Women and the Churches: Part I

By: Dale M. Coulter
Friday, June 4th, 2010

Bella's Baptism

Recently my oldest daughter, Bella was baptized. As every parent knows, the baptism of your children is momentous because it is about their becoming members of God’s family. For those who practice believer’s baptism, as I do, the feeling is more akin to what parents who practice infant baptism feel when their children undergo confirmation. To see your child publicly and personally embrace the faith in which she was raised, well, let’s just say it is one of those markers in life.

I have always supported women in ministry in part because from its inception pentecostalism has always had women ministers. This was long before cultural trends were in favor of it. In fact, just the opposite was the case; it went directly against cultural trends.

The baptism of my daughter has reminded me of the prayers I have always prayed for her and my other two children. These are common prayers: that God would raise her up, make her strong in mind and body, give her of powerful sense of calling, use her for his kingdom, in short, that God would cause her to flourish. It is for these reasons that I write now in support of those prayers.

The more I study the history of Christianity, the more it seems apparent to me that the Spirit has continuously raised up women to advance God’s church. The historical fact that they have had to do this while being consigned to particular roles has not stopped the Spirit from giving them a continual voice. So, for the next few posts, I want to talk about women and the churches as a way of honoring all Christian women and expressing a hope for my daughter.

I begin by looking at two women in the Pauline churches, since most arguments against women teaching or being elders stem from Pauline letters. I need to stress at the outset how important it is to use multiple English translations if you cannot read Greek. Some English translations do not accurately communicate the technical meaning of certain terms.

  • Phoebe (Rom. 16:1-2 ESV)

She is described as a diaconos of the church of Cenchreae, a term that can mean servant or minister. Eventually, it designated a

Saint Phoebe

special class of ministers known as deacons. What is important about this term is that it seems to place Phoebe on a  somewhat equal standing with Paul. Paul frequently employed diaconos to refer to his own vocation. Paul received the “ministry (diakonian) of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5:18-19), his “ministry” flowed from his apostleship (Rom. 11:13-14), and he notes that the five-fold office is to equip for the work of the “ministry” (Eph. 4:12 ESV).  In his 1990 study of the term, Collins argues that the term implies acting as a messenger whose task is to relate a message from one who is in authority. Paul normally uses diaconos to refer to a particular group who teach and preach, and thus Paul sees himself and Phoebe as both messengers of Christ who are engaged in similar tasks.

She is also described as a prostatis, which means benefactor. Unfortunately, many translations (NIV, NLT, NASB) render this term as helper or “great help” instead of its technical status of a wealthy woman who has served as a patroness of Paul’s mission. Believers may have met in Phoebe’s house in Cenchreae, and thus she would have occupied a position of authority in the church that met at her house. The term benefactor refers to her financial and social support of ministry and the use of her own house as the meeting place for the church. She most likely used her social influence to help further Paul’s ministry aims.

Finally, she is described as a “sister” (adelphê) which could be a veiled reference to a co-laborer. As scholars have pointed out, in 1 Cor. 9:5 Paul asks the Corinthians whether he has the right to take along a “sister wife” (adelphê gunaika) like Peter, Barnabas, and other apostles. Many translations render this “believing wife,” but it probably means a female missionary partner, not a blood relative or a spouse. You might think of the many times Paul refers to Timothy as his “brother” (Philemon 1; 2 Cor. 1:1; 1 Thess. 3:2). Phoebe could be one such “sister wife.”

So, what to do with this evidence? We could, as Grudem and Piper have done (see p. 68), downplay each of these designations as implying in any way co-leadership with Paul, but it seems to me that they make just as big an interpretive leap as they claim others make who do affirm co-leadership. To make their leap, you have to 1) explain the difference between uses of diaconos to refer to men and those uses in reference to women; 2) explain the difference between calling Timothy a brother and Pheobe a sister; 3) explain how female benefactors actually functioned in the first century since this is the only place the NT uses the term. The weight of all three terms, to my mind, places Phoebe on somewhat equal footing with Paul, as a fellow minister who functioned authoritatively akin to Timothy.

  • Prisca/Priscilla (and Aquila), Rom. 16:3-5

Saint Priscilla

Jerome Murphy-O’Conner has described Prisca and Aquila as “the most prominent couple involved in the first-century expansion of Christianity” (BAR 8:06, Dec. 1992). When we first meet them in Paul’s letters, they lead a house-church in Corinth (1 Cor. 16:19). By the time Paul writes Romans, they are leading a house-church there (Rom. 16:5). They are also mentioned in 2 Tim. 4:19, which suggests they were ministering in Ephesus. Paul refers to them as his “co-workers” (sunergous). Paul uses the term “co-worker” of Titus (2 Cor. 8:23), Timothy (1 Thess. 3:2; Rom. 16:21), and Epaphroditus (Phil. 2:25). In other words, both Prisca and Aquila are fellow ministers of the gospel.

The most interesting information about the couple comes from Luke. We learn that they had to leave Rome after the expulsion of the Jews by the emperor Claudius and first met Paul at Corinth (Acts 18:1-2). Thus the couple led house-churches in Rome, Corinth, and Ephesus, three prominent centers of early Christianity. They are also described as “tent makers” like Paul (Acts 18:3), which means that they were business travelers who made the awnings for stalls in the market place. They most likely owned a house that also functioned as a business.

Luke also indicates that they took the prominent convert, Apollos, and “explained the way of God” to him (Acts 18:26). This probably means that they took him into their house-church and discipled him. The fact that in this context Prisca/Priscilla’s name is mentioned first suggests that she may have been the primary teacher. In fact, four out of the six times the couple is mentioned in the NT, Prisca appears first, which, according to Murphy-O’Conner, probably points toward a more prominent role. Of course, Grudem and Piper, dismiss all of this evidence as inconclusive and thus not of much value to the role women occupied.

In this blog, I could only survey two women mentioned in the Pauline churches, Phoebe and Prisca. Based on what we find in these two women, the case is mounting that women were in fact occupying positions of leadership and authority in Pauline communities. However, we will need more “evidence” to suggest this. One of the problems I have with Grudem’s and Piper’s analysis of women is that they do not seem concerned to consider the social function of early house-churches and the various roles within them. They have a standard response that the data is insufficient, but one could ask “insufficient to whom?” There are assumptions being made by Paul and Luke about the terms they employ that we can only learn by examining how those terms functioned in the first century and what a household looked like.

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Dale M. Coulter
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2 Responses to “Women and the Churches: Part I”

  1. don bryant says:

    It is insufficient to anyone doing a close reading of the text. If someone wants to make what would on any historical-grammatical reading of the text be insufficient to establish a conclusion sufficient for a conclusion, they cannot be stopped. But if words put into sentences mean anything, then there can be a fair and public rendering of what sufficient and insufficient mean. That women were denied the office of eldership by Paul and Jesus himself practiced male specific apostleship certainly are controlling guidelines for interpretation. I understand how complicated arguments can be and how many questions can be posed. But questions about how women operated in house churches, while useful, will not unsettle the male headship pattern.

    • Don,

      Thanks for staying tuned to the blog and the comments. You raise a question of how to apply the “scripture should interpret scripture” principle and also the question of headship. I appreciate these kinds of questions because it helps me think through the issues–as iron sharpens iron. So, again thanks.

      I’m not sure what you mean by headship since that term normally stems from Pauline statements about husband/wife relations rather than about church leadership. I don’t see the two as connected myself, and I’m not sure Paul does either since, unless I am mistaken, he does not deal with headship in the context of leadership discussions. So, the structure of the family and the structure of the church are not connected in my view.

      On the question of hermeneutics, unfortunately I’ll have to punt for now although I do plan to deal with those issues. Let’s just say that in my view how one interprets 1 Timothy 2 depends in part upon how one reads the overall structure of the Pauline churches. So, if Paul’s consistent pattern is to permit female leadership, then one has to wonder what is happening at Ephesus to cause him to say otherwise. Admittedly, this is one reason why most NT interpreters don’t think Paul wrote the pastoral letters, but I am assuming Pauline authorship here. So, give me some time to address the question of hermeneutics.