The Many Women Leaders in Paul’s Circles Don’t Seem to Represent Christian Patriarchy

Those who embrace Christian patriarchy and restrictions on women in church often refer to 1 Corinthians 14 for support:

Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.

Another favorite passage is 1 Timothy 2:

A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.

Patriarchist usually attribute both passages to Paul, but Paul almost certainly did not write 1 Timothy and the passage in 1 Corinthians might be a scribal gloss. However, our purpose here is not to dismiss the passages but to compare their use to Paul’s actual experience with women in his ministry.

Women church leaders in the New Testament

Priscilla the Teacher

Paul’s letters (and the book of Acts) introduce a number of women who are leaders in the church. Perhaps the best known is Priscilla (Prisca) who is half the leadership team, Priscilla and Aquila. According to Acts 18, Paul first met Priscilla in Corinth; she and her husband had left Rome during the Jewish expulsion. Later Paul, Priscilla, and Aquila sailed for Ephesus.

Paul continued on from Ephesus but Priscilla and Aquila remained. When Apollos came to Ephesus preaching an incomplete version of the good news, Priscilla and Aquila pulled him aside and explained the good news more fully. We next find Priscilla mentioned in the final greetings of 1 Corinthians: ‘Aquila and Priscilla greet you warmly in the Lord, and so does the church that meets at their house.’ This is the only time Paul ever mentions Aquila before Priscilla.

Finally, in Romans (his last letter) Paul says: ‘Greet Priscilla and Aquila, my co-workers in Christ Jesus.’ They had apparently returned to Rome. Paul calls them his co-workers—both of them. It doesn’t sound to me that Paul was concerned about Priscilla’s leadership roles.

The Women Paul Knew in the Roman Church

In his final greetings to the Roman Church (Romans 16), Paul mentions a number of people—including a lot of women besides Priscilla. They include the Apostle Junia who was, according to Paul, outstanding among the apostles, and [was] in Christ before I was’.

Early Church Father, Chrysostom, wrote of Junia:

[T]o be an apostle is something great. But to be outstanding among the apostles—just think what a wonderful song of praise that is! They were outstanding on the basis of their works and virtuous actions. Indeed, how great the wisdom of this woman must have been that she was even deemed worthy of the title apostle.

There was also Mary, ‘who worked very hard for you’; I doubt she was known for her cooking and teaching of children. And Paul says: ‘Greet Tryphena and Tryphosa, those women who work hard in the Lord…Greet my dear friend Persis, another woman who has worked very hard in the Lord.’ As with Mary, I doubt they were celebrated as great cooks but rather were known for their leadership.

The Church at Rome seemed to be filled with women leaders, and Paul did not object—and he does not mention that they should be silent in the church.

In the same chapter Paul introduces Phoebe the Deacon—who apparently delivered the letter to the Roman church. The term ‘deacon’ technically means ‘servant’ but seems to be much more than that in the church context. The term for Phoebe is the very same term applied to Apollos, Mark, and Timothy.

I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church in Cenchreae. I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of his people and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been the benefactor of many people, including me.

Paul was actually quite progressive in his day regarding leadership of women.

Paul and the Gifts of the Spirit

Paul makes a remarkable statement in Galatians 3:

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

Paul nowhere suggests that any group of believers (Jew, Gentile, slave, free, male, female) is restricted from any category of ministry. We are all one; no group is superior to any other group, but not every individual serves in the same way. However, Paul does tell us how believers find their place in the church.

1 Corinthians 12:

To one there is given through the Spirit a message of wisdom, to another a message of knowledge…to another faith…to another gifts of healing…to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues. All these are the work of one and the same Spirit.

Paul adds:

Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. And God has placed in the church first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, of helping, of guidance, and of different kinds of tongues.

No restriction to any gift is based on being Jewish, Gentile, slave, free, male, or female. In fact, remember:

  • Junia the Apostle
  • Philip’s daughters who were Prophetesses
  • Priscilla the Teacher, and
  • Phoebe the Deacon

Women in Paul’s circles were active in leadership. I believe those who teach that women cannot be church leaders are gravely mistaken.

Articles from this series: Harmful Christian Patriarchy
See also:

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29 Responses to The Many Women Leaders in Paul’s Circles Don’t Seem to Represent Christian Patriarchy

  1. esbee says:

    very well said…what many do not realize is that we will all stand before the Lord to give account AS INDIVIDUALS… my relationship with god is on an INDIVIDUAL BASIS…the holy spirit will speak to me as an INDIVIDUAL…the hierarchy of man and women was cultural and may have grown out of the need for people to survive in a harsh wilderness (no walmarts) and probably something that protected women in ancient times and god allowed for that–but Jesus made us all equals…and it is good that women respect their husbands but some “christian” men do not recognize the equality of any woman and even expect those who are not their wives to submit and be subservient in attitude if nothing else. p.s. I just heard about a church where women are not allowed in unless they are wearing dresses.. i guess a woman in a mini-skirt would be allowed in but not a woman wearing jeans.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thalea says:

      Yes! That’s the thing – we are each individually responsible and accountable for our own actions. That’s one of the reasons authority of a man over his wife simply does not exist.

      Liked by 1 person

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Esbee, this is true: “some “christian” men do not recognize the equality of any woman and even expect those who are not their wives to submit and be subservient in attitude if nothing else.” Demanding submission from his wife is bad enough, but it is absolutely no business of a man to have such expectations of other women; and women have no compulsion to comply.

      Like

  2. tonycutty says:

    Great piece. And something else that strikes me too: when the text refers to women ‘speaking in Church’, in its context, it must be different from what we understand Church today. They didn’t have the big, ornate ‘sanctuaries’ that we now have; Church was just whenever a couple of Christians (or more) met with each other. In other words, they were just ‘doing life’ together. This would have meant that women were not allowed to talk to other believers, period – which doesn’t make any sense at all. Whatever it was that Paul (or whoever wrote it) meant, it can’t have been what modern Christians understand it as…

    Liked by 1 person

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Tony, I agree: “Whatever it was that Paul (or whoever wrote it) meant, it can’t have been what modern Christians understand it as.” Yet so many think they understand it all so clearly. I think they are misguided.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. fiddlrts says:

    Ironically, in my experience (limited, admittedly) with home churches, “going back to the NT” has included making the darn women shut up. In one case, I was part of a meeting where the men – and men only – had an extended discussion on exactly what women should and should not be permitted to do. It did not go well. I think about the only reason the women were allowed to sing was that the men couldn’t carry a tune without them. Did I mention no women were invited to the meeting? I left soon thereafter. As Tim points out, to come to this conclusion requires that many parts of the NT be ignored completely in favor of a hyper-literalist and universal application of a couple of passages.

    Liked by 3 people

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Fiddlrts, “I was part of a meeting where the men – and men only – had an extended discussion on exactly what women should and should not be permitted to do.” Since women were not allowed in the meaning, I imagine the organizers already had a low view of women. And I agree that a lot of the NT must be ignored to come to such a conclusion.

      Liked by 1 person

    • tonycutty says:

      As for going back to the NT, then technically they should all burn their Bibles, because in NT times they didn’t have Bibles. I can guess how well that would go down… 😉

      Liked by 1 person

      • Alan C says:

        Of course the writings that became the NT were being circulated and read in church, and they had the Old Testament, but your point is well taken. They certainly didn’t have “Bibles” as we know them.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Chas says:

    In my experience, women are more often prophets (and those prophecies have been authenticated by tongues) than men. Of those who have told me that their interpretation of tongues was not really such, but what they felt the need to fill the silence with, all have been men.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Alan C says:

    I think it’s worth noting in Phoebe’s case that in Greek the word “deacon” is used with the masculine ending (diakonos), just as it is in other passages referring to deacons (e.g., I Timothy 3). It seems clear Paul is applying the term for the ecclesiastical office of deacon to her, not just the generic idea of a “servant.”

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Paz says:

    Great article Tim! I have also really enjoyed reading everyone’s comments.
    The women church leaders in the New Testament and in Paul’s circles are an inspiration and encouragement to not only Christian women of today (myself included) but also to men or anyone on any path of self- development and/or spiritual growth.
    The way I see it, it is not up to the church/meeting to judge if someone is or isn’t walking with God. I don’t think God expect us to stay in submission to control which causes people to live in fear and grief. Just as we are many and yet One in Christ, likewise there are many routes to guide us in our own individual walk to the kingdom.

    Liked by 2 people

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Thanks, Paz! New Testament women ARE an inspiration. And I agree with you that: “it is not up to the church/meeting to judge if someone is or isn’t walking with God.”

      Like

  7. Ross says:

    As a male I am probably fairly unqualified to comment much on the subject, however I will nonetheless. I’d be fairly wary of going to the bible to look for models of how to deal with gender roles today for many reasons. I think there may be “trajectories” within it which may be used but any examples are just that.

    As in anything we should look to our own personal motivations for seeking power and my own view is that we really shouldn’t look for it. Replacing a male hegemony with a female one is obviously pointless so what should we seek? I don’t really have a major issue with complimentarianism apart from where it’s divided on specific ground rules. Up to a point I can imagine that complimentarianism can be gender specific due to the difference in physical attributes. E.g. in a highly physical environment and wouldn’t challenge it where it’s working beneficially for all involved.

    I feel sorry for anyone, male or female, where they are badly oppressed by their partners and doubly so where this is sanctioned by the controlling “authorities”. I recognise this may well be a specific issue within “religious” communities, including Christian ones toward women (as well as others) and really wonder what the best advice may be for individuals? I suppose the first question is whether the oppression is real or imagined as there are many of us, for whatever reasons, who feel oppressed when the reality may be different. If it’s possible to determine that the “community” is doing it, then what can be done? Trying to clarify the error may not be an option as it is often the case that any dissenter is challenged, held up for disapprobation and then ostracised, which can be massively painful and usually results in adhering to the “status quo”. For some, probably those who are less crushed, staying and challenging and aiming for change may be a strenuous but appropriate course of action. For others maybe an escape route is better? Do they exist? How many churches look toward rescuing those who have been badly damaged by religion?

    I’d have to say that few congregations actually look toward rescuing anyone, although many individuals do, often with little support themselves. Maybe there is a greater emphasis toward rescuing “sinners” from outside the fold, but how much if any for rescuing the damaged from inside? I’m thinking that many women are feeling sorely challenged from how their churches feel they should be treated, purely based on the physical facts of their being, so how many others feel equally “oppressed” within the fold? Most Christians I know are just surviving the rigours of daily life within our stupidly capitalised society and have little if anything left to give to others, so what is the point in the whole Christian enterprise……….Hmm I seem to have drifted away from the original topic. which comes back to what to do about unfair treatment of women within the church? If possible challenge it, if not bear up with it and ask for God’s help or even flee. Not everyone in the US or UK thinks that women should dust and obey. Fleeing may be the best option for many, but is there anywhere to flee to?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Paz says:

      Ross, I think you have raised some really interesting points. I think some of these issues you speak about, even extend to other issues within Christian communities which are not inclusive enough. For example, there are even parents who desperately have to look for “disabled friendly” churches who are accepting and welcoming to families with disabled children who may find it challenging to adapt to and cope with, some restrictive types of worship environments. I think we need more Christ-centred, grace-filled churches because ultimately what is important is what we stand for in our relationship with God through Christ’s teachings of love, compassion, kindness, empathy and tolerance.

      Liked by 1 person

    • newtonfinn says:

      “Most Christians I know are just surviving the rigours of daily life within our stupidly capitalised society and have little if anything left to give to others, so what is the point in the whole Christian enterprise…….”

      Thank you, Ross, for this bit of blunt honesty. When will the followers of Jesus rise up in massive numbers to confront and challenge, in His name, the “stupidly capitalised” system that drains and enslaves the vast majority of God’s children? THAT should be an essential point these days in any genuinely “Christian enterprise.”

      Liked by 1 person

      • Chas says:

        This appears to be entering a debate on systems of social organisation/government. The problem is that essentially all of those tried on a large scale have flaws that centre on the greed of mankind, which usually focuses on seeking power and/or money. It is in this area that Christianity should have much to say, but the leadership of our churches is itself often bound up in pursuing money and power.

        Liked by 1 person

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Ross, the subjugation of women in the church is a widespread and important issue. You state: “I suppose the first question is whether the oppression is real or imagined as there are many of us, for whatever reasons, who feel oppressed when the reality may be different.”

      I agree that there are individuals who feel oppressed when they really are not. But I think that, for those who are aware of the treatment of women in various churches, it is clear that women are subjugated and oppressed in many churches and church movements. We are also aware that there are many churches that actively affirm women and have women leaders at every level. And I believe many of these churches DO rescue the damaged from inside.

      You raise a good question: in churches that dishonor women should we leave or stay and try to change the situation. I think both options are viable, but we must consider whether it is likely that we will have any success in changing the situation. Some churches are so entrenched in harmful beliefs and practices that it is almost impossible to make much progress unless one is in a leadership position; and even then the church will probablly split.

      As you say: “what to do about unfair treatment of women within the church? If possible challenge it, if not bear up with it and ask for God’s help or even flee.” I agree. I think one must choose which option to take after serious consideration.

      Thanks for sharing.

      Like

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  10. michaeleeast says:

    Tim,
    Very good work. There were more of these women than I thought.
    And Paul does say that there should be no distinctions.
    More work needs to be done on Paul’s letters to decipher the contradictions.
    Your article is a good start.

    Liked by 1 person

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Michael, I agree that more work needs to be done on Paul. And, Yes!, it appears there were a lot of women leaders in Paul’s circles.

      Like

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