For an introduction to this subject, please see New Testament Views of Women: Overview.
For a discussion of this subject relating to 1 Corinthians, see New Testament Views of Women: 1 Corinthians 14:34-36
Considering that there were no women that had any kind of leadership role in the religion of Israel at the time of Christ, it is truly radical that there are so many women mentioned in the New Testament who promoted the faith and who in fact had leadership roles. Jesus led the way for women to not only find salvation and comfort in him, but to realize what Galatians 3:28 says: “There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free; there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” That the latter church chose, for the most part, to forget Jesus’ lifting up of women and change words in the translation of Paul’s writings – some are shown below – is unfortunate (to say the least) and makes arguing for the accuracy of many translations more difficult.
But who were Paul’s co-workers, and what level of leadership did they really have? For right now, let’s focus on three: Priscilla, Phoebe, and Junia. There is so much that could be covered that information on their roles is presented in a concise list format:
Priscilla. Apparently well-educated, and thus from an influential Roman family.
- Priscilla and Aquila, her husband, taught Apollos more about Christianity after they had heard him speak publicly (Act 18:26). Priscilla was the primary teacher, as evidenced by her name being given first. Of the six times she and her husband are mentioned in the NT, she is first four times. “The order of names in ancient times indicated priority of role and importance” (Schmidt 178). St. Chrysostom (AD 347-407) confirmed that Paul placed Priscilla first for good reason. Significantly, whether ahead of her husband or not, she taught a man.
- She is acknowledged as being well known by the gentile churches (Romans 16:4). She would not have been well known unless she had leadership functions. Paul refers to her as synergos (Romans 16:3), the same word he used for Timothy and Titus, who preached and taught. She was a “fellow worker” (synergos) with Paul, not a silent and passive female.
- One of the oldest and largest catacombs in Rome bears her name, as do several monuments.
- No one really knows who wrote the Book of Hebrews, and the suggestion that Priscilla wrote it is not discounted even in the Archaeological Study Bible (Garrett); some suggest, too, that she “polished up” Paul’s letter to the Romans.
Phoebe. Carrier of the Roman epistle to Rome from Corinth, a 400 mile journey.
- In Romans 16:1-2, Phoebe is referred to as a diakonos, or deacon. “Deaconess” was not a word at that time and was first used in AD 375. The common word “deacon” is most often translated “minister” in the King James Version, though it is rendered “deacon” three times; however, when that word is used with Phoebe, the KJ translators used “servant” instead. Amazingly, the slightly earlier Miles Coverdale bible had kept the word “minister” for Phoebe, but recent translations still use “servant.”
- Paul called himself a deacon (diakonos) in 1 Corinthians 3:5, and it is used for Timothy in Acts 19:22. Deacon is used with “co-worker” (synergos) and commonly meant someone who teaches and preaches; the person would have some authority in the church. Another thing to consider is that the term deacon was masculine and only males functioned as deacons in Greek culture. Paul very well knew what he was doing when he used that term for Phoebe.
- Paul not only said Phoebe was a deacon, but a prostatis (Romans 16:2) as well. Prostatis “meant ‘leading officer’ in the literature at the time the [NT] was written” (Schmidt 181). To us it would mean something like “superintendent.”
- Origen (AD 185-254), who was not a feminist, wrote that based on Romans 16:1-2 Phoebe had apostolic authority.
- Junia is found in Romans 16:7, where the name is still often mistranslated “Junias.” The name “Junias” was non-existent at that time. The Archeological Study Bible (Garret, p 1860) notes that “the more common” reading in Greek is “Junia.” She probably was the wife of Adronicus, the other person mentioned in that verse. For the greater part of church history—the first 1300 years—all acknowledged that the person was a female! Why did bible translators in the last several hundred years change Adronicus’ companions name? Because Paul referred to them both as apostles, and outstanding ones at that. St. Chrysostom, St. Jerome, and Peter Abelard all considered the person to be a woman.
- Paul did not restrict the word “apostle” to the twelve only (he called James an apostle and interchanged it with the word diakonos), as is common today. Origen wrote that women had “apostolic authority” in the church based on Romans 16.
The note on Romans 16:7 in the Apologetics Study Bible (ASB) goes almost as far as what Origen wrote and thought, but why can’t our Christian culture acknowledge what Paul actually wrote? Interesting, isn’t it? I, the author of this paper, am female, yet I have a bit of a hard time personally accepting female church leaders. I believe my view is based on both personal and cultural factors, but knowing what Paul wrote and what Christ did, I would not argue that a congregation is wrong in having a female leader. This is the note from the ASB (Cabal, p 1704):
Many claim that Junia (or Junias), designating one of Paul’s relatives, could be either a man’s or a woman’s name. In fact, the masculine form, Junias (as a contraction of Junianus), has not been located elsewhere, whereas the feminine Junia is common. Of course, if this person was a woman, this would be an intriguing fact, particularly since Paul called Andronicus and Junia “apostles.” J.D. G. Dunn suggests they were husband and wife—a reasonable assumption. The precise status of all who are called apostles isn’t clear. Some were close associates of the apostles, such as Barnabas (Ac 14:14) and James (Gl 1:19), but also see the Greek term apostolos in 2 Co 8:23 and Php 2:25.
Works Cited and Recommended Reading
Anonymous. “Women in Ancient Israel.” Bible History Online. n.d. http://www.bible-history.com/court-of-women/women.html (accessed June 2011).
Cabal, Ted, General Editor. The Apologetics Study Bible. Nashville: Holman Bible Publishers, 2007.
Cowles, C.S. A Woman’s Place? Leadership in the Church. Kansas City : Beacon Hill Press, 1993.
Dunn, James, General Editor. Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003.
Faulkes, Irene Bonney. “Question of Veils in India.” Dr. Irene Faulkes Articles. 2011. http://revirene.org/Question%20Of%20Veils.htm (accessed June 2011).
Garrett, Duane A, General Editor. NIV Archaeological Study Bible. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005.
Schmidt, Alvin John. How Christianity Changed the World. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001.
—. Veiled and Silenced: How Culture Shaped Sexist Theology. Macon: Mercer University Press, 1989.
Zondervan. “Interview with Alvin J. Schmidt.” Zondervan. n.d. http://www.zondervan.com/media/interviews/product/pdf/0310264499_authintrvw.pdf (accessed June 2011).
© Vicki Priest 2014, 2012 (This is an edited version of a series of articles first posted at Examiner.com, 2011, and transferred from withchristianeyes.com)