New Light on Old Texts: New Testament Women in Ministry
NEW LIGHT ON OLD TEXTS: WOMEN IN MINISTRY IN PAUL’S TIME AND OURS
Robert F. Hull, Jr., PhD, Professor Emeritus of New Testament, Emmanuel Christian Seminary at Milligan
More than forty years ago I was assigned to work on a committee with two other faculty members at Emmanuel to study the question of whether women should be eligible to be elected to serve as Elders at Grandview Christian Church. Dr. Fred Norris, Professor of Church History, and Dr. Charles Taber, Professor of World Mission, were the other two members of the committee. We each first wrote up a position paper for each other to read and I was, unfortunately, the foot-dragger on this issue, the person least likely to say “yes” to women Elders. I realized I had a lot of work to do. I noticed right away in our congregational discussions that the first scripture passages many people wanted to discuss were what I would call the “limiting texts,” i.e. texts that forbade women to teach or exercise authority over men and texts that seemed to require that a church Overseer (or Elder) be “the husband of one wife.” That seemed to me to be a kind of “pre-emptive strike” intended to end all discussion. If this were the way to proceed, you would simply quote 1 Cor 14:34-35; 1 Timothy 2:11-12; and 1 Tim 3:2 and the problem would be solved. This seemed to me to be counterproductive, so I developed a different approach, one that I have followed ever since. By fits and starts we worked on this question at Grandview for nine years. During that time I undertook a deep dive into both the New Testament and the Jewish, Greek, and Roman world into which the Christian faith was born. I studied cultural, social, and even legal relationships between women and men and wrestled with what these matters might have to do with our congregational discussion.
As I read the book of Acts and Paul’s letters more closely, I became convinced, first, that the apostle Paul had a much larger mission team than I had previously recognized and, second, that there were women on that team. So, as my audience grew to include other congregations than my own at Grandview, I began to invite my hearers to follow Paul around during his preaching missions and meet some of his companions and early converts. Altogether, the NT mentions some 90 persons who were known to Paul, most of them part of the Pauline mission in one way or another, either as co-workers or as converts, or both. It might surprise you to know that 18 of them, fully 20%, were women. I’ll just remind you of a few of them.
As I read the book of Acts and Paul’s letters more closely, I became convinced, first, that the apostle Paul had a much larger mission team than I had previously recognized and, second, that there were women on that team.
During what we usually call Paul’s second missionary journey, he was called in a vision to come over to Macedonia. In Philippi, principal city of that province, he met Lydia. Here’s how the story reads: “On the sabbath day we went outside the city gate beside a river, where we supposed there would be a place of prayer, and after we had sat down we began speaking to the women who had come together. And a certain woman named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth from the city of Thyatira, a worshipper of God, was listening, whose heart the Lord opened to pay attention to the words spoken by Paul. When she had been baptized, and her household, she invited us, saying, ‘If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come into my house and stay’; and she urged us”(Acts 16:13-15). So, this Lydia was a “god-fearer,” i.e., a gentile who had been attracted to Judaism and had become a worshiper of the God of Israel. She seems to have been a woman of independent means; she owned a commercial business in purple dye. Paul and Silas met her and some of her friends at a “place of prayer,” probably a synagogue, by a river. It is likely that Lydia had a leading role in the synagogue, because she is so prominent in this story. Forty years ago the idea that a woman could have a leading role in a synagogue was generally dismissed as impossible. Now we know of scores of inscriptions from 1st c. BC to 6th c. A.D. mentioning women who have donated funds for erecting a synagogue, or are described as “head of the synagogue,” or “mother of the synagogue,” or “elder of the synagogue.”
Lydia had a house large enough to extend hospitality to Paul and Silas. It is not unreasonable to envision her as having become the (or a) leader in the Philippian church. After the Philippian jailer was converted—you’ll no doubt remember that story– there was at least a 2-household church in Philippi, and we note that when Paul and Silas were released from the jail there they went to visit Lydia, “and when they had seen the brothers (i.e., other members of the congregation) they exhorted them and departed” (Acts 16:40).
Euodia and Syntyche
By the time Paul wrote his letter to the Philippians (from another prison), we know the names of at least two other members of the church in Philippi. Toward the end of the letter Paul writes this: “I encourage Euodia and I encourage Syntyche to agree in the Lord. And I ask you, true comrade, to help these, who fought alongside me for the gospel, together also with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are written in the book of life” (Phil. 4:2-3). We don’t know what kind of conflict these two women were involved in, but it is interesting to see how they have often been treated in sermons and commentaries. We have stories of conflict between Paul and Mark and between Paul and Peter, and these are usually taken very seriously, but when it’s the case of a disagreement between two women, it’s more likely to be treated as “a cat fight.” I once heard a preacher refer to Euodia and Syntyche as “You’re Odious” and “Sure Touchy.” Whatever the problem was at Philippi, these two were very important leaders in that church. Paul honors them by using his favorite term for his companions in ministry. Altogether in his letters Paul names 19 persons as “co-workers,” (sunergoi) including such notables as Barnabas, Timothy, and Titus; and here he includes these two women. We don’t know exactly what their ministries were, but Paul says they had “struggled side-by-side with me for the gospel.” They were certainly part of Paul’s far-flung mission team.
Priscilla and Aquila
Move on with Paul to Greece, and Corinth. The first few verses of Acts 18 tell how Paul met the interesting married couple, Aquila and Priscilla. We are told they had been forced out of Rome along with other Jews, whom Claudius expelled in A.D. 49. When they learned that Paul was supporting himself by means of the same craft they practiced, namely “tentmaking,” or leatherwork, they invited him to live with them. The three of them became so closely connected that, when Paul was forced out of Corinth after 18 months of ministry and left to go back to Syria, Priscilla and Aquila went with him. He dropped them off in Ephesus, where they undertook to instruct an eloquent, but ill-informed preacher named Apollos, in “the way of God more accurately.”
Now, how would you describe this couple in relation to Paul? I was surprised to see how this question was answered in a Sunday School lesson in Christian Standard, February, 2003. First of all, we are told they were probably converted to Christ by Paul in Corinth and then, because they had the gift of hospitality, they invited Paul to live with them. Later, when they were left in Ephesus, they kindly and hospitably invited Apollos into their home and quietly ministered to him so he could be a better preacher. See what has happened? Priscilla and Aquila have been turned into nice, hospitable “support people” for Paul and, later, Apollos, rather than being fully colleagues in ministry. It is almost certain that Paul did not convert them. Claudius would have made no distinction between “Jesus-following Jews” and other Jews. He would have kicked them all out of Rome. As much as Luke loves conversion stories, can you believe he would not have told about it if Paul had converted them? Notice also the importance of Priscilla: Four of the six times they are mentioned in NT Priscilla is named before Aquila, which was not usual in the Mediterranean world. The truth is they were business people who moved around a lot; wherever they went, they formed a house church (Corinth, in Ephesus, and, as we will soon see, back to Rome). I think they had a fully-shared co-ministry.
Women in Romans 16
It’s in Paul’s letter to Romans where we hit the “mother lode” of his personal references. In chapter 16, where he is wrapping up the letter, he mentions 35 persons by name, 8 from whom he sends greetings, and 27 to whom he sends greetings. Most surprisingly, 10 of these persons are women. We begin with Phoebe in Rom 16:1-2, where he writes: “I commend to you Phoebe our sister, being also a diakonon of the assembly which is in Cenchrea, that you receive her in the Lord worthily of the saints and assist her in whatever way she might have need; for she has also been a prostatis of many, including me.” From the very careful way Paul introduces her, she was almost certainly the person who carried Paul’s letter from Corinth to Rome. We should think of her as Paul’s chosen representative to the Roman church. She is described as a diakonos of the Church in Cenchrea. In my reading just now I left the word untranslated, because diakonos has a broad semantic range, including “servant,” which is how it is translated in KJV, NKJV, NASB, NIV. But the word certainly seems to be a title and because Paul is so careful to establish her credentials, “servant” probably doesn’t get the job done. If it is a formal “title,” then it probably should be translated either “deacon” (NRSV) or “minister.” If it were not referring to a woman, translators would have routinely so translated it. She is the first person in the history of the church to be described as a diakonos. When the word is used to describe Paul, Timothy, Epaphras, and Tychicus, it is usually translated minister. Why not Phoebe? She is described also as a prostatis, the Greek counterpart to “patron,” someone in position to provide significant support, either through money or influence, or both.
In verses three and four we meet Priscilla, or “Prisca,” her more formal name, the woman we earlier met in Corinth, along with her husband Aquila. Paul uses his favorite description, “co-workers” to refer to them, noting also that they had “risked their necks” for him and that “all the churches of the Gentiles” were thankful for them In v. 7 we meet another pair [probably either brother/sister or husband/wife], namely Andronicus and Junia. Paul reserves for them his highest title of respect, “my fellow prisoners” (only 2 other persons in his letters get this title: Aristarchus and Epaphras). They were converts to the gospel even before Paul and were his relatives. Most important, they are highly-reputed apostles. For a long time, many translators denied that Junia was a woman, but no one who has kept up with scholarship would today try to make her into a man. After hundreds of years, she has finally got her gender back, confirming what the great preacher, Chrysostom, said about her in a sermon in the 4th century: “To be an apostle is something great, but to be outstanding among the apostles—just think what a wonderful song of praise that is! They were outstanding on the basis of their works and virtuous actions. Indeed, how great the wisdom of this woman must have been that she was even deemed worthy of the title of apostle.”
[Phoebe] is the first person in the history of the church to be described as a diakonos. When the word is used to describe Paul, Timothy, Epaphras, and Tychicus, it is usually translated minister. Why not Phoebe?
Going on down this chapter we meet “Mary, who worked hard among you,” and “Tryphaena and Tryphosa,” whose names mean “Dainty” and “Delicate,” but who are also “hard workers in the Lord,” along with Persis, “a hard worker in the Lord.” It may seem odd that the only persons in this long list who are described as “hard workers” are women! What were all these women, many of them co-workers and friends of Paul, doing in those churches? How did their work differ from that of their male colleagues? We do not know the answers, but we do know some things for sure: These house churches didn’t have nurseries to be staffed; they weren’t looking for people to lead “children’s church,” teach the toddler class, or direct VBS. They weren’t forming up women’s Bible study groups or leading the worship team. I doubt they had sign-up sheets for communion preparation or greeters, or morning snacks. What were these hard-working women friends of Paul doing?
Now, I have been puzzled for a long time by two things that seem irreconcilable: First, when we just follow Paul around in the travels recorded in Acts, and when we notice his casual reference to “co-workers,” we find a surprising number of women. They aren’t described any differently than the men in his mission enterprise. The second thing I notice, however, is that, in a few selected texts, Paul seems bent on de-emphasizing the power and authority and public work of women—almost putting them down (the women’s silence passages; the being forbidden to teach or “exercise authority” over men, as well as the being obedient to husbands, and so forth. And the question is how to understand these two conflicting portraits?
Women in the Greco-Roman World
To answer this question, we have to generalize for a moment about the expected norms for female behavior in the Mediterranean world of Paul’s day. This is where my “deep dive” into the history of male/female relations in the Roman Empire paid off. Here I learned that Jewish, Greek, or Roman woman were expected to be chaste, modest in dress and adornment, obedient to their husbands. Virtues associated with women were moderation and prudence. They were told “Don’t insert yourself into the conversation of males, especially on important issues such as philosophy and religion. Plutarch, a social commentator whose life overlapped partly with Paul’s wrote a famous essay for two of his friends about to be married. Here are some comments from that essay “Advice to Bride and Groom”:
- “A virtuous woman ought to be most visible in her husband’s company, and to stay in the house and hide herself when he is away.”
- “Every activity in a virtuous household is carried on by both parties in agreement, but discloses the husband’s leadership and preferences.”
- “A wife should have no feelings of her own, but should join with her husband in seriousness and sportiveness and soberness and laughter.”
- Plutarch said that if a man should occasionally visit a paramour, his wife should not be upset…. She should be thankful he is not asking her to do some of the sexual things he is paying for.
- “A wife ought not to make friends of her own, but to enjoy her husband’s friends in common with him. The gods are the first and most important friends; wherefore it is becoming for a wife to worship and to know only the gods her husband believes in, and to shut the front door tight upon all queer rituals and outlandish superstitions.”
- “The estate ought to be said to belong to the husband, even though the wife contribute the larger share.”
- A woman is not adorned with “gold or precious stones, or scarlet,” but “whatever invests her with that something that betokens dignity, good behavior, and modesty. Most women, if you take from them gold-embroidered shoes, bracelets, anklets, purple, and pearls, stay indoors.”
- “A woman ought to do her talking either to her husband or through her husband, and she should not feel aggrieved if, like the flute-player, she makes a more impressive sound through a tongue not her own.”
Now, women in ministry or preparing for ministry might well ask, “Why should we pay attention to social and cultural expectations of people living 2,000 years ago in a different culture? Those things don’t matter anymore.” In fact, they do matter to a lot of people who read the NT and accept that it still has a unique authority. One function of the careful study of the NT text is to help us see how those social and cultural expectations influenced Paul and other writers of scripture—not so we can ignore “troublesome texts,” but so we can wrestle with how to relate them to current cultural and social expectations.
Already during Plutarch’s day there were reactions against his ultraconservative advice. We can read about some upperclass “new women” of the Empire who flaunted the rules and could be seen outdoors with their heads uncovered; who might dare to confront a Senator about a matter they disagreed with; who spent a fortune on lavish dress and hairstyles.
Emperor Augustus undertook a vast overhaul of the laws on marriage and the family. He passed sweeping “family-friendly” legislation, even including a kind of “reverse” dress code for women, specifying what kind of attire prostitutes and convicted adulteresses should wear, to distinguish them from the modest dress of matrons and virgins. Augustus passed laws prohibiting celibacy and requiring marriage for men between the ages of 25 and 60 and for women between the ages of 20 and 50; people who became widowed while between these designated age spans were legally required to remarry within two years.
One function of the careful study of the NT text is to help us see how those social and cultural expectations influenced Paul and other writers of scripture—not so we can ignore “troublesome texts,” but so we can wrestle with how to relate them to current cultural and social expectations.
What does all this have to do with the NT? The answer is, “much, in every way.” If some fairly radical social changes were occurring among high-born women in the first-century Roman world, it would be very surprising if this made no impact on the church. The book of Acts makes it a point to call attention to high-born women who became Christians—and then, as now, the lower social classes sought to emulate the wealthy: If the emperor’s wife is sporting a new hairstyle, why should we continue to look dowdy? If some women are challenging the accepted social conventions about public behavior, including speaking out in assemblies, it would be surprising that this would not be appealing to Christian women, too.
Question for Paul: How should the church deal with “the new women of the empire?” When you read the NT, you notice a curious tension: On the one hand, as we have seen, Paul had a considerable number of women in his mission team. He addressed them as his “co-workers,” using the same term as he uses when referring to Timothy and Barnabas. Some of them seem to have been strong women of some means (Phoebe, Priscilla). Some, such as Apphia, the wife of Archippus, in the church at Colossae, as well as Prisca, were at least co-leaders of house churches. We might call the texts that refer to these women “descriptive,” just telling what was the case. On the other hand, we have several passages in the NT counseling women to be modest in their dress and decorum, not to speak out authoritatively or teach men, to be submissive. These we can call “prescriptive” texts, directing a certain kind of behavior.
What’s going on here? I think what we have is a kind of conflict between the gospel, which encouraged a breaking down of social and class distinctions, and the need for Christians to be models of social convention in the eyes of their pagan neighbors. The church was very much a minority religious movement, constantly under observation, already somewhat suspect, because of the peculiarities of the Jews in the eyes of the Roman world. If some women in the general culture were already drawing unwelcome attention to themselves, how much worse would this be if Christian women were in any way out of step with cultural conventions. (The same was true of slaves and masters who became Christians; it was well and good for them to be one in Christ and brothers in the Lord, but it they started behaving in “unslavish” and “unmasterly” ways, they would have brought suspicion on Christians as bad citizens and dangerous to public order). You will notice how, in these so-called “household code” passages, Paul mitigates the more troubling aspects of these conventions, for example, by emphasizing the mutual submission of husbands and wives (Eph 5:21; Col 3:18-19) and reminding masters that both they and their slaves “have the same Master in heaven” who will judge the behavior of both of them impartially (Eph 6:9; Col 4:1).
What’s going on here? I think what we have is a kind of conflict between the gospel, which encouraged a breaking down of social and class distinctions, and the need for Christians to be models of social convention in the eyes of their pagan neighbors.
I hope you can all see what this has to do with the kinds of “adaptive challenges” faced by the earliest churches; they are not that different from the adaptive challenges we face in our own congregations. If you read 1 Cor 11:4-16 against this background, some lights will begin to come on (women are free to pray and prophesy in the assembly, but they must be careful not to have short hair and not to neglect to cover their heads, and it is shameful for men to have short hair). You will also realize why the “speech code,” “dress code,” and “household code” texts are there (1 Cor 14:34-35, 1 Tim 2:11-15, 1 Pet 2:18-3:6). You will even be able to understand why Paul was so insistent in 1 Tim. 5 that everybody should marry, including young widows: It was the law (although we do not know how closely followed). (You will also understand how dangerous it was for Paul to promote celibacy in 1 Cor 7 and how risky it was for a woman to convert to Christianity when her husband did not.)
We can all be grateful for the remarkable changes in many, if not most, of the churches in which women are serving or seeking to serve. But you may find out that many congregations, especially small rural churches, put more stock in tradition and in male privilege and power than larger, urban churches. But, as the old Bob Dylan song says, “The times, they are a changin’.” And I hope you are all encouraged by that fact.
Dr. Hull compiled this content from multiple lessons and recorded it for the Ministry Resource Center on 11 September 2020.