. Luke tells us both of those things without confusing them. He doesn’t say that because Philip was an evangelist he was also an overseer; or because he was an overseer, he was a gifted evangelist. Those things are not the same and the one doesn’t logically lead to the other. The same is true with respect to Philip’s daughters. They were prophets, but that doesn’t make them evangelists and it doesn’t make them pastors.
The Apostle Paul states very clearly that women were not to be admitted to the authoritative teaching office in the church: “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man” (1 Timothy 2:12 ESV).
However, that does not appear to have implied to Paul that women ought not to prophesy. In 1 Corinthians 11:4-5 he says:
“Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head, but every wife who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, since it is the same as if her head were shaven.” (1 Corinthians 11:4–5 ESV)
Whatever you think Paul is saying about head coverings in that passage (for an article exploring that see here), in the course of that instruction he indicates that it was common practice for women to be prophesying in the gathered church. Clearly Paul did not equate exercising prophetic gifts with occupying the pastoral office, and nor should we.
To say what a prophet or prophetess is not, however, should never be the end of the story. We should celebrate women prophets and cultivate their voices within the church. We need more people speaking truth to power, not less, and women bring a much-needed perspective. Women who are filled with the Spirit of God, saturated in and submitted to the Word of God should be considered gifted and able to speak in the church – provided they recognize the structures and parameters of the Body within which they function (1 Corinthians 14:37). No fair-minded reader of the Bible can deny that women prophets have been a great blessing to the covenant community, Old Testament and New.
Thanks be to God!
Pastor Paul Carter
N.B. Some of this content was previously published by the same author in an earlier article. Find it here.
If you are interested in more Bible teaching from Pastor Paul you can access the entire library of Into The Word episodes through the Audio tab on the Into the Word website. You can also download the Into The Word app on iTunes or Google Play.
I. Howard Marshall, Acts: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 5 of Tyndale New Testament Commentaries. IVP/Accordance electronic ed. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1980), 135.