Chrysostom on New Testament women ministers

Some Christians think the idea that women were leaders in New Testament churches is new. They think this idea has come about from a faulty reading of scripture influenced by modern western culture and by political correctness. These same Christians usually believe that the evidence from church tradition is unanimous: no respected church leader or Christian theologian of the past understood that some New Testament women functioned as leading ministers or pastors in their churches.

John Chrysostom was the archbishop of Constantinople between the years 398 and 405. He was an eloquent speaker and the pastor of one of the largest churches in his day. Chrysostom was not influenced by an egalitarian society. Rather, he seems to have been influenced by the prevailing patriarchal culture.[1] Nevertheless, he saw that the apostle Paul identified a few women as leading ministers in their churches. Chrysostom further recognised that these women had endured hardships and had even risked their lives for the sake of the gospel. Their ministry was not lightweight.

In this article, I quote from a few of Chrysostom’s surviving homilies (sermons) where he praises Priscilla, Phoebe, Euodia, Syntyche, and Junia and acknowledges that these five women were leading ministers. His praise of Priscilla is especially effusive.

Priscilla: Teacher and House Church Leader

Say hello to Prisca and Aquila, my coworkers in Christ Jesus, who risked their own necks for my life. I’m not the only one who thanks God for them, but all the churches of the Gentiles do the same. Also say hello to the church that meets in their house. Romans 16:3-5a CEB

Priscilla, or Prisca, is mentioned by name six times in the Greek New Testament. Four of these times, her name is listed before her husband’s. In Homily 40 on Acts, Chrysostom speaks about the ministry of Priscilla and Aquila in Ephesus, including their ministry to Apollos when the couple taught him “the way of God more accurately” (Acts 18:19, 24-26).

Take note, a woman [Priscilla] is also equal to men in her actions and teaching.[2] But [Paul] left [Priscilla and Aquila] at Ephesus. With good reason, namely, that they should teach. For having been with [Paul] so long time, they were learning many things … (Greek: Patrologia Graeca (PG) 60, column 281)

It was not for nothing that [Paul] left them at Ephesus, but for Apollos’ sake, the Spirit so ordered it, that [Apollos] might come with greater force to the attack upon Corinth. (Homily 40 on Acts; PG 60, column 282)

In his list of twenty-eight Christians in Rome, which begins at verse 3 of Romans 16, Paul puts Prisca’s name at the very top of the list. Prisca was a prominent minister and Chrysostom recognised this. In his Homilies 30 and 31 on Romans, he emphasises Priscilla as the person who received Apollos and instructed him. And he credits Priscilla, more so than Aquila, in making their home a church (Rom. 16:3-5a; 1 Cor. 16:19).

For she had been so estimable as even to make their house a Church, both by making all in it believers, and because they opened it to all strangers. For [Paul] was not in the habit of calling any houses “churches,” save where there was much piety, and much fear of God deeply rooted in them. (Homily 30 on Romans; PG 60, 664)

This thing too is no small excellency, that they had made their very house a Church. (Homily 44 on 1 CorinthiansPG 61, 374)

In his tenth homily on 2 Timothy, Chrysostom says this about Priscilla and Aquila (re 2 Tim. 5:19).

These are they of whom he makes continual mention, with whom too he had lodged, and who had taken Apollos to them. He names the woman first, as being I suppose more zealous, and more faithful, for she had then received Apollos; or it might be done indifferently. And it was to them no slight consolation to be thus saluted. It conveyed a demonstration of esteem and love, and a participation in much grace. (Homily 10 on 2 TimothyPG 62, 658)

Chrysostom mentions Priscilla and Aquila in at least five of his homilies, including two sermons just on the couple.[3] In Homily 30 on Romans, Chrysostom spends some time waxing lyrical about Priscilla’s fame. At the end of sermon 31 on Romans, he summarises Paul words regarding the Christians mentioned in Romans 16:1-16 and notes that Priscilla and Aquila are praised “more than all.”

More about Priscilla here.

Phoebe: Deacon (diakonos)

I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church at Cenchreae, so that you may welcome her in the Lord as is fitting for the saints, and help her in whatever she may require from you, for she has been a benefactor of many and of myself as well. Romans 16:1-2 NIV

Before greeting Prisca and the twenty-seven other Romans, Paul begins Romans 16 by commending Phoebe to the Roman Christians. Phoebe had travelled from Cenchrea (a port in Corinth) to Rome and had brought Paul’s letter to the church there. Chrysostom mentions her a few times in his sermons and he usually makes the remark that she was an official deacon or minister (diakonos).

Paul calls Phoebe a diakonos, a word the apostle typically used for “an agent with a sacred commission.” Paul used the word for himself, Timothy, Epaphras, Tychicus, and Apollos. And he used it for ministers, deacons, in Philippi (Phil. 1:1) and in Ephesus (1 Tim. 3:8-13). Phoebe’s ministry as deacon and as benefactor in the church at Cenchrea may have had some similarities with that of powerful deaconesses in Chrysostom’s time. (Chrysostom had a deep admiration and profound love for his friend Olympias who was a deaconess.)

In his 30th homily on Romans, Chrysostom refers to Paul’s praise of Phoebe.

See how many ways he takes to give her dignity. For he has both mentioned her before all the rest, and called her sister. And it is no slight thing to be called the sister of Paul. Moreover he has added her rank, by mentioning her being diakonos (deacon). (PG 60, 663)

Later in his 31st homily on Romans, Chrysostom refers back to Phoebe and writes that Paul addressed her “by her title, for he does not call her diakonos of the church in an undefined way … but … as having the office of diakonos (deacon).” (PG 60, 672)

Chrysostom mentions Phoebe again when discussing Euodia and Syntyche, two women in the church at Philippi.

More about Phoebe here.

Euodia and Syntyche: “The Chief of the Church”

I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life. Philippians 4:2-3 NRSV

Chrysostom has more than a few words to say about Euodia and Syntyche. Unlike later commentators, Chrysostom says nothing about a quarrel between the two women but only speaks of their virtue. Moreover, he regarded them as “the chief” of the church, the principal or leading members of the church.[4]

These women seem to me to be the chief (to kephalaion) of the church which was there, and [Paul] commends them to some notable man whom he calls his “yokefellow,” to whom perchance he was wont to commend them, as to a fellow-worker, and fellow-soldier, and brother, and companion, as he does in the Epistle to the Romans, when he says, “I commend to you Phoebe our sister, who is a diakonos (deacon) of the church that is at Cenchrea.” (Homily 13 on Philippians; PG 62 279-280)[5]

He writes further about Euodia and Syntyche and their work with Paul, and urges that such people be honoured.

Although many were they who wrought together with [Paul], yet these women also acted with him among the many. The churches then were no little edified, for many good ends are gained where they who are approved, be they men, or be they women, enjoy from the rest such honor. (Homily 13 on Philippians; PG 62 280)

More about Euodia and Syntyche here.

Junia: Apostle (apostolos)

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. Romans 16:7 NIV

The identity of Junia as a woman and as an apostolos (apostle or missionary) has been debated in recent decades. But for Chrysostom, who was a native Greek speaker, as well as a highly educated Greek speaker, there seems to have been no argument. He makes it plain that he regarded Junia as a female apostle of note.

And indeed to be apostles at all is a great thing. But to be even among these of note, just consider what great praise this is! But they were of note owing to their works, to their achievements. Oh! How great is the ‘devotion’ (philosophia)[6] of this woman, that she should be even counted worthy of the appellation of apostle! (Homily 31 on Romans; PG 60, 664)

When commenting on Mary of Rome, a woman mentioned in Romans 16:6, Chrysostom remarks that many women in his own time are “carrying on the race the apostles and evangelists ran.” (Homily 31 on Romans; PG 60, 669)

I have several articles on Junia here.

Chrysostom on Women and Teaching

Chrysostom thought that wise women should teach. He acknowledges several times that Priscilla taught Apollos. And he assumes that the ministry labours of Mary of Rome included teaching “the word.”[7] He also believed wives could teach their husbands: “When she is the wiser (sophōtera), then [Paul] does not forbid her teaching and improving him.” (Homily 31 on Romans; PG 60, 669)

Even though Chrysostom understood that women were leaders in some New Testament churches, he also understood 1 Corinthians 14:34 (“women should be silent in the churches”) and 1 Timothy 2:12 (“I do not permit a woman to teach”) as prohibiting women from public teaching.[8] This is despite the fact that 1 Corinthians 14:34 is not about teaching and 1 Timothy 2:12 is not about public ministry. There is little joy for women with the calling and gift of teaching in Chrysostom’s comments on 1 Timothy 2:11-15 in Homily 9 on 1 Timothy. (PG 62, 544)

Like most of us today, Chrysostom did not fully understand the setting and the dynamics of church gatherings in Rome, Philippi, Corinth, and elsewhere in the first-century Greco-Roman world. The base for Chrysostom’s church was a cathedral. The bases for churches in the mid-first century were usually homes, and homes are not a public setting. Though in some homes, the public and domestic spheres merged.

Ministry in First-Century House Churches

From ancient legal documents and census returns, it is estimated that as many as one-fifth of households in the Roman world were owned and/or overseen by a woman, usually widowed or divorced, a woman like Lydia, Phoebe, John Mark’s mother, Chloe, and Nympha.

Margaret Y. MacDonald comments on gatherings in Roman homes, including church meetings.

In the Roman world, it was normal procedure for the person in whose house a group met to preside, select the meal, and organize the entertainment to follow, which could include a visiting philosopher or wisdom figure. It is reasonable to conclude that women such as Lydia in Philippi and Phoebe in Cenchreae were presiding in their homes as they entertained Paul and his fellow workers.[9]

I have little doubt that women like Priscilla, Phoebe, Euodia, Syntyche and Junia spoke and taught in house churches and other settings. Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 14:26-40, which includes verses 34-35, are about silencing unruly and unedifying speech, and not just from women. (More on these verses here.) 1 Timothy 2:11-15 is about a woman who needed to learn and not teach, and who needed to stop domineering a man, probably her husband. (More on these verses here.) Paul was correcting bad behaviour in these passages. He was not prohibiting gifted and edifying speech.

Elsewhere in his letters, Paul encourages the use of speaking gifts in church gatherings (1 Cor. 14:26; Col. 3:16), and he gives no hint that some ministries, including leading and teaching, are off-limits to women (Rom. 12:6-7; 1 Cor. 12:1-31; Eph. 4:11). Furthermore, Paul uses his favourite ministry terms―coworker, brother or sister, minister (diakonos), apostle, labourer―for his male and female colleagues alike.[10] (More about Paul’s theology of ministry here.)

Conclusion

Chrysostom didn’t get everything right. He had some misgivings about women in certain ministry contexts, contexts that do not readily apply to the mid-first-century church, but he did recognise that some New Testament women were active in leading ministries in churches. And no one can suggest he was being influenced by modern egalitarian culture or was trying to be politically correct. Despite his limited understanding of first-century church life and his caveat about public teaching, Chrysostom speaks warmly about the female ministers mentioned in Paul’s letters.

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)

In this article, I’ve given short excerpts of Chrysostom’s words about these women. I encourage you to read them in their context in English translations of his homilies that are freely available online.


Footnotes

[1] Several scholars see in Chrysostom’s letters and in his hundreds of sermons a growing sympathy towards women. See, for example, Wendy Mayer, “John Chrysostom and Women Revisited” in Men and Women in the Early Christian Centuries, Early Christian Studies 18, Wendy Mayer and Ian J. Elmer (eds) (Strathfield, NSW: St Pauls Publications, 2014), 211-225.

[2] This sentence is my translation of “Idou kai gunē to ison andrasi poiousa kai didaskousa.” (PG 60, column 281.)

[3] The original Greek of these two sermons are here (PG 51.187-205). An English translation of the first of the two sermons is here.

[4] Chrysostom uses the Greek to kephalaion which is a singular neuter adjective with the article and which functions as a collective noun. If he had used grammatically feminine words, it could be argued that Euodia and Syntyche were the leading or principal women and not “the chief” overall of the church at Philippi.

[5] The English translation I have quoted has the word “servant” as a translation of diakonos. I have replaced the word “servant” with diakonos. Chrysostom’s word is diakonon (the accusative form of diakonos), the exact word used by Paul in Romans 16:1. Chrysostom is clear that he understands diakonon in Romans 16:1 as referring to an official ministry title; he did not think Paul was calling Phoebe a “servant.”

[6] Chrysostom also uses a similar word philosophon to describe Lydia which is translated as “elevated mind” in this translation of his Homily 35 on Acts.

[7] Chrysostom says this about Mary of Rome in Homily 31 on Romans: “… along with teaching (tou logou) she performs other ministries besides, those in the way of dangers, in the way of money, in the way of travels.” (PG 60, Column 668)

[8] For example: “Besides, when [Paul] said ‘I do not allow a woman to teach’ he was speaking about teaching in the pulpit [or on a podium, Greek: bēma], about a public discourse, and reviling the clergy. [Paul] does not forbid exhorting and counselling in private. If it were forbidden, he would not have praised [Prisca] for doing so.” From John Chrysostom’s First Homily on the Greeting to Priscilla and Aquila. (Source)
However, there were no pulpits or podiums in house churches; there was not a clear distinction between public and private in homes; there was no clergy as Chrysostom understood it. First-century churches were usually small communities that mostly met in homes, and Paul encouraged participation and the sharing of ministries in such gatherings.

[9] Margaret Y. MacDonald, “The Religious Lives of Women in the Early Christianity,” Women’s Bible Commentary, Third Edition, Carol A. Newsom, Sharon H. Ringe, Jacqueline E. Lapsley (eds) (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012), 640-647, 642.

[10] Even though there were pastors, overseers/bishops, and elders in New Testament churches, Paul does not identify any individual, male or female, with any of these ministry titles.

Image

Mosaic of John Chrysostom in the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople (modern Istanbul). (Wikimedia)

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Related Articles

Partnering Together: Paul’s Female Coworkers
The First-Century Church and the Ministry of Women
Church Cultures that Include and Exclude Women Leaders
A Collection of Articles on NT Women Leaders 
A List of the 29 People in Romans 16:1-16
Here are links to articles on whether women were pastorseldersbishops/overseers, or deacons or whether they preached in New Testament churches.
Olympias of Constantinople: Deaconess and Chrysostom’s Friend
Harnack’s Positive Descriptions of NT Women Ministers
Atto of Vercelli on Female Priests/Elders in the Early Church

More about Chrysostom on the Christianity Today website here, and on the Encyclopedia Britannica website here. More detailed information on Chrysostom is in this chapter by Wendy Mayer on the Academia.edu website here.

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