Exploring the biblical theology of Christian egalitarianism

Close this search box.

believing wife sister woman 1 Corinthians 9 Paul Peter Grapte

“Believing wife” or “sister-woman”?

Don’t we have the right to travel with a believing wife like the other apostles, the Lord’s brothers, and Cephas? 1 Corinthians 9:5

A common understanding of the context of Paul’s question in 1 Corinthians 9:5 is that, in New Testament times, male apostles typically travelled with their wives on missionary journeys.[1]

We know that Peter (also known as Cephas) was married because we are told he had a mother-in-law (Matt. 8:14ff), and from 1 Corinthians 9:5 it appears that Peter’s wife travelled with him on missions. However, “believing wife” is just one possible translation of the Greek words adelphē gunē used in this verse. There are other possible translations.

Adelphē typically means “sister.” It can refer to a biological sister, as may be the case for Mary and Martha (Luke 10:40). Or it can refer to a sister in the Christian faith, that is, a believing woman (Matt. 12:50). However, in the ancient world, wives were sometimes referred to as sisters too.[2] The word gynē means either “woman” or “wife” depending on the context. The KJV translates adelphē gunē in 1 Corinthians 9:5 literally as “a sister, a wife.”

So what exactly was Paul referring to with his expression of adelphē gunē?

In 1 Corinthians 9:5, Paul poses a rhetorical question concerning his apostleship and asks whether he has the right to take an adelphē gunē with him on his missionary travels. He was not married (agamos) at the time of his apostolic ministry (1 Cor. 7:8), so it is unlikely he was asking whether he can bring a believing wife along on his journeys.[3]

Paul may not have had a wife, but he did have many female co-workers in ministry. For example, Euodia and Syntyche worked with Paul for the gospel (Phil. 4:2–3). And Priscilla and her husband Aquila travelled and ministered with Paul (Acts 18:18 cf. Rom. 16:3–4). Moreover, Paul refers to Phoebe (Rom. 16:1–2) and to Apphia (Phlm. 1:2) as “sisters.”[4]

Paul probably had these “sister-women,” or female co-workers, in mind when he asked his rhetorical question. Clement of Alexandria (AD 150–215) had this same understanding of 1 Corinthians 9:5 when he wrote,

But the [apostles], in accordance with their ministry, devoted themselves to preaching without any distraction, and took women with them, not as wives, but as sisters, that they might be their co-ministers (sundiakonoi) in dealing with women in their homes. It was through them that the Lord’s teaching penetrated also the women’s quarters without any scandal being aroused (Stromata Book 3, chapter 6, 53).[5]

Clement of Alexandria refers to the women not merely as companions but as co-ministers with the male apostles. These women were colleagues of the apostles and they played a crucial role, and a sometimes difficult and dangerous role, in taking the Lord’s teaching into new territory.

Stefan Heid observes that “Having a woman in one’s company seems to have been the mark of a genuine apostle.”[6] In the apocryphal Acts of Philip, for example, the apostle Philip is accompanied by his “sister” Mariamne. Though this is a work of fiction, it may well reflect the custom of men and women ministering together. This custom is also evident in some aberrant early Christian movements (e.g., Simon Magus and Helena). However, apart from 1 Corinthians 9:5 and the examples of Prisca and Aquila (e.g., Rom. 16:3ff) and Andronicus and Junia (Rom. 16:7), male-female missionary couples is not especially clear in the New Testament.

Nevertheless, when commenting on Romans 16, Chrysostom (c. 347–407) remarks,

For the women of those days were more spirited than lions, sharing with the apostles their labours for the gospel’s sake. In this way they went travelling with them, and also performed all other ministries (Homily 31 on Romans; PG 60, 669).[7]

In places that were influenced more by Greek culture than by Roman culture, Christian women were needed to minister to women, such as widows, who lived relatively secluded lives. Women who lived in Romanised towns and cities such as Philippi, Corinth, and Ephesus, however, had more social freedoms and could usually attend and participate in church meetings.

The Lord’s Teaching

There is evidence that women were teachers and were involved in baptising women in the early church.[8] Grapte was a female teacher mentioned in one of the visions recorded in The Shepherd of Hermas.[9] In Visions 2.4.2, Hermas is asked by an old woman (previously identified as the church) whether he has already given a certain book to the elders. Hermas replies that he hasn’t. The old woman is pleased with this reply because she wants to add more words to the book. The old woman tells Hermas,

So when I finish all the words, they will be made known to all the elect through you. Therefore you will write two little books, and you will send one to Clement and one to Grapte. Then Clement will send it to the cities abroad, because that is his job. But Grapte will instruct (noutheteō) the widows and orphans.[10] But you yourself will read it to this city, along with the elders who preside over the church (“Vision 2.4.2–3” in Shepherd of Hermas 8:2–3).[11]

Grapte was most likely a real woman just as Clement was a real man (either the bishop or secretary of the church in Rome), even though we only know of her through this vision.

In the vision, Grapte and Clement were each to be given a copy of the same book. The contents of the book were to be taught by Grapte, distributed by Clement, and read by Hermas and the elders. Grapte is identified as a Christian teacher, seemingly on par with the men mentioned here, and she was responsible for the doctrinal “instruction and the spiritual development of an identifiable group of widows and their children” in the church.[12] While this passage is about a vision, something unreal, it does reveal some of the realities of early church life, namely, that some teachers were women.

Note that women teachers like Grapte cannot be compared to the older women in Crete who are mentioned in Titus 2:3ff. There is no indication that these older women were directly involved in missionary work or in teaching Christian doctrine. Rather, the Cretan women were simply instructed to uphold the gender expectations of their Greco-Roman culture for the sake of the good name of the gospel. (I have more on Titus 2:3–5 here.)

The early church, just like the church today, had varied views and varied practices concerning women in ministry. In some churches, such as the church at Corinth, women and men contributed to the meetings regardless of gender (1 Cor. 12:4–31; 14:26, 40). These contributions included prophecy and teaching. In the early days of the church, some house churches were even led by women.[13]

The women who accompanied apostles were involved in missionary work that involved teaching doctrine and performing baptisms. Other women, like Grapte, taught local church members. While these women do not serve as examples of women who ministered to congregations that included men, they do serve as examples of women involved in the vital, valuable, and serious ministry of teaching Christian doctrine and theology to women.


[1] The verb periagō, which means “go about” or “travel around” also occurs in Mark 6:6b where Jesus travelled around for his teaching ministry: “He was going around the villages teaching.” The King James translation of “to lead about a sister” in 1 Corinthians 9:5 does not represent how the verb was used in the first century even if it does reflect the verb’s etymology.

[2] Husbands in the ancient world could call their wives “sister.” In a postscript here I comment on two ancient letters (PSI 4.229 and  P.Oxy. 46.3314) where a husband addresses his wife as “lady sister.”

[3] It was highly unusual for Jewish men to be unmarried, especially devout Pharisees as Paul had been. Perhaps Paul was a widower. Or perhaps his Jewish wife had separated after he became a Jesus follower. Then again, like Jesus, Paul may never have married. Paul became was commissioned as an apostle to the Gentiles at relatively a young age (Acts 7:58 cf. Acts 9:1ff). Considering his calling, Paul may have judged it unwise to get married.

[4] Crescens travelled with a woman who appears to be his actual sister. In his letter to the Philippians, Polycarp commends Crescens who was acting as his representative and letter carrier, and he commends Crescens’s sister who was travelling with her brother to Philippi.

These things I have written to you by Crescens, whom up to the present time I have recommended unto you, and do now recommend. For he has acted blamelessly among us, and I believe also among you. Moreover, you will hold his sister in esteem when she comes to you. Polycarp’s Letter to the Philippians 14.

[5] Clement of Alexandria, Stromata Book 3, chapter 6, 53. Quoted by John Wijngaards in The Ordained Women Deacons of the Church’s First Millennium (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2002, 2011), 15.
Book 3 of Clement’s Stromata can be read online here.

[6] Stefan Heid, Celibacy in the Early Church: The Beginnings of a Discipline of Obligatory Continence for Clerics in East and West, translated by Michael J. Miller (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000), 30.

[7] John Chrysostom, Homily 31 on Romans; PG 60, 669. Translated by J. Walker, J. Sheppard and H. Browne, and revised by George B. Stevens. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. 11. Edited by Philip Schaff (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1889). Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. This Homily can be read online here.

[8] Chapter 16.146–148 [iii.12] of the third-century Syrian document Didascalia Apostolorum states that deaconesses are to prepare a woman immediately before baptism and disciple her afterwards. However, the author advises against women performing the baptism itself. The logic for this advice is strained:  “For if it were lawful to be baptized by a woman, our Lord and Teacher himself would have been baptized by Mary his mother, whereas he was baptized by John, like others of the people” (Did. Apost.  15.142 [iii. 9]). The Didascalia Apostolorum can be read online here.
In chapter 17 of his treatise on baptism, Tertullian responds to the spurious but popular story of Thecla baptising herself and others, and he implies that only usurping women baptise others. Tertullian’s On Baptism can be read here.
However, Thecla’s story indicates that not all Christians held the same views on what women could or couldn’t do.

[9] The Shepherd of Hermas was written in the late first or early second century and is included in the works of the Apostolic Fathers. Its use was widespread among orthodox Christians in the second and third centuries and was considered authoritative. I dislike some of the concepts of the Shepherd and am grateful it was not included in the canon of Scripture. While this work is not included in the Bible it does give us insight into Christian thought and customs in the post-apostolic period.

[10] Noutheteō is used eight times in the New Testament. It means to instruct, exhort, or admonish. The word was used by Paul in reference to his own apostolic teaching ministry (Acts 20:31; 1 Cor. 4:14; 1 Thess. 5:12, 14; Col. 1:28). It was also used by Paul in reference to instruction and admonition by others in the church (Rom. 15:14; 1 Thess. 5:12, 14; 2 Thess. 3:15; Col. 3:16).

[11] Vision 2.4.2–3 in the Shepherd of Hermas 8:2–3, The Apostolic Fathers, The Greek Texts and English Translations (3rd edition) edited and translated by Michael W. Holmes (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), 469. The Shepherd can be read online here.

[12] Kevin Madigan and Carolyn Osiek (editors and translators), Ordained Women in the Early Church: A Documentary History (Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 2005), 26.

[13] New Testament women who hosted and cared for house churches include Nympha in Laodicea (Col. 4:15), Priscilla with Aquila in Ephesus and in Rome (1 Cor. 16:19; Rom. 16:3–4), the “Chosen Lady” in Asia Minor (2 John 1:1ff); probably Lydia in Philippi (Acts 16:40), Euodia and Syntyche in Philippi (Phil. 4:2–3), and Phoebe in Cenchrea (Rom. 16:1–2); possibly Chloe in Corinth (1 Cor. 1:11), and others.

© Margaret Mowczko 2014
All Rights Reserved

You can support my work for as little as $3 USD a month at Patreon.
Become a Patron!


Excerpt of a fresco of a couple in Pompeii, circa AD 65–79. The fresco can be viewed at Wikimedia.

Explore more

Euodia and Syntyche: Women Church Leaders at Philippi
Did Priscilla Teach Apollos? 
Martha, Mary, and Lazarus of Bethany
Busy at Home: How does Titus 2:4–5 apply today?
Gender Equality in Second Clement
The Other Proverbs 31 Woman: King Lemuel’s Mother
Women Elders in Ancient Christian Texts

artigos em portugues sobre igualdade entre homens e mulheres no lar e na igreja

5 thoughts on “Believing Wives and Female Co-workers of the Apostles

  1. Interesting. That seems pretty differennt from the way, e.g., Keener interprets 1 Cor. 9:5, as well as Rom. 16:7. I wonder if it has any relevance one way or the other to Barrett’s understanding of 1 Cor. 7.

    On the Clement quote via Wijngaards — Have you read anything by Gary Macy? He’s done some interesting research along the same lines as Wijngaards, at least based on the title of that book.

    1. I have one of Gary Macy’s books. I did my masters’ thesis on deacons in the apostolic and post-apostolic church, so I needed to read him. 😉

      I’ll check and see what Craig Keener says about the verse. Thanks for the heads-up.

      Update: Dr Keener argues in Paul, Women & Wives that “the early church was probably right when it understood them [Andronicus and Junia] as a husband-wife apostolic team” (1992:242) and he cites 1 Cor. 9:5 in passing. Keener cites 1 Cor. 9:5 again in a footnote on page 257 in the context of 1 Tim. 3:1ff and the fact that most men were married. There is no discussion at all in his book, that I could find, on 1 Cor. 9:5 itself.

  2. […] [6] More about Paul’s reference to “sister-women” in 1 Corinthians 9:5 here. […]

  3. […] Believing Wives and Female Co-workers of the Apostles […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe to Marg's Blog

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.


Join Marg's Patreon

Would you like to support my ministry of encouraging mutuality and equality between men and women in the church and in marriage?