When we think of “apostles,” most of us think first of Peter, James, John, and the rest of the original twelve. All of them men.
The New Testament setting was a male-dominated culture, so it doesn’t surprise us to see that all of the apostles were men. But can God call a woman to be an apostle, too? Are there any female apostles mentioned in the Bible?
God calls men and women alike to service in His kingdom. God included women in the apostolic work of the early church, and He calls both men and women to the ongoing apostolic work of missions.
Before we dive into the question of whether or not God can call women to be apostles, we first need to understand what it means to be an apostle. The answer is not as clear-cut—or universally agreed upon—as we might expect.
The Original Twelve…
Jesus went up on a mountainside and called to him those he wanted, and they came to him. He appointed twelve that they might be with him and that he might send them out to preach and to have authority to drive out demons.Mark 3:13-15
During Jesus’ earthly ministry, he traveled with several dozen people—men and women—who contributed to his work in various ways. Of these followers, he selected twelve men to be the first preachers and leaders in his ongoing work.
They were given the title of “apostle,” and they were given the unique function of laying the foundation for the church:
Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone.Ephesians 2:19-20
In his description of the New Jerusalem, John affirms that the foundational role that the original apostles served is carried over into God’s eternal kingdom:
The wall of the city had twelve foundations, and on them were the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.Revelation 21:14
In addition to the twelve original apostles appointed by Jesus, the book of Acts records the addition of two more men to the apostolic office.
After Jesus’ ascension, one of the first tasks the apostles took on was identifying a successor Judas as the twelfth apostle. The remaining eleven gathered to choose a replacement from among the men who had been with Jesus since the beginning. Ultimately, they chose Matthias to take Judas’ place (Acts 1:12-26).
For the remainder of the book, we do not hear anything further from Matthias, but we meet another apostle who was chosen by the glorified Jesus on the road to Damascus.
In Acts 9, Jesus calls Saul of Tarsus (whom we know better as Paul) to leave his work of persecuting the church and embark on a mission of proclaiming Jesus to the world:
But the Lord said to Ananias, “Go! This man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel.Acts 9:15
As one called and sent directly by Jesus, Paul is recognized as holding the title and office of apostle.
Paul affirms this understanding of apostleship when he writes, “Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are you not the result of my work in the Lord? Even though I may not be an apostle to others, surely I am to you! For you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord.” (1 Corinthians 9:1-2)
As the purpose of the original apostles was to establish the foundation of the church, and that work has been completed, there is no further need for God to appoint anyone—man or woman—to the office of apostle.
However, God still calls and sends people today to proclaim His message in new places and to new audiences.
The Gift of Apostleship
But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it
So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.Ephesians 4:7, 11-13
We previously discussed spiritual gifts in our article about miraculous powers. Today, we are examining the spiritual gift of apostleship that is identified in Ephesians 4.
There has been some controversy about the continuation of this gift, since the work of the twelve apostles was specific and finite, and is now complete. But if we recognize that the word “apostle” (Greek apostolos) simply means “a person sent” we understand that this gift remains in full use today. For the sake of avoiding confusion, we more commonly refer to these ‘sent ones’ today as missionaries.
Even though missionaries do not hold the office or title of “apostle” that was given only to a select few identified in scripture, they exercise the gift of apostleship—the work of crossing cultural barriers in order to communicate the gospel—by responding to a call to be sent as envoys to share Jesus in new places.
Women as Missionaries
So when we reframe the question, and instead ask, “Can God call a woman to be a missionary?” the question seems to answer itself. Most of us can recall some very prominent women missionaries throughout history. Many of us also are likely to know a female missionary or two that are supported or commissioned by our local churches.
But let’s start with the women of the Bible who were called to apostolic mission work:
- Greet Priscilla and Aquila, my co-workers in Christ Jesus. They risked their lives for me. Not only I but all the churches of the Gentiles are grateful to them. – Romans 16:3-4
- Greet Andronicus and Junia, my fellow Jews who have been in prison with me. They are outstanding among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was. – Romans 16:7
- I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you, my true companion, help these women since they have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel, along with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life. – Philippians 4:2-3
In his letters, Paul commends several women whom he counts as coworkers (in mission) and fellow apostles. Like the original twelve, Paul, and other early missionaries such as Barnabas and Apollos, these women were also called and sent for the sake of God’s kingdom.
But perhaps the best examples of women sent to proclaim the good news are the women who brought the news of Jesus’ resurrection to the original apostles:
When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body. … As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed.
“Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.’”Mark 16:1, 5-7
The news that the apostles were commissioned to proclaim was first proclaimed to them by women!
Just as Mary, Mary, and Salome faithfully answered the call to proclaim Jesus’ resurrection, God has continued to send women to share His message of grace, hope, and love throughout the world and throughout history.
Today, the church continues to send missionaries who are gifted with the apostolic gift of bridging cultural barriers and presenting the gospel in new places. In recent memory, the groundbreaking work of Lottie Moon in China and Mother Theresa’s lifelong commitment to bringing the gospel to India demonstrate how God continues to use women in apostolic mission work.