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Leading ladies of the early church: women who serve the church today can find friends and foremothers in the working women of early Christianity.

ABOUT 20 YEARS AGO, WHEN I WAS A YOUNG DOCTORAL STUDENT, a concerned older priest asked me what I would ever do with a doctorate in biblical studies, as if it were somehow odd for a woman religious to study scripture. I was startled at his question, having seen in my generation a steady growth of women ministers in all areas of the church.

Today I am a professor of New Testament at Catholic Theological Union, the largest Catholic school of theology and ministry in the United States. Close to half of the more than 500 students I teach at CTU are women who are following the call of the Spirit to a life of ministry.

They are parish administrators and pastoral associates, directors of religious education and liturgy, chairs of parish councils and youth ministers. In diocesan offices they are chancellors, department heads, and managers. They are theological educators and administrators in seminaries and schools of theology. In fact, a recent study by the National Pastoral Life Center revealed that of the more than 30,000 paid parish lay ministers, 80 percent are women.

This growing presence of women in Catholic ministry has intensified the discussion about the role and ministry of women in the Catholic Church. The discovery at the end of the Cold War that the underground church in communist Czechoslovakia had ordained Ludmila Javorova and other women beginning in 1970 added further fuel to the debate, as did Pope John Paul II's 1994 apostolic letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, which states that the church "has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women."

But such stirrings are not only the result of new approaches to ministry since Vatican II. The New Testament gives evidence that from the beginning of Christianity women have been serving the church in ways that today correspond to the work of ordained priests and deacons. The ancient Christian women named in Paul's letters and the Acts of the Apostles in particular may help us answer some of the questions we have today about women's ministries in our past and the possibilities that may exist for the future.

Church servant

Paul's letter to the Romans concludes with a letter of recommendation for a woman named Phoebe and a list of greetings to various ministers. Notably, 11 of the 30 people Paul names are women. Phoebe is identified as a diakonos of the church located in Cenchreae (Rom. 16:1-2), one of ancient Corinth's two port cities.

The title Greek diakonos is translated various ways, including "deacon," "minister," and "servant," reflecting the fact that ministerial terms at that time were still fluid. The translation "deaconess" is incorrect. Diakonos is masculine in form; the feminine form diakonissa did not develop until the late third or early fourth century.

In Paul's day there were no set job descriptions or titles, no official ordinations, no fixed lists of different tasks for different kinds of ministers. Even when we find references to diakonoi ("deacons" or "ministers," 1 Tim. 3:8-13), presbyteroi ("presbyters" or "elders," 1 Tim. 5:17-22; Titus 1:5-9; 2:1-5), and episkopoi ("bishops" or "overseers," 1 Tim. 3:1-7; Titus 1:7-9) in the New Testament, these are not job descriptions but lists of qualifications that make for a good minister. In these texts there is little distinction between what makes a good diakonos, presbyteros, or episkopos. In the list of qualifications for deacons, Timothy's writer explicitly mentions women; Titus mentions both men and women presbyters.

Without an obvious job description, determining what Phoebe might have done as a deacon requires some detective work. Biblical scholars look for answers by studying the various ways the verb diakonein and the noun diakonia (both related to diakonos) are used in the New Testament.

In the gospels the word epitomizes the mission of Jesus, who "came not to be served but to serve" (Mark 10:45) and characterizes a leader as "one who serves" (Luke 22:26). The different kinds of service encompassed by this word include apostolic ministry (Acts 1:25), ministry of the table and of the Word (Acts 6:2, 4), and financial ministry (Acts 11:29).

We can envision Phoebe serving in any and all of these ministries. She could have been the one who led the prayers and the breaking of the bread when the community gathered to celebrate the Lord's Supper, in addition to preaching, teaching, and evangelizing.

It is likely Phoebe became the leader because she had the resources to host and finance the community. Another clue to her status is that Paul calls her hisprostatis (Rom. 16:2). The root meaning of that word is "leader," and in Greek literature it has political connotations. In the Roman period it signified "patron," that is, one who provided funds, protection, and political influence for his or her clients. What is startling is that Paul recognizes Phoebe's leadership not only over others but over himself as well.

Head of the household

In the passage that mentions Phoebe, Paul goes on to greet Prisca and her husband, Aquila, who are "co-workers" with him "in Christ Jesus" (Rom. 16:3). "Co-worker" is the term Paul uses most often to describe both women and men who minister with him in the spread of the gospel. Other women so designated are Mary (Rom. 16:6, presumably not one of the gospel Marys) and Tryphaena, Tryphosa, and Persis, who have "worked very hard in the Lord" (Rom. 16:12). Paul says Euodia and Syntyche have "struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my coworkers" (Phil. 4:3). The concept of team ministry, then, so common in parishes today, is not a modern invention.

Prisca, along with Aquila, is also the head of a house church (Rom. 16:5). According to Acts 18, where she is called Priscilla, Prisca is an artisan, a tentmaker, a working-class woman, who collaborates with her husband in their craft. Having first hosted Paul in Corinth, Prisca and Aquila later travel with him to Ephesus. It is likely that this missionary couple founded the church in Ephesus in modern-day Turkey. It is interesting that in four of the six times that Prisca and Aquila are named in the New Testament, Prisca is named first. This likely signifies that she was of a higher status than her husband.

We have no description of what Prisca's ministry included. Most likely it strongly resembled that of Phoebe: presiding over worship, overseeing the education of the community, and coordinating ministries of hospitality, service, and evangelization.

One important aspect of Prisca's ministry is revealed in Acts 18:24-26. While she and Aquila were in Ephesus, a Jew from Alexandria named Apollos arrived. He was "an eloquent man, well-versed in the scriptures," with powerful gifts for preaching and teaching. While he "spoke and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus," there was some deficiency in his knowledge, so Prisca and Aquila "took him aside and explained the Way of God to him more accurately." Prisca's gifts and status must outweigh even those of the eloquent and learned Apollos for her to be able to take upon herself his continuing education.

The other heads of house churches named in the New Testament are all female: Nympha (Col. 4:15), Mary (Acts 12:12), Lydia (Acts 16:40), Apphia (Philem. 1:2), and possibly Chloe (1 Cor. 1:11) and Martha (Luke 10:38). In these instances their marital status is not clear; they may have been widows.

Prominent apostle

A less-known pair are Paul's relatives Andronicus and Junia, who were imprisoned with him, were Christians before he was, and were "prominent among the apostles" (Rom 16:7). Much more familiar to most Christians are the 12 apostles listed in Mark 3:13-19 and elsewhere. Yet there are numerous other apostles named in the Pauline letters, most prominently Paul himself (Rom. 1:1), Apollos (1 Cor. 4:9), Barnabas (1 Cor. 9:5-6), Epaphroditus (Phil. 2:25), and Silvanus and Timothy (1 Thess. 2:7). In addition, there were unnamed apostles, such as the 70 sent out in pairs, possibly as married couples (Luke 10:1-12).

The word apostolos, "apostle," means "one sent," an envoy or a missionary. In nonreligious Greek literature it refers to a bearer of a message. A Christian apostle is one sent to carry on the mission of Jesus: to preach the Good News and to have authority to drive out demons and to heal (Mark 6:7, 13, for example). In the gospels those so commissioned include the Twelve and the women at the empty tomb.

Paul's letters offer slightly different qualifications for apostleship. In defending his own apostolic ministry (1 Cor. 9:1-27), the credentials he lists are that he has seen the risen Lord and has been commissioned by Christ to proclaim the Good News.

While the gospels do not apply the title "apostle" to Mary Magdalene and the other Galilean women at the tomb, they are portrayed as having the qualifications that Paul lists. Indeed, from early on church leaders such as Hippolytus of Rome and Origen--who both died in the 200s--regarded Mary Magdalene as "apostle to the apostles"; Origen speaks of the Samaritan woman as an apostle and evangelist in his commentary on John 4.

Although Junia is the only woman given the title "apostle" in the New Testament, she was not the only one so regarded. Unfortunately we know nothing further about her ministry.

Believing businesswoman

When Paul arrived in Philippi on one of his missionary journeys (Acts 16:11), he and his companion, Silas, went in search of a place of prayer on the sabbath. They encountered a group of women, including Lydia, who listened to them. She was a "worshiper of God" or "God-fearer," meaning she was a devout person attracted to Judaism but not a full convert. She was a dealer in purple cloth, a luxury item.

Lydia is named for the district in Asia Minor from which she hails. Her hometown, Thyatira, is one of the seven cities addressed by the seer in the Book of Revelation (2:18-29). Scholars disagree about her status. Some think that although she worked with luxury items, she herself was not rich but was rather a freed slave who worked hard in difficult conditions. Others see her as elite or quasi-elite, having amassed enough wealth to be able to deal in goods for the wealthy. There are inscriptions that attest to the fact that some male purple dye and cloth sellers held prominent civic offices.

Looking at how often Luke tells stories in Acts of the Apostles of well-to-do Gentiles who accept the gospel and help spread it, it is likely this is how he would have us understand Lydia as well. Paul's acceptance of Lydia's hospitality signifies his full acceptance of her as a Christian.

For her part, Lydia places herself at risk in hosting Paul; she can be held accountable for his actions. She would have had good reason to worry in light of the furor that Paul and Silas create in the following episode, when they cast out the spirit of prophecy from the slave girl. When they are freed miraculously from their imprisonment, they go to Lydia's home, where the community has made its center (Acts 16:40).

Back to the future?

The stories of women like Phoebe, Prisca, Junia, Lydia, and so many others are rich and complex; their ministries have often been overlooked in our tradition and our history. While their witness cannot answer all the questions that surface today about women's roles in ministry, they do give us a glimpse into the way women have been serving God's people since the beginning of the church--in sometimes startling ways.

With new methods of study, new questions that arise from our contemporary experience, and the guidance of the Spirit, perhaps the women of our past can open the way to new possibilities for the future.

Read last month's essay on the women of the Old Testament, "A woman's place is in the Bible" by Gina Hens-Piazza, on U.S. CATHOLIC'S website,

RELATED ARTICLE: I'm sorry, what was her name again?

If the names of women who ministered in the early church seem unfamiliar, part of the reason is that they are rarely included in the readings we hear at Mass.

Absent entirely from the lectionary are Phoebe, deacon and patron of the church at Cenchreae (Rom. 16:1-2); Paul's co-workers Tryphaena, Tryphosa, Persis (Rom. 16:12), Euodia, and Syntyche, (Phil. 4:2-3); as well as heads of house churches such as Nympha (Col. 4:15), Apphia (Philem. 2), and Mary (Acts 12:12). Also overlooked are Rufus' mother, who also "mothered" Paul (Rom. 16:13); Julia and Nereus' unnamed sister (Rom. 16:15), Claudia (2 Tim. 4:21); and Philip's four daughters who were gifted with prophecy (Acts 21:9).

Only eight women known from Paul's letters and Acts receive mention in the Sunday and weekday lectionary. One alone is found in a Sunday reading: Chloe (1 Cor. 1:11), who may have been head of a house church and who reports to Paul on happenings in Corinth. Prisca, teacher of the eloquent preacher Apollos and head of house churches in Corinth and Ephesus (Acts 18:1-3, 18-19, 24-28; 1 Cor. 16:19; Rom. 16:3-5; 2 Tim. 4:19) appears in four weekday selections.

Six women appear once each in weekday readings: Tabitha (Dorcas), a disciple devoted to good works and charity, who hosted a household of ministering widows (Acts 9:36-42); Lois and Eunice, Timothy's grandmother and mother, who taught him the faith (Acts 16:1-3; 2 Tim. 1:5); Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth and host of the church in Philippi (Acts 16:11-15, 40); Damaris, an early convert in Athens (Acts 17:34); Mary, a hard-working co-worker of Paul (Rom. 16:6); and Junia, a notable apostle (Rom. 16:7).

In the last instance, the 1970 translation used in the lectionary mistakenly rendered Junia's name "Junias," a masculine form. The current translation has corrected this, but in light of these omissions and even mistranslations, we must ask ourselves: What do we lose as a church when the stories of these women ministers are never heard in our Sunday assembly? What would we gain if we had their example of faith, service, and leadership as models for ministry in today's church?

--Barbara Reid, O.P.

BARBARA REID, O.P., professor of New Testament at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago.
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Author:Reid, Barbara
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Date:Feb 1, 2006
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