Women Leaders in the Early Church

By Mimi Haddad 2-16-2009

Look at these astonishing verses from Romans 16.

I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon 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.

Greet Prisca and Aquila, who work with me in Christ Jesus, and who risked their necks for my life, to whom not only I give thanks, but also all the churches of the Gentiles. Greet also the church in their house. Greet my beloved Epaenetus, who was the first convert in Asia for Christ. Greet Mary, who has worked very hard among you. Greet Andronicus and Junia, my relatives who were in prison with me; they are prominent among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was. Greet Ampliatus, my beloved in the Lord. Greet Urbanus, our co-worker in Christ, and my beloved Stachys. Greet Apelles, who is approved in Christ. Greet those who belong to the family of Aristobulus. Greet my relative Herodion. Greet those in the Lord who belong to the family of Narcissus. Greet those workers in the Lord, Tryphaena and Tryphosa. Greet the beloved Persis, who has worked hard in the Lord. Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord; and greet his mother -- a mother to me also. Greet Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermes, Patrobas, Hermas, and the brothers and sisters who are with them. Greet Philologus, Julia, Nereus and his sister, and Olympas, and all the saints who are with them. Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the churches of Christ greet you (Romans 16:1-15, NRSV).

Have you ever noticed how the church in the first century was far more egalitarian (with respect to class, gender, and ethnicity) than many evangelical churches are today? Isn't this astonishing! Just look at the list of believers Paul celebrates as his colleagues in bringing the good news of Jesus to the world in Romans 16:1-15. A vast portion of these saints, who were also leaders in the church, were women and slaves. If we are people who hold scripture as an authoritative guide to our faith and our practices, then why don't more churches today reflect the leadership that women enjoyed in the first-century church in Rome?

Who are these women in Romans 16? Paul begins his roll call of leaders with a woman -- Phoebe, a deacon and leader who carried Paul's letters to the church in Rome. By citing Phoebe first, Paul affirms the leadership of women already in place in this church. Further, Paul asks that the church in Rome "receive Phoebe in the Lord," suggesting that Phoebe be received as Paul's emissary to remain with the church, giving additional verbal commentary on Paul's letters to the Christians in Rome.

Paul then turns his attention to the leadership of Priscilla, another female leader who earned Paul's respect as a house church leader (1 Corinthians 16:19), a teacher of men (Acts 18:26), and a courageous leader who risked her neck for the gospel (Romans 16:4). She is also a woman Paul celebrates as his co-worker (Romans 16:3), a distinction she shares with men such as Timothy, Titus, Epaphroditus, and Philemon.

Paul then remembers the hard (gospel) work of Mary, and the leadership of Junia the apostle (Romans 16:7). Not only was Junia an apostle, but she was "prominent among the apostles," suggesting that her leadership was recognized at the highest level -- by leaders such as Paul. The courageous leadership of Junia landed her in jail, along with her husband and the apostle Paul.

Given the patriarchy of the first century, you would hardly expect to see so many women, in one passage, cited for their hard labor and leadership in the church. Rather than silencing these women, as Paul silences those women whose voices were disruptive (1 Corinthians 14:34) or those who were abusive and who misled others (1 Timothy 2:11-15), here Paul acknowledges their voices, leadership, and service. What would happen if our churches gave women today this sort of honor and scope of service?

All told, Paul's passage mentions 10 women (Phoebe, Prisca, Mary, Junia, Tryphena, Tryphosa, Persis, Rufus' mother, Julia, the sister of Nerus) and 17 men. In other words, 37% of those mentioned are women! While some evangelical churches have difficulty engaging the God-given gifts and leadership of women, let us take comfort that Paul, in the first century, viewed the gospel-labor of women as a priceless resource of God, and one that he chose to engage rather than ignore.

As the world evaluates Christian faith and its treatment of women, can we really afford to overlook the biblical foundations for gift-based, rather than gender-based, ministry?

Mimi Haddad

Mimi Haddad is the president of Christians for Biblical Equality.

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