One of the advantages of teaching is that I always learn more than I can pass on to those in the audience. In the Fall of 2019, I had the privilege of co-teaching a 4-part series entitled The Role of Women in the Church, with my friend, Dr. Brooke Hollingsworth. This series was particularly valuable for me because Brooke and I challenged, honed, and refined each other’s understanding and the ways to best communicate them as our congregation studied and sought the Spirit’s direction toward a Biblical understanding of women in the church. I am grateful for Brooke’s Spirit-filled wisdom that sharpened my understanding of the Biblical text, especially related to women in the New Testament.
- God created co-equal partners in man and woman.
- God made Men and women to jointly accomplish God’s mission.
- The Old Testament accepts (but does not mandate) patriarchy.
- The Old Testament condemns the abuses of patriarchy.
There are numerous examples of co-equal, powerful, Spirit-filled women in the Hebrew Bible that are praised for overturning the abuses inherent in a patriarchal social system.
It is incorrect to read the Hebrew scriptures as a mandate for patriarchy as the only God-ordained social system for the people of God.
But what about the New Testament? Are the social systems encountered there any different? Does the New Testament go against the prevailing culture in its teachings? There is some compelling evidence that it does.
The Pater Familias
Like the rest of the Mediterranean world, Greco-Roman society was patriarchal. In the Hebrew Bible, we read about the “Father’s Household” (Hebrew: Beit Av). In the Roman world, this is known as the Pater Familias. It functioned in much the same way as the Beit Av in the Old Testament.
From Greek and Roman writings, it is clear that the justification for the Pater Familias had definite misogynistic undercurrents. Aristotle believed that in society as a whole, the strong should rule the weak. He extended this logic to the rule of the household:
“as regards the sexes, the male is by nature superior and the female inferior, the male ruler and the female subject.”Politics, Aristotle
In truth, Jewish wisdom literature from this same period expresses similar misogynistic ideas:
Do not let her parade her beauty before any man, or spend her time among married women; for from garments comes the moth and from a woman comes woman’s wickedness. Better is the wickedness of a man than a woman who does good; it is woman who brings shame and disgrace. Wisdom of Ben Sirach 42:12-14 (NRSV)
Yikes! Aristotle and Sirach could expect a call from Human Resources should they choose to write something like that today. Apparently, diversity and inclusion were not as de rigueur as they are today.
Women in the New Testament
Does the New Testament reflect these same views, or does it teach something different? Do women in the New Testament fit into the molds established by Aristotle and Jewish writings? As I am fond of saying, as with most things in the Bible, it’s complicated.
Women figure prominently in all four gospel narratives. Luke, however, seems to take a particular interest in the role of women in Jesus’ ministry and the early church. Jesus had female disciples. Consider this passage from Luke:
Soon afterwards he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources.Luke 8:1-3
I’ve highlighted a few key words at the end of the passage. All of those phrases are feminine plural in the Greek. Luke is precise: women were financing Jesus’s ministry. Not only that, but these women traveled with Jesus and the 12 Apostles throughout the region.
It is striking that there is no mention of husbands, except for Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward, Chuza. Neither is there any mention of male family members associated with them. The idea of women traveling in a mixed group without male family members runs counter to the prevailing culture.
Luke further confirms the notion that Jesus had female disciples in another account:
Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”Luke 10:38-42
Luke makes it clear that Mary “sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying.” That may seem benign enough until you consider that “sitting at the feet” is language ascribed to a rabbi’s disciples. If you are in doubt, I encourage you to look at a couple of other passages on your own: Luke 2:46 and Acts 22:3. What’s more, Jesus evaluates Mary’s discipleship decision as having “chosen the better part.” Furthermore, he makes it clear that her status as a disciple “will not be taken away from her.”
In all four gospels, women are the first witnesses to the story’s climactic event: the resurrection of Jesus. The women are instructed to share the good news with the 12 Apostles. The most significant event in the entire narrative was revealed to the female disciples of Jesus first. What makes this even more incredible is that women in Greco-Roman society were not considered trustworthy witnesses in a court of law. Yet, the gospels place their testimony front and center at the resurrection story.
Does that seem counter-cultural to you? It sure does to me.
The Early Church
Women play a prominent role in the early church. Sometimes their husbands are mentioned, but they are often singled out for special mention. Here are some of these women and what we know about them:
Philip the Evangelist had four unmarried daughters that prophesied (Acts 21:8-9). Don’t think of prophecy as fortune-telling. Proclaiming God’s word was more of what was involved. They were Spirit-filled proclaimers of God’s word for the community.
The early churches met in homes rather than public buildings. The New Testament lists several women who hosted these gatherings in their homes. They were, in effect, house leaders for these churches:
- Mary, mother of John Mark (Acts 12:12)
- “Nympha and the church in her house” (Colossians 4:15)
- Apphia (Philemon 1)
- Lydia (Acts 16:14-15, 40)
Given the predominance of the Pater Familias, you would expect the male heads of household to be named here. They aren’t. It’s the women who are acknowledged.
Say ‘Hello’ to my Friends
At the end of his letter to the church in Rome, Paul greets a long list of people by name–more than 28 (Rom 16). In that list are ten women. A couple are of particular interest. Paul begins this section with the name of a woman, not a man, Phoebe:
I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church at Cenchreae, so that you may welcome her in the Lord as is fitting for the saints, and help her in whatever she may require from you, for she has been a benefactor of many and of myself as well.Romans 16:1-2
Phoebe is not from Rome. Paul is introducing Phoebe to them. Why? What’s so special about Phoebe? Some scholars believe that Phoebe was the person who carried this letter to Rome for Paul. This is significant because the letter carrier was not just a delivery person. They likely read the letter to the group (meaning they had to be literate). The letter carrier had to read the letter in a way that conveyed the author’s meaning and intent. On top of this, they answered any questions the audience might have about the contents. The role of a letter carrier was not assigned lightly.
Yet, Paul also gives Phoebe’s credentials. She is a deacon of the church at Cenchreae. Considering how this term is used in other letters, it is a leadership position within the church in Cenchreae. Whether you believe that Phoebe was the letter carrier, or not, it is irrefutable that she held a position of prominence in the church and with Paul.
What’s in a Name (Order)?
There’s an interesting literary technique in the New Testament writings—especially in Luke’s writings: name order. For example, when Luke first describes the missionary team of Barnabas and Saul (i.e., Paul), Barnabas comes first. It’s clear from the book of Acts that Barnabas was a Christian first (Acts 4:36). He was instrumental in bringing Saul/Paul into the fold after his road to Damascus encounter (Acts 9:26-27). When they are mentioned together, Barnabas is first. He is the senior, more experienced person. That is until they meet a magus named Bar-Jesus/Elymas (Acts 13:4-14). Paul takes the lead in refuting this charlatan and strikes him temporarily blind. From that point forward (with a couple of exceptions), the name order changes to “Paul and Barnabas.” Luke uses this literary technique to show that Paul is now the group’s focal point and leader.
Now you might be thinking, so what? What does this have to do with women in the New Testament? Well, Luke also introduces us to a married couple that was very influential in the early church:
After this Paul left Athens and went to Corinth. There he found a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, who had recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had ordered all Jews to leave Rome. Paul went to see them, and, because he was of the same trade, he stayed with them, and they worked together—by trade they were tentmakers.Acts 18:1-3 (highlights for effect)
Notice how Luke introduces them: Aquila and his wife, Priscilla. This order is exactly what we would expect in the Pater Familias. However, something changes:
Now there came to Ephesus a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria. He was an eloquent man, well-versed in the scriptures. He had been instructed in the Way of the Lord; and he spoke with burning enthusiasm and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus, though he knew only the baptism of John. He began to speak boldly in the synagogue; but when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him aside and explained the Way of God to him more accurately.Acts 18:24-26 (highlights for effect)
Notice the name order now? Priscilla is named first. In every case but one, Priscilla gets top billing. So, if we consider how Luke uses this literary device, we conclude that Priscilla was a formidable religious teacher. Perhaps more so than Aquila! Luke does not condemn her for this talent. Instead, she is praised and commended for it!
An Ancient Sex Change
There’s another curious woman in Paul’s greetings to the church in Rome: Junia.
Greet Andronicus and Junia, my relatives who were in prison with me; they are prominent among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was.Romans 16:7
The name Junia is well-attested in extra-Biblical writings of the 1st century. It’s a feminine name. What’s interesting is that Paul identifies her as an “apostle.” To be clear, I don’t think you should read this as “Apostle” (with a capital “A”). The Greek noun, apostolos, means “one who is sent.” In Christian writings of the first few centuries, many people identify themselves as “apostles.” Nevertheless, this text clearly shows that Junia, a woman, was a person that Paul recognized and esteemed as one sent out by the church to proclaim the Good News of Jesus.
Somewhere in the 1800s, Junia was given a sex change by Biblical translators. Most Bibles have a small footnote on her name that indicates, “or Junias.” Junias is the masculine form of Junia. The logic used by the translators and scholars was that since Junia is an apostle, this must be a man since only men are apostles. (Do you see the circular logic here?) Therefore, they reasoned, the name should be Junias. There’s a problem: the name Junias is not found in any texts—Biblical or otherwise. It’s a made-up name. Furthermore, early church fathers identify Junia as a woman. Thankfully, all modern translations have reversed Junia’s sex change and recognized her prominence as a female apostle.
One in Christ
There’s a consistent theme throughout the New Testament: God is breaking down barriers. As Paul says, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28). Human-designed social systems, like patriarchy and the Pater Familias, have no sway in the Kingdom of God. We are now part of God’s family. In God’s Kingdom, these roles diminish—even go away.
The early church understood this. The New Testament prominently features women playing vital roles in spreading the Gospel and the leadership of these Christian fellowships. Men and women worked together to accomplish God’s mission of redeeming the world.
Needless to say, this was counter-cultural. This sort of egalitarian social order was prone to upset the applecart of Roman society. How could the church balance this new social equality and, at the same time, be an effective witness to the Roman world? In short, it required some practical restraint. But that’s the subject of my next post.