Ministry (25): In the heart of the church

Disciple, herald, and emissary. When it comes to the role of women Jesus Christ was far ahead of His time. This was also evident in the early Christian churches. Here are seven examples of leading functions that only later became ministries, even for men.

Paul himself is the key witness: he refers to more than forty people as synergós, as his co-workers. The most famous were Titus and Timothy. About a quarter are women’s names: Euodia and Syntyche, for example, or Priscilla.

Deacon, patron, prophet—these are the functions that the Apostle describes and which apply to both men and women: We “are fellow workers—in the basic text synergós—for your joy” (2 Corinthians 1: 24).

Deacon and patron

The first to be mentioned is Phoebe in Romans 16. Paul introduces Phoebe in his letter and commends her to the Romans. She obviously delivered his letter to the Romans. As the first person to answer any questions, she must have been well acquainted with the Apostle’s thinking, which places her on the same level as Titus and Timothy. And Paul calls her diakonos, that is, the deacon of the church of Cenchrea. And he refers to her as a helper or patron of many (Greek prostatis).

Teacher and leader

Priscilla is mentioned in 1 Corinthians 16, Romans 16, 2 Timothy 4 (here she is spelled “Prisca”), as well as in Acts 18. Although she is always mentioned together with the man Aquila, she is almost always mentioned first in the original text. This was unusual in ancient times and shows how important she was especially for the development of the church in Corinth, for the spiritual training of Apollos, and for the leadership of the church in Rome.

Head of the household and congregational leader

The introduction of Lydia in Acts 16 is unusually detailed. She was a wealthy business woman from the city of Thyatira in Lydia who sold purple cloth and was living in Philippi when she met Paul there. She had herself baptised with her entire household (oikos), meaning she was the sole head of the household. And this makes her the leader of the typical Gentile-Christian assembly: the house church.

Famous among the Apostles

Junia is mentioned in Romans 16: 7. For a long time Junia was thought to be a man’s name. However, for most ancient Church Fathers and modern scholars this is a woman. Paul refers to her, together with the man Andronicus, as being well known among the Apostles (“of note among the Apostles”). Whether the two themselves were Apostles in the church in the broader sense or were merely highly respected in their circle is disputed. Nevertheless, John Chrysostom, an early Church Father, opined: “Indeed, how great the wisdom of this woman must have been that she was even deemed worthy of the title of apostle.”

Reference for the congregation

Chloe, who is mentioned in 1 Corinthians 1: 11, is actually only a reference: Paul mentions that there were quarrels in the church in Corinth. He had received a report from a congregation that met in the house of Chloe, a prominent woman, who headed a group of believers (“those of Chloe’s household”). Paul takes her so seriously that he took action when he heard about the problems. And she was so well-known and respected in the church that Paul can refer to her.

The only named female disciple

Tabitha has her own passage in the Bible starting in Acts 9: 36 in which Peter raises her from the dead. She is the only woman in the New Testament who is explicitly referred to as a mathetria, a female disciple. We can read that she was always “doing good and helping the poor”. Just how important her position in the church in Joppa was became apparent when she fell ill and died. Messengers were sent to nearby Lydda immediately to urge Peter to come at once.

The four prophets

The daughters of Philip are mentioned by the way in Acts 21: 9. The important thing is that the girls “prophesied”, as it says. This is less about predicting the future. Rather, prophesying means proclaiming the will of God and doing so with the understanding of doing it in His name. According to 1 Corinthians 14, Paul sees in this a particularly desirable spiritual gift that encourages people, comforts them, and builds up the church. For the Apostle this spiritual function is so fundamental that a liturgical order provides specific rules for it in 1 Corinthians 11.

The importance of women in the early Christian church is also shown by extra-biblical historical sources. Pliny the Younger, for example, reports to Emperor Trajan how he, as governor in Asia Minor, got to the bottom of the phenomenon of this new religion: “Accordingly, I judged it all the more necessary to find out what the truth was by torturing two female slaves who were called deaconesses.”

Over time, and as the concept of ministry developed, women were relegated to the back stage. The Bible also testifies of this. This is what we will explore in the next part of this series.

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Andreas Rother
Bible, Doctrinal statements