This blog post is the third 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.
V. WOMEN AND MEN IN DIFFICULT, DANGEROUS MINISTRIES (LABOURERS AND APOSTLES)
Being a Christian in the first century could be difficult and dangerous. There was often suspicion, alienation, and even persecution from family, friends, and the community when someone rejected their traditional customs, Jewish or pagan, to follow Jesus. It could be even more difficult for ministers. Reflecting this hardship, Paul uses the word “labour” (verb: kopiaō; noun: kopos) several times in his letters in the context of his evangelistic and apostolic ministry (1 Cor 3:8; 15:10; Gal 4:11; Phil 2:16; Col 1:29; 1 Thes 3:5).
Paul also used the word ‘labour’ in reference to local leadership ministries. For example,
Now we ask you, brothers and sisters, to acknowledge those who labour (kopiaō) among you, who lead/care (proistēmi) for you in the Lord, and who advise you. Hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work. 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13a (own translation. cf. 1 Tim 5:17; 1 Cor 16:16).
While he occasionally used kop– words in the context of ordinary manual labour (1 Cor 4:12; 1 Thes 2:9; 2 Thes 3:8), in most other contexts Paul is referring to Christian ministry.
V.a Mary of Rome, Tryphaena, Tryphosa, and Persis
Paul identifies four women in Romans 16 using ‘labour’ words: Mary, Tryphaena, Tryphosa, and Persis.
Greet Mary, who has laboured hard for you… Greet those labourers in the Lord, Tryphaena and Tryphosa. Greet our dear friend Persis, who has laboured hard in the Lord. Romans 16:6, 12 (own translation).
Paul does not indicate what these women were doing other than toiling hard. If 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13 is a guide, however, they may have been involved in leading and caring (proistēmi) for their congregations and in advising and instructing fellow believers. We are told that Mary, in particular, worked hard for the members of the church at Rome (Ro 16:6). On the other hand, if Paul’s use of ‘labour’ to describe his apostolic ministry is a guide, perhaps the women were involved in evangelism. Whatever the case, all four women were hard workers involved in significant ministries endorsed by Paul. In 1 Corinthians 16:16, Paul told the Corinthian church to submit to everyone who ministers as a coworker and labourer. Cooperating with such ministers would make their hard work easier.
V.b Andronicus and Junia
Not only was ministry difficult, it could also be dangerous. Paul faced dangers many times, as did other Christian ministers. Paul acknowledges, for example, that Prisca and Aquila had risked their necks for him (Ro 16:4).
From the beginning, Christian women and men were persecuted, imprisoned, and even killed for their faith and ministry. Before his Damascus Road experience, Paul himself was responsible for the imprisonment and murder of Christians. 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 8:3; 9:1ff). In Romans 16:7, we hear about a missionary couple who were imprisoned with Paul, presumably because of their ministry.
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)
Andronicus and Junia may have been husband and wife, or brother and sister, but Junia’s identity as a woman has been hidden in some texts and translations. Some thought she was a man named Junias. However, the masculine name Junias does not exist in ancient inscriptions or literature, whereas the feminine name is well-attested. Furthermore, ancient and medieval commentators on Romans overwhelmingly understood Junia to be a woman.
Others have baulked at the idea that Junia, a woman, was an apostle. Andronicus and Junia were not among the Twelve, but there are people who are called apostles in the New Testament who were not among the Twelve. These other apostles include Paul, Barnabas (Acts 14:3-4, 14), Apollos (1 Cor 1:12), anonymous brothers with an important mission (2 Cor. 8:23), Silas and Timothy (1 Thes 2:6; cf. 1 Thes 1:1), Epaphroditus (Phil 2:25), as well as Andronicus and Junia.
An apostle (apostolos) is someone who is ‘sent’ (apostellō) on a mission. Church history is full of examples of men and women who have been sent by the church or been driven by a personal calling to pioneer ministries that have furthered the gospel, ministries that can be described as apostolic. Chrysostom, a native Greek speaker, understood that Paul had counted Junia as ‘worthy of the appellation of apostle’ (Homily 31 on Romans).
Andronicus and Junia’s apostolic ministry landed them in jail. Perhaps their message had caused a disturbance. Prisons in ancient times were often dark, cramped, putrid, and generally miserable places. Prisoners could be chained or placed in stocks. And women, such as Junia, could be sexually abused by male prison guards. Furthermore, if Andronicus and Junia were freedmen, rather than having the status of freeborn Roman citizens, their imprisonment would most likely have involved torture. Nevertheless, Paul mentions their imprisonment, and states their other credentials, as a way of honouring them as an outstanding missionary couple.
VI. PAUL’S THEOLOGY OF MINISTRY AND 1 TIMOTHY 2:12
Paul mentions at least eighteen women in his letters and he speaks about them in terms of their faith and ministry. He uses the same ministry terms―coworker, diakonos, brother/ sister, apostle, and labourer―for both his male and female ministry colleagues, and there is not the slightest hint of censure from him about women who functioned as leaders in their churches. Nevertheless, after Paul’s time, women were increasingly restricted and were excluded from many of the ministries that were open to their brothers.
People who limit the ministry of women frequently cite 1 Timothy 2:12 to support their position.
I do not permit a woman to teach or to domineer a man; rather, she is to be quiet. 1 Timothy 2:12 (own translation)
This verse is not prohibiting the ministry of well-behaved and educated women. This becomes apparent when we pull back from this one verse and look at its immediate context, the context of problem behaviour.
In 1 Timothy 2:8, Paul addresses the problem of angry, quarrelling men in the Ephesian church; ‘men’ is plural. In 1 Timothy 2:9-10, Paul addresses the problem of overdressed rich Ephesian women; ‘women’ is plural. Then in verses 11-15, Paul addresses the problem of a woman who needed to learn and was not allowed to teach. Presumably, she needed to learn scripture and Christian doctrine. She was also not allowed to domineer a man, probably her husband. ‘Woman’ and ‘man’ are singular in verses 11-12. There is also a singular verb in verse 15 correctly translated as ‘she will be saved’: she will be saved if they (the married couple) continue in faith, love and holiness. I suggest 1 Timothy 2:11-15 is about a couple in the Ephesian church, and that the wife was teaching and behaving badly.
In 1 Timothy 2:13-14 Paul gives correct summary statements of Genesis 2 and 3. It is not clear why he mentions Adam and Eve, but it may have been to correct the woman’s faulty teaching of the Law (Torah), perhaps a corrupted version of Genesis 2 and 3 that favoured Eve (cf. 1 Tim 1:3-4, 7). There were allegorical, fanciful, and distorted versions of the Adam and Eve story circulating in the first century.
1 Timothy 2:15 is a difficult verse to decipher but it may be about the woman’s domineering behaviour towards her husband. She may have been refusing sex and avoiding childbirth for reasons of piety. Some in the Ephesian church were even forbidding marriage (1 Tim 4:3a). Sexual renunciation was not uncommon in the early church. Much of 1 Corinthians 7 was written in response to the issue of married and single Corinthian Christians who were choosing to become and remain celibate.
In 1 Timothy 2:8-15, Paul addresses problem behaviour of specific men and specific women in the Ephesian church and he offers corrections. Paul also gave directives about problem behaviour of both men and women in 1 Corinthians 14:26-40. This passage contains the verses 1 Corinthians 14:34-35: ‘women are to be silent in the churches …’ These passages in 1 Timothy and 1 Corinthians, about issues in the Ephesian and Corinthian churches, are not Paul’s general thoughts about ministry. The apostle’s overall theology of ministry was, ‘You have a gift, use it to build up the church,’ and he does not exclude women from his general statements about ministry, including leadership and teaching ministries, in Romans 12:6-8, 1 Corinthians chapter 12, and Ephesians 4:11-13.
The New Testament shows that in the first century, just as today, there were different ways of organizing ministries. Some churches were mostly led by men, others were led by women or by women and men together. But nowhere in the New Testament are godly and capable women expressly forbidden from ministering in any capacity. Moreover, Paul valued women and endorsed their ministries.
Paul planted a church in Lydia’s home.
He introduced Phoebe to the church at Rome as his sister, as a minister or deacon, as a patron of many, and he entrusted his letter to the Romans to her.
He valued the ministries of Prisca, Euodia, and Syntyche as his coworkers in the gospel.
He positively acknowledged the ministry labours of Mary of Rome, Tryphena, Tryphosa, and Persis.
He referred to Junia as a fellow Jew, his fellow prisoner, and as outstanding among the apostles.
Paul warmly mentions no less than ten women in Romans chapter 16.
There are still more women whom Paul acknowledges in his letters.
He took seriously a report from Chloe of Corinth’s people.
He passed on greetings from Claudia of Rome and sent greetings to Apphia of Colossae.
He recognized the house church of Nympha in Laodicea and asked that greetings be passed on to her and her church.
He respected the faith and teaching of Lois and Eunice.
If the example of these women was the starting point and focus in discussions on women in ministry, I suspect the church and the world would be in a better state. The church benefits when the gifts, talents, perspectives, and life experiences of both men and women are used without artificial restrictions. The church is stronger when men and women can minister together and work side by side, shoulder to shoulder.
How would it change our churches if we acknowledge that the apostle Paul valued and endorsed the ministries of gifted women and did not limit them? Who are the women in your church that God wants to use as ministers and leaders?
 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. (More on this, here.)
 In a few texts and translations, Euodia (Phil 4:2-3) and Nympha (Col 4:15) have also been turned into men with the masculine names Euodias and Nymphas. (More on this, here.) But the scholarly consensus is that these individuals, as well as Junia, were women.
 Paul does not refer to any of his ministry colleagues as bishops (episkopoi), elders/ presbyters, or pastors. Though he uses these terms a few times in his letters, he does not identify or describe any individual with these terms.
 The Greek word behind “to domineer” is authentein. This word does not refer to a healthy kind of authority, but to a controlling and absolute use of power that is unacceptable from men or women. More information on authentein is here.
Thank you to those who support my ministry. It is greatly appreciated.
You can support my work for as little as $3 USD a month at Patreon.
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 Dangerous Ministries and 1 Timothy 2:12
1 Corinthians 16:16 Applies to Women Ministers Too
A List of the 29 People in Romans 16:1-16
Did Jesus aim to spare women from persecution?
Apostles in the New Testament
Chrysostom on 5 Women Church Leaders in the New Testament
“Must Manage His Own Household” (1 Tim. 3:4-5) (proistēmi))
More articles on Andronicus and Junia.
More articles on Priscilla and Aquila.
More articles on 1 Timothy 2:12.
More articles on Paul’s Theology of Ministry.