“You’re the first woman to preach in this church,” said the lead pastor who had invited me to speak. “But I’m not going to say anything about that when I introduce you. It’s part of our theology that women and men are gifted for ministry, so we’re just going to go ahead and do it. Just preach it, sister!”
As a graduate student in Christian studies, I appreciated his encouragement, and now years later, I realize how much that experience helped set the stage for my years of pastoral ministry since then. My theology still says that God’s Spirit gifts both women and men for ministry, and by God’s grace, I’m still preaching.
In the early church, Philip the evangelist “had four unmarried daughters who had the gift of prophecy” (Acts 21:9). Although the text mentions their gifting, the four women do not make any specific prophecy at this time. The prophetic word concerning Paul’s future arrest is uttered instead by Agabus, a prophet from Judea. If the women played any part in confirming or supporting this prophecy, we do not know.
In light of this silence, it’s surprising that the four sisters are mentioned in this passage at all. Why does the narrator mention them when they play no real role in the story? Why mention their gift of prophecy when the only prophecy here is made by someone else?
One scholarly speculation is that Philip’s four prophesying daughters may have been included here to continue the theme of prophecy from the gospel of Luke. In the gospel, both Mary the mother of Jesus, and Zechariah the father of John the Baptist, utter prophecies concerning their respective sons. When Mary and Joseph present Jesus at the temple, both Simeon and Anna make prophecies over the young child. Now Acts introduces several more prophets: Philip’s four daughters and Agabus.
A second reason for the women’s appearance here may have been to acknowledge their role in the compilation of the book of Acts. Extra-biblical evidence from the early church historian Eusebius suggests that Philip’s daughters may have been responsible for preserving and transmitting some of the stories of the early church. So the book of Acts may well have been indebted to the faithfulness of these women for some of its content.
Finally, the women may have been mentioned here as leaders in the early church. As prophets, they were part of the church’s very foundation, second only to the apostles (1 Corinthians 12:28; Ephesians 2:20; 3:5; 4:11). Like their father Philip, they may have had little part in Paul’s story beyond their role as his hosts in this text. But like Philip, perhaps they were mentioned to acknowledge their leadership in the church.
As prophets, the four sisters would have been part of the active ministry of the church and may have been responsible for some of the material we read in the Bible. Theirs was an on-going contribution so basic to the life of the church that it is mentioned here in Acts and remembered even years later in church history.
We might also note that in addition to being women, these four unnamed church leaders were also single. Neither their gender nor their marital status excluded them from leadership in the early church. Not all prophets were men. Not all prophets were married. Their suitability for ministry and church leadership rested with God’s gifting.
Today the gift of prophecy is still God’s gift to the church–expressed in foretelling and in forth-telling, in teaching and in preaching, in lay ministry and ordained office. The ministry of God’s Word is still basic to the life and ministry of the church, still given to both men and women, to those who are married and to those who are single. As the Word of God proclaims,
In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams.
Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
and they shall prophesy.
Acts 2:17-18; cf., Joel 2:28-29
Writing Prompt/Meditation Focus: In what ways do you follow the tradition of Philip’s four daughters in bringing God’s Word to the church? How might you encourage other women in the ministry of the Word?
(adapted from Remember Lot’s Wife and Other Unnamed Women of the Bible)
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