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Commentary Let Her Lead Theology

Prominent Women in the Life and Ministry of Paul

If we start with Paul’s endorsement of women in leadership, we’ll be in a better place to understand his controversial texts on women.

Like Jesus, Paul made it a point to include women in his ministry. He worked alongside them. He acknowledged them in his letters. He even commended their leadership to others. This post will be an overview of those women.

The goal of this post is simple. I want to show that Paul’s ministry alongside women should be the starting point for our discussion of gender roles rather than the restrictive passages. After all, there are only two such passages: 1 Tim 2:11-15 and 1 Cor 14:34-35. And the next two posts will cover those texts.

I am convinced that when we start with how Paul ministered with women and how he actually talked about them, we will be able to see the restrictive passages in a different light.

To put it differently: when we start with Paul’s endorsement of women in leadership, we can acknowledge that he may mean something other than an absolute, universal restriction of women teaching and leading men.

When we start with how Paul ministered with women and how he actually talked about them, we will be able to see the restrictive passages in a different light.

If we start with the restrictive passages, we will need to explain away the fact that Paul endorses and commends women in leadership throughout his letters.

Women and House Churches

Paul mentions several women who hosted churches in their homes.[1] Here’s a rundown:

  • Lydia, in Philippi, started following Jesus after hearing Paul preach (Acts 16:13-15). She hosted Paul and his missionary team in her home after converting. Later in that same chapter, we find her hosting a church in her home (Acts 16:40).
  • In 1 Corinthians 1:11, Paul writes, “My brothers and sisters, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you.” The phrase “Chloe’s household” (or “Chloe’s people,” ESV) probably indicates Chloe hosted a house church in Corinth.
  • Paul sends the Corinthians greetings from Priscilla and her husband Aquilla “and so does the church that meets at their house” (1 Cor 16:19). See the next section for more on Priscilla.
  • Paul asks the Colossians to greet “Nympha and the church in her house” (Col 4:15).
  • In his letter to Philemon, Paul also addresses the letter “to Apphia, our sister” (Phm 2) along with a man named Archippus. Some scholars speculate that Apphia may have been Philemon’s wife. Whatever the case, Paul recognized her publicly in the church that met in Philemon’s house.

What does hosting a house church have to do with women in leadership? A lot actually.

In the ancient world, a distinction was made between the public sphere and the home.[2] Men ruled the public sphere; women ruled the home sphere. Women were in charge of the home’s general oversight, managing the finances, raising children, and directing and disciplining servants and slaves. This structure existed in Jewish, Greek, and Roman cultures.

In a patriarchal world, we’d expect these new Christian churches to meet outside the home, where men ruled. It was quite revolutionary–and risky–to meet in the woman’s domain. What would outsiders think? It didn’t matter; the gospel leveled the playing field. This was one way the early church gave credibility and authority to women.[3]

When Paul mentions these women who hosted house churches, he does not call them pastors or elders or bishops. But he never does that with the men who host churches, either.

Just because someone hosted a church in their home did not make them a “pastor.” Nor did it automatically mean they were a leader of some kind. The New Testament doesn’t give us these details.

But in the cultural context, it’s unlikely that those who were “heads of household” and hosted a community in their home would not be a recognized leader that community.[4] These “hosts” would have been seen as overseers, organizers, patrons (financial providers), and, yes, teachers and leaders.[5]

Paul doesn’t need to label them because it would have been understood that they were one of the leaders in that community (remember all early church leadership was plural). They were a significant part of the gospel expanding through the Empire and that’s why Paul mentions them by name in his letters. So significant that he calls many of them his “co-workers” (e.g. Priscilla in Rom 16:3).

While these female hosts are never called “elders,” there is reason to believe that in his earlier letters Paul referred to them as “those who work hard among you, who care for you in the Lord and who admonish you” (1 Thes 5:12). It wasn’t until his later letters that Paul began calling house church hosts “overseers” or “bishops” (see Phil 1:1, 1 Tim 3:1).[6]

The Woman Who Taught a Man

Let’s zoom in on Priscilla, one of the house church leaders. In the six times Priscilla and her husband Aquila’s names are paired together (Acts 18:18, 19, 26; Rom 16:3; 1 Cor 16:19; 2 Tim 4:19), Priscilla’s name is first five times. This may mean she was the recognized or more natural leader or the more prominent speaker. We can’t know for sure.

Either way, Paul considered this woman an astounding minister of the gospel, even calling her his “co-worker” (Rom 16:3) a term he used for men like Timothy (1 Thess 3:2) and Titus (2 Cor 8:23).

Priscilla is most well-known for being the one woman in the New Testament who explicitly taught a man Christian theology.

Priscilla and her husband met a gifted missionary named Apollos. After hearing him preach, they noticed he needed further instruction to understand the way of Jesus more accurately (Acts 18:26). Apollos knew Jesus but had not heard of the baptism of the Holy Spirit. So the couple taught him privately to fill in the gaps.

It’s safe to say this was not the only time Priscilla did this kind of thing.

If Paul were so concerned that a woman should never teach a man, why wouldn’t he have corrected Priscilla? If Paul were concerned that Aquila, the man, was not leading his wife properly, why didn’t Paul call him out?

The three of them were together frequently, even building and selling tents together (see Acts 18:3). Because they’re mentioned so often in Paul’s letters, it’s clear they were dear friends. Surely there was opportunity to discuss this issue! 

What’s more, if gender roles were so important to the New Testament authors, especially Paul, wouldn’t that conversation have made it into a book–at some point–to clear up the matter? Paul’s confrontation of Peter’s ethnic discrimination makes it in (see Gal 2). Why not this?

Priscilla was living-out her God-given role as a teacher in the church.

Scripture never records anything because Paul never corrected Priscilla and Aquila. They were never in violation of any universal rule about gender roles in ministry. In teaching a man, Priscilla was doing exactly what God had called and gifted her to do.

Here’s the complementarian objection: But Priscilla taught Apollos privately, not in corporate worship! I used to argue this way. But now I see things differently.

If gender roles are grounded in “creation order,” as the complementarian argument goes, then does it really matter if the teaching is public or private?

Why did Priscilla and Aquila instruct Apollos privately? It was so that this fantastic, young preacher would not be publicly shamed or discouraged. It also kept his audience from doubting his character, ability, or giftedness.

Priscilla was living out her God-given role as a teacher in the church. Apollos benefited and continued his itinerant ministry of spreading the gospel to those who needed it (see Acts 18:27-28)

Paul’s Female Co-Workers

There are other women Paul refers to in his letters. While he uses different titles or descriptions for them, it’s obvious that they have some leadership in the church.

In Philippians, Paul wanted two women leaders named Euodia and Synteche to restore their fractured relationship (Phil 4:2-3). He said “have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel, along with Clement and the rest of my co-workers” (my emphasis).

Whatever role these women had, Paul bestowed on them the precious title of “co-workers” in ministry.

Then there’s Romans 16, the chapter that commends more women in ministry than any other.

Romans is often considered Paul’s greatest and most significant epistle. His magnum opus, if you will. The thing about Romans that gets overlooked is Paul’s devotion to bridging the divide between Jews and Gentiles. It’s probably not a coincidence that in Romans 16, as Paul ended his letter, he included a hefty roll call of twenty-nine Jewish and Gentile co-workers.

It’s also not an accident, in my opinion, that there are nine women mentioned in Romans 16.[7] This is yet another subversive way that Paul upended the patriarchal structures found in Jewish and Greek/Roman cultures.

I’m going to spotlight two of these women: Phoebe and Junia. I’ll provide a summary of my perspective and relevant observations, though both women deserve chapter-length posts on their own.

Phoebe

The first woman in the list is Phoebe. Paul writes, “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, [who is] a deacon of the church in Cenchreae. I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of his people and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been the benefactor of many people, including me” (Rom 16:1-2, NIV).

In just two verses, Phoebe is identified as a deacon, a courier, and a benefactor. That’s some resume! What’s the significance of these terms?

Wouldn’t calling Phoebe a “minister” (or “deacon”) change the way you view her?

First, Phoebe was a deacon. The Greek word diakonon (the female form for “servant” or “deacon” in English) could be a general term for a Christian worker, which Paul sometimes used for himself and others (e.g. Col 1:7; 4:7).

But there’s a translation issue. The ESV translates diakonon as “servant” here in Romans 16:1. But in Colossians 4:7, when referring to Tychicus (a man) who delivered Paul’s letter to the Colossians, the ESV translates the exact same word as “minister.”[8]

Wouldn’t calling Phoebe a “minister” (or “deacon”) change the way you view her?

Furthermore, because this word diakonon is paired with the Greek verb eimi (translated “who is” in the brackets above), it’s probably a formal title denoting an official leadership role.

So she is “Minister Phoebe,” or “Deaconness Phoebe,” if you prefer.

Second, she was a courier. This word isn’t in the text, but Paul’s commendation of Phoebe is his way of saying, “I’m sending my letter with Phoebe and I trust you’ll receive her as you’d receive me.”

In the ancient world, couriers were more than our modern postal workers (no offense USPS!). Not only did couriers brave long and dangerous journeys to deliver important documents. They also had the role of answering questions about the letter they carried so the recipients understood it.

If couriers did not function as teachers or expositors, they were at least “authoritative interpreters” of the author’s intent and meaning.[9]

This means Paul entrusted a woman to help the Romans understand his magnum opus. That’d be mind-blowing in his day.

So Phoebe serves as Paul’s interpreter to the Roman church.

Finally, she was a benefactor. Paul used the Greek word prostatis to describe Phoebe. The word can mean “patron”–someone who helps fund a strategic project.

But this word also has clear leadership connotations. Its verbal form is used to describe church leader activity in 1 Thessalonians 5:12 and 1 Timothy 5:17. It carries the meaning of guardianship or even “to be over” others.

Phoebe is likely a church leader and a wealthy businesswoman who helped fund Paul’s ministry and the early Christian movement in general.

So Phoebe is a leader, guardian, and financial supporter of the movement.

It seems far-fetched to imagine that the same Paul who commended Minister Phoebe to the Romans would also say that all women everywhere cannot teach or lead men.

Junia…the Apostle?

Junia is a mystery of sorts, and has been the center of much debate for a while now.

In verse 7, Paul writes, “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” (NIV).

Paul asks the Roman church to pass on his greetings to two people, likely a married couple, who are “outstanding among the apostles.”

Some complementarians argue that Junia was actually a man–that her name was actually the masculine Junias.[10] But the male name Junias is not found in any ancient document–not one![11] Kenneth Bailey, an expert in Middle Eastern culture, comments, “The male name Junias first appeared in the Middle East in 1860!”[12]

Most of the early church fathers took the name Junia to be a woman. Marg Mowckzo has compiled a helpful list of what the fathers said about Junia.[13]

One of the more clear explanations is from John Chrysostom, the fourth century, Greek-speaking father. He believed Junia was a woman and an apostle: “To be an apostle is something great. But to be outstanding among the apostles just think what a wonderful song of praise that is! Indeed, how great the wisdom of this woman must have been, that she was even deemed worthy of the title of apostle.”[14]

For all these reasons, despite some complementarian pushback, the majority of scholars today believe Junia was a woman.

Now, was Chrysostom right about Junia being an apostle? The NIV says, “They are outstanding among the apostles.” Translated this way, she’s “one of” the apostles. It’s like saying, “Among the quarterbacks on the team, he’s the strongest.”

But we have another translation issue. The very small word that sparks a very big problem is the Greek word en: “They are outstanding among (Gk en) the apostles.”

The ESV obscures this meaning by translating en differently. It says, “They are well to the apostles.” This obviously would mean Junia was not an apostle, but that the apostles were well-acquainted with her.

En occurs over 2,000 times in the New Testament! It’s a flexible Greek preposition that can be translated into many English words. But complementarian scholar Doug Moo says that the most likely translation is “among.”[15] The renowned New Testament scholar F.F. Bruce says the same.[16]

Marg Mowczko points out that Paul connects Andronicus and Junia to himself three times: 1) they are fellow Jews; 2) they’ve been imprisoned with him; 3) they were in Christ before him. It makes sense to see Paul connecting the couple to himself again by saying they are well-known “among the apostles,” which includes himself. But well-known “to the apostles…sounds as though the couple is known to a group of apostles or missionaries who are somewhat distant.”[17]

I’m comfortable affirming that Junia, a woman, was an apostle.

When I consider all this along with how Chrysostom and other church fathers saw Junia (see note 14), I’m comfortable affirming that Junia, a woman, was an apostle.

Now, what kind of an apostle was she? The Greek word apostolos generically means “messenger.” But when used in relation to a person, it always refers to eyewitnesses to the resurrection who had received a commission from him.[18] Since Andronicus and Junia were Jews who were believers before Paul, we have every reason to believe they were apostles in this sense.

We should not underestimate the significance of Paul identifying this woman as an apostle.

But we shouldn’t overestimate it either. It doesn’t settle the whole gender debate. It’s a major data point. But it’s just one. Rena Pederson is right about Junia when she says, “Her story is not some kind of ‘magic bullet’ to resolve all differences about women’s roles in the church, but it is certainly one more good reason to challenge the status quo.”[19]

One goal of this entire project is to help you feel the freedom to challenge the status quo.

Summing It All Up

None of these women is a magic bullet. They aren’t objects to be used to advance an agenda–even a worthy one. Men have been using women to advance agendas for far too long. Instead, taken together, the stories of these women are a beautiful tapestry that reveals how progressive early Christianity really was against its cultural backdrop.

We’ve looked at many prominent women who crossed paths with Paul. Paul welcomed women to partner with him as servants of the Lord Jesus, often calling them his “co-workers,” as he did male counterparts. He was consistent in speaking about women in celebratory, uplifting ways.

In the patriarchal world of the first century, we should expect Paul’s male co-workers like Timothy, Barnabas, Silas, and Titus to be more visible throughout the New Testament. But the simple fact that there were women who worked with and were commended by Paul should cause us to rethink our own patriarchal biases in the church today.

It’s easy to prioritize the restrictive passages from Paul. But how he interacted with and spoke about women should be the starting point for our conversation on gender roles.

Now, you may be wondering, Why haven’t I heard about all these women before? A part of that answer surely has to be that complementarians wouldn’t benefit from drawing attention to them. To give women the same status and authority these New Testament women had would cause upheaval in many evangelical churches.

With the last two posts in mind, I’ll now tackle the most controversial passage on gender roles, 1 Timothy 2:11-15.


Notes

Feature photo: “St. Paul Staying in the House of Aquila and His Wife Priscillaengraving by J. Sadeler after Jodocus Winghe (c. 1544-1603).

[1] We don’t know much about what house churches were like because the New Testament just assumes that’s the normal form of church. It’s likely that many churches, including the ones in this list, were hosted in the homes of wealthier people because of the size needed to gather. Even the largest homes could probably only hold between 20-50 people. A poorer household would simply not be able to fit that many people. Because of a home environment, wide participation would have been encouraged. There would not have been one man standing in front of this small group to deliver a 45-minute sermon. As Kevin Giles points out, it would have been quite awkward for someone to be “out in front” leading a group of 20 people! See my last post for more on this. For a very insightful article on house churches and women, see Kevin Giles, “House Churches,” Priscilla Papers 24/1, 2010.

[2] Ibid.

[3] “Women were especially drawn to Christianity because if offered them a life that was so greatly superior to the life they otherwise would have led.” See Rodney Stark, The Triumph Of Christianity (New York: HarperCollins, 2011), 122.

[4] “Female house church leaders, it is important to add, were the counterparts of male house church leaders. They had the same social standing, they were accorded the same respect at home, and their leadership was of the same kind. It is simply not possible in that society that, when the church met, these women were subordinated to the men present, most or all of whom would have been of lesser social standing and wealth than they were, and some of them their servants and slaves.” See Giles, “House Churches.”

[5] For more on this, read “House Churches” by Giles. See also Marg Mowczko, “Must Manage His Own Household Well (1 Timothy 3:4-5),” Marg Mowczko blog, 6/23/2018; and Marg Mowczko, “Chrysostom on 5 Women Church Leaders in the NT,” Marg Mowczko blog, 6/10/2020.

[6] This is a theory proposed by Giles. It makes sense if we consider the timing of Paul’s writings. Remember that even Paul worked out his ecclesiology (“doctrine of the church”) progressively. Not everything was sorted out that day he met Jesus on the road to Damascus. We lose sight of this when we read the Bible in our modern, non-chronological format.

[7] This list in Romans 16 deserves a post all its own. Thankfully, Marg Mowczko has already written it. See Marg Mowczko, “A List of the 29 People in Romans 16:1-16,” Marg Mowczko blog (5/18/20190).

[8] Why the difference in translating diakonon? What’s gained by using different words about two people who both delivered letters of Paul? I believe there is a reason and I hope to include an interlude post soon about the ESV’s gender translation problems.

[9] Ian Paul, “Phoebe, carrier of Paul’s letter to the Roman Christians,” Psephizo blog, 12/1/2012.

[10] Thank link will take you to Kevin DeYoung, “Let Us Reason Together About Complementarianism,” TGC Blog, 5/26/2021. DeYoung has become one of the more vocal complementarian voices recently. In an earlier article, I talked about how complementarians don’t so much believe in biblical inerrancy as much as the inerrancy of their interpretations. We see this clearly in DeYoung’s introduction: “[W]e want to be humble before the Lord and before each other, acknowledging that we can make interpretive mistakes. On the other hand, we don’t want to undermine practical biblical authority by declaring that all we have are ‘interpretations.'” Framing his article this way puts the reader in a tough spot. If I disagree with something he says, I’m “undermining practical biblical authority” because I see an issue (a secondary issue, mind you) differently than he does. Unfortunately, this is how complementarians have argued for decades, causing Christians to fear even the thought that there may be other viable options for a Christian understanding gender roles.

[11] Marg Mowczko, “Junias and Junia in Early Commentaries of Romans 16:7,” Marg Mowczko blog, 4/2/2010.

[12] Kenneth E. Bailey, “Women in the New Testament: A Middle Eastern Cultural View,” Theology Matters 6/1 (2000), 4. 

[13] Marg Mowczko, “Junia in Romans 16:7,” Marg Mowczko blog, 4/2/2010.

[14] John Chrysostom, Homily 31 on Romans.” Chrysostom’s native language was Greek and even though he limited women in some settings, he certainly understood Paul’s words to mean that Junia was an apostle. Also, Craig Keener, NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan), on BibleGateway.com, notes, that Junia was a “feminine Latin name that normally belonged to Roman citizens. (Against some, it cannot be a contraction of the masculine ‘Junianus’; not only is this contraction not attested, but it does not work for Latin names. Thus ancient interpreters understood her as a woman.” See also, “Who was Junia?” The Junia Project, which notes, “More recently, scholars have overwhelmingly acknowledged that the name is definitively feminine.”

[15] Douglas J. Moo, The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996), 923. “With a plural object, en often means ‘among’; and if Paul had wanted to say that Andronicus and Junia were esteemed ‘by’ the apostles, we would have expected him to use a simple dative or hupo with the genitive.”

[16] F.F. Bruce, The Epistle of Paul to the Romans (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1980), 272.

[17] Marg Mowczko, “Was Junia well known ‘to’ the apostles?,” Marg Mowczko blog, 11/29/2019

[18] Bailey, “Women in the New Testament,” comments that because the Twelve disciples, Barnabas (Acts 14:14), and Paul are the only ones who are called apostles in the New Testament, “[T]he title of apostle (as applied to Junia) cannot be seen as a casual reference to an insignificant early Christian witness.”

[19] Rena Pederson, “Paul Praises a Woman Apostle,” CBE International Academic Articles.