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.

All these [the eleven] with one accord devoted themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers.                                                                   (Acts 1:14)

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,

that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,

and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,

and your young men shall see visions,

and your old men shall dream dreams;

yea, on my menservants and my maidservants in those days

I will 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.[1] 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.

And when 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 boldness.                                        (Acts 4:31)

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 boldness”.

Reports in Acts repeatedly stress that the apostolic preaching was to both men and women. Both sexes believed and were baptized.

And more than ever believers were added to the Lord, multitudes both of men and women.                                                          (Acts 5:14)

But when 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 8:12)

After the stoning of Stephen,

a 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 Way”.

“I 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.

Now those 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.


Influential Women

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:

The Lord 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 us.                                     (Acts 16:14-15)

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[2] 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:

So they went out of the prison, and visited Lydia; and when they had seen the brethren, they exhorted them and departed.   (Acts 16:40)

In Colossians 4:15 greetings are sent “to Nympha and the church in her house.”[3] 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” (Acts 16:14).


Fellow Workers and Those Who Labour in the Lord

Sadly, Euodia and Syntyche were in conflict with one another.

I entreat 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.

Only let 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.

                                                            (Philippians 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:

He who 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. 

                                                                        (1 Corinthians 3:8-9)

To the Thessalonians Paul writes:

We beseech 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.[4] 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.

Now, 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 Corinthians 16:16)

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”.

Submit to such as these, and to everyone who joins in the work and labours at it.” (NIV)[5]


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 16:3).

In Acts they are shown teaching Apollos in Ephesus. Apollos became one of the main leaders in the early church.

... when Priscilla and Aquila heard him [Apollos], they took him and expounded to him the way of God more accurately.              (Acts 18:26)

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.[6]



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.

I commend 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 16:1-2)

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 NIV).

To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the bishops and deacons.                                                              (Philippians 1:1)

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 his mercy.

(Romans 15:8-9)

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.[7] 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.[8]



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[9] 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”,[10] or “well-known as apostles”[11]. 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 ancient writers,[12] considered she was a woman and commented:

To be 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:

Junias, 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.[13] 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 can vary.


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.




[1] Acts 2:13 has been quoted to argue that only men spoke with tongues: “These men are full of new wine” (KJV). The word “men” does not appear in the original Greek. RSV translates “They are filled with new wine.” GNB “These people are drunk.”

[2] Baptism itself, however, was a Jewish practice for converts to Judaism and was applied to both men and women.

[3] Some manuscripts say “Nymphas and the church in his house” (as KJV) but those manuscripts which are thought to be more reliable say “Nympha ... in her house” (as RSV, NEB, NIV, GNB, NRSV). Some manuscripts say “their house”.

[4] “To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the bishops and deacons: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” (Philippians 1:1-2)

[5] Submission 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”.

[6] It has been suggested that this teaching was in private, and therefore there is no conflict between Priscilla’s act of teaching here and the prohibition in 1 Timothy 2:12, “I permit no woman to teach”. The phrase for “in private” occurs several times in the New Testament (e.g. Matthew 24:3, Acts 23:19, Galatians 2:2), but is not used here of Priscilla and Aquila in regards to Apollos. The verb “they took him” is variously translated: “they took him to their home” (NIV), “they took him in hand” (NEB), “they took him home with them” (GNB), and “they took him aside” (NRSV). Since they met him in the synagogue at Ephesus, it could mean they taught him in a corner in the synagogue! The New Testament makes no distinction between public and private teaching, and believers normally met in homes anyway for meetings.

[7] The longest extant inscription in Corinth was set up in AD 43 to Junia Theodora who was honoured for her patronage (prostasia). It was one of several inscriptions to her. Her actions as patroness are described in a decree from the Lycian city of Telmessos: “[She] welcomes into her own house Lycian travellers and our citizens ... supplying them with everything.” It is possible, therefore, that hospitality and financial support may be in mind when Paul spoke of Phoebe as a prostatis. See After Paul Left Corinth, Bruce W. Winter, (Eerdmans, 2001) pages 199-203.


[8] 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.

Phoebe is a “servant”, but had Phoebe been a masculine name, the word would doubtless have been translated “deacon”. Prostatis is translated “succourer”, and Priscilla and Aquila are “helpers”, although the text clearly says “fellow workers”. Can we see in the KJV the influence of the later church tradition which presumed that women did not hold office, and therefore Phoebe could not have been a deacon, despite the statement in the text? Later translations indicate a more positive assessment.

[9] In 2 Corinthians 8:17-24 Paul says he is sending two brothers along with Titus “my partner and fellow worker in your service”. These he describes as apostles (apostoloi, “messengers”). In the preceding few verses we are provided with the description that one of them is “famous among all the churches for his preaching of the gospel” and that “he has been appointed by the churches to travel with us”. The second is described as “our brother whom we have often tested and found earnest in many matters”.

[10] M. H. Brurer and O. B. Wallace, after examining Greek usage in many Greek texts, conclude the translation can only be: “well-known to the apostles”, New Testament Studies (CUP), Vol. 47, January 2001, pages 76-91.

[11] Linda Belleville, after examining primary usage in the computer databases of Hellenistic Greek literary works, papyri, inscriptions and artefacts maintains that Junia is feminine, and that the grammar of the phrase without exception means, “notable among the apostles”, New Testament Studies (CUP), Vol. 51, April 2005, pages 250-269, i.e. Andronicus and Junia are well known apostles.


[12] E.g. Ambrosiaster, Rufinus, Jerome, John Damascene. “Origen seems to cite the name once as masculine and once as feminine, though the masculine is most likely a later corruption of his text.” See Brurer and Wallace, ibid, page 76.

[13] “Epiphanius is not reliable in preserving and interpreting his sources accurately,” Clemens Leonhard, The Jewish Pesach and the Origins of the Christian Easter (2006), page 222.

previous page table of contents next page