Acts: Pentecost & Patriarchy

The ancient world was a man’s world. Women had few rights, could not vote, and were excluded from any civil leadership roles. In fact, women were seen as so inherently inferior to men that their testimony was deemed unreliable and forbidden in court.  In most of the ancient world, women had no opportunity for self-determination or identity. They were defined by their husband or another male relative. This is why widows and orphans are so often mentioned together in Scripture as special objects of God’s concern. A woman without a husband was like a child without a parent—destitute and with no chance for employment or self-improvement.

The dignity of women, however, dramatically changed with the spread of Christianity. In fact, one of the most common early criticisms of the faith was precisely that it appealed to women. Celsus, an early critic of the church, argued that Christianity was unfit for Roman society because “Christians show that they want and are able to convince only the foolish, dishonorable and stupid, only slaves, women and little children.” In the third century, another outspoken opponent of Christianity said the faith only appealed to “the dregs of the populace and credulous women with the inability natural to their sex.” In other words, only women were stupid enough to become Christians. And yet, according to historian Rodney Stark, it was precisely Christianity’s appeal to women that led to its eventual domination of the Roman Empire.

But that raises an important question—why were so many women drawn to the message of Christ? The short answer is that the early church challenged the patriarchy of the ancient world and gave unprecedented dignity to women, and we see this new value system from the moment of the church’s birth.

After Jesus ascended in Acts 1, and the disciples were hiding from the authorities in Jerusalem, we read that the women who followed Jesus were with them in prayer. This detail must not be overlooked. The Apostles were hiding because they were known to be close followers of Jesus. Peter had even been publicly identified during Jesus’ trial and fled for his life. If caught by the authorities, the Apostles risked execution. Unlike the very visible male disciples, the women could have escaped Jerusalem. By choosing to stay with them, the women were courageously and unnecessarily accepting the same risk.

This brave choice meant the women were in the upper room when the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples on the day of Pentecost. Luke is explicit that the Holy Spirit filled “all of them”—meaning both the men and women—and the tongues of fire rested on “each of them.” Likewise, they all began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them (Acts 2:3-4). The great inauguration of Christ’s church saw the full inclusion and participation of women as equal recipients of God’s power. As Luke’s account of Pentecost was written and shared, it would have clearly signaled that God was doing something new and subversive through the church; that he was elevating the dignity of women far above what society had previously allowed.

To ensure this message of gender inclusion was not missed, Luke made it explicit in his transcript of Peter’s speech to the crowd in Jerusalem. Quoting the prophet Joel, Peter said:

“In the last days, God says,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your young men will see visions,
your old men will dream dreams.
Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
and they will prophesy” (Acts 2:17-18).

And Pentecost was just the beginning of the surprising role of women in the book of Acts.


Acts: Pentecost & Patriarchy