Paul: An Advocate for Women in Leadership in the Christian Church
By Anne Burdette
Dr. S.Scott Bartchy
December 12, 2005
It wasn’t three years ago that I served on a hiring committee for the new high school pastor in my home church. One of our greatest candidates was a woman. Highly qualified, experienced, and educated, she clearly met much of the criteria for what our youth group needed. The committee decided not to hire her. Why? Well, though not explicitly stated, interpretations of some of the Apostle Paul of Tarsus’ teaching concerning women in leadership in the Church still appeal as truth by many members of the Christian church today. All too often I have discussed with men and women alike the qualms of female leadership in the Church body. Many have determined a woman’s role of leadership does not belong in the Church; if given a position of leadership, it ought to be among the children or men, but certainly not over an entire congregation. It would be a disservice to the churches in America and around the world to assume this doctrine still stands in all churches; however, I have seen it occur time and time again, and for a while, I too believed women were powerless in the Church.
The teachings of Paul of Tarsus in several of his letters are hard to swallow when taken out of context. At face value, one would easily assume the words ‘I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man’ (1 Tim. 2:12 NASB) and ‘the women are to keep silent in the churches’ (1 Cor. 14:34 NASB) imply certainly that Paul advocates female subordination and inferiority within the Church. However, what is often left out in interpreting Biblical text is the historical perspective necessary to understanding the entirety of its meaning. In 1st century Jerusalem and within the Greco-Roman culture, the teachings of Paul of Tarsus radically challenged the social norms and well-instilled gender codes. By discussing the context for Paul’s letters, there may be no dispute that Paul of Tarsus was, in fact, an advocate for the leadership of women in the Church.
In understanding Paul of Tarsus’ ministry to the 1st Century church and the significance of his teachings, it must first be acknowledged that Paul was building upon a foundation already laid by Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus of Nazareth implemented a program of radical inclusiveness in which women were invited to participate not only in fellowship with Jesus, but in his ministry as well. Considering the patriarchal honor/shame system implemented in 1st century Judean culture, women were incapable of receiving honor for themselves and it would have been incredibly rare for a woman to be given status as a leader amongst men. However, Luke 8:1-3 clearly articulates the roles of a few women by name in the ministry of Jesus’ discipleship.
…He began going around from one city and village to another, proclaiming and preaching the kingdom of God. The twelve were with Him, and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and sicknesses: Mary who was called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna the wife of Chuza, Herod’s steward, and Susanna, and many others who were contributing to their support out of their private means, (Luke 8:1-3 NASB).
Listed alongside the Twelve are three women who traveled with Jesus and participated in spreading the news of the kingdom of God. By associating with women and using them to further the message of the Gospel, Jesus bestows upon them honor and a place in society.
Paul of Tarsus, a spokesperson for the gospel according to Romans 1:1 (“Paul [is] a bond-servant of Christ Jesus, called as an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God”), continues what Jesus began in the Christian movement. Describing 1st century Christianity, Karen Jo Torjesen notes:
In its earliest stages it is best to understand as a social movement like any other. It was informal, often countercultural in tone, and was marked by a fluidity and flexibility that allowed women, slaves, and artisans to assume leadership roles. (1995:11)
In his letters and throughout his ministry, Paul preaches a message in which all humankind may receive the same status in Jesus the Christ. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Spoken to the Galatians in chapter 3:28, Paul denotes equality amongst believers in Christ; Ben Witherington III, in his book The Paul Quest: The Renewed Search for the Jew of Tarsus, concludes this verse implies “all are members of the one body as brothers and sisters in Christ” (1998:221). With specific reference to Paul’s mention of gender equality in Christ, it may be assumed that Paul’s charge to all believers to live a life “worthy of the gospel of Christ” (Phil. 1:27 NASB) is meant for both men and women; hence, women are able to enjoy the fruit of belonging to the Christian family as equals to their Christian brothers. Furthermore, John Dominic Crossan and Jonathan L. Reid, in their book In Search of Paul, argue that “females and males are therefore equal in family, assembly, and apostolate within Christianity” (2004:110). Thus, females may fully partake in the Christian movement as fellow believers, workers, and teachers of the Gospel.
Paul’s teachings and lifestyle go beyond the declaration of equality amongst believers in Christ, however, in that Paul clearly becomes an advocate for the underdog in the 1st century Greco-Roman culture – a culture still immersed in hierarchical patriarchy. “Paul’s advocacy was primarily on behalf of women, slaves, and whichever ethnic group in particular locale was likely to be neglected, taken advantage of or discriminated against” (Witherington 1998:205). Throughout many greetings in his letters, Paul makes a noticeable effort to praise the work of women participants in the ministry. His mention of women by name and recognition of their roles in several of his letters reveals the importance Paul placed on the ministry of female church leadership.
Several passages from Paul’s letters recognize and describe the work of women in the ministry. Perhaps the most prominent display of Paul’s recognition of female Christian leaders can be found in his closing remarks to the Romans. Of the twenty seven Christians listed in the final greetings, ten of these are women (Phoebe, Prisc[ill]a, Mary, Junia, Tryphaena, Tryphosa, Persis, an unnamed mother, Julia, and an unnamed sister) (Crossan & Reed 2004:115). Furthermore, Crossan & Reed point out that the Greek root for apostolic activity, kopiaō (‘worked hard’), used to describe Paul, is also used four times in Romans and is meant exclusively for women; thus, in Paul’s eyes, women were considered to have worked equally hard as fellow apostles (2004: 115). While the mention of these women alone is significant, their roles and Paul’s words about them are even more impressive considering the patriarchal context of 1st century Greco-Roman culture.
Phoebe is the first person mentioned by Paul, and he gives extensive praise to her for her work. Not only is she often attributed by scholars to be the bearer of his letter to the Romans from Corinth, but she is also given significant recognition for her participation in the Pauline mission. Paul refers to Phoebe as both deacon and benefactor, terms that indicate prestigious roles in Church leadership. The term “deacon” is the same term used in reference to male office holders who participated in the formal organization of the early Christian church. Additionally, the significance of a deacon is also used in scripture to describe leaders who were active in preaching the gospel; in fact, Paul similarly uses this term to describe himself in his letter to the Philippians (Phil. 1:1 NASB) (MacDonald 1999:208). The charge in the letter to the Romans is that they would receive Phoebe “in the Lord in a manner worthy of the saints” and that they ought to “help her in whatever matter she may have need of you” (Rom. 16:2 NASB) because Phoebe has not only helped the body of believers, but has helped Paul as well. Her role as benefactor to Paul and the church in Cenchrea suggests her wealth and significance in society, a crucial factor for leadership status. Phoebe plays a prominent role in the early church, and Paul finds her work worthy of mentioning; his association with her and praise for her contribution to the ministry in a patriarchic society clearly advocates the importance of women in leadership in furthering the gospel.
Following his charge to receive Phoebe, Paul sends a greeting to Prisca (Priscilla) and Aquila, fellow workers in Christ who have risked their lives for Paul and for the Church. Priscilla and Aquila are mentioned four times in the New Testament: Romans 16:3-4, 1 Corinthians 16:19, 2 Timothy 4:19, and Acts 18. A powerful couple in the Christian movement, Priscilla and Aquila worked together and alongside Paul to further the kingdom of God. When Paul sends his greetings to the couple in Romans 16:3 and 2 Timothy 4:19, he mentions Priscilla’s name before Aquila which indicates that she was of higher status than he in society (MacDonald 1999:241). Together, the couple hosted a church in their home and were likely to have been teachers to the community of believers. Priscilla and Aquila were attributed to teaching Apollos ‘the way of God more accurately’ (Acts 18:26 NASB) and in turn, Apollos became a great leader for the church. The significance to this point lies in the fact that Priscilla is also attributed to having taught Apollos. “This [Acts 18:24-28] is an important text, for it offers indisputable evidence of a woman acting as a teacher” (MacDonald 1999:241). Additionally, there is no distinction made between husband and wife with regard to their roles in Paul’s reference to them in his letters. Thus, Priscilla’s role as a leader in the church was widely accepted and appreciated enough to be recognized multiple times in the New Testament.
Also mentioned with her husband is a woman whose identity has been stolen from her for several centuries: Junia. Junia is found in the scriptures today as Junias, a male form of her original name. Scholars agree that after thorough historical research, there is no account of a man named Junias in the ancient Greco-Roman world. However, over 250 accounts attest to the female name ‘Junia’ as a popular and well documented name (Crossan & Reed 2004:115). In order to preserve Patriarchy, however, churches in the 12th century began using the name Junias rather than Junia. Because Junia and Andronicus are said to be “prominent among the apostles” (Rom. 16:7 NASB), scholars argue that the “main motivation that shaped the decision to understand Rom 16:7 as a reference to two men was that woman could not have been granted the title ‘apostle’” (MacDonald 1999:209). The term apostle was given to preachers of the gospel who also performed signs and wonders; their role of apostleship was designated by a calling, and would have been considered one of the highest roles of leadership in the early church (MacDonald 1999:210).
In addition to the specific recognition of the aforementioned women in Paul’s letters, Paul addresses several other women who have important roles in the livelihood of Pauline ministry. In his letter to the Philippians 4:2, Paul speaks about the dispute between two women, Euodia and Syntyche, whose leadership in the Philippian church is significant enough to mention in his letters. Ben Witherington suggests that the two women were most likely coworkers to Paul in his ministry. “Paul would hardly settle a private squabble in such a public letter, but a struggle between two coworkers and leaders in Philippi was another matter” (Witherington 1998:223). Karen Jo Toriesen, in her book When Women were Priests even argues the women helped found the church and were still high in the ranks of leadership when the letter was written (1995:16). Whether they actually founded the church or not, it is evident that these two women were significant in the leadership of the church in Philippi, and their disagreement affected the church enough for Paul to mention it in his letter.
Paul continues to reference other female leaders in many of his letters throughout his ministry. Women who were in charge of hosting a church in their home were often given significant recognition. As discussed before, Priscilla and Aquila were responsible for hosting a church in their home in Corinth. In Philemon 2, Paul greets Apphia who, along with her husband Philemon, hosts a church in their home. Paul’s mentioning of Apphia, along with only two other people in Philemon, suggests her prominence in the community. “Apphia is evidently a leader. She may indeed be a member of the household of Philemon where the community meets, but the nature of the greeting suggests greater independence” (MacDonald 1999:206). Apphia is called sister, an honorable term also applied to a female member of a missionary partnership (MacDonald 1999:206). Also given status of a church leader is Nympha. Found in Colossians 4:15, Paul sends his greeting to her and the church that is in her house (Col. 4:15 NASB).
Another female worth mentioning here with regard to the role of women in leadership is Lydia. Though Paul does not mention her specifically in his letters, Luke’s account of Lydia in the book of Acts reveals that she was an important part of Paul’s ministry in Europe. Lydia was apparently wealthy (“a seller of purple fabrics”) and the leader of her household. Her entire household converted to Christianity and became a haven for Christian workers to gather (Acts 16:15-15 NASB). As mentioned later in the chapter, Lydia’s house remained a place of encouragement for the brethren (Acts 16:40 NASB). “For the author of Acts, Lydia no doubt serves as a fine example of the women of high standing who were drawn to early Christianity and who benefited the community in various ways” (MacDonald 1999:240). By opening up her home, Lydia diligently served the Church body and assisted in the ministry of the gospel.
Hosting a church home was a common practice in the 1st century Christian community. The role of hosting a church in his/her home was significant to the involvement of leadership in the Church. As MacDonald notes, “the capacity to offer one’s house as a meeting place was a factor that affected one’s capacity to become a leader (MacDonald 1999:204). Because women were often the managers of their own home, hosting a church was often recognized as her contribution to both the family and the community. “The household base of the movement may have enabled women to turn community leadership into an extension of their roles as household managers” (MacDonald 199:204). Furthermore, their rise in status monetarily would have corresponded with their ability to publicly participate in leadership in the Church. As Ben Witherington notes, “…during the Empire there was a trend of women rising in status and gaining more public face… Roman law had changed and allowed women to have their own money and so obtain considerable wealth through their own business ventures” (1998:47). Thus, an appreciation for women’s capability to govern a household affected the way in which women could be perceived in the Christian community and held significant influence to the spreading of the gospel.
In closely examining the references to women in Paul’s letters, it is evident that women were active participants in the leadership roles in the Church. “No doubt they [women] were often visible in the exercise of various leadership roles. They were honored with such titles as coworkers, sister, deacon, and apostle” (MacDonald-1999:210). Paul’s mention and praise of such women indicate his genuine appreciation for their work in furthering the gospel message. Thus, by acknowledging their prominent positions in the Church, Paul restores their honor and becomes their advocate in support of leadership.
Where does the problem lie, then, if Paul’s words to female leaders in the Church seem to so clearly encourage their work for the gospel? Throughout its history, the Church has taken select passages of scripture in Paul’s letters and used them at face value to enforce a patriarchal hierarchy in which leadership in the Church is male dominated. Elizabeth A. Castelli remarks in her article “Paul on Women and Gender,” “Paul’s texts have taken on a rich life of their own, being reread and rewritten in a range of contexts that must have been quite unimagined by their author” (1999:222). Specifically, the passages of 1 Corinthians 11:5-19, 1 Corinthians 14:33-35, and 1 Timothy 2:11-12 present instructions to the Church which might suggest an opposition to women in leadership roles in the Church. I myself have struggled with these passages in attempt to understand their content and inherent meaning to women of today’s church. After closely examining the context and situations behind Paul’s writing, it occurs to me that while these words are harsh to the modern reader, deeper understanding points to a call to live the gospel and a life of obedience to Christ rather than merely undermining women’s capability to lead in a ministerial role.
1 Corinthians 11:3-16
The passage in the eleventh chapter of the letter to the Corinthians discusses the proper attire to be worn by women while prophesying and praying in the Church. Evidently a rift has evolved within the church of Corinth, and part of the problem lies in the understanding of proper dress codes during worship. While today’s interpretation of the text might depict a patriarchal demise of women in positions of prophecy and prayer, a deeper look into the context of Paul’s writing explores a different interpretation. Note first that Paul’s qualms are not with the issue of women performing spiritual acts of prophecy and prayer within the church gatherings; rather, the issue at hand deals solely with dress codes of the Greco-Roman culture. “At Corinth, presumably as a defiant challenge to inequality and a dramatic statement of equality, men and women had reversed modes of head covering in prayer, so that men worshiped with covered heads and women with uncovered heads” (Crossan & Reed 2004:113). In other words, Paul was dealing with a group of hippies who had found such freedom of equality in Christ that they created a counter-culture to Roman social norms. Because Paul is not only concerned with persecution of the Church due to its radical defiance to social inequality, but also with the idea that petty infusions within the Church might hinder the spreading of the gospel, he strongly advises the Corinthians to behave and dress appropriately for the times. Furthermore, the passage is directed to both men and women. Evidently, men were equally responsible for obstructing the acceptable attire. Because it had become a hindrance to the spreading of the gospel, Paul found it necessary to correct. Additionally, the issue of loose hair on a woman was hotly contested in the Judean tradition. Respectable Jewish women were never viewed in public without their head covered; women who did not follow this strict conduct would have been associated with adultery – an act that Paul did not want the Corinthian leaders and church members representing (MacDonald 1999:215). Paul’s sensitivity to cultural practices and allowing women leadership in the public realm never dealt with a woman’s capability to prophecy (a divine teaching) or pray; rather, “the sensitivity was no doubt related to cultural ideals in the ancient Mediterranean world where men were associated with the public sphere and women were associated with the home” (MacDonald 1999:216). A woman found in the public realm assuming a position of public speaking was unheard of. Thus, she ought to appear blameless in society, not allowing any footholds for nonbelievers to assume otherwise. This passage to the Corinthians addresses the behavior necessary when praying and prophesying, not about who may or may not pray/prophecy. In fact, because women are instructed regarding the act of prophecy and prayer in the church, they are encouraged and free to worship as the Holy Spirit allows.
1 Corinthians 14:33b-35
… as in all the churches of the saints. The women are to keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak, but are to subject themselves, just as the Law also says. If they desire to learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is improper for a woman to speak in church, (1 Cor. 14:33b-35 NASB).
Used as the basis for the argument that women ought not to speak up in the worship service, these two verses in Paul’s letter harshly deal with a woman’s right to be heard in the church. Again, the text taken out of context appears brutally absurd and sexist. However, building upon Paul’s concerns mentioned earlier in his letter to the Corinthians (chapter 11), these two verses merely support the idea that Paul must stay within some of the social guidelines given to him by the surrounding culture. As Witherington suggests, “Paul plays with the social cards he is dealt, but he seeks to slip some new cards into the deck and to rewrite the rules for those who play the game in his communities. The cards Paul was dealt reflect a strongly patriarchal culture which often had highly schematized roles for men and women” (1998:224). Furthermore, the exegesis of this passage taken in historical context reveals another side of the story that has often been neglected.
Several scholars suggest Paul’s words describe a large, public gathering of the entire congregation of the church in Corinth rather than the small home-churches where worship was generally held (MacDonald 1999:216). In this case, believers and non-believers alike would have viewed the large assembly gathering in a public setting. With this in mind, Paul not only silences women, but he also silences the people speaking in tongues. “Therefore if the whole church assembles together and all speak in tongues, and ungifted men or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are mad?” (1 Cor. 14:23 NASB). This verse presents the context for which Paul addresses the women. Paul’s purpose in instructing the church on orderly worship in such a public setting directly correlates to protecting the sanctity of the gospel from being associated with pagan religious practices. “One cannot neglect the cultural-social milieu of Paul: in his setting both Jewish and pagan ‘decency’ required that women have a ‘quiet’ role in the church” (Scholer: Exegesis). Therefore, although Paul acknowledges that women have a place in the worship experience (as evidenced by 1 Cor. 7 &11), when put into an arena where the outside perspective would question the integrity of the Church, women could not exercise the freedom given to them through Jesus Christ.
1 Timothy 2:11-15
Perhaps the most disconcerting evidence against the claim of Paul’s advocacy for women in leadership may be found in Paul’s first letter to Timothy. Of Paul’s letters, three are considered pastoral letters: 1Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus. Scholars argue whether or not the letters were actually written by Paul, but for the sake of continuity in the fact that Paul claims he wrote the letters, it is necessary to explore the text found in 1 Timothy. In order to first understand the context for the letter, one must realize the letters to Timothy are meant for Timothy, not necessarily an entire congregation. Therefore, the words spoken to Timothy must be considered in light of this condition. “A woman must quietly receive instruction with entire submissiveness. But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet” (1 Tim. 2:11-12 NASB). Despite its seemingly obvious declaration against female leadership roles in the Church, scholar David M. Scholar argues the text does not prohibit women from full participation in the ministry. A careful examination of the text put into its context reveals otherwise; the passage in case is specific to a usurpation of authority practiced by women in Timothy’s church.
In considering the Greek translation of this passage, two words are central to understanding the meaning of the text. The Greek word ‘hesuchia’ found in v. 11 means ‘quietness,’ and refers to quietness within its proper limits. The Greek word ‘authentein’ which is generally translated to ‘to have authority’ is, in this text, interpreted as ‘to usurp authority’ – rather, to practice illegitimate authority (Scholer: Exegesis). Understanding the true wording of the text reveals the passage is referring to women who have surpassed their authority and have gone beyond the bounds of proper leadership. Scholer concludes that the “admonition of 1 Timothy 2:11-12 is directed against the usurpation by women involved in false teaching” (Scholer). Therefore, the passage is not directed toward all women in leadership positions or who might hold certain authority; rather, Paul is speaking specifically about a select few women whose teaching is compromising to the gospel.
If the text were, in fact referring to all women within the Church, Paul would not have praised the work of Phoebe, Priscilla, and Junia among others as he did. Rather, these women have followed the calling they received in ministerial roles and have exercised good faith in their commitment to leadership in the Church and are noted as praiseworthy by Paul of Tarsus. S. Scott Bartchy, in a response written about his article “Power, Submission, and the Sexual Identity of the Early Early Christians,” recognizes that “the mention of such leading and faithful women in the New Testament makes it unmistakably clear that any N.T. tests that seek to limit women’s leadership, such as 1 Tim. 2:11-12, did not apply to them” (S.S. Bartchy p.1). Meaning certainly, that Paul’s recognition of several faithful women in his letters proves his contradictory statements deserve a second glance.
What, then may we conclude after examining the context of Paul’s words concerning the leadership of women? First of all, Paul’s many excerpts of praise given to women with regard to their role in the church must serve as the foundation for Paul’s advocacy for women. We have explored several passages in which women were highly respected and acknowledged by Paul and further received recognition through his letters to entire congregations. Secondly, the context of the Pauline mission reveals a society in which women were rarely given such praise, and yet, through their work in the ministry, Women served various roles including home-church hosts, apostles, deacons, benefactors, prophets, and teachers. Thirdly, the passages in scripture that contradict Paul’s advocacy for women must be taken into strict context in order to fully articulate Paul’s instructions. It is noteworthy to recognize the verses discussed were both instructional and specific to problems dealt within the Church. Finally, when looked at with the big picture in mind, the passages addressing women’s leadership roles in the Church indicate that females were not considered incompetent or inferior to men. “Perhaps the most important conclusion [made]… of the many women coworkers who participated in the Pauline mission is that women’s leadership was neither different nor diminished in relation to that of men” (MacDonald 1999:218). Women received the respect and admiration of the foremost apostle of the Christian Church, Paul of Tarsus. And through his approval of their work for the gospel in a public address, Paul becomes an advocate for women.
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