This is part 4 in a series surveying the role of women in ministry (part 3 here). In case you didn’t know there were many female servants in the early church. Unfortunately, the female servants do not get a whole lot of pub. While most of us probably cannot name all 12 apostles, we can probably struggle through half of them or more if we have been in church for awhile. Comparatively, I am not sure most of us could name more than one or two influential female leaders in the early church (Mary doesn’t count), and many of us maybe shocked that there were any at all.
There is sufficient evidence in the New Testament to show that this new Christian faith was to be an inclusive faith, eschewing arbitrary distinctions like gender and race in a lot of ways. That was later forgotten or obscured by the institutional church that coalesced at Nicea (and after), but the first Christians were not shy about using women to further the mission of God. Before Jesus died, it has been argued by many that the women we see in the Gospels helped “bankroll” his ministry. We do know that these women were loved by Jesus, and ministered to Him.
Let’s skip to the very early church. What kinds of things do we see women doing in the infantile stage of the church? Let’s look first at Priscilla. She and her husband Acquila worked with Paul in several places in the New Testament. What is a bit shocking for the New Testament, is that Priscilla is most frequently mentioned before her husband. This would be very uncommon because usually the more influential person would be mentioned first, and that would always be the husband. In this case, however; Paul frequently placed Priscilla at the beginning of his greeting. What did she do in ministry? Many things, but maybe the most striking was that she (primarily it seems) and her husband helped train one of the most gifted speakers of their time Apollos in the fullness of the Gospel. Not only that, she lived on mission, serving the Lord with Paul and her husband. Paul evidently thought very highly of her and her husband, as they traveled with him, labored with him, and were greeted many times by him. In the early church, women were allowed to communicate the Gospel to all. (As an aside, often people will say that we have no evidence she did this in “church,” but we also do not have evidence to the contrary. It should be be remembered that church was like it is today, see Acts 2:42-47. They met often, and they taught often)
Then we have Phoebe in Romans 16:1-2. We aren’t exactly sure what Phoebe did, or what her role in the church at Cenchrea was. We do know that she was called a διάκονος. This word is the same word translated as deacon. There was no female form of this word till later in the church’s development, so Phoebe is called the same thing as a male deacon would be. What is interesting is that she is also called προστάτις. The root word means one who is set over others or leads others, but it is here in a feminine form because Phoebe was a woman. Many will argue that the change in gender indicates a lesser role for Phoebe than a “real” deacon, but there is really no exegetical reason to conclude that. While it isn’t clear what Phoebe was in charge of, it is clear she held a place of authority. The act of carrying Paul’s letter to Rome was a supremely important task, especially when we consider just how important this letter was to Christian Systematic Theology. It is very likely that letter carriers served as interpreters of the letters they carried. They would be charged with explaining exactly what the author meant to their audience. That would have Phoebe instructing the Roman Christians about Paul’s doctrine (similar to what Pastors due today), including men.
As we read further in Romans 16, we see many women mentioned, but maybe no one more quixotic than Junia in verse 7. For many years a debate has raged as to whether Paul was addressing a man or woman. That is why we see this name translated as Junias in different English translations. After many years of studying the culture and texts, most scholars agree that this was a woman called Junia. Greeting her was nothing surprising, but what Paul said about her was. In the NASB it says that she (and Andronicus) were outstanding among the apostles. There is a bit of controversy here as that phrase could be translated as “known to the apostles.” Neither translation is “better.” If Junia is just known by the Apostles our understanding of women’s roles in the church is not much changed from the traditional understanding. If, however; Junia was an apostle, it radically shifts our understanding of the role of women in the New Testament. As an apostle, she would be elevated to a role of authority we have previously thought was only occupied by men. There would then be no reason to exclude women from any role in the church.
While there is no exegetical reason to conclude that Junia was not an apostle, it is also difficult to conclude that she was on the apostolic level. Unfortunately, there is just no way to know for sure what Paul meant; so while we cannot take a mandate from this verse either way, we must leave open the possibility that she was indeed an apostle.
There are many other women we see doing great things in the New Testament, from Chloe who seems like she hosted a church in her home, to Lydia who was the first convert in Macedonia and may have also had a church in her home, to Timothy’s mother and grandmother. We see that women impacted the Early Church in many ways.
I put this overview before we start examining the specific passages to make sure that we have a level-set on the types of things women did in the very early church. As the church developed and became more sacerdotal (led by priest-types), women were marginalized. This colors how we view the texts we will see later on, so know that God used women greatly to impact the early church. Indeed, because of church culture, we need to be reminded often of how valuable women were in all facets of ministry in the early church. Remember: the New Testament was not written as a handbook on how to do church, but recorded what the people did from which we derive principles. If this was their practice of ministry (women serving in many ways, even authoritatively) we should be careful not to view their practices anachronistically. This allows us to invent our own view of their model to mirror our traditions and prejudices, and then apply a fallacious basis of practice forward to our day. The principle is clear: women were servants, held authoritative positions, and were invaluable to the spread of the Gospel.
In our next post we are going to start addressing in detail the passages that would appear to limit the scope and roles of women in ministry. It’s likely that we will see our presuppositions challenged most in these next few posts. Hang with me, and I pray that what we have done so far has been helpful!