Exploring the biblical theology of Christian egalitarianism

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This blog post is the second of three taken from my chapter “Women and Men and Ministry in First-Century Churches” in Co-workers and Co-leaders: Women and Men Partnering for God’s Work, Amanda Jackson and Peirong Lin (eds) (WEA Global Issues Series, Vol. 22; Bonn: CPI Books/ Wipf and Stock, 2021), 59–73. This book can be purchased through Amazon USA and Amazon UK.

Part 1 is here.


Jesus did not give his followers a precise plan on how they should organize themselves for worship or for missions. Rather than leaving a set of rules about leadership structures in the church, he gave guiding principles about relationships among his followers. One of these principles was a warning against emulating the kind of leadership that has been typical throughout much of the world’s history. Jesus commissioned his followers to be servants and not masters or rulers (e.g. Mk 10:42-44, Lk 22:24-27, Jn 13:3-15). Jesus himself provided the example of ‘the one who serves’ (ho diakonōn) (Lk 22:27).

Following on from Jesus’s example and his teachings, Paul also emphasized that the community of Christian believers was to be led and ministered to by servants (e.g. 1 Cor 3:5; 4:1). In accordance with this idea, Paul often uses the Greek nouns diakonos (‘servant/ minister’) and diakonia (‘service/ ministry’), and the verb diakoneō (‘serve/ minister’). He only uses these words for ministers and ministry; he never uses them for ordinary servants. Moreover, diakonos is Paul’s word; he is the only New Testament author to use diakonos as a term for ministers.

Paul typically used the word diakonos with the sense of an ‘agent with a sacred commission.’[1] As such, several diakonoi (plural) are described as being a diakonos of Christ (1 Tim 4:6), or of God (e.g. 2 Cor. 6:4), or of the gospel (Eph 3:7), or of a church—a church being a sacred community of ‘saints’ (Ro 16:1-2). Apart from three exceptions, Paul used diakonos as a term for Christian ministers or agents.[2] These diakonoi include Paul himself (Ro 15:25; 1 Cor 3:5; Eph 3:7; Col 1:23, etc), Timothy (1 Tim 4:6), Epaphras (Col 1:7), Tychicus (Eph 6:21-22; Col 4:7-9), Apollos (1 Cor 3:5), and even Jesus Christ (Ro 15:8). He also referred to a woman, Phoebe, as a diakonos. She was a diakonos, or deacon, of the church at Cenchreae in Corinth.

III.a Phoebe of Cenchrea

When writing to the Romans, Paul introduces Phoebe to them.

I commend to you Phoebe, our sister, who is a minister (diakonos) of the church at Cenchreae, so that you may welcome her in the Lord as is appropriate for saints, and help her in whatever she needs from you, for she has been a patron of many and of myself. Romans 16:1-2 (own translation)

Some English translations call Phoebe a servant rather than a minister or deacon, but she could not have been a servant in the usual sense of the word. We know this because Paul also describes her as a ‘patron of many’. As a patron, Phoebe would have had wealth, and wealthy women were not servants, they had servants of their own. Phoebe also had clout. Patronage was a social system that was pervasive in the first-century Roman world, and patrons, whether men or women, were influential people.[3] Through patronage, women ‘won for themselves liberty to speak and act in political and religious affairs’.[4]

As well as being a minister in her church and a patron, it is widely accepted that Phoebe travelled from Cenchreae as Paul’s envoy and delivered his letter to the Christians in Rome. In this role, she would have passed on news about Paul and answered questions that arose when his letter was read aloud to the original audience. Perhaps she was the one who first read Paul’s letter aloud to the Romans. Whatever the case, Phoebe was a minister who was commended and trusted by Paul.


The apostle Paul was all about partnership. He never ministered on his own but travelled and served with fellow ministers whom he sometimes calls coworkers. He wrote his letters with others, with people whom he lists as co-authors or co-senders. He fostered relationships between churches and within churches. Paul understood that the Christian life is about partnership, or sharing, with each other in community, and he was keenly concerned with how Christians related to and ministered to each other.

Unlike what we see in many congregational meetings today, Paul encouraged church members to participate in vocal ministry, even spontaneously, as long as it wasn’t done in a selfish, disorderly, or unedifying manner.[5]

To the church in Corinth, Paul wrote,

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. 1 Corinthians 14:26 (CSB)

To the church in Colossae, he wrote,

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. Colossians 3:16 (CSB)

Women and men participated in ministry in many of the churches Paul founded or took an active interest in. This is especially clear in the last chapter of Romans, where Paul asks that certain people be greeted.

In Romans 16:3-16, straight after Phoebe of Cenchreae’s commendation, twenty-eight Roman Christians are mentioned, and at least nine of these are women. Considering the culture of the time and that many women had fewer social freedoms than men, nine is a considerable number. What is more noteworthy, however, is that more women in the list of twenty-eight are described by, or commended for, their ministries than men: six Roman women (Prisca, Mary, Junia, Tryphena, Tryphosa, Persis) compared with three men (Aquila, Andronicus, Urbanus). And two of these men are ministering alongside a female partner (Aquila with Prisca, Andronicus with Junia). Moreover, Prisca is mentioned first of the twenty-eight Roman Christians. First!

 IV.a Prisca and Aquila

Prisca, also known as Priscilla, is mentioned before her husband Aquila four of the six times the couple are named in (most) Greek texts of the New Testament.[6] Prisca and Aquila were friends of Paul. The three had lived, worked, travelled, and ministered together, and Paul refers to them with his favourite ministry term, coworkers.[7] The couple also ministered when they were apart from their friend. When Paul, writing from Rome, closes his second letter to Timothy who was in Ephesus, Prisca is again greeted first before her husband as well as before the household of Onesiphorus (2 Tim 4:19). (No other Christians, apart from Timothy, are greeted in 2 Timothy.) By listing Prisca first, Paul is highlighting her prominence in ministry.

Prisca and Aquila hosted and cared for a church in Ephesus (1 Cor 16:19, cf. 16:8) and, later, a church in Rome (Ro 16:3-5a). Luke records that when the couple was in Ephesus, they were the ones who corrected the doctrine of the visiting teacher Apollos. That Luke includes this story in Acts indicates that the event was significant. Furthermore, he does not express the slightest discomfort or concern when reporting that Priscilla, a woman, with her husband Aquila ‘explained the word of God more accurately’ to a man who is described as having a thorough knowledge of the scriptures and who was teaching accurately about Jesus. (See Acts 18:24-26.)

As well as Prisca and Aquila, Paul identifies several more men and women as his coworkers: Urbanus (Ro 16:9); Timothy (Ro 16:21); Titus (2 Cor 8:23); Epaphroditus (Phil 2:25) Euodia, Syntyche, and Clement (Phil 4:3); Aristarchus, Mark, and Justus (Col 4:10-11); Philemon (Phlm 1); Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke (Phlm 24). We look at Euodia and Syntyche next.

IV.b Euodia and Syntyche in Philippi

Paul names Euodia and Syntyche in his letter to the Philippians and gives us a glimpse into the importance of their ministries.

I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to think the same thing in the Lord. Indeed, I ask you, my true partner, to help these women who have contended together with me in the gospel, along with Clement and the rest of my coworkers, whose names are in the book of life. Philippians 4:2-3 (Own translation)

These two women were prominent and influential in the Philippian church; otherwise, Paul would not have taken the trouble to address each of them directly in this letter. Earlier in Philippians, he had mentioned that Timothy had served with him ‘in the gospel’ and here he says that Euodia and Syntyche were involved with him ‘in the gospel.’ Furthermore, Paul uses a strong word when he says they ‘contended together’ (synathleō) with him. In their definition of synathleō, BDAG explain that by using this word, Paul is saying the women had fought bravely at his side in spreading the gospel.[8] Theirs was not a lightweight or trivial ministry, and Paul appeals to his ‘true partner’, which may refer to the church at Philippi, to assist the women.[9] Paul similarly asked the church in Rome to help Phoebe in her ministry (Ro 16:2).

Some scholars are reluctant to acknowledge that Euodia and Syntyche were leaders. However, Gordon D. Fee, among others, understands that Euodia and Syntyche were indeed ‘leaders in the believing community at Philippi.’[10] Centuries earlier, Chrysostom stated, ‘These women seem to me to be the chief (to kephalaion) of the church’ in Philippi (Homily 13 on Philippians). Euodia and Syntyche, like other first-century women and men, worked hard in gospel ministry as leaders, and Paul approved.[11]

In part 3, I look more at some of the men and women who were involved in difficult and dangerous ministries in the first century and at 1 Timothy 2:12.


[1] See the work of John N. Collins who has written several books and papers on diakon– words noting their implicit sense of agency. For example, Collins, Diakonia: Reinterpreting the Ancient Sources (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990).

[2] In Romans 13:1-5 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’ (Ro 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 if Jesus is an agent (diakonos) of sin.

[3] The practice of patronage was informal and voluntary, but there were certain social constraints and reciprocal obligations involving the client-patron relationship. These constraints and obligations were an extension of the honour-shame dynamic that pervaded Greco-Roman society, and the typical client-patron relationship was one of unequal power. A wealthy man or woman who made a generous donation to his or her city, community, guild, or to an individual, etc., was able to exercise considerable influence and power. Patrons expected loyalty, public support, as well as public praise that reinforced or elevated the patron’s level of honour. In Christian communities, some of these dynamics would have been tempered, but patrons still had clout. See Carolyn Osiek, ‘Diakonos and Prostatis: Women’s Patronage in Early Christianity’, HTS Theological Studies 61 (1 & 2) (2005): 346-370. (I have more on Phoebe and patronage here.)

[4] Greg W. Forbes and Scott D. Harrower, Raised from Obscurity: A Narratival and Theological Study of the Characterization of Women in Luke-Acts (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2015), 32.

[5] In 1 Corinthians 14:26-40, Paul silences three groups of people in the church at Corinth, including women who wanted to learn, because their speech was unruly and unedifying. He did not silence men and women who prayed, prophesied, and ministered in an edifying manner (cf. 1 Cor 11:5). (I have more on 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 here.)

[6] The couple is named in Acts 18:2, 18, and 26, Romans 16:3-5, 1 Corinthians 16:19, and 2 Timothy 4:19. Unlike other ancient Greek texts of Acts, the fifth-century Codex Bezae has Aquila’s name first and Priscilla’s second in Acts 18:26. This order of names was adopted in Acts 18:26 of Stephanus’s sixteenth-century Greek text which was used by the translators of the King James Bible. In the King James Bible, Prisca is mentioned before her husband only three times.

[7] Edward Earle Ellis has observed, ‘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).’ Ellis, ‘Paul and his Coworkers’, Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, Gerald Hawthorne and Ralph Martin (ed) (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 183.

[8] Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, Third Edition, revised and edited by F.W Danker, s.v. συναθλέω (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 964. This lexicon is known as BDAG, an acronym of the surnames of the four editors who have worked on it since the first edition.

[9] See Richard G. Fellows and Alistair C. Stewart: “Euodia and Syntyche and the Role of Syzygos: Phil 4:2-3” ZNW 109.2 (2018): 222-234.

[10] Gordon D. Fee, Paul’s Letter to the Philippians (The New International Commentary on the New Testament; Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, 1995), 389.

[11] Paul encouraged each woman to, literally, ‘think the same thing in the Lord.’ He used similar language when he urged all the Philippians, literally, ‘that you (plural) may think the same thing’ (Phil 2:2). This phrase is part of one long sentence (2:1-4) which is followed by 2:5 where Paul tells the Philippians to think like Jesus, that is, have the same attitude as Jesus. There is no basis for the too-common assumption that Euodia and Syntyche were silly women involved in a petty dispute. Chrysostom did not mention a quarrel or a disagreement and offered only praise: “Do you see how great a testimony [Paul] bears to their virtue?” (Homily 13 on Philippians)

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Women and Men and Ministry in First-Century Churches

Part 1: Female Followers of Jesus and Church Overseers
Part 2: Paul’s Diakonoi and Coworkers
Part 3: Difficult and Dangerous Ministries and 1 Timothy 2:12

Explore more

Jesus on Leadership and Community in Matthew’s Gospel
A List of the 29 People in Romans 16:1-16
Phoebe: Deacon of the Church in Cenchrea
Did Priscilla Teach Apollos?
At Home with Priscilla and Aquila
Euodia and Syntyche: Women Church Leaders in Philippi
What were Euodia and Syntyche thinking?!
The First-Century Church and the Ministry of Women
1 Corinthians 14:34-35 in a Nutshell
Anti-Woman Tendencies in Codex Bezae

4 thoughts on “Women and Men and Ministry in First-Century Churches (2)

  1. Tyler Allred understands how Phil 4:2-3 fits the context of persecution, and this combines nicely with the article by Steward and me. See “Philippians 4:2–3: An Alternative View of the Euodia-Syntyche Debate,” Priscilla Papers 33 (2019): 4–7. See here: https://www.cbeinternational.org/resource/philippians-42-3-alternative-view-euodia

    1. Thanks, Richard.

  2. Thank you for sharing this very well written article. From my early NT studies, I did get that Phoebe was a leader and minister in the sense that you affirm, as one who serves the Gospel and illuminates what it means to live in community with fellow believers. It does echo a time when such roles were not about a hierarchy of authority but as a way of organizing a community to function well and serve the world and each other, to live in love. In one translation of the verses about her in Romans, she is described as a “pillar” of that church. Again, thank you for your sharing.

    1. Thank you, William.

      I have no doubt Phoebe was a valued member of the church at Cenchrea, and perhaps she was a pillar in her congregation, but I don’t know of any translation of Romans 16:1-2 that calls her a “pillar” of the church. None of the words Paul uses for her means “pillar.”

      English translations can be compared here:
      And here:

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