Exploring the biblical theology of Christian egalitarianism

Apostle Paul Junia Priscilla Nympha Phoebe Persis Tryphena Tryphosa Labourers Romans 16

Paul and Women

I love the apostle Paul. I love his letters. I love seeing Jesus through his eyes and I love reading about his hopes for the church. But not everyone shares my enthusiasm. I’ve heard many say that the apostle didn’t say nice things about women, and I personally know women who have been wounded by some statements in Paul’s letters. What isn’t always realised, however, is that the very few passages in Paul’s letters that limit the activities of women refer to specific people and specific problems in specific church communities. These passages don’t refer to all women.

For instance, in 1 Timothy 5:11-15 Paul writes about young widows in Ephesus who were in danger of becoming idle busybodies and who were in danger of going astray and taking other idle widows with them. Paul counsels these young women to marry and conform to the social standards of a respectable Roman matron. One of his reasons for this was “to give the enemy no opportunity for slander.” His concern here is that Christianity would not get a bad name in pagan Greco-Roman society.[1]

In 1 Timothy 2:11-15, Paul counsels Timothy about a domineering woman in Ephesus who wasn’t ready to teach. Paul tells Timothy that she needs to learn and settle down, and he gives corrections to the heresies the woman held to.[2] [More about this passage here.]

In 1 Corinthians chapter 14, Paul silences three groups of people (1 Cor. 14:28, 30, 34 NRSV). One of these groups was made up of wives in Corinth who wanted to learn but were disrupting church meetings by asking too many basic questions. Paul’s solution to this problem is that the women keep their questions for home where they can ask their typically more educated husbands (1 Cor. 14:34-35). [More about this passage and other interpretations, here.]

In each of these passages, Paul addresses problems and provides solutions. These passages are corrective. They are not general statements about women in the church. Paul actually loved and valued women, and they were among his ministry partners.

Paul and Partnership

Paul was all about partnership. He travelled and ministered with others, men and women, who he sometimes calls co-workers. He wrote his letters with others, with people who he lists as co-authors or co-senders. And he developed partnerships with churches and their ministers.

Paul understood that the Christian life is about partnership, or sharing, with each other in community.[3] The grouping together of Christians (churches), and how Christians ministered to one another, were key concerns of Paul, and he encouraged participation in church meetings as long as it wasn’t done in a selfish or unruly way.

In 1 Corinthians 14:26 (CSB) Paul writes,

What then, brothers and sisters? Whenever you come together, each one has a hymn, a teaching, a revelation, another tongue, or an interpretation. Everything is to be done for building up.

In Colossians 3:16 (CSB) he writes,

Let the word of Christ dwell richly among you, in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another through psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.

Women were active in ministry in the churches Paul founded, like the churches at Philippi and Corinth. Women were also active in the church in Rome.

In the last chapter of Romans, Paul asks that certain people be greeted. It’s quite a long list. Twenty-eight Roman Christians are mentioned, and at least nine of these are women. Considering the culture of the time and that women had fewer freedoms than men, nine is a considerable number of women. But what’s more significant is that more women are described by, or commended for, their ministries in Romans 16 than men: six Roman women compared with three men.[4]

Paul’s Ministry Terminology

We will look at some of the women in Romans 16 shortly. But first I want to point out that church life and church meetings in the first century looked almost nothing like church today. And Paul’s terminology for ministry and ministers is quite different from what many of us use today. We need to keep this in mind when we read the New Testament.

Paul knew he had been chosen to be an agent of Jesus. Jesus had told him as much when he spoke to him on the road to Damascus: “This man is the agent I have chosen to carry my name before Gentiles, kings, and Israelites” (Acts 9:15 CEB).[5] Paul knew that other men, and women also, were agents of Jesus Christ, and he used the same ministry terms for women as he did for men.

In his letters, Paul doesn’t refer to individuals as pastors or as elders or as supervisors/bishops. (He attaches no names of individuals to these ministry terms.) Instead, Paul refers to his fellow ministers with terms that do not have a connotation of hierarchy, or power, or prestige.

For example, Timothy was a minister with an especially close connection to Paul, but Paul never refers to him as a pastor, or elder, or bishop. Rather, when Paul mentions Timothy in his letters, he refers to him as a co-worker (synergos) (Rom. 16:21; 1 Thess. 3:2), as a brother (2 Cor. 1:1, Phm. 1:1; Col. 1:1; 1 Thess. 3:2) and as a minister (diakonos) (1 Tim. 4:6).[6] (Since Paul wrote his letters in Greek, I’ve included here the Greek words he actually used.)

Paul’s favourite, most-used word, for fellow ministers was co-worker, but he also frequently referred to them simply as brother or sister, or as a diakonos.[7]

The apostle Paul was consistent with how he used the word diakonos. He typically used the word for an agent with a sacred commission. In his letters, several diakonoi [diakonoi is the plural of diakonos] are described as being a diakonos of Christ (1 Tim. 4:6) or as being a diakonos of God (e.g. 2 Cor. 6:4), or as being a diakonos of a church—a church being a sacred community of “saints.”[8] Not once does Paul use diakonos for ordinary servants. Rather, he typically used the word for Christian ministers.[9]

Phoebe

Paul also referred to a woman, Phoebe, as a diakonos. In Romans 16:1-2, Paul introduces her to the church at Rome and he tells them that she was diakonos of the church at Cenchrea.

I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a minister (diakonos) 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

Paul refers to Phoebe as both “sister” and diakonos, similar terms that he uses for Timothy and for other ministry colleagues. Plus, he calls her a benefactor, or patron, of many and of himself. This indicates that Phoebe was an independently wealthy woman.

Many English translations call Phoebe a servant rather than a minister, but she could not have been a servant in the usual sense of the word. Rather, as a wealthy woman, she would have had servants of her own. And she had clout. Patronage was a social system that was pervasive in the first-century Roman Empire, and patrons could be influential people.

Furthermore, it is widely accepted that Phoebe had travelled from Cenchrea, a port town of Corinth, and hand-delivered Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome. Phoebe was a minister who Paul trusted and commended.

Prisca

After introducing Phoebe to the church at Rome, Paul goes on and asks that certain Romans be greeted. And who is first on this list of Roman Christians? It is another woman. A woman is at the top of the list of twenty-eight people. She is even mentioned before her husband. This woman is Prisca, also known as Priscilla.

Prisca and her husband Aquila were friends of the apostle Paul. The three had lived, worked, travelled, and ministered together for some time, and Paul refers to them with his favourite term “co-workers.”

Greet Prisca and Aquila, my co-workers in Christ Jesus. They risked their lives for me. Not only I but all the churches of the Gentiles are grateful to them. Greet also the church that meets at their house. Romans 16:3-5a

There is little doubt that Prisca was a well-known minister in Rome, but also in Ephesus. A few years earlier, when Apollos was an up-and-coming apostle and was teaching in Ephesus, it was Prisca with her husband who corrected his theology, and Apollos accepted their correction (Acts 18:24-26). No one else is mentioned as being involved. Correcting the doctrine of a visiting teacher is usually a role of church leaders.

When Paul wrote his second letter to Timothy who was in Ephesus, he sent greetings to Timothy, to Prisca and Aquila, and to the household of Onesiphorus (2 Tim. 1:2; 4:19). No other Christians in Ephesus are greeted. Were these four named people the leaders of the Ephesian church?

Prisca and Aquila’s name comes up six times in the New Testament, and Prisca’s name is usually mentioned before her husband’s. This may indicate that her ministry was prominent than her husband’s.

In Romans 16:5, Paul asks that Prisca and Aquila’s house church be greeted. In New Testament times, most churches (that is, most Christian communities) met in homes. There were practically no church buildings before Christianity became a legal religion in the year 313.[10] Christian congregations could not legally own property before then.

Prisca and Aquila were hosting and managing a house church in Rome when Paul wrote to the Romans in around 56 AD, but earlier they had a house church in Ephesus (1 Cor. 16:19). Nympha is another woman who hosted and managed a house church. She is mentioned in Colossians 4:15. Euodia and Syntyche are two women in the church in Philippi who may have hosted house churches. In Philippians 4:2-3, Paul referred to Euodia and Syntyche as his co-workers and he indicates that these women were involved in challenging and difficult work with him.

Mary, Tryphena, Tryphosa and Persis

Back in Romans 16, Paul mentions a man named Epenetus in verse 5, and then in verse 6, Paul mentions another woman. He writes, “Greet Mary, who laboured very hard for you.” “Labour” and “labourer” are other words Paul commonly uses for Christian ministry and Christian ministers. He uses the words several times for himself,[11] and he uses them in reference to the leadership ministries of others.

For example,

Now we ask you, brothers and sisters, to acknowledge those who labour (kopiaō) among you, who lead [or care for] (proistēmi)[12] 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  (See also 1 Tim. 5:17).

In Romans 16, Paul uses “labour” words for the ministry of four women. As well as Mary of Rome, he uses “labour” words for 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:

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 further qualifies their labour with the word “hard.” These women were hard workers. Christian ministry could be difficult and even dangerous work in the first century. In 1 Corinthians 16:16, Paul tells the Corinthians to submit to everyone who ministers as a coworker and labourer.[13] Cooperating with such labourers will make their hard work easier.

Note that these four labouring women in Romans 16 are not mentioned with a man. Many of the women Paul names in his letters seem to be acting independently of husbands or fathers.

Junia

After Mary, Paul mentions the couple Andronicus and Junia.

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

Like Priscilla and Aquila who risked their lives for the sake of their friend Paul, Andronicus and Junia faced danger in their ministry; they had even been imprisoned with Paul.

From the very beginning of Christianity, women, as well as men, were imprisoned and even killed for their faith. Before his conversion, Paul himself imprisoned Christians and was responsible for their murders. He admitted, “I persecuted the followers of this Way to their death, arresting both men and women and throwing them into prison” (Acts 22:4 NIV; cf. Acts 9:1ff; Acts 26: 9-11).

Prisons were miserable places in ancient times. Prisoners were routinely beaten and tortured, and female prisoners were often abused. There are several accounts of early Christian women who heroically faced humiliating tortures and martyrdom. Despite the dangers, women such as Prisca and Junia were not ministering quietly and unnoticed behind the scenes.

There has been some controversy over Paul’s statement that Andronicus and Junia were outstanding or noteworthy among the apostles, but this controversy is overblown. In his letters, Paul uses the word “apostle” for people other than Jesus’ twelve apostles. The author of Acts also uses the word for people other than the Twelve (e.g., Barnabas, Acts 14:14).

The word “apostle” is translated from the Greek word apostolos and refers to a person sent on a mission. The Greek word is equivalent in meaning to the Latin word from which we get our word “missionary.”

In the first century of the Christian movement, and in more recent centuries, women have served as missionaries without causing too much controversy. Junia and her partner Andronicus were not part of the Twelve, but they were, apparently, well-known and respected Christian missionaries.

Another couple listed in Romans 16 is Philologus and Julia. Paul mentions them in Romans 16:15, but he tells us nothing about their ministries. Still, some speculate that this couple hosted a house church that included the people mentioned in verse 15 as well as others.

Paul’s Theology of Ministry

All in all, Paul mentions 10 women in Romans 16 if we include Phoebe of Cenchrea. If we include women from Paul’s other letters, the number of women he mentions rises to 18. Paul valued the ministry of women and he regarded many of them as ministry partners. He never referred to them as pastors or elders, but he never referred to his male ministry partners as pastors or elders either. As I’ve said, Paul referred to his fellow ministers in terms that did not suggest power or prestige. He understood that they were his brothers and sisters and that, just like him, they were agents of Jesus Christ.

In a few of his letters, Paul provides lists of ministries and he does not exclude women from any of the ministries in these lists. These lists can be found in Romans 12:6-8; 1 Corinthians 12:28; and Ephesians 4:11.

Here’s what Paul says in Romans 12:6-8 (NIV):

We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your faith; if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach; if it is to encourage, then give encouragement; if it is giving, then give generously; if it is to lead, do it diligently; if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully.

Paul’s overall theology of ministry was, You have a gift, use it to build up others in the Lord.

Conclusion

None of Paul’s statements about women in his letters, when understood correctly, restricts the ministry of godly and gifted women. And none of his statements should be used to wound or discourage capable women. They especially shouldn’t discourage women or girls from ministering as agents of Jesus Christ in whatever talent or gift they have been given. Paul loved and valued his female co-workers and there is no evidence that he silenced or limited these women.

Footnotes

[1] Similarly, Paul wanted young wives in Crete to behave in accordance with basic social standards “so that no one will malign the word of God.” (Tit. 2:4-5). More Titus 2:4-5 here.

[2] This woman seems to have held to wrong ideas about childbirth and salvation. We know these ideas were being spread in the apostolic and early church, but Paul assures that “she will be saved through childbirth” (1 Tim. 2:15 CSB). She also seems to have had a wrong understanding of the creation and the fall which Paul corrects with accurate summary statements of Genesis 2 and 3 (1 Tim. 2:13-14). More about ancient corrupted versions of creation here.

[3] One of Paul’s favourite words is “partnership” (koinonia). Koinonia is often translated into English as “fellowship,” which has a similar sense of sharing that “partnership” has. Koinonia occurs 19 times in the New Testament and of those 19 times, 13 occur in Paul’s early letters, especially in his letters to the Corinthians and to the Philippians.

[4] Roman women described in ministry terms: Prisca, Junia, Mary, Tryphaena, Tryphosa, Persis. The men: Aquila, Andronicus, Urbanus. Plus Phoebe from Cenchrea in Romans 16:1-2.

[5] “Agent” in this verse translates the Greek word skeuos, which is translated traditionally as “vessel.”

[6] Furthermore, in Philippians 1:1, Paul refers to himself and to Timothy as servants, literally “slaves of God.”

[7] “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.

[8] In Romans 13:4 Paul refers to Roman governing authority with the word diakonos. Roman rule was not at all Christian yet is described by Paul as ‘God’s agent (diakonos) for your good’ (Rom 13:4). Note also Paul’s description of false apostles as agents (diakonoi) of Satan with a diabolic commission (2 Cor 11:13-15). And in Galatians 2:17 Paul asks the rhetorical question of whether Jesus is a diakonos, acting as an agent, of sin.

[9] These diakonoi include Paul himself (Rom. 15:25; 1 Cor. 3:5; Eph. 3:7; Col. 1:23, etc) and, as already mentioned, Timothy (1 Tim. 4:6), as well as Epaphras (Col. 1:7), Tychicus (Eph. 6:21-22; Col. 4:7-9), Apollos (1 Cor. 3:5), and even Jesus Christ (Rom. 15:8). When Jesus was on earth, he was indeed an agent with a sacred commission. The diakonos in Romans 13:4, though not a Christian minister, is an agent of God with a sacred mission.

[10] The Encyclopaedia of Britannica states that the Edict of Milan was “a proclamation that permanently established religious toleration for Christianity within the Roman Empire. It was the outcome of a political agreement concluded in Milan between the Roman emperors Constantine I and Licinius in February 313.” (Source) Christianity had been illegal during the previous two centuries.

[11] Paul uses the word labour (verb: kopiaō; noun: kopos) to describe his own ministry in 1 Corinthians 3:8; 15:10; Galatians 4:11; Philippians 2:16; Colossians 1:29; 1 Thessalonians 3:5; 1 Timothy 4:10.

[12] It may be that in all eight occurrences of the word proistēmi in the New Testament, in Romans 12:8; 1 Thessalonians 5:12; 1 Timothy 3:4, 5, 12; 5:17; and Titus 3:8, 14, there is a sense of “caring” and “providing for” combined with a sense of “leading” or “managing.”
Bo Reike explains hat 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: Eerdmans, 1968), 701-703, 701.

[13] Paul uses the participles related to coworker and labourer in 1 Corinthians 16:16: “. . .  submit to such people [as Stephanas, etc], and to everyone who is co-working and labouring” (literal translation).

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Partnering Together Series

(1) Agents of Jesus
(2) Jesus and Women 
(3) Paul’s Female Coworkers
These articles are based on a series of talks I gave to high school students in 2019.

Related Articles

Paul and Women, in a Nutshell
Paul’s Theology of Ministry
More about Phoebe here.
More about Junia here.
More about Prisca here.
More about Nympha here.
More about Euodia and Syntyche here.
Female Martyrs in the Early Church
Various articles on 1 Timothy 2:12, here.
Various articles on 1 Timothy 3:1ff here.

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

11 thoughts on “Partnering Together: Paul’s Female Coworkers

  1. Love, love, love this!
    Marg, thank you for your diligence in bringing the truth to the surface and for doing it in a way that is not abrasive or offensive. I do believe these truths are desperately needed in the Body of Christ. It’s not about titles or some kind of hierarchy, it’s about serving God well, and you, my friend are doing a great job at that! Well done, Marg! Shalom and much love from the Upper Penisula of Michigan. Big D

    1. Thanks so much, Big D. <3

      And you are doing a wonderful ministry with your music.

  2. Thanks Marg! Much of this is a reminder of how Paul partnered with women, equally sharing ministry responsibilities. But I have overlooked Apphia and Julia. Thanks for including them, and you have piqued my interest 😉

    Also, I get super excited any time I get a notification about your newest article. Thanks for consistently writing!

  3. Hi Marg,

    I find it amazing that complementarians claim that it’s the egalitarians that “jump through hoops”, “ignore the plain meaning of words”, and “twist scripture”, when all these women are clearly in leadership positions in the early church – let alone all the examples of female leadership in the old testament. The exegesis of your articles contrasts sharply with their eisegesis.

    1. Great… GREAT… GREAT !!! What a summary!

      I note Bob’s comment above, “twist scripture”… Some months ago you put me onto Manfred T. Brauch. I settled on His book, “Abusing Scripture.” His exposition on the nature of scripture is excellent. The Preface and Introduction are worth the price of the book. He lumps the abuse of scripture right in with many other heinous abuses which are in fact the reality in the world today… note, “… such as over-under power structures in gender relationships…” He devotes all of Chapter Five to the abuses found in the traditional understanding of the Genesis theology as well as 1 Corinthians ch. 11 mess.

      Once again, Thank You…!!!

      1. We really need to get rid of the words “over” and “under” when it comes to relationships between fellow Christ-followers. We are all brothers and sisters with Jesus as our older brother, Lord and Saviour.

        1 Corinthians 11:2-16 is a very hard passage to understand, but one thing is clear: both men and women were praying and prophesying in Corinthian assemblies and Paul does not silence them. But he does give counsel about the appearance of these men and women’s heads/hair.
        I’ve written about this passage here: https://margmowczko.com/category/equality-and-gender-issues/1-corinthians-11-2-16/

    2. Thanks, Bob.

  4. It is interesting that complementarians think it’s ok for women to lead worship, lead little boys in Sunday School, or female missionaries to “minister over there” to men, but they don’t see the inconsistencies of what they are saying. We have chosen (selectively) to listen to man over God’s Word. I thank you Marg for doing the hard work of study so that I can share your posts with others. Amen and please keep it up for His Glory among the Nations. We need every man, woman and child who calls on Jesus’ name in this battle-every gift!

    1. Yes, it doesn’t make sense. We need to make space for all gifted people to contribute to the church’s mission.

      This post is based on a message I gave to high school girls. I was not teaching or ministering to men. I wonder what patriarchalists and complementarians would make of that?

  5. Could you provide information as to the accuracy of this article? http://www.bible-researcher.com/women-prophesying.html

    1. Hi Eric,

      I read through the article and there are numerous points that I see differently. Too many to list here, but I will mention a few.

      The main problem with the article is that the author tries to make Paul’s statement about women who pray and prophecy somehow agree with the understanding that 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 is a blanket ban on all kinds of speech from all women in every church for all time.

      I have a different understanding of 1 Corinthians 14:34-35. I believe Paul was silencing unruly and unedifying speech from tongues-speakers, prophets, and women (1 Cor. 14:26-40). He was not silencing edifying and gifted speech. He was not silencing prayer or prophecy from well-behaved men and women.

      The idea of Calvin and of others that women were permitted to pray and prophecy in “private houses” overlooks the fact that many, possibly most, church meetings were held in private houses. That’s how people “did church” in the first century.

      While it does seem that Corinthian church sometimes met in smaller groups and at other times “the whole church” would gather together, both these kinds of meetings were no more pubic or private, no more official or unofficial, than the other. However, there would have been a greater likelihood of rowdiness and disorder in the bigger “whole church” meeting because of the larger number of people present and perhaps because some tongues-speakers and prophets were showing off in the bigger groups.

      I agree with the statement: “… the building in which a meeting is held need not greatly affect the character of the meeting. A dignified meeting does not require any particular kind of building, but might be conducted in the same humble room where other less formal gatherings are also held.”

      I also agree that “Paul speaks of a woman as prophesying as though it were a matter of course that she should prophesy just as she also prays, and just as the man, too, prays and prophesies.”

      I have no idea why the author makes this statement and where he gets this information from: “Headcoverings were ordinary attire for many women, especially among Jews and Christians, for whom the covering had religious significance.” I have not come across any information whatsoever from the first century that suggests head coverings were ordinary attire for Christians and that it had religious significance. Furthermore, I do not believe the issue in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 is headcoverings, but hair-styles.

      I strenuously disagree that what is being disallowed from women in 1 Cor. 14:34-35 is evaluating or judging prophecy.

      Paul was disallowing questions from (some) women in 1 Cor. 14:34-35. These questions were from women who wanted to learn (mathein). These basic questions were a nuisance and should have been kept for home so that they didn’t disrupt the meeting.

      Paul was not disallowing women from praying or prophesying or from any other kind of edifying speech.

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