Do you remember Junia? Tryphena? Persis? All were active women in the early church — active enough for Paul to call them by name — but they are little known today, and that’s a shame. The role of women in the early church was clearly important, but not given much play in the New Testament.
Meeting in Turkey, home to many of the earliest churches, the Baptist World Alliance’s Doctrine and Christian Unity Commission held a session July 9 to highlight and celebrate what we can know about some of these early women.
Valerie Duvol-Poujol, of France, began by noting that Michaelangelo’s famous painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel — the one in which God reaches out a finger of his right hand to touch Adam and bring life to him — shows that God’s left arm cradles Eve close to his heart. Most people fail to see the bigger picture, she said, and that is also true in our reading of the Bible, where the bigger picture clearly involves women.
Romans 16, for example, speaks of Phoebe, Junia, and other women who were close companions of Paul. Indeed, of 26 people Paul mentioned by name in the book, eight were women.
Poujol, a New Testament scholar who teaches at the Institut Catholique of Paris, pointed to translation issues that have often obscured the role of women. Phoebe (Rom. 16:1-2) is called a “servant of the church” (diakonos) and a prophet (prostatis), but translations often obscure that. Phoebe is the only woman called by the title diakonos, which is often translated as “deacon” with reference to men, but not with reference to Phoebe. In the New Testament, the diakonos was often a minister or emissary who taught or preached the gospel, Poujol said, things that Phoebe did.
The word prostatis — used to describe Phoebe — was also used to describe Roman officials in leadership positions, and it is used in 1 Thes. 5:12 and Rom. 12:8 to describe church leaders. These titles that Paul gave to Phoebe were titles of authority and honor, Pujoul said: “She was a leader, minister, and supporter of the church.”
Prisca (Priscilla) is mentioned in six New Testament texts. In four of them — all in contexts of ministry — she is mentioned before her husband Aquila. Both are qualified as co-workers of Paul.
The role of Junia has been shadowed by a debate over whether Junia (in the accusative case) is a masculine or feminine name. The difference is seen in an accent mark, but in the oldest and best manuscripts there are no accents. When accents were added, the feminine form was used, and the name was regarded as feminine for more than a 1,000 years, until Epiphanius in the 13th century called her “Juniam” (masculine). The Nestle-Aland critical edition of the New Testament, commonly used by scholars, had the feminine form until the 13th edition in 1927, when it was changed to masculine: but it was changed back to feminine in the new 28th edition.
In Rom. 16, Paul puts no limitations on women’s involvement in ministry, Poujols said, noting “It’s impressive that Paul takes the time to thank women for their participation in ministry.”
Nora Lozano, who teaches at the Baptist University of the Americas in San Antonio, TX, offered a paper on women leaders in the early church. Lozano noted that women were among early martyrs for the faith, including Blandina, Perpetua, and Felicitas.
There is evidence that “widow” was not only a state but an office in some early churches, Lozano said, well established by the second century and sometimes marked by ordination. Widows who received support from the church were expected to visit the sick and engage in other service ministries.
Women also served as deacons in the early church, she said, but the title later shifted to men only.
Some women who wished to show their devotion to Christ lived as ascetics. These included Macrina, the older sister of Gregory of Nyssa. She had to enter an arranged marriage at age 12, and after her husband died, she decided to devote her life to serving Christ. After her brothers died, she led the remainder of the family to live ascetically and founded a monastery for men.
Marcella and Paula also lived as ascetics, and were known to have influenced the church father Jerome, who translated the Bible into Latin.
There is some evidence of women serving as presbyters, with responsibilities for multiple churches, but that is disputed, Lozano said.
Women’s role as mothers was also important in the early church, Lozano said. She cited Saint Monica, the mother of the famed 4th-5th century theologian Augustine of Hippo. Monica is remembered as a role model for parents to be concerned about children’s salvation.
Lozano said she did not anticipate how painful the research on early women would be, as she saw ways in which their roles have been obscured, and how women’s participation in church has continued to be suppressed.
“It is true that we have made some progress in the Baptist family,” Lozano said, but “we still have a long ways to go. We are losing bright women who are prepared for ministry but cannot find a place of service.”
It’s important for Baptists to continue talking about the place of women in the church, Lozano said, and imperative for supporters to “act in our circles of influence to empower women.” Finally, she said, “As Baptists, we need to recover the doctrine of Holy Spirit and let people minister on the basis of spiritual gifts and not gender.”