What Happened In The Early Ecclesias?
(5) What Happened
in the Early Ecclesias?
That women were actively
involved, and to a considerable extent, is shown repeatedly in the New
Testament. To us in the twenty-first century this does not seem surprising, but
within the context of the ancient world it was a new and important development
which followed on from the example of Jesus himself. This becomes obvious as we
look through the book of Acts and the letters of the apostle Paul.
After Jesus’ ascension the women
met at prayer along with the apostles.
[the eleven] with one accord devoted themselves to prayer, together with the
women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers. (Acts
On the Day of Pentecost “they were all together in one place” when
“they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues,
as the Spirit gave them utterance” (Acts 2:1-4). People asked,
“… how is
it that we hear, each of us in his own native language? … Cretans and Arabians,
we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God. … What does
this mean?” (Acts 2:6-12)
Peter explained the new situation to the puzzled and sceptical
onlookers in terms of the prophecy of Joel. No longer was God’s Spirit poured
out on only a few prophets or prophetesses, as in the Old Testament, but from
Pentecost onwards it was to be poured out on all people (“all flesh”).
And in the
last days it shall be, God declares,
will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
young men shall see visions,
old men shall dream dreams;
yea, on my
menservants and my maidservants in those days
pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. (Acts 2:17-18)
Since this is quoted as a prophecy fulfilled in the events
observed, it is reasonable to understand that women actually prophesied on the
Day of Pentecost itself. The prophesying is
described as “telling … the mighty works of God” (verse 11). It is a form of
preaching and teaching. The prophesying by both men and women, as predicted here,
is shown to be fulfilled as Christianity spread. Philip had four daughters who
prophesied, something described favourably in Acts 21:9 when the apostle Paul
stayed with Philip in Caesarea. Paul in 1 Corinthians 11 approved of both
brothers and sisters praying and prophesying.
After the arrest and later release of Peter and John, the
believers prayed together.
they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken; and
they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God with
We should observe the
word “all”, as in Acts 2:4. There is no suggestion that it was just the men who
received the Holy Spirit, or just the men who “spoke the word of God with
Reports in Acts repeatedly stress
that the apostolic preaching was to both men and women. Both sexes believed and
than ever believers were added to the Lord, multitudes both of men and
they believed Philip as he preached good news about the kingdom of God and the
name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women. (Acts
the stoning of Stephen,
great persecution arose against the church in Jerusalem; and they were all
scattered throughout the region of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. …
But Saul laid waste the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off
men and women and committed them to prison. (Acts 8:3)
Paul arrested both men and women,
which provides us with additional evidence that women were directly involved in
the Christian movement. Frequently in conflict situations, it is the men who
are arrested and imprisoned. The fact that women were arrested suggests that
they were seen as a threat because they too were active promoters of “this
persecuted this Way to the death, binding and delivering to prison both men and
women....” (Acts 22:4)
Acts 8 describes what those scattered in the persecution did.
who were scattered went about preaching the word. (Acts 8:4)
Verse 1 said that all
the believers were scattered “except the apostles”. Evidently, this “preaching
the word” was not done by the apostles for they stayed in Jerusalem. It was
done by “those who were scattered”, amongst whom were both men and women. Here
we see Jesus’ “Great Commission” in action. There are many facets to “preaching
the word”. It includes announcement, but also teaching and explaining – or as
Jesus put it: “… make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of
the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all
that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20). The book of Acts gives every
reason to think that both men and women were actively involved in preaching and
teaching as the Christian movement spread.
When Paul and Silas crossed to
Europe, Luke wrote with enthusiasm that “a great many of the devout Greeks and
not a few of the leading women” joined them (Acts 17:4). At Beroea “not a few
Greek women of high standing as well as men” became believers (Acts 17:12).
This was important because such people could wield great influence in the
promotion of the gospel. At the place of prayer in Philippi, Paul and Silas
spoke to Lydia, a business woman (a seller of purple) from Thyatira:
opened her heart to give heed to what was said by Paul. And when she was
baptized, with her household, she besought us, saying, “If you have judged me
to be faithful to the Lord, come to my house and stay.” And she prevailed upon
The term “household” encompasses relations and slaves, male and
female. Lydia had been a “worshipper of God”, which meant she was interested in
Judaism but had not converted to it. In Judaism there was no initiatory rite
for women comparable with circumcision for men, whereas conscious commitment by
baptism into Christ was individual
to each man or woman.
Lydia’s house presumably became
one of the places where believers met just as we hear of “the church in their
house” in 1 Corinthians 16:19, referring to the house of Aquila and Priscilla.
Lydia, as a seller of purple (an international trade) would be accustomed to
speaking with and making arrangements with all sorts of people, so she would be
an ideal person in whose house to centre the ecclesia. After Paul and Silas
were released from jail, they visited Lydia and encouraged the new converts:
went out of the prison, and visited Lydia; and when they had seen the brethren,
they exhorted them and departed. (Acts
In Colossians 4:15 greetings are sent “to Nympha and the church in
This suggests house-ecclesias in the homes of at least two sisters, Lydia and
Nympha. No mention is made of their husbands. Perhaps these women were
unmarried, widows, or their husbands were unbelievers, or away from home. Women
would in any case “rule their households” (1 Timothy 5:14), and if the
household of “women of high standing” did not include children, it certainly
included male and female slaves; accordingly these women had considerable influence.
Lydia is presented by Luke as a woman of independent means, independent mind
and “faithful to the Lord”. Later at Philippi we hear of two similar women,
Euodia and Syntyche.
Also in the ecclesia at
Philippi was the jailer, a Gentile evidently, and we are not told his name. But
he was baptised “with all his family” (Acts 16:33). Paul left Philippi,
probably the next day, and called there once more (Acts 20:6). By the time he
wrote the letter to the Philippians, there appears to have been a flourishing
ecclesia with overseers and deacons (Philippians 1:1). We cannot expect the
Gentile jailer to have had much knowledge to build the ecclesia up; the obvious
person to have carried on the work of preaching and teaching is Lydia, with her
background as a “worshipper of God” even before “the Lord opened her heart”
Fellow Workers and Those Who Labour in the Lord
Sadly, Euodia and Syntyche were
in conflict with one another.
Euodia and I entreat Syntyche to agree in the Lord. And I ask you also, true
yokefellow, help these women, for they have laboured side by side with me in
the gospel together with Clement and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names
are in the book of life. (Philippians 4:2-3)
The subject under dispute is not disclosed but the influential
nature of these two sisters is seen in Paul’s description. Firstly they have
“laboured side by side” with Paul, and secondly they are grouped as doing this
along with Clement and the rest of Paul’s “fellow workers”.
The phrase “laboured side by side” translates the single verb synathleo. It is worth noting that Paul
did not say that they worked under
him, as might have been said by a leader in today’s world. Syn means “together”, while athleo
(which gives us the word “athlete”) means to strive hard, to struggle to win
against strong opposition, just as athletes do to achieve victory in the
Olympic Games. The same verb was used in chapter 1 verse 27, where it is
translated as “striving side by side” for the faith of the gospel.
your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come
and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you stand firm in one spirit,
with one mind striving side by side
for the faith of the gospel, and not frightened in anything by your opponents.
1:27-28, italics ours.)
The verb synathleo when
coupled with “for the faith of the gospel” is too strong in meaning to indicate
simply material help or hospitality. Paul’s description suggests energetic
activity to promote the faith and defend it against opponents.
Several words meaning “work” are used particularly for the work of
the gospel. The words are the verb kopiao
and the nouns kopos and ergon. Kopos in particular means “hard work” or “toil” and is a favourite
word of Paul’s to describe missionary activity and the upbuilding of ecclesias.
“Fellow workers” is synergoi,
literally “workers together”. These words are used of those who worked together
with Paul as leaders in the service of preaching, teaching and providing
examples in behaviour. Leadership, patterned on Jesus, is not ordering people
about but is service to others. As Jesus says in Luke 22:25-26 “... let the
greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves”.
Writing about his own work and
that of Apollos, Paul says:
plants and he who waters are equal, and each shall receive his wages according
to his labour (kopos). For we are
fellow workers (synergoi) for God;
you are God’s field, God’s building.
To the Thessalonians Paul writes:
you, brethren, to respect those who labour (kopiao)
among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them
very highly in love because of their work (ergon).
(1 Thess. 5:12-13)
In 2 Corinthians 8:23 Paul describes Titus as “my partner and
fellow worker (synergos).” In
Philippians 2:25-30 Paul speaks of Epaphroditus as “my brother and fellow
worker (synergos) and fellow soldier”
and says “he nearly died for the work (ergon)
of Christ, risking his life to complete your service to me.” In Romans 16 Paul
describes Prisca [Priscilla] and Aquila and Timothy as “fellow workers” (synergoi). Urbanus is “our fellow worker
in Christ” (synergos). Of Mary it is
said: “she has worked hard (kopiao) among
you”, and Tryphaena, Tryphosa, and Persis are called “workers in the Lord (kopiao)”. In Colossians 4:11
Aristarchus, Mark and Jesus called Justus are the only Jewish fellow workers
present at that point with Paul. In Philemon 24, Mark, Aristarchus, Demas and
Luke are mentioned as fellow workers, while Philemon is also addressed as such.
The work Philemon does is described in verses 2, 6 and 7: he has a church in
his house, he is sharing his faith, and the “hearts of the saints have been
refreshed” through him.
It is significant that both
brothers and sisters are described as “workers in the Lord” and “fellow
workers”, and there is no difference expressed in the work they do.
How these fellow workers dovetailed with others such as the
overseers (bishops) and deacons mentioned in Philippians is not explained. Like the apostle Paul,
they seem to have been able to move about from ecclesia to ecclesia, promoting
the gospel. That they are not simply ordinary believers who are cooperating
with Paul is clear from the instructions that the brothers and sisters in
Corinth are to be subject to them.
brethren, you know that the household of Stephanas were the first converts in
Achaia, and they have devoted themselves to the service of the saints; I urge
you to be subject to such men and to every fellow worker and labourer. (1
The word “men” does not occur in the Greek. Paul’s instructions
are “be subject to such people and to every fellow worker and labourer”.
to such as these, and to everyone who joins in the work and labours at it.”
Priscilla and Aquila
Two of those described as fellow
workers are Priscilla and Aquila (wife and husband). They travelled extensively
– from Rome to Corinth, where they lived with Paul, and with Paul from Corinth
to Ephesus, where later they had a church in their house (1 Corinthians 16:19).
They were back in Rome and obviously active in the ecclesia there when Paul
sent his greetings and described them as “my fellow workers in Christ Jesus” (Romans
In Acts they are shown teaching
Apollos in Ephesus. Apollos became one of the main leaders in the early church.
Priscilla and Aquila heard him [Apollos], they took him and expounded to him
the way of God more accurately. (Acts
No reservation is expressed or implied about the fact that both
“expounded to him the way of God”. Teaching is evidently one of the activities
undertaken by Paul’s fellow workers, as we would expect of those who were
spreading the gospel and maintaining an ecclesia in their house.
The words “fellow worker” are not
used of Phoebe, though it is thought she was entrusted by Paul with the
responsibility of taking his letter to the believers in Rome.
to you our sister Phoebe, a deaconess of the church at Cenchreae, that you may
receive her in the Lord as befits the saints, and help her in whatever she may
require from you, for she has been a helper of many and of myself as well. (Romans
She is called a “deacon” (diakonos)
of the ecclesia in Cenchreae, and Paul says she was a “helper” (prostatis) of many, himself included.
Opinion is divided as to how diakonos
and prostatis should be understood.
It is not clear whether
diakonos refers to a particular ecclesial office as in 1 Timothy 3:8-13 and
Philippians 1:1, or whether the word should be translated as “servant” (KJV and
To all the
saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the bishops and deacons. (Philippians
The word diakonos is
used in 1 Corinthians 3:5 for leaders like Paul and Apollos, who are “servants
(diakonoi) through whom you believed,
as the Lord assigned to each.” Paul doesn’t claim personal credit for himself
or for Apollos in this description, but adds “we are fellow workers for God”
(verse 9). The same word is used of Jesus himself in Romans 15.
I tell you
that Christ became a servant (diakonos)
to the circumcised to show God’s truthfulness, in order to confirm the promises
given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for
There seems something special, therefore, in describing Phoebe as
a diakonos. Accordingly, in Romans
16:2 diakonos is frequently
translated as a title or an office. Translations vary: RSV and the Jerusalem
Bible translate “deaconess”; GNB “who serves the church”; NEB “who holds office
in the congregation”; REB “a minister in the church”. Though we should all be
“servants” of Christ and to one another, Paul’s use of diakonos to describe Phoebe suggests she was more than an ordinary
member of the ecclesia.
Phoebe is also described as a prostatis,
the feminine of the word prostates. Prostates means “leader”, “chief”,
“ruler”, and the other words in the New Testament from this same word-group are
usually translated with leadership connotations e.g. Romans 12:8 (“authority”
GNB, “leadership” NIV) and 1 Timothy 5:17 (“rule” RSV, “who direct the affairs
of the church” NIV). Another suggestion is that it may mean “sponsor” or
“benefactor” (NRSV) or “patron”, i.e. a believer who supported the activities
with her own money. It
therefore seems to underplay the translation of prostatis simply to say “helper”. As with diakonos it is difficult to be sure of the meaning but the word prostatis suggests, at the very least, a
woman of important, approved influence.
In Romans 16:7 greetings are sent to Andronicus and Junia/Junias
who are described as “men of note among the apostles.” The word “men” is an
addition in the English translation. The original says “who are of note among
the apostles” and the expression could without difficulty refer to Andronicus
(masculine) and Junia (or Julia) (if feminine). GNB says: “they are well known
among the apostles”. “Apostles” in this sense does not mean the twelve, but is
a term used of those sent by ecclesias either as missionaries or messengers.
Such apostles are mentioned in 1 Corinthians 12:28, 2 Corinthians 8:23 and Philippians 2:25:
“Epaphroditus my brother and fellow worker and fellow soldier, and your
messenger (apostolos) and minister to
my need”. “Of note among the apostles” either means “well-known to the apostles”, or “well-known as apostles”. However, while the name
Andronicus is indisputably masculine, there is disagreement about Junias or
Junia (or Julia in some manuscripts). John Chrysostom (347-407), like most
considered she was a woman and commented:
apostles is something great. But to be outstanding among them – just think what
wonderful praise that is! How great this woman’s devotion to learning must have
been that she was deemed worthy of the title apostle. (Homily on Romans 16)
Only Epiphanius (315-403 AD), bishop of Salamis in Cyprus,
considered Paul referred to Junias a man, not Junia a woman:
of whom Paul makes mention, became bishop of Apameia of Syria. (Index of Disciples, 125:19-20)
Epiphanius may preserve an independent tradition that Junias
became a bishop, but he also considers Prisca (i.e. Priscilla) mentioned in
Romans 16:3 to be a man too, so his evidence is not necessarily reliable. He was strongly against
leadership by women, and wrote: “In very truth, women are a feeble race,
untrustworthy and of mediocre intelligence” (Panarion 79).
This reference to Junias/Junia
has too much ambiguity to prove that women could be described as “apostles”,
but gives an interesting example of how words, translations, facts and analysis
Assessing the Evidence
Although the translation of
individual words is sometimes uncertain and there are variant readings in the
manuscripts, there is ample evidence from the early ecclesias to indicate a
considerable and active involvement by sisters in the work of the gospel.
When Paul speaks of both brothers and sisters as “fellow workers”
(synergoi), those who “work (kopiao) in the Lord”, no difference can
be seen in the work described. His workers and fellow workers do the jobs
necessary for the promotion of the Christian message and the upbuilding of the
ecclesias. The significantly large numbers of sisters involved is in line with
the attitude of Jesus when he encouraged women to learn and to spread the
message. It follows on from the pronouncement on the Day of Pentecost that now
God would speak through both men and women.
This does not mean that all the
people described in Paul’s letters did exactly the same. Paul was in a special
position as an apostle, but so too were those he described as “fellow workers”
and “labourers” (male and female); leadership and teaching as well as action
and example must underlie Paul’s comments that believers were to be subject “to
every fellow worker and labourer”, “to respect those who labour among you and
are over you in the Lord”. Otherwise, what does Paul mean by giving such
instructions (1 Corinthians 16:16, 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13)? If it is asserted
that the work of male and female “fellow workers” and “labourers” is
differentiated into male and female roles, despite Paul’s inclusive statements,
some evidence needs to be presented.
We will look further at Paul’s
letters, observe the way he encourages ecclesial activity and what that means
in practice. We will observe, again, that women are well involved, and we will
check carefully to see whether different roles in ecclesial activities are
specified for men and women in the Lord.
is putting oneself at the service of others. It does not mean “take orders
from”! We understand this passage in 1 Corinthians 16:16 to
mean that Stephanas and his family worked hard to support and help the
believers. The diakonia (“service”,
“ministry”) is not explained, but can reasonably be understood to mean
spiritual and practical support, i.e. they promoted the gospel by preaching and
teaching, and in parallel they put the principles into practical effect in
caring and supporting. By saying “be subject to
such people and to every fellow worker and labourer” Paul means that the
Corinthians should do their best to support them, to follow their good lead, to
understand and apply their encouraging teaching about the meaning of the new
life in Christ. See also Chapter 25 “The Husband is Head of the Wife”.
It is worth
observing how the King James Version plays down the relevant words.
I commend unto you Phebe our sister, which is a servant [diakonos] of the church which is at
Cenchrea: That ye receive her in the Lord, as becometh saints, and that ye assist
her in whatsoever business she hath need of you: for she hath been a succourer
[prostatis] of many, and of myself
also. Greet Priscilla and Aquila my helpers [synergoi] in Christ Jesus.