Guest blogger Melanie Hunley surveys the important roles of women in the ministry of the Apostle Paul.
God does not use men alone to accomplish His purposes. Both men and women are created in God’s image, and both have been used mightily by God throughout the Scriptures. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus”. (Galatians 3:28) There are three traditional pairings, and they reflect the three basic social divides of hostility within the first century A.D. in the Roman Empire. Paul’s declaration would have had no less actual social impact than an American preacher’s statement in the 1950s that “in Christ Jesus there is neither Black nor White” would have had. (Martel 20)
The conflict between Paul and Peter in Galatians 2:11–14 demonstrated that the declaration of “neither Jew nor Greek” had social implications in the life of the church. Paul’s letter to Philemon has similar implications for “neither slave nor free” in asking Philemon to accept Onesimus as a brother in the Lord just like Paul. “So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me.” (Philemon 1:17) Paul’s declaration about male and female had implications too on the life of the church. The point is not that God created differences between male and female, but it is that one’s gender does not determine the participation in the kingdom because we are created in the image of God. “I don’t see Scripture ever calling for someone to apologize for how God made them in order for them to better fit into the body of Christ.” (Martel 20)
Paul states the equality of men and women in Christ in two passages in 1 Corinthians. “The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. The wife’s body does not belong to her alone but also to her husband. In the same way, the husband’s body does not belong to him alone but also to his wife. Do not deprive each other except by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.” (1 Corinthians 7:3–5) Paul makes it clear that sexual relations between a husband and wife are mutual and equal in respect and in rights. Such a position grew out of the love of Christ and was directly opposite to the popular Jewish and pagan opinion in the Roman Empire that the husband had all the sexual rights over his wife. “In the Lord, however, woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God.” (1 Corinthians 11:11–12)
Paul also includes a strong assertion of the mutuality of men and women in his discussion about head coverings. The discussion of head coverings for women in 1 Corinthians 11 implies that women, as well as men, engage in prayer and prophecy. The participation in prophecy is the highest gift in the Church because it is the means of edification, encouragement, and comfort in the Church (1 Corinthians 14:3). Such edification is the purpose of the Church’s life together and constitutes the exercise of authority and teaching in the Church. Paul concludes the first part of his discussion on head coverings by stating “For this reason, and because of the angels, the woman ought to have a sign of authority on her head.” (1 Corinthians 11:10)
Paul’s letters also mention twelve women by names who were coworkers with him in his ministry. This evidence of women in the ministry is often neglected. Four women are known as leaders of house churches: Chloe (1 Corinthians 1:11), Nympha (Colossians 4:15), Apphia (Philemon 2) and Lydia (Acts 16). Paul stated that four more women “work very hard” in the Lord’s ministry. These included Mary whom Paul speaks of by saying, “Greet Mary, who worked very hard for you” (Romans 16:6); and Tryphena, Tryphosa, and Persis whom Paul says, “Greet Tryphena and Tryphosa, those women who work hard in the Lord. Greet my dear friend Persis, another woman who has worked very hard in the Lord.” (Romans 16:12). Although Paul does not tell us specifically what these women did, they obviously influenced the kingdom in a way that Paul felt they should be recognized as workers of the Lord in the divine writings.
In Romans 16:3–4 Paul greeted Priscilla and Aquila. This husband and wife team are mentioned six times in the New Testament. Many scholars believe it is significant that Priscilla is usually mentioned first, since the cultural pattern would be to name the husband first. (Kantrowitz 43) This may indicate that Priscilla was the more important or visible leader and may suggest that she had a higher social status and/or more wealth than Aquila. Paul indicated that he and the Gentile churches were indebted to the both of them. Paul designated Priscilla and her husband, Aquila, “fellow workers in Christ Jesus,” a term he used regularly for other leaders in the Church as well.
In Philippians Paul mentioned two more women, Euodia and Syntyche. “I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to agree with each other in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you, loyal yokefellow, help these women who have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel, along with Clement and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life.” (Philippians 4:2–3) These women had their names written in the book of life which meant they had accepted Christ as their Messiah and we presume were working to spread the gospel. In view of Acts 16:11–40 it is not surprising that two such women leaders emerged in the Philippian church.
Phoebe is usually assumed to have been the one who delivered Paul’s letter to Rome. She was designated as “a servant of the church in Cenchrea.” She is warmly commended by Paul to the Roman church (Romans 16:1–2). “Servant” may refer to a deacon, a term that sometimes designated administrative responsibility in the Early Church. In his epistles, Paul most frequently applied the term to any minister of God’s Word, including himself (1 Corinthians 3:5; 2 Corinthians 3:6; 6:4; Ephesians 3:7; 6:21). He also called Phoebe a “scorer” or “helper” of many (Romans 16:2); this term technically designated her as the church’s minister or leader, most likely the owner of the home in which the church at Cenchrea was meeting. (Keener 12) Paul regularly used this term “servant” to refer to persons clearly understood to be ministers of the gospel such as Christ (Romans 15:8) and himself (1 Corinthians 3:5; Ephesians 3:7; Colossians 1:23, 25). With that in mind, Phoebe should be understood as the minister or leader of the church in Cenchrea.
Paul identified Andronicus and Junias as “outstanding among the apostles” (Romans 16:7), an expression that includes them within the apostolic circle. Junias is a male name in English translation, but there is no evidence that such a male name existed in the first century AD. In early translations of the Bible, Junia was used in a feminine manner. “Indeed some scholars even see Paul’s instruction to ‘greet one another with a holy kiss’ as an innocuous way of forcing these subgroups to acknowledge each to the faith.” (Capes 173) The Greek grammar of the sentence in Romans 16:7 means that the male and female forms of this name would be spelled the same. (Harney 68) Thus, one has to decide on the basis of other evidence, whether this person is a woman (Junia) or a man (Junias). This topic is highly debated. I would strongly like to believe Junia is a female, but I struggle with the verse where Paul says, “Greet Andronicus and Junias, my relatives who have been in prison with me.” (Romans 16:7) It would not have been socially acceptable for a male and female to be in prison together. However, it was not until the later translations that Junia’s name changed to Junias. “Paul is making it clear that Junia is a minister of the Gospel in her Church.” (Wright 11)
These thirteen women surveyed Lydia, Chloe, Nympha, Apphia, Mary, Persis, Tryphena, Tryphosa, Priscilla, Euodia, Syntyche, Phoebe, and Junia provide clear evidence from Paul that women did participate in the gospel ministry, as did men. Paul’s common terminology made no distinctions in roles or functions between men and women in ministry. (Harney 17) “Today we should affirm those whom God calls, whether male or female, and encourage them in faithfully learning God’s Word. We need to affirm all potential laborers, both men and women, for the abundant harvest fields.” (Keener 13)
Capes, David B., Rodney Reeves and E. Randolph Richards. 2007. Rediscoverying Paul. InterVarsity Press: Downers Grove, IL.
NIV/The Message Parallel Bible. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House. 2002.
Harney, Sherry. 2010. Real Women Real Faith; Life Changing Stories from the Bible for Women Today. Zondervan: Grand Rapids, MI.
Martel, Sarah. “The Role of Women in the Church.” Relevant Magazine. June 18, 2003. Page 20-21.
Schnabel, Eckhard J. 2008. Paul the Missionary. InterVarsity Press: Downers Grove, IL.
Kantrowitz, Barbara. “The Bible’s Lost Stories.” Newsweekly. December 7, 2003. Page 42-45.
Keener, Craig S. “Was Paul For or Against Women in the Ministry?” Enrichment Journal. June 2012. Pages 12-13.
Wright, Jared. “Sabbath Sermon – Junia: Inside Out.” Spectrum. August 4, 2012. Page 11-14.