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Paul’s Fellow Workers, Male and Female

Many people are familiar with the verses that say wives should submit themselves to their own husbands (e.g., Eph. 5:22, 24; Col. 3:16). But these are not the only verses about submission that apply to women.

At the end of his first letter to the church in Corinth, Paul speaks warmly about the household of Stephanas and he tells the Corinthians,

“. . . be subject to [or, submit yourselves to] such as these, and to every fellow worker and labourer.” 1 Corinthians 16:16 ESV

Paul was deeply grateful for the ministry of Stephanas. One of his ministries was probably being the patron and leader of a house church that met in his home and included the members of his household. Yet, Paul does not give him a ministry title directly. In the next phrase, however, Paul uses a participle of the verb sunergeō in 16:16, a word the ESV translates as “fellow worker.”[1]

Paul’s favourite term for a minister of the gospel wasn’t pastor, elder, priest, or preacher, or any of the other terms and titles that we often apply to ministers today. His favourite term was sunergos, usually translated as “fellow worker” or “coworker.”[2] In his letters, Paul uses this term for himself and for several of his ministry colleagues, both men and women, who were involved in various important ministries. We know of three women who the apostle counted among his coworkers: Priscilla, Euodia, and Syntyche.[3]

Coworker is not a lofty term. Rather, it gives the sense of camaraderie that Paul had among his fellow ministers.[4]

Ministry Labourers, Male and Female

In 1 Corinthians 16:16, Paul also uses the participle of the verb “labour” (kopiaō). Outside of the New Testament, the usual sense of kopiaō is of being exhausted due to difficult, tiring labour.

Within the New Testament, Paul uses this word (verb: kopiaō; noun: kopos) to describe his own apostolic ministry (1 Cor. 3:8; 15:10; Gal. 4:11; Phil. 2:16; Col 1:29; 1 Thess. 3:5). And he uses the word in reference to the leadership ministries of others (1 Thess. 5:12; 1 Tim. 5:17).

For example,

“Now we ask you, brothers and sisters, to acknowledge those who work hard (kopiaō) among you, who care[5] for you in the Lord and who admonish you. Hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work.” 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13a NIV

In Romans 16, Paul uses the word for the ministry of four women: Mary of Rome (Rom. 16:6), Tryphena, Tryphosa, and Persis (Rom. 16:12). While Paul occasionally uses the word in the context of ordinary manual labour (1 Cor. 4:12; 1 Thess. 2:9; 2 Thess. 3:8), the phrase “in the Lord” in 16:12 makes it plain that Tryphena, Tryphosa, and Persis laboured in Christian ministry, possibly in evangelism or in some other leadership function.[6]

“Greet Mary, who has laboured hard for you. . . . Greet those labourers in the Lord, Tryphaena and Tryphosa. Greet the beloved Persis, who has laboured hard in the Lord.” Romans 16:6 & 12

Paul mostly avoided ministry descriptions that conveyed any sense of prestige, power, or superiority. He understood that Christian ministry is service. And the word “labour/labourer,” like “coworker,” is not a lofty term. Rather, “labourer” gives the sense of the hard work and dedication involved in establishing and spreading the message of Jesus, often in the face of opposition.

Submission to and Recognition of Coworkers and Labourers 

Because “coworker” and “labourer” are not ministry titles today, it is easy to overlook the fact that these people mentioned by Paul were involved in important work and that the apostle recognised them as ministers of the gospel.

It is also easy to overlook the fact that when Paul urges the Corinthians to submit to people who are like Stephanas and his household, and to every fellow worker and labourer, that this includes submitting to women like Priscilla,[7] Euodia, Syntyche, Mary of Rome, Tryphena, Tryphosa, and Persis who the apostle refers to as fellow workers and labourers. Other women who Paul mentions in his letters could also be added to this list, women such as Apphia, Junia, Nympha, and Phoebe.[8]

So why say all of this? Because some Christians wrongly think that submission is a gender role, that it is primarily the duty of women. However, being submissive is a normal Christian behaviour, similar to humility and meekness, regardless of one’s gender (Eph. 5:21; 1 Pet. 5:5 NKJV; cf. Phil. 2:1ff).

Paul wanted the Corinthian Christians to be deferential and cooperative (i.e. submissive) towards Stephanas and his household, a household that had dedicated themselves to ministry, a household that probably included women and men. Paul wanted the Corinthians to serve those who were serving them.

As well as being submissive, Paul also wanted the Corinthians to acknowledge such people (1 Cor. 16:18 ESV). Thankfully, more and more Christians are recognizing and acknowledging the significant ministries of Paul’s female coworkers and labourers in the Lord. In the first century, many women were labouring at the forefront of the expanding Christian mission.


[1] To be precise, Paul uses a present active participle of the verb sunergeō with an article. The article before the participle indicates the participle is functioning as a noun. Accordingly, the ESV translates it as a noun, “fellow worker.” Paul sometimes uses present active participles to highlight  immediate sense of an ongoing ministry (e.g., Rom. 16:1; 1 Thess. 5:12; 1 Tim. 5:17).

[2] “The designations most often given to Paul’s fellow workers are in descending order of frequency as follows: coworker (synergos), brother (adelphos) [or sister (adelphē) as in the cases of Phoebe and Apphia], minister (diakonos) and apostle (apostolos).”
E.E. Ellis, “Paul and his Coworkers” in Dictionary of Paul and his Letters, editors: Gerald F. Hawthorne and Ralph Martin (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 183.

[3] All of Paul’s co-workers mentioned in his surviving letters: Priscilla, Aquila, Urbanus, and Timothy (Rom. 16:3, 9, 21); Paul and Apollos as coworkers of God (1 Cor. 3:9); Stephanas and his household ( 1 Cor. 16:16); Silas, Timothy and Paul as coworkers with the Corinthians, and Titus (2 Cor. 1:24; 8:23); Epaphroditus, Euodia, Syntyche, and Clement (Phil. 2:25; 4:3); Philemon, Mark, Aristarchus, Demas and Luke (Philem. 1:1, 24).

[4] In older English translations and commentaries sunergos is often inadequately translated as “helper.”

[5] The word here, a participle of the verb proistēmi, may refer to the ministry of house church leaders. Proistēmi is used eight times in the New Testament (Rom. 12:8; 1 Thess. 5:12; 1 Tim. 3:4, 5, 12; 5:17; Tit. 3:8, 14) and in each occurrence it “seems to have the sense a. ‘to lead’ but the context shows in each case that one must also take into account sense b. ‘to take care of’. This is explained by the fact that caring was an obligation of leading members of the infant Church.”
Bo Reike, “Proistēmi,” Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (TDNT), Vol. 6, ed. Gerhard Friedrich, transl. and ed. Geoffrey Bromiley (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1968), 701-703, 701.
A related noun of the verb proistēmi is used in Romans 16:2 to describe Phoebe’s ministry.

[6] Thomas Schreiner has this to say about Paul’s use of the verb “labour” particularly in reference to the four women whose ministry is described with this word in Romans 16:

It is clear from this list [in Romans 16] that women were actively involved in ministry. The verb “to labor” (κοπιᾶν, kopian) is used of four women: Mary (v. 6), Tryphaena, Tryphosa, and Persis (v. 12). The word κοπιᾶν is used to describe Paul’s ministry (1 Cor 15:10; Gal 4:11; Phil 2:16; Col 1:29; 1 Tim 4:10) and others who are involved in ministry (1 Cor 16:16; 1 Thess 5:12; 1 Tim 5:17). Here it probably denotes missionary work (cf. Cranfield 1979: 785; Kasemann 1980: 412; Wilckens 1982: 135; Dunn 1988b: 892; P. Lampe 1991: 223). What these women did specifically is not delineated, but we cannot doubt that they were vitally involved in ministry. Dunn (1988b: 894) rightly cautions, however, that κοπιᾶν is a general term and does not denote leadership per se.
Thomas R. Schreiner, Romans (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament; Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academics, 1998), 797. (Online source)

While the term itself does not denote leadership, some labourers were leaders.

[7] Immediately after writing about Stephanas, Paul mentions Aquila and Priscilla and their house church in Ephesus (1 Cor. 16:19.) This is one of three verses in the Pauline letters where this couple is mentioned. In the other two verses, Priscilla’s (i.e. Prisca’s) name is listed before her husband’s (Rom. 16:3-5; 2 Tim. 4:19; cf. Acts 18:2-3, 18-19, 26). Furthermore, Paul mentions her first in the list of greetings of twenty-eight Roman Christians in Romans 16. First! Priscilla and her husband Aquila were prominent ministers.

[8] Susan Mathew suggests, “Phoebe’s mission in relation to the community at Cenchreae may be the same as that of the house of Stephanas . . .”
Susan Mathew, Women in the Greetings of Rom 16:1-16: A Study of Mutuality and Women’s Ministry in the Letter to the Romans (Durham University: Durham E-Theses, 2010), 119.
Stephanas and his household ministered to the church at Corinth, as well as to Paul personally. Similarly, Phoebe and her household may have been a base of ministry in Cenchrea. Paul may have been a guest in the homes of Stephanas and Phoebe and enjoyed their hospitality during his travels in Corinth, but both Stephanas and Phoebe also travelled. We know that Stephanas and two of his colleagues travelled from Corinth to Ephesus to visit Paul and serve him in his mission (1 Cor. 16:17). Phoebe travelled to Rome as Paul’s letter carrier and representative. Many diakonoi (“deacons”) in the first and second centuries travelled as part of their ministry. Perhaps Stephanas, like Phoebe, was also a diakonos.

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