5 The People  ▷  Service and Position

From the very beginning of the Acts of the Apostles, the Holy Spirit is poured out on men and women alike. Both men and women are added to the Christian people, undergo persecution, endure suffering for the sake of the Lord, bring others to faith in Jesus, and build up the body of Christians. This pattern, seen in the earliest Christian community, continues through the following centuries in the church of the Fathers. Both men and women participate in the life of the Christian people and in taking responsibility for it. The previous two chapters considered the roles of men and women in the family and household. This chapter focuses on the broader life of the Christian people and the ways in which men and women participate in that life. This chapter traces some of the main features of the pattern of men’s and women’s roles in the early Christian community.

The social structures of the early Christian community differ significantly from those of modern technological society. Moreover, Christian churches in twentieth-century Western society function more like modern social institutions than they do like the early Christian community.* Chapters Eighteen and Twenty-Four will discuss these differences more fully. At this point it is enough to note that contemporary discussions of men’s and women’s roles in the early church are often confused by reading modern church structures back into the New Testament. This chapter will often note differences between the early church and later church structures, but a fuller treatment of those differences and their significance must wait until later chapters of this book.

The sources for this study of role differences in service in the early Christian community are primarily the picture of Paul and his co-workers in Acts and in Paul’s epistles, and the instructions for the ordering of Christian service in the pastoral epistles. The work of Paul and his companions was part of the missionary efforts of the early church. The instructions in the pastorals were directed to a well-established community and they demonstrate a preoccupation with establishing a social order and sound doctrine.

This material is somewhat sketchy. In fact, it is difficult to outline the pattern for the roles of men and women in the New Testament very fully because the scriptural information is scarce. For example, it is known that deacons existed in many New Testament churches and there is also evidence for the existence of deaconesses. Yet the material in the New Testament does not allow one to say much about either of these positions. There are three major ways of filling out the pattern. One approach is to presume a diversity of practice in the early church. Hence, some people have concluded that the ordering of men’s and women’s roles and community positions in the Jewish Christian communities, about which we know little in our area of concern, differed markedly from the order in the Pauline communities about which we know a fair amount.1 Another approach is to rely heavily upon plausible conjectures about the details of men’s and women’s roles in the daily functioning of church order. There is a third approach to filling out the pattern, namely, to examine the early church after the New Testament and see how the roles of men and women and positions like those of deacon and deaconess were patterned in situations we know more about.2 This approach has the advantage of relying on actual data rather than speculative reconstruction.

The approach in this chapter will be the third. The overall pattern will be determined by the life of the church in the first few centuries. The material from the life of the post–New Testament Christian community will be used primarily to give a concrete picture of how broad features noticed in the New Testament might have looked, to fill in the outline the New Testament gives us.* The Christian church of the first few centuries followed a pattern of men’s and women’s roles in community life very similar to that found in the New Testament church. While we cannot always trace all aspects of the later pattern back to origins in the New Testament church, the church of the first few centuries is at least a close descendant of the New Testament church. By judiciously examining the post–New Testament data, we can gain a more complete sense of how the New Testament pattern might have worked.

The chapter will begin by considering whether men and women performed different activities in the early Christian community. The structure of positions of communal service for women and for men will then be taken up. The chapter concludes with an outline of the overall pattern of men’s and women’s roles in communal service in the early church. This pattern of service will be related to the pattern of family life found among the early Christians.

Prophesying, Teaching, Charitable Service

The preceding two chapters discussed the difference between the roles of husband and wife in the family and the activities they performed. The difference between the role of the husband and that of the wife was not in the activities they performed. The difference lay rather in the way in which husband and wife related to one another in their life together. The same principle guided service of men and women in the wider community. The difference between the roles of men and women in community service does not lie in particular activities. Both engage in all the activities which go into building up the body of Christ. This section will consider three activities which are central to building up the life of the community: prophesying, teaching, and charitable service. Both men and women actively participated in all three activities.


Both men and women prophesied among the early Christians. No one questions that men prophesied in the early church. Women, however, prophesied as well. The Acts of the Apostles mentions the daughters of Philip in this role: “And he had four unmarried daughters who prophesied” (Acts 21:9). In his History of the Church, Eusebius quotes an unknown second-century author who implies that the early Christians remembered Philip’s daughters as being of significance in the area of prophecy:

But they cannot point to a single one of the prophets under either the Old Covenant or the New who was moved by the Spirit in this way—not Agabus or Judas or Silas or Philip’s daughters; not Ammia at Philadelphia or Quadratus; nor any others they may choose to boast about though they are not of their number.3

In Corinthians 11, Paul seems to recognize the presence of women who prophesied regularly in the worship services of the Christian community:

Any man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head, but any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled dishonors her head. (Cor 11:5)

Chapter Seven will consider a dispute about the interpretation of this passage, but the likely opinion is that Paul expected women to prophesy in the Christian assembly.

The view that women prophesied regularly in the early church is confirmed by the account of the events on the day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit was poured out upon the followers of Jesus. In explaining the event, Peter quotes a prophecy from Joel about the outpouring of the Spirit upon all of God’s people. He quoted the following lines from the prophecy:

And in the last days it shall be, God declares,

that I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh,

and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,

and your young men shall see visions,

and your old men shall dream dreams;

yea, and on my menservants and my maidservants in those days

I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.

(Acts 2:17–18)

There is some probability that Peter used this prophecy in part because the group of onlookers saw women as well as men prophesying (Acts 1:14; 2:1–4). In any case, he did use the prophecy from Joel to explain what would happen when the Spirit was given, and that prophecy clearly speaks of women as being equipped to prophesy. The view that women prophesied among the early Christians is consistent with the Old Testament practice. Many women prophesied in the prophetic age of Israel; their gift was often significant for the development of the people. Deborah and Huldah are the most outstanding examples, but not the only ones. The early Christians, following Joel, would have expected the gift of prophecy to be given to Christians more widely, not more narrowly, than in the Old Testament.

Some commentators have tried to examine the kind of prophesying done by women in the early church. Some have observed that prophecy was often connected with prayer in gatherings for worship, and thus have held that the only prophesying done by women was prayer-prophecy, a contribution to the worship of the community. Some have observed that women who prophesied in the Old Testament seemed to give directive but not teaching prophecies, and that their prophecies were not written down for use as were those of some male prophets. Hence they deduce that women prophesied in a different way than men. Both of these opinions are possible, but there is not enough evidence to establish them. All that we know is that women prophesied in the early church.

Another question about women prophesying in the church concerns an interpretation of scripture which equates prophecy with preaching. Some commentators, equating prophecy with preaching, conclude that women in the early Christian community could not have prophesied, at least not in the assembly of the community, because women were prohibited from teaching or speaking to the whole church assembled (Tm 2:12; Cor 14:34). Hence they would not be allowed to prophesy (preach). There are some scriptural grounds for seeing prophecy as what we would now call “preaching.” The best evidence is from Acts 15:32 which shows a connection between the role of prophet and a kind of exhortation. However, interpreting New Testament prophecy as simply “preaching” is a deficient understanding of prophecy. The core of the prophetic role is to be a messenger for God, to deliver a message on his behalf. The prophet depends upon special inspiration to speak a message which is more than a product of human thought, a message which could validly be described as “the word of the Lord.”* A prophetic inspiration could be behind an exhortation, but the normal form of prophecy is a message delivered as words from the Lord.

The evidence points to the fact that women did prophesy in the assembly. The relation of women’s prophesying to the scriptural prohibitions on the women’s role in the assembly hinges upon a correct understanding of the prohibitions. This question will be discussed in Chapter Seven. Once prophecy is distinguished from preaching, teaching, and other forms of addressing the Christian people, there is no reason to believe that women were not allowed to prophesy among the early Christians.

Finally, one should ask whether women held the office of prophet(ess) among the early Christians. The New Testament recognizes prophets as holding some kind of position in the community (see Cor 12:28; Eph 3:5; Acts 13:1, among others). There even seems to have been some distinction between people who prophesy (there are indications that almost any Christian might prophesy on occasion) and those who hold the position of prophet. We know of men who were considered prophets. We do not know of any women who held this title or were described in this way. The Acts of the Apostles only says of the daughters of Philip that “they prophesied.” Such phrasing might indicate that these women had a strong gift of prophecy but that women did not hold a position of prophetess in the early church. However, the fact that women were recognized prophetesses in the Old Testament might suggest that Christian women held this position as well. Since the distinction between prophesying and holding the position of a prophet(ess) is not clearly drawn and elaborated in the New Testament, and since the specific references to women’s prophesying are so few, conclusions must be made cautiously. The most that can be said is that women prophesied in the early church and that some were known to be gifted for prophecy. However, scripture does not contain a clear reference to a Christian woman being given the title of prophetess.4


The pattern of men’s and women’s participation in teaching activities in the early church resembles the pattern of their participation in prophecy. Here again there is no doubt that men taught among the early Christians, but there is much dispute about whether women taught. Many hold that women’s participation in teaching activities is simply prohibited by Corinthians 14:34–36 and Timothy 2:12. However, these prohibitions probably referred to something very specific, as will be discussed in Chapter Seven. This section will simply mention the New Testament references to women teaching.

First, Acts 18:24–28 describes a woman teaching in the course of missionary work. In this passage Apollos, a recent convert, is speaking about Jesus in the Ephesian synagogue. Priscilla and Aquila, Paul’s co-workers, see him, and “when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him and expounded to him the way of God more accurately.” Some significance may or may not lie in the fact that Priscilla’s name comes first in this particular passage. There is likely significance in the fact that Apollos was taken into their home before Priscilla instructed him. The passage indicates clearly that she worked with Aquila to instruct Apollos. The instruction must have proceeded at a fairly high spiritual and intellectual level, because Apollos was a learned man and he went on to continue teaching afterwards. Therefore, Priscilla must have been well-educated as a Christian and capable of a high level of instruction. Later sections in this chapter which concern women in missionary work and deaconesses will provide more evidence for women teaching in a way similar to Priscilla. Early church evidence indicates that women did much if not all of their teaching in homes, and that they primarily instructed other women, either prospective converts or catechumens.

A second passage that mentions the teaching responsibility of women is Titus 2:3. The passage with its context is as follows:

But as for you, teach what befits sound doctrine. Bid the older men to be temperate, serious, sensible, sound in faith, in love, and in steadfastness. Bid the older women likewise to be reverent in behavior, not to be slanderers or slaves to drink; they are to teach what is good and so train the young women to love their husbands and children, to be sensible, chaste, domestic, kind and submissive to their husbands, that the word of God may not be discredited. Likewise urge the younger men to control themselves. (Ti 2:1–6)

This is one of the several sections in scripture where the writer treats categories of Christians distinguished according to age and sex. The writer first urges Titus to bid the older men to do certain things, then the older women, and finally the younger men. However, he does not instruct Titus to exhort the younger women in any fashion; rather, Titus should bid the older women to teach the younger women. In other words, the care of the younger women is entrusted to the older women. The older women are expected to teach the younger women, to help train them to be the kind of women the Lord wants them to be. It is uncertain whether this exhortation refers to all the younger women in the community or to women younger in the Christian life—that is, new converts. However, most passages that discuss duties by age and sex categories do so from a perspective of concern for the whole community, not simply for the new converts. The passage also suggests that the male leaders should avoid caring for younger women. Such direction is likely given in order to avoid sexual temptations and inappropriate personal attachments. Furthermore, there is undoubtedly an understanding in Titus 2 that women are best able to teach other women how to be mature Christian women. It is clear, then, that women taught other women how to live the Christian life. This teaching must have played an important part in the effective formation of the Christian people.

A third reference to women teaching can be found in Timothy 1:5, which mentions the role of Timothy’s mother and grandmother in his early spiritual life. The passage does not explicitly use the word “teach,” but it clearly indicates that Timothy’s mother and grandmother had responsibility for his religious formation (see also Tm 3:15). Some have suggested that Timothy’s father had died. More likely Timothy’s father, a Greek (Acts 16:1), was a pagan, and his mother instructed her son in the Jewish faith before anyone in the family became Christian. In any case, Timothy’s mother did teach him, and this teaching and its results were commended. Background for a teaching role can be found in the discussion of the teaching role of the wife in Chapter Three. All Christian mothers, and not just the ones who had pagan husbands, must have done some teaching in their households. In fact, they probably taught more than most modern Christian mothers, since they could not send their children off to Sunday school or catechism class.

More will be said about the teaching role of women in connection with the discussion of Timothy 2:8–15. However, we have clear evidence that women as well as men had a teaching role among the early Christians. When they taught adults they primarily taught other women. The passage in Titus 2:3 suggests this principle, and evidence from the early Christian church in the first few centuries confirms it. It cannot be said that women would never teach men (Priscilla did seem to teach Apollos), but it can be said that there is no evidence that women were allowed to teach the Christian community as a whole. Their primary teaching role was, of course, as mothers. Early evidence of women’s missionary work suggests that women missionary workers taught in homes. This evidence will be discussed in the next section. There is also some likelihood that older women taught younger women in the context of the home, in “daily life training” rather than in formal classes. When someone taught in public—either to instruct the whole Christian community or in an evangelistic situation—all existing references indicate that this person was a man who was a recognized Christian teacher. In short, the activity of teaching in the early church, like that of prophecy, involved men and women alike. However, the way it was carried out differed for men and women. A role difference was expressed in the way this activity—like others—is carried out.

Charitable Service

Charitable service focuses on care for the needy—the poor, the sick, and travelers (visitors). Charitable service was a major activity among the early Christians and was perhaps the main form of Christian service. In an affluent society with an institutionalized welfare system, the significance of directly helping the needy is often overlooked as a form of Christian service. Yet descriptions of the life of the early church indicate that charitable service demanded more time and energy from the Christian people than anything else except raising families. As with prophecy and teaching, both men and women participated actively in charitable service.

Much charitable service among early Christians flowed directly from the life of the family. As noted in the previous discussion of family life, the household would serve the needy through the distribution of alms and through taking in guests and orphans. However, the Christian community as a whole also did charitable service. The people who assumed a special responsibility for charitable service were the deacons (servants) and the widows (possibly with deaconesses). It cannot be said decisively that deacons and widows were the only ones who actively performed charitable service on behalf of the community, although there is no evidence of others doing so before the rise of the ascetic movement and the Christian charitable institution in the fourth century.5 The evidence for charitable service in the wider Christian community of the early centuries points solely to the work of deacons and widows.

The deacons were the men in the community who bore the active responsibility of caring for the needy. The deacons were responsible for many other matters as well, but the early church orders indicate that the care of widows and orphans was the most time-consuming of their responsibilities. The New Testament passages that speak about the activity of men in charitable service are likely speaking about deacons when they are not referring to heads of households. In Acts 6, the “seven” are appointed to care for the daily distribution to the widows. The passage itself is not completely clear in its interpretation, since the seven may not have been deacons. But since the time of Irenaeus, Acts 6 has been commonly viewed as the description of the appointment of the first deacons. Regardless of title, the “seven” must have performed some kind of diaconal service. The other indication we have of men doing charitable service is Romans 12:8, again a passage that is not perfectly clear in its interpretation, but which likely refers to deacons.6 These sketchy indications in scripture can be filled out by later descriptions of deacons. While much charitable service in the early Christian community was conducted through the household, some needs were not easily handled by households. The deacons administered the community care for the needy. The bishop received contributions and distributed them through the deacons to the widows, orphans, and other needy. The deacons, working under the bishop, saw that people were provided for and they distributed financial and material resources to those in need.

Two passages, one in Acts and the other in the pastoral epistles, treat the women’s activity in charitable service. Acts contains the following description of Tabitha:

Now there was at Joppa a disciple named Tabitha, which means Dorcas or Gazelle. She was full of good works and acts of charity. (Acts 9:36)

Her works of charity or mercy had something to do with making clothes for the poor (v. 39), and the way the other widows gathered around her (v. 39) indicates that she was probably one of the widows in the community.7 The second passage occurs in Timothy and concerns the enrollment of widows. The text reads:

Honor widows who are real widows. If a widow has children or grandchildren, let them first learn their religious duty to their own family and make some return to their parents; for this is acceptable in the sight of God. She who is a real widow, and is left all alone, has set her hope on God and continues in supplications and prayers night and day; whereas she who is self-indulgent is dead even while she lives. Command this, so that they may be without reproach. If any one does not provide for his relatives, and especially for his own family, he has disowned the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.

Let a widow be enrolled if she is not less than sixty years of age, having been the wife of one husband; and she must be well attested for her good deeds, as one who has brought up children, shown hospitality, washed the feet of the saints, relieved the afflicted, and devoted herself to doing good in every way. But refuse to enroll younger widows; for when they grow wanton against Christ they desire to marry, and so they incur condemnation for having violated their first pledge. Besides that, they learn to be idlers, gadding about from house to house, and not only idlers but gossips and busybodies, saying what they should not. So I would have younger widows marry, bear children, rule their households, and give the enemy no occasion to revile us. For some have already strayed after Satan. If any believing woman has relatives who are widows, let her assist them; let the church not be burdened, so that it may assist those who are real widows. (Tm 5:3–16)

Widows were a recognized group or order in the early church. The passage reveals that widows were enrolled so that they could be supported financially, but also that all widows were not provided for in this way. The order of widows had some further functions in the life of the Christian community than just to provide for needy widows. The description of the “true widow” in verse 5 makes it clear that a central part of the widow’s activity was prayer and intercession. Post–New Testament descriptions of the order of widows in the early Christian community confirm that prayer and intercession was one of the main, if not the main, activity of the widow. In addition, the qualifications of a good candidate include a reputation for charitable work. Once more the later descriptions of the order of widows confirm that widows were responsible for much charitable service to the needy.8

The deacons and widows served the needy in different ways. In general, they served in a way consistent with the distinction—made in Chapter Four—between the provider and the one who serves the immediate need. The deacons, who were men, filled the role of “provider.” They supervised the help given to the needy in the community, making sure that money, food, and other supplies were distributed. The widows served the needy more immediately. They made clothes for them, nursed the sick, visited homes, and notified the bishop or deacons when they discovered cases of need. Both men and women did charitable service, but their roles in this service differed. This role difference was analogous to the role difference in the family.


Both men and women served the early Christian community through prophesying, teaching, and charitable service. The references in scripture to the activity of women in these services are few, but neither are there many references to the men serving in these ways. The New Testament simply does not describe in much detail the specific activities which strengthened the early Christian community. Scripture devotes more attention to the service of apostles and elders as Christian servants in the early community, but even in their case it says very little about the specific tasks of their service, how they spent a typical day, and what they did with the people they were responsible for. Even though the New Testament references are scanty, there is no reason to doubt that both men and women taught, prophesied, and did charitable service in the churches founded by Paul. Nor is there any reason to doubt that the same was true for all the early Christian churches, especially since much of our later evidence for the role of women in Christian service stems from Syriac and Coptic sources as well as from Greek and Roman.9

We cannot distinguish between the roles of men and women in the early Christian community according to the type of activities they performed. As was shown in the last chapter, the same is true of the early Christian family. In both the family and the overall community, the significant distinction is in the way the roles are structured, not in the types of activities men and women performed. It is not true, for example, that men taught and prophesied and women did charitable service. Nonetheless, there are role differences for the service of men and women in the Christian community. Women’s teaching was directed more to other women or to the household (at least some of the household), and was carried on within homes rather than in public. For their part, men were responsible for the teaching of the people as a whole. There also seemed to be a role difference in charitable service: The man (deacon) served as “provider” and the woman (widow) served the immediate needs. This distinction is similar to the one we observed in the family. In short, men and women engaged in these various activities in different ways but no activity was closed to women.

Women in Missionary and Pastoral Service

Role differences between men and women in the early communities lie mainly in the way services were structured. From the beginning, Christians held recognized positions within the community as they worked for the spread of the gospel and the strengthening of the Christian people. Much discussion has centered on how these positions came into existence and how they functioned. Most of this discussion is beyond the scope of this book. The concern here is primarily to consider how these positions were ordered in terms of men’s and women’s role differences. This section will consider the service of women as missionary workers and as deaconesses in the early church, and will particularly examine the considerable degree to which women were recognized as having an important position in community service. Then this chapter will consider the type of responsibility within the Christian community that was reserved to men. Finally, it will summarize the overall pattern of men’s and women’s roles in community service.

To begin with, the difference between the way Christian service was carried out in the early church and the way it is carried out in the contemporary church must be recognized. The pattern of Christian service today—where church members volunteer to serve on committees, teach Sunday school or catechism, and work on other projects in their free time—is a wholly modern invention.

First, men and women in the first centuries of the Christian church had very little “free time.” They spent most of their time in household labor, much of which was economic in nature. Most of daily life was lived in the household, and much of life was absorbed by the basic tasks of staying alive. Even the wealthy spent more of their time in their household (what might be called an estate today) and they were more concerned than the affluent of today with the organization of productive tasks.

Thus, “Christian service” in the first centuries has to be understood as something that was carried out in the context of the household. The early household bore much more of the responsibility for Christian nurture, evangelization, and care of the needy than most households do today. The help most Christians gave outside of the household consisted mainly of material and financial contributions that came from work within the household setting. Consequently, most “service” of the early Christians must be described in terms of the family, not in terms of committees, volunteer church services, and other features of modern church life. The Christian service of most women was described under the role of the wife in Chapter Three. The men assumed more of a role in the life of the community outside the household, but even they acted more as men who headed households than as persons performing a special community service. The Christian service of most men is thus also described in Chapter Three.

A second difference in Christian service is that a smaller number of people held recognized positions within the early Christian community than is the case in the church today. Many modern Christian churches try to give most of their active members some recognized position of service in church functions. These are primarily jobs on committees, service projects, teaching programs, and so forth. As we have seen, few early Christians served in a such a way, but rather served in the context of their daily lives in their households. On the other hand, the positions in the early communities were lifelong, more varied, and more important to the life of the community. There was a larger and more varied “clergy,” in the broad sense of the word, than we are accustomed to today. There were more elders, deacons, and deaconesses and in the later centuries, more persons in “minor orders,” such as exorcists and readers. The early Christian community seems to have given special positions of community service to fewer people, but the positions were more important. Moreover, the early church seems to have established such positions only to fulfill needs that could not be met by Christians in their daily lives. The community was organized so that most of the community’s work of evangelism and of building up the Christian people would be done by all the people, normally in the context of their household life. In short, recognized positions of Christian service in the early church were not what contemporary Christians might term the Christian service of all the Christian people. Rather, they were special positions among the Christian people that provided an order and organization for the whole life of the people.

Women as Missionary Workers

The early church was very active in its missionary efforts. Existing Christian communities sent many missionary workers from their home communities to plant new communities in areas where there was no Christian church. While it is known that much missionary activity occurred during the New Testament period, there is only one picture of how a missionary effort operated. This is the picture of Paul and his co-workers in Acts and the Pauline corpus. Paul worked with a sizable team of men and wom­en, many of whom are mentioned by name.10 Paul himself carried the title of apostle. This title was given occasionally to his most prominent co-workers, Barnabas (Acts 14:14), with whom he shared authority while they worked together, and Silas and Timothy (Th 2:6). The term “apostle” has a meaning similar to that of “missionary.” An apostle was someone sent, an emissary, in this case an emissary of Jesus Christ with his word of salvation.11 The position of “apostle” will be considered later. Here the concern is with those who might be termed “apostolic workers” or “missionary workers”—those who worked in the early church to bring others to the Christian faith and to found churches.

Both men and women were missionary workers in the early church. Paul worked with many women. The last chapter of Romans, the chapter which contains the greetings from Paul, contains the names of many women who were co-workers:

I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deaconess of the church at Cen­chreae, that you may receive her in the Lord as befits the saints, and help her in whatever she may require from you, for she has been a helper of many and of myself as well.

Greet Prisca and Aquila, my fellow workers in Christ Jesus, who risked their necks for my life, to whom not only I but also all the churches of the Gentiles give thanks; greet also the church in their house. Greet my beloved Epaenetus, who was the first convert in Asia for Christ. Greet Mary, who has worked hard among you. Greet Andronicus and Junias, my kinsmen and my fellow prisoners; they are men of note among the apostles, and they were in Christ before me. . . . Greet those workers in the Lord, Tryphaena and Tryphosa. Greet the beloved Persis, who has worked hard in the Lord. (Rom 16:1–7, 12)

Paul refers to two more of his co-workers in Philippians:

I entreat Euodia and I entreat Syntyche to agree in the Lord. And I ask you also, true yokefellow, help these women, for they have labored side by side with me in the gospel together with Clement and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life. (Phil 4:2–3)12

Priscilla (or Prisca) is a woman who receives particular mention from Paul. She is not only greeted in the passage in Romans 16 above, but mention is also made of her in Acts 18, Corinthians 16:19, and Timothy 4:19. She and her husband labored together with Paul in the work of evangelism, probably the only husband and wife team mentioned in all of the New Testament.* Priscilla’s name is frequently mentioned before her husband’s, which is possibly an indication that she was more prominent in the missionary work than her husband. She was likely the chief woman worker in Paul’s band and perhaps possessed a prominence in the whole work that was greater than her husband’s. Paul seems to have relied heavily on the two of them, and they were important in instructing Apollos, who became an important missionary worker.

The New Testament does not provide a detailed picture of how the men and women missionary workers functioned. They seem to have worked together in teams. However, the New Testament accounts of missionary work ought not be read with pictures formed from contemporary Christian life. There is no reason to believe that the female missionary workers preached to crowds in public in the manner of some Pentecostal evangelists like Aimee Semple McPherson or Mary Woodworth-Etter. The evidence from the century immediately following the time of the apostles indicates that women functioned in a pattern consistent with the male-female role differentiation already described. Clement of Alexandria describes the work of the women in the following way:

The apostles, giving themselves without respite to the work of evangelism, as befitted their ministry, took with them women, not as wives but as sisters, to share in their ministry to women living at home: by their agency the teaching of the Lord reached the women’s quarters without arousing suspicion.

By “women’s quarters” (gynaikōnitis) Clement is referring to the women’s quarters of the various houses. He is indicating that the women workers mainly evangelized and cared for other women and primarily did so in those women’s houses. Clement’s testimony is confirmed by the apocryphal Acts of Paul, a work which cannot be used with any certainty as a source for the life of Paul but can be used here as a confirmation of Clement’s statements. The Acts of Paul describes in the following way how Thecla evangelized Tryphaena:

So Thecla went in with her and rested in her house for eight days, instructing her in the word of God, so that the majority of the maidservants also believed; and there was great joy in the house.13

Thecla’s work of evangelism was carried out among the women and in the women’s quarters in the homes. In conclusion, the overall picture of early missionary work is of a band of co-workers—men and women together—functioning under the direction of an apostle or two. The men focused on men, the women focused on women, working primarily with other women in those women’s houses.

The Deaconess and Widow

There were three recognized positions of service in the Christian community during the first four centuries of the Christian church: elder/​bishop, deacon, and deaconess. The elders, or the bishop and elders, were the heads of the Christian community. It is not clear how early the term “bishop” (“overseer”) was reserved for the head of the elders and of the community. Neither are we clear about the nature of the relationship between the bishop and the elders in the early Christian communities where there was a clearly expressed distinction between the positions. Nevertheless, the elders were always part of the governing body of the Christian community, even where the role of the bishop as the head of the community was strongly stressed.

The deacons were a group of men who served as extensions of the bi­shop (or of the elders).14 They were the servants of the community, but servants more in the sense of stewards than in the sense of menial workers. They worked under the bishop and were given significant responsibility for the ordering and organization of the life of the community. The deacons were not part of the governing body of the community, but they were a recognized and respected part of the leadership of the community. They were the extensions of the bishop and hence widened his ability to organize the life of the community and to care for the needs in the community.

The third recognized position within the early Christian community was that of deaconess. There is clear evidence for the existence of deaconesses as an accepted part of the order of the Christian community from the middle of the third century on. The position continued in importance throughout the early centuries, and died out in the Western church in the early middle ages.15 The origin of the position of deaconess is debated. Some hold that it developed toward the end of the second century; others contend that it can be found in scripture.16 The view that the position of deaconess can be found in scripture seems to have a stronger basis, considering that the role of the deaconess is instructive for the role of women in community service in the early Christian community, even if the position did not fully develop until a later time. The deaconess held a significant position in the early Christian community, and the role of the deaconess shows how a recognized position of female leadership in the Christian community could function in the New Testament period, or at least among Christians who followed the same approach to the roles of men and women as followed by the first generation of Christians.

The New Testament passage that seems to refer most clearly to deaconesses is found in Timothy. This passage is part of a section of the epistle which discusses how people should be chosen to fill various positions of caring for the household of God. The section begins with the qualifications for the position of overseer (bishop/​elder), and then proceeds as follows:

Deacons likewise must be serious, not double-tongued, not addicted to much wine, not greedy for gain; they must hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. And let them also be tested first; then if they prove themselves blameless let them serve as deacons. The women likewise must be serious, no slanderers, but temperate, faithful in all things. Let deacons be the husband of one wife, and let them manage their children and their households well; for those who serve well as deacons gain a good standing for themselves and also great confidence in the faith which is in Christ Jesus. (Tm 3:8–13)

This passage uses the Greek word diakonoi. This word can be translated as either “deacons” (literally: “servants”) or as “deacons and deaconesses.” (The literal translation of deaconesses is “handmaids” or “maidservants.”) The verse beginning “the women likewise” is of special concern here. There are two main interpretations of this verse. One view understands the verse as a reference to the wives of deacons (since the word for “women” could also be translated “wives”). The second view understands the verse as a reference to deaconesses, women who were chosen for a particular position of service in the community. The main support for the first view comes from the paucity of references to deaconesses before the third century. The only support for such a view in the passage itself is the rather odd placement of the verse on deaconesses in a section that seems to envision primarily male deacons. However, the passage itself points toward interpreting the verse as a reference to deaconesses. If the verse referred to the wives of the deacons, the writer would have probably used the wording “their women (wives)” rather than “the women.” Moreover, if this verse is a reference to deacons’ wives, one would expect to find a parallel mention of the wives of elders earlier in the discussion of the choosing of elders. There is no such mention. Finally, the somewhat odd placing of the verse in a passage primarily about another subject is not stylistically inconsistent with Timothy as a whole. In short, the weight of evidence suggests that Timothy 3:11 refers to deaconesses.17

The second passage that seems to refer to the position of deaconess is in Romans 16, the passage about Phoebe. In the RSV translation the verses read as follows:

I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deaconess of the Church at Cen­chreae, that you may receive her in the Lord as befits the saints, and help her in whatever she may require of you, for she has been a helper of many and of myself as well. (Rom 16:1–2)

There is no doubt that Phoebe was a person of some importance in the early Christian community. There is some dispute as to whether she was a deaconess.18 The key phrase above could also be translated “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church at Cenchreae.” Also, the passage could be interpreted as simply a commendation for her faithful service in the Christian community rather than as a statement that she held a recognized position of deaconess. The term “servant” could even refer to Phoebe’s responsibilities as Paul’s missionary co-worker, perhaps someone he assigned to Cenchreae, rather than to her service as deaconess.19 However, the distinction between missionary worker and deaconess is rather tenuous; since an apostle could be considered an elder (Pt 5:1), his main female co-workers could likely be considered deaconesses (servants)—if such a position existed in New Testament times. Paul also describes Phoebe as a “helper,” but this term adds little to our understanding. The Greek word (prostatis) is only used once in the New Testament. Many commentators have suggested that prostatis meant something like “patroness,” and that Phoebe was thus a wealthy woman who was distinguished for acts of charity and for financial contribution.20 Even so, the term does little to decide whether Phoebe was a deaconess, since a patroness might or might not occupy such a position of service. The strongest indication within the text that Phoebe actually was a deaconess is the official-sounding nature of the phrase by which Paul identifies her: “a servant/​deaconess of the church at Cenchreae.”

In summary, Romans 16:1–2, together with Timothy 3:11, provides significant support for the view that the position of deaconess existed among Christians in New Testament times. If there is no reference in scripture to deaconesses other than Romans 16:1, then it would be difficult to maintain that Phoebe was a deaconess. However, with the Timothy 3:11 verse, there is some possibility that Phoebe was a deaconess.

The New Testament does not provide a clear picture of what deaconesses may have done. Even if Phoebe was a “patroness,” there is no certainty that this was part of her service as deaconess. To understand the role of deaconess, one must look to the later periods, which provide clearer descriptions of deaconesses and their functions in the Christian community. The first of these descriptions comes from the early third century, and a number of other descriptions come from the two or three centuries following. These descriptions of deaconesses vary in some interesting ways, but a discussion of these variations is beyond the scope of this chapter.21 Its purpose only demands a general description of the kind of activities that deaconesses performed during the beginnings of the Christian church.

First, deaconesses cared primarily for the women. The Didascalia Apostolorum, the earliest full source for the role of deaconess, states this very plainly:

Therefore, O Bishop, appoint for yourself workers of righteousness and helpers to help you bring life to your people, choosing those who please you from all the people. The man who is chosen will be to do the numerous things which are necessary. The woman for the service of women.*

In their care of the women, the deaconesses performed a great variety of services.22 They assisted in the burial and baptism of the women. They instructed the women, especially the women catechumens. They cared for sick women at home, visited the poor, and informed the bishop and elders about the condition of the people. Deaconesses were intermediaries between the women and the heads of the community, often presenting the needs of the women to the bishop. Finally, in some communities they presided over the women’s section of the assembly.

The order of widows and the position of deaconess were both recognized positions for women in the early Christian community. The relationship between the two positions remains uncertain.23 Some early sources draw a clear distinction between deaconesses and widows. In other sources the distinction all but disappears, with some (or all) widows performing the kinds of services that other sources assign to the deaconesses. This observation is important because it shows the extent of a recognized position of Christian service for women in the early Christian community. The order of widows had an “ecclesiastical rank.” Even in communities where no clear evidence exists for an order of deaconesses, there appeared to be an order of women—the widows—who served the community and who were honored along with the elders and the deacons as part of the “leadership” of the congregation. Though there is some doubt about whether the position of deaconess existed everywhere in the early church, there appears to be no doubt that some women—deaconesses or widows—had a recognized position within the “leadership” of the community. Honoring them in that position seems to have been universal in the first centuries of the Christian people.

In order to understand the full significance of the position of deaconess in the early Christian community, one must understand how it relates to the positions of deacon and elder. First, the deaconess was a female deacon.* As the Didascalia Apostolorum, cited above, states, the deaconess, like the deacon, is chosen to work under the bishop as a helper. They are both servants of the community and serve as extensions of the bishop, acting under his direction. The Apostolic Tradition states that deacons are chosen “for the service of the bishop.” They were chosen to serve the community not as heads in themselves but as men and women available to the bishop for whatever service was needed.* Like the deacon, the deaconess held a recognized position within the Christian community. Like the deacon, she was not one of the heads of the community but served as an extension of the bishop and elders. A “servant” can exercise considerable authority, but it is authority delegated by the “master” and derived from him.

While deacons and deaconesses held parallel positions, they did not function in identical ways. The title of “deacon” or “deaconess” refers primarily to a person’s relationship to the bishop and elders, not to his or her function. Deacons and deaconesses were servants of the bishop for the community. The deacons and deaconesses served in a variety of ways, like the servants in a large household who performed functions ranging from steward in charge of the whole household to errand boy. The term “servant” designates the person’s relationship to the master and household, not the person’s responsibilities. In some respects the functions performed by the deaconess corresponded to those performed by the deacon, but in other ways they corresponded to the functions of the elders. In some ways the deaconess was a female elder responsible for the other women. She did not have the same kind of authority as an elder, but she cared for and instructed the other women in ways that more resembled the elder’s care for the community than it resembled the function of deacon. Moreover, there are some indications that the early church explicitly associated the service of the deaconess with the service of the elder. Epiphanius of Salamis states that in matters affecting women, the ecclesiastical order is extended to the deaconess.24 With the segregation of communal life by sex in monastic communities, the “governor” of the men’s monasteries (what is today called the “abbot”) was usually an ordained presbyter (elder) and could be referred to as “the presbyter” of the community. Likewise, the “governor” of the women’s community (an “abbess”) was usually a deaconess.25 Hence the position of deaconess was seen in the ascetic movement as being analogous to that of elder. In short, the deaconess can properly be seen as the female position corresponding to both that of elder and deacon. She performed services that both elders and deacons performed. Although the deaconess never bore the authority or independent responsibility of an elder unless caring for an all-female group, she was in certain respects the female elder of the community.26

The history and development of the position of deaconess (and widow) in the early Christian community is complex and uncertain. However, a few key facts stand out clearly. There was a recognized position of leadership for women in the early Christian community, stemming probably from New Testament times, but certainly from within a century afterwards. The deaconess may have performed somewhat different functions at different times and places, but with the widow she performed an important role of leadership in the community, especially among the women, and held an honored place. The early church did not have an all-male leadership, as has been common in much of the Western church in more recent times.

In some ways, the role of the deaconess in the community is analogous to the role of the mother in the family. The analogy, however, is limited. The term “mother” implies a relationship to the “father” (bishop or elder) that the deaconess did not have unless she was married to a bishop or elder. The evidence indicates that deaconesses were not often the wives of the elders. A second limitation to the analogy is that the deaconess did not hold any authority over the men in the community, whereas the mother is the second head of the family and should be honored and obeyed by her sons. Nonetheless, the analogy between deaconess and mother is illuminating. The deaconess cares for the women the way the mother cares for the daughters. At the same time, the order of widows (and perhaps the deaconesses) perform a role in charitable service analogous to that of the mother in the family. Moreover, the deaconess possesses an honored position in the community like the mother in the family and receives respect from men as well as women. There was, in other words, a recognized position for women in the leadership of the early Christian community that was in some important respects similar to the position of the mother in the family.

Men and Governmental Positions

While both men and women in the early Christian community taught, prophesied, performed charitable service, and held recognized positions, there were clear differences in roles. The most helpful way to define the difference in roles between men and women in community service is not by listing activities forbidden to women or by stating that women did not hold positions of leadership in the community. A key feature of that role difference lay in the fact that the positions of governmental authority were held by men, and when women exercised authority they did so subordinate to a man and normally over other women or in the home.

Governmental Positions

In studying questions of leadership among the early Christians, it must be understood that the Christian community was a particular kind of human grouping and that the early Christians formed relationships with each other that are very different from the relationships among modern Christians. Leadership positions differ considerably depending on the type of interaction in the group and the type of function the leader performs. Some of these characteristics of the early community have already been noted and will be studied further in Chapter Eight. The early Christians considered themselves a nation or people, a community, with patterns of committed relationships. Their cultural norms were different from those around them, and they had their own courts and governmental authorities.

By contrast, the contemporary church, sociologically speaking, is more of a religious institution than a people or community. The life of contem­porary Christians primarily expresses itself in various projects and activities centered around a church building. Much of this activity consists of teaching. Most churches offer a system of classes that is modeled on modern educational practice. Even the congregational gathering with the sermon is often evaluated in terms of its educational function. Sacramental actions are often viewed as services offered by an institution rather than as expressions of community life which also build and strengthen the community life. Normally, few personal relationships form simply because Christians are members of the church and primarily share a commitment to the church. When modern Christians form personal relationships, these are mainly motivated by personal attraction, common interests, compatibility, and other factors essentially unrelated to their common church membership. Church membership at most provides the occasion for their contact. Of course, these statements are not equally true for all churches. Some churches, especially ethnic minority churches and smaller Evangelical and Pentecostal churches, preserve many elements of community life. However, in most churches in the Western world, the institutional elements predominate over communal elements. The reverse was true among the early Christians. Like all communities, the early churches had their institutional structures, but the type of institution that contemporary people take for granted was rare, existing only in certain governmental and military situations, and was not characteristic of early Christian life together.27

In a communal grouping like that of the early Christians, the overall leadership of the community governed the people. The heads of the Christian communities functioned in a way similar to fathers in a family; they did not treat the community members like children, but they did lead and direct them personally. They governed (cared for) the people. They taught them and watched over their lives. When members of the community were in need, the elders saw that the need was met. When the lives of the community members did not conform to the Lord’s way of life, the heads would personally discuss the issue with those members. If a major transgression occurred, the elders would discipline the person. They governed and led the people, not the institution.

By contrast, the leaders of most modern churches concern themselves more directly with the institution than with the people, and their leadership consists primarily of administration, decision-making, and opinion-forming. The people’s lives are a private matter. The leader will counsel someone upon request. The leader will run a program for those who want something enough to sign up and participate. The leader thus provides services for some individuals when they express a personal interest. The authority of church leaders extends over the institution—the common activities—but not the lives of the church members. The leaders can influence the direction of their members’ lives through educational activities, but their primary authoritative functions are either administrative or policy-making for the institution (decision-making about budgets, hiring personnel, types of programs to use, etc.). This is not a criticism of modern church structures, since good reasons sometimes underlie their current forms, but these comments are simply a description of the differences between modern church institutions and the early Christian community. Noting these differences makes it possible to read the New Testament documents with greater clarity.

The role of the leaders of the early church as governors of the people is brought out in the names given their positions. The most common titles for these men were elders (presbyters) and overseers (bishops). Other titles included governors, presidents, and shepherds—words largely drawn from secular government in the New Testament world and applied to people with governmental authority. “Elders” was a common term for the governing body of a village or a nation. “Governors,” a title similar to that used for Pontius Pilate and other Roman procurators in the New Testament, was also applied to the Christian elders.* “Shepherds” (“pastors”) was not a sentimental term of affection, but rather a term applied to rulers of Israel in the Old Testament; it connoted a ruling function when it was applied to the Christian elders. The Christian leaders expected to govern people in a way of life, and they expected their authority to be respected and embraced.

The word used in the New Testament for the relationship of the people to their governors in the Christian community is the same word that we have considered in the relationship of the family—“subordination.” The early Christians were exhorted to subordinate themselves to those who were over them in the Lord. An order existed in the Christian community in which children subordinated themselves to their parents, wives to their husbands, the head of the family to the elders, in some views the elders to the presiding elder or bishop, and the whole body to Christ, its head.28 Christians were not simply subordinated to Christ as individuals, but also as an ordered whole, unified and able to function together as an organism. The ideal behind the order in the community is the same ideal discussed in the first chapter: These distinct individuals were called to become one new person, a community united with the Lord and with one another and able to function as followers of the Lord in such a close and unified way that they could be considered his body. Clement of Rome, writing about 90 AD, provides a picture of the Christian community subordinate to its elders that sums up the point in the words of someone trained by the apostles:

So now my friends, let us get on resolutely with our warfare under His unerring directions. Think of the men who serve our own governors in the field, and the prompt and orderly obedience with which they go about their duties. Not all of them are marshals, generals, colonels, captains or the like; nevertheless, each at his own level executes the orders of the emperor and the military chiefs. For the great cannot exist without the small, nor the small without the great. Every organism is composed of various different elements; and this ensures its own good. Take the body as an instance; the head is nothing without the feet, nor are the feet anything without the head. Even the smallest of our physical members are necessary and valuable to the whole body; yet all of them work together and observe a common subordination so that the body itself is maintained intact. In Christ Jesus then, let this corporate body of ours be likewise maintained intact, with each of us subordinating ourselves to our neighbor in proportion to our spiritual gifts.29

Government in the early Christian community, like government among the Jews and in the Greco-Roman world (although to a lesser degree), was a matter of governing people and involved a personal relationship and personal subordination. Even when there was no personal acquaintance, an element of personal loyalty (or disloyalty and rebellion) to the governor existed that is often missing in contemporary societies. The role of the elders in the Christian community resembled the role of the father in the family. In a functionally oriented society, leadership more commonly operates in an administrative fashion, and focuses on job descriptions, lists of functions, and available and qualified personnel rather than on roles and personal qualities. For example, a modern discussion about the need for more teaching in the Christian church is likely to revolve around the question of who is qualified to teach. Modern Christians would separate the functions of teaching from the function of community leadership. By contrast, in the scripture, teaching occurs in the context of a relationship. The elders taught as fathers of families, not as modern classroom teachers. They instructed the members of the community with authority about how they should live, and they expected an eager receptivity.

Similarly, early Christians were much less concerned than we about questions of representation and policy-making in their government of the Christian community. Today, Christian churches—along with most secular institutions—are careful to represent all major interest groups on governing bodies so that everyone has a chance to be heard. In fact, individuals are often elected to governing bodies chiefly because they can represent a particular point of view, even if they have no particular ability to lead others. In the early church, however, decision-making was not the kind of major activity it is now with new policy constantly being discussed and passed. Significant policy decision-making was rare. The elders were chosen because they could govern an entire people, not because they represented an opinion or an interest group.

The difference between early and modern Christian government is perhaps best illustrated by two different notions of the word “represent.” In contemporary liberal, democratic society, a representative is someone who can represent (i.e., define, articulate, and advance) the interests of a particular person or group of people. Behind this idea lies a concern for policy or opinion and a conviction that pluralism of opinion, even about basic principles, values, and often doctrine, is to be expected. The representative, then, must faithfully represent the opinions and ideas of the group he represents. In the last century the church has moved strongly to make church decision-making bodies more “representative.” There is a concern that each assembly or synod represent youth, women, minorities, and all other important interest groups so that they can influence the decision-making process.

However, the early church understood “representation” differently. The leader of a Christian body “represented” it in the sense that he in a way embodied it because he was its head. For example, the early provincial or ecumenical councils were assemblies of bishops, who were present because they represented their church as its chief governor.* They did not represent their church in the sense of speaking for an interest group. They represented it as the governor of a unified body of people. The bishop could speak for the body because it was a united whole and not an assemblage of interest groups with different stands on policy matters—at least when the community functioned the way all knew it ideally should. A bishop represented a body of people who loved one another, and who had subordinated their lives and interests to the common good, and who were governed by men who understood government to mean caring and providing for all the members of the community. All agreed that there was an objective standard for judging whether the government and life of the body was proceeding rightly. This standard was the teaching of the Lord.

Of course, the early Christian church was not an idyllic community free from controversies and conflicts. The early Christian communities did not always function according to their ideal. However, the early church possessed a conception of how a body of people should function that is very different from modern notions. To some considerable degree, the early church realized this ideal in the first centuries. This communal conception of the Christian community allowed the head of the community to represent the entire body. It was not necessary to find representatives who could speak for different interests and opinions.

Apostles and Elders

Elders and apostles were the two primary governmental positions in the early Christian community. The elders (presbyters, bishops/​overseers), or the elders with the bishop when the two words were clearly distinguished in meaning, were the governors of the local Christian community.30 The apostles were the founding authorities of the church after the death of Jesus. While much is unclear about the precise functions and authority of the apostles, there is a consensus that the term “apostle” normally referred to someone who held some kind of governmental position among the early Christians.31 Moreover, in the missionary bands discussed earlier, the apostle (Paul, in this case) was the head or governor of the band and the others either shared his authority as co-apostles or served under him as co-workers. “Apostle” and “elder” were positions always held by men. All who held positions of government or headship over the community as a whole were men.*

Until recent years there was no dispute whatsoever among commentators and scholars that apostles and elders in the early church were always men. Recently, however, some have advanced the view that some women served as apostles or elders. The case for this view is weak, but the evidence must nevertheless be reviewed.

First, there is evidence to indicate that being a man was an important part of the qualifications for an apostle. Jesus chose only men to be his apostles and we have their names. When Peter wanted a replacement chosen for Judas as apostle, he said,

For it is written in the book of Psalms, . . . “His office let another take.” So one of the men (andrōn) who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us—one of these men must become with us a witness to his resurrection. (Acts 1:20–22)

The word Peter uses in this passage is anēr, a word that designates only males. If he wished to leave the question open, Peter could have used the word anthrōpos, “man” or “person,” a word which could possibly apply to a woman as well as a man. A similar deliberate choice of words seems to exist in the way Paul describes the workers on his missionary teams. He uses the phrase “my co-workers” to refer to all those who work with him, men and women alike. However, he reserves the term “God’s fellow workers” for those with the title “apostle”—himself, Apollos, and Timothy—all males.32 It also appears that maleness was one of the qualifications for being an elder. Two separate New Testament discussions of the qualifications for elders state that the elder should be “the husband of one wife” (Tm 3:2; Ti 1:6). Finally, in at least one place, the New Testament explicitly prohibits women from taking a position of authority over the community. This passage—Timothy 2:8–15—and the questions connected with it will be discussed in Chapter Eight.

In view of these passages, the fact that there exists no undisputed recorded instance of a woman being named elder, bishop, or apostle in the early church is highly significant. Moreover, early Christian writings include the names of many elders and apostles and references to their lives, and the names are all male names and the references apparently all refer to men. No reference in early Christian writings can confidently be interpreted as an example of a female elder or apostle. The only exceptions to this statement occurred among the later Montanists and Collyridians, two small heretical sects. In fact, for more than a millennium and a half after the ministry of Jesus, among orthodox Christians no woman has been entrusted with governmental authority for the whole Christian people. In the absence of one surely documented case of a female apostle or elder, the probability is very high that no woman held the positions of elder and apostle in the early church.

The arguments to the contrary rely not on evidence that passages using the title “apostle” as a governmental position refer to women, but on mere grammatical possibility that some passages could be taken that way. The opinions for a New Testament reference to women as apostles and elders focus on two references: the name Junia(s) in Romans 16:7 and the term “older women” in Timothy 5:2.*

Paul’s mention of Junia(s) as an apostle in Romans 16:7 is translated in the Revised Standard Version as follows: “Greet Andronicus and Junias, my kinsmen and my fellow prisoners; they were men of note among the apostles and they were in Christ before me.” Andronicus and Junias were probably Jewish Christians whom Paul knew well. The RSV translation, given here, seems to clearly rule out the possibility that one of them could have been a woman. However, the translator supplied the word “men” for stylistic reasons. Moreover, the name Jounian in the Greek text is in the accusative case and grammatically could be the name of either a man or a woman. In other words, it is grammatically possible that Junia(s) could be a woman who is here termed an apostle.33 On the other hand, it is possible that Junia(s) is a man. In addition, it is even possible that the passage does not identify Andronicus and Junia(s) as apostles at all. The phrase could be translated “they are people well known to the apostles.” This translation would mean that the two were among the first Christian converts and known to the Twelve.34 Hence, it is not clear either that Junia(s) is a woman, or that this person was an apostle. Grammatical considerations leave open the possibility that this passage might refer to a female apostle. However, this possibility has much less weight in view of the evidence that only men were chosen to be apostles and the complete lack of evidence elsewhere for the existence of any female apostle. It is unlikely that this is a reference to a female apostle.

The passage which some maintain contains a possible reference to a female elder is Timothy 5:2: “Do not rebuke an older man (presbyterō) but exhort him as you would a father; treat younger men (neōterous) like brothers, older women (presbyteras) like mothers, younger women (neōteras) like sisters in all purity.” The word presbyteros is used in the New Testament for both an elder who is one of the governors of the community and for “older men”—older in age.35 Some maintain that the term presbytera can refer to “eldresses” of the community as well as to “older women” and conclude that this passage refers not to “older men” and “older women” but to “elders” and “eldresses.” However, this interpretation is unlikely. Timothy 5:2 is most naturally understood as an exhortation to a head or governor of a Christian community (Timothy) about how to relate to different types of people, especially older people who deserve a certain deference because of their age even though they are under his authority. This passage distinguishes people according to age and sex. Thus, the writer urges Timothy to treat older men differently from younger men, and older women differently from younger women. The roles in a family are offered as a model for these relationships in community. The passage takes on an odd meaning if “older men” and “older women” are to mean “elders” and “eldresses.” In such a case, Timothy would be exhorted to treat elders and eldresses (even those younger than he) like fathers and mothers, and to treat all the other members of the community (even those of advanced age) like brothers and sisters. The more likely meaning of the passage, then, is the one that guided the RSV translation. The weight of the evidence suggests that the passage refers to older women, not eldresses.

One final line of argument that suggests the possibility that women held governing positions in the early church concerns the New Testament references to “the church [or: assembly] in so-and-so’s house.” This phrase probably means that the Christians often met in homes. They did not own church buildings until the third century, probably because of a prohibition by Roman officials. When they gathered within a city, the early Christians would assemble in a house that was large enough to hold a large number of believers. The phrase “the church at so-and-so’s house” could refer to the subgrouping of the Christian community that met at a particular home, or it could refer to the assembly or meeting that was held at a particular home.36 Some of the people who had “churches” or “assemblies” meeting at their homes were women: Priscilla with Aquila (Rom 16:5; Cor 16:9), and perhaps Nympha (Col 4:15). Some have held that this term indicates that the women mentioned, Nympha at least, were heads of sub-groupings of Christians that included both men and women.37

However, the phrase the “church at so-and-so’s house” does not necessarily imply such a conclusion. More likely, the term simply means that the person named had the appropriate house and “hosted” the gathering. Paul apparently led meetings that he held at Lydia’s house (Acts 16:15, 40) and Gaius’s house (Rom 16:23). Acts 12:12 refers to a similar situation where the designation “the church at so-and-so’s house” is not used, but where we can see mention of a gathering of Christians meeting at Mary’s house with no indication that Mary was responsible for the grouping. In short, the meaning of the term “the church at so-and-so’s house” is not absolutely clear, but it more likely refers to the person who made the house available, and not to the leader of the meeting (although the two could sometimes be the same, as it likely was in the case of Philemon).

In conclusion, a clear and consistent picture of men’s and women’s roles in the leadership of the early Christian community emerges in the New Testament period. Men acted as the governors or heads of the Christian people. They were the apostles and elders. On the other hand, women were not apostles and elders but they were deaconesses and co-workers with the apostles. Women were active in the missionary work of the early Christian community, and they shared in caring for the people of the early Christian community. They worked in subordination to men (the apostles and elders), and were mainly responsible for the women.

Roles and Community Structure

The pattern of service in the early Christian communities in regard to the roles of men and women can now be summarized. First, the roles of men and women in community service in the early church cannot be distinguished according to activities which are allowed for one and forbidden to the other. Both men and women performed the main activities of building up the Christian community. Men and women alike taught, prophesied, rendered charitable service, evangelized, and raised Christians in the Lord. The differences between men and women can be distinguished less in terms of activities or jobs and more in terms of the structure or order in their relationship. In this respect, role differences in the community paralleled role differences in the family.

Secondly, among the early Christians, wherever a position for a man existed there also existed some complementary position for a woman. The early Christian community was not one of those social groupings that excluded women from all communal responsibility. In fact, the opposite seems to be true. The early Christians followed the principle that men ought to have female co-workers. Daniélou summarizes the approach in this way: “It would seem . . . that each male ministry had a sort of female counterpart, of a subordinate character and connected with the extension of this ministry to women.”38 The women served under the men who were the overall heads of the groupings, and the women were primarily concerned with caring for women.

The pattern of roles for men and women in community service among the early Christians can be summarized in the following way:39

  1. The governors or heads of the Christian people were men. Men held the positions which ordered the life of the Christian people, had the overall responsibility for their care, exercised the authority of the Christian community and represented the community.
  2. Wherever there are male heads or governors in the Christian people, there are normally women working with them in a subordinate way.
  3. In the care of individuals, men care for the men and women care for the women. Men normally raise other men in the Lord and women raise women.40
  4. When men and women perform the same activity together, as in the case of charitable service, the men commonly function as providers and are responsible for the overall care, while the women directly serve the immediate needs.

How this pattern of roles worked out in practice undoubtedly differed, for example, among Christians living in a rural area in Cappadocia, among Christian Arab nomadic tribes, and among Christians living in the city of Rome. However, the pattern applies to very different situations. It simply describes the broad patterns of roles which can be lived out in a great variety of ways.

Finally, this chapter has said little about “sacramental actions” such as presiding over the eucharist and administering the penitential discipline. Neither “priesthood” nor other related issues which are currently topics of great concern among Christians have been discussed. These questions will be treated more fully in Chapter Twenty-Four. In view of what has been said to this point, however, one could assert that insofar as these actions were seen as governing functions, they would be performed by men.

The pattern in the family corresponds to the pattern in community service. This correspondence exists for two major reasons. The first reason has been implicit throughout our study: The family formed the basic cell of the community. It was the place where most Christian life was lived and where young people learned to be mature Christian men and women. Many New Testament passages see the family as the model for the rest of the community. It is not accidental that Timothy 3 views the role of father in the family as a model and preparation for the role of elder in the community. Nor is it accidental that Timothy 5 uses family relationships as the model for various relationships in the community:

Do not rebuke an older man, but exhort him as you would a father; treat younger men like brothers, older women like mothers, younger women like sisters in all purity. (Tm 5:1–2)

As Chrysostom put it, “a household is a little church,” and correspondingly “a church is a large household.” Or, as Timothy 3:15 puts it, “the church is the household of God.”41

The correspondence between the family and community goes to the heart of how the early Christians understood their life together. If the life of the Christian people is lived as a family rather than as a social institution, the same roles are needed in both family and community. The type of government and care a father provides for his family must be present in the community. The type of service to the immediate needs a mother provides in her family must be present in the community as well. Those members who are younger in age and experience need to be taught and reared in a similar way. The shift away from what could be called “the family approach to the Christian church” will be discussed more fully in the later chapters of this book. However, it is precisely the “family” elements of Christian life that have disappeared from many Christian churches today. These include ongoing personal government and care of people; personal training and “raising” of those younger in the Lord; natural daily service to the poor, needy, guests, travelers, and newcomers; and the natural sharing of help from household to household. These are approaches and attitudes that Christians once learned in the household and then extended into the life of the community. Today, they have been largely lost—with great cost to the communal life of the Christian people.

The second reason why the pattern of family roles corresponds to the pattern of community roles is that early Christians wanted family and community to support and reinforce one another. To approach roles differently in the community would undermine the role structure of the family. At one time people understood this principle instinctively, but today it is no longer understood so easily. Some people today see that a clear pattern of husband-wife roles is taught in scripture, and they try to live this way in the family. However, these same people cannot see why the life of the Christian community has to be patterned in the same way. They presume that family and community can easily be separated from one another and operate differently. In fact, family and community cannot be separated. If someone learns how to be a man, he must be a man in every situation in his life, and he needs his male role to be taught everywhere. Otherwise, when he finally has a family, he will not assume the role of a man in the family. If the family structure requires the woman to rule her household and consequently be more present in the household, the community structure must orient her toward that role and not remove her or train her from it. There is traditional wisdom in the early Christian approach of supporting the family role pattern by developing a similar role pattern in the community.

Such considerations about family structure were probably the main reasons why deaconesses were not governors or heads in the early Christian community. If each male role in a community had a corresponding female role, one might think that the deaconesses should govern the women while the elders govern the men. But this would have undermined the husband’s role as head of the family. His wife, daughters, and the female members of his household would have been under the direction of a deaconess and not under him. Consequently, the pattern of community government was arranged to support the unity of the family. The man was the head of his family and he was subordinate to the elders. Older, experienced women taught the younger wives and helped them when help was needed. However, these women did not assume governmental authority over the wives. The only recorded instances of a woman being described with a governmental title in the early church concerns women who headed a community or a subgrouping of the Christian community composed entirely of women.

In a similar fashion we can fairly easily understand something that is apparent in even a casual reading of the New Testament and other early Christian literature: The men assume a more prominent place in the public life of the early Christian community than the women. This fact is understandable in terms of what we have observed about family life and the overall structure of the Christian community. The women had more responsibility within the household. The men had more responsibility outside the household. This does not mean that women had no responsibility in the community, nor that men had no responsibility in the household. Men, however, had greater responsibility in community life outside of the household than did the women.

This consideration of family and community role structure helps clarify the meaning of “the subordination of woman” in the New Testament. It could be held either that the New Testament does teach the subordination of women or does not teach the subordination of women, depending on the meaning assigned to the phrase “the subordination of women.” The New Testament does not teach subordination of all women to all men. In fact, many of the relevant scriptural prescriptions might be designed to prevent this. Women were subordinate to one man, not to all men. It is much more accurate to say that the New Testament teaches not the subordination of women, but an order to the relationships of men and women. The scriptural order builds upon an order in the basic unit, the family household, in which the woman is subordinate to her husband or her father. By extension, and in a parallel way, the women are then also subordinate to the elders of the community who are men. But the men in the community are also subordinate to the elders—as much as the women are. In fact, in a certain sense, the women in the community are less directly subordinate to the elders than the men. This is so because the women are normally subordinate as members of the one person that is the family, and are thus subordinate to the elders through their husbands (or fathers). In short, rather than saying that the New Testament teaches the subordination of women, we should more accurately say this: The New Testament teaches the subordination in marriage and family of women to a man, the head of the family, and a pattern of roles in the community which entrusts the government of the community to men and which thereby supports the pattern in the family.

Something similar can be said about the honor paid to women in the Christian community. People sometimes say that the early Christians honored women less than men. While little direct data exists on the way honor was paid according to sex in the early Christian community, social historical evidence from societies structured on similar principles would indicate that such a view is mistaken. Honor was probably paid to men and women in the early church according to an order in which many women would be paid more honor than many men. For instance, in a country which has a king and queen, the second most highly honored person in the country is often the queen—a woman. The honor given to her would normally be greater than that given to any man in the country other than her husband (this might be stated by saying that she would be second in protocol). The queen mother also would be given a great deal of honor (see Kgs 2:19). The widows and deaconesses in the early church likewise received special honor in ways that most men in the community did not. In short, the honor a woman received would be relative to her family position or her position in the community, and the statement that women were honored less than men would be seriously misleading.

The pattern of the roles of men and women in community service discussed in this chapter reveals a social structure in the early Christian community that builds upon the structure of the family as its basic unit. There is a consistency to the early Christian approach to men’s and women’s roles that indicates that the early Christians had a definite social structure not based on haphazard circumstance or on prejudice against women. Instead it was based on a social system that was both stable and effective, judging from the success of the Christian community in the first few centuries of its existence. Many questions remain, especially those concerned with how the early Christians viewed their social pattern and how they taught about it. The next three chapters will consider the remaining key texts in the New Testament about the roles of men and women.

102*See below, pp. 114115, for a discussion of this distinction.

103*The basic elements in the New Testament pattern (see pp. 134135) were preserved in the patristic church. Patristic literature, however, gives us a much fuller and more concrete picture. To state the point more precisely, patristic literature gives us a number of specific pictures of how different Christian communities worked out men’s and women’s roles in Christian service. Insofar as the evidence is available, the approaches of different Christian communities of the first few centuries show the same basic outlines as the pattern in the New Testament. For a fuller discussion of the patristic evidence, see Chapters Twelve and Thirteen.

106*Among those who interpret prophecy as preaching are commentators who see such a connection as that of Acts 15, yet who also do not experience the actual gift of prophecy functioning in the Christian groups to which they belong. Rather than failing to claim for their churches a function that was so important in the life of the early church, they interpret preaching, or certain kinds of preaching, as prophecy. This also leads them to believe that women must not have prophesied, at least in the assembly of the community, because of the prohibitions on women’s teaching or speaking to the whole assembly. Another source of biblical evidence for preaching as prophecy is the understanding of the evangelistic message as the word of God, i.e., a prophetic message (Lk 3:2; 5:1; see also Rv 1:2; 19:10). The modern English word “preach,” however, commonly means teaching and exhorting the Christians, and it is on the basis of the equation of “preaching” with prophesying that it is used to decide whether women should or should not prophesy. For such an argument, the passages on evangelism are not relevant, for the argument is based on an ambiguity in the English word. It is worth noting that feminists, too, are fond of equating prophesying with preaching, for entirely different reasons. Beginning with the position that women prophesied, they use this equation to hold that women actually did preach and teach in the assembly, despite all evidence to the contrary. Such an argument suffers from both a serious misunderstanding of prophecy and from a misreading of scripture. For some helpful discussion on prophecy as more than preaching, see A. Heschel, The Prophets (New York: Harper and Row, 1971), 194ff.; and B. Yocum, Prophecy (Ann Arbor: Servant Publications, 1976).

117*Corinthians 9:5 may be interpreted as referring to apostles’ wives, although this is quite uncertain and speculative given the context. If taken in this way, it could be seen to indicate that the apostles and their wives worked together, but does not have to be understood as indicating that their wives were any more than companions and personal helpers (i.e., wives). In other words, this is a possible reference to such partnership, but not much more than a bare possibility. Another such possibility could be Andronicus and Junia(s) if the latter is a woman—and this is by no means clearly the case. See p. 132 for a discussion of this question.

117†Many feminist writers today are inclined to see in Priscilla a model independent woman, and it is suggested she took the leadership role in the family. There is, however, no reason to believe that she had authority over her husband in any way, or that their relationship was ordered in a manner different from that which was taught by Paul (see Chapters Four and Seven).

121*Didascalia Apostolorum 3.12.1–13.1 (Funk, 1:208.8–214.3). There are various reasons given for the need to have deaconesses: (1) because of the baptismal rite in which deacons/​deaconesses baptized and anointed the new Christians naked; (2) because of the need for church workers who could enter the women’s quarters; (3) because it would be unseemly for men to contact women directly. These are practical expressions of the need for women to care for women. The greater the separation of men and women in daily life, undoubtedly the greater need there is for women ministers.

122*To say that deacons and deaconesses had parallel ministries is not necessarily to say that the women were ordained in the same way as the men. The ordination of deaconesses is a further question that lies beyond the scope of the present discussion.

123*The Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus 9.1–5, trans. B. S. Easton (Cambridge, 1924), 38:

But the deacon, when he is ordained, is chosen according to those things that were said above, the bishop alone in like manner laying his hands upon him as we have prescribed. When the deacon is ordained, this is the reason why the bishop alone shall lay hands upon him: he is not ordained to the priesthood but to serve the bishop and to carry out the bishop’s commands. He does not take part in the council of the clergy; he is to attend to his own duties and to make known to the bishop such things as are needful. He does not receive the Spirit that is possessed by the presbytery, in which the presbyters share; he receives only what is confided in him under the bishop’s authority.

127*The terms for Roman procurators and their governors which commonly appear in the New Testament include hēgemōn (Mt 27:2) and hēgemoneuō (Lk 2:2; 3:1). The term used for leaders of the church in Hebrews 13:7, 17, 24, hēgoumenos, is derived from hēgemoneuō. Clement of Rome uses a very similar word in an analogy between military and spiritual leadership (Clem 37–38).

127†See Cor 16:16; Pt 5:5. Among related phrasings are: peithō (Heb 13:17); hyperechō (Phil 2:3; Pt 2:13; Tm 2:2); proistēmi (Th 5:12; Tm 5:17; Rom 12:8). Subordination is a term used in scripture for the relationships to secular authority (Rom 13:1, 5; Ti 3:1; Pt 2:13–14), once again an indication of the way Christians perceived their leaders as exercising governmental authority.

127‡There was an order of subordination within the Christian community, as taught in the New Testament, but there was no teaching that the individual Christian was only subordinate to Christ through others.

129*While, in the conciliar age, the church was, perhaps, not as tightly knit a community as it was in the first centuries, the basic contrast being drawn here with the functional approach of the modern world still holds.

130*There were other positions as well, primarily those of prophet and of teacher. It is unclear whether prophets exercised a governmental role, nor is it clear that women actually held the position of prophet (as distinguished from the function of prophesying). Teachers probably did have some governmental position, and women did not hold this position. See Barth, 438–439; Rengstorf, TDNT, 2:157–159. I have worked primarily with the ministry structure of bishop, presbyter, and deacon because there is a clear view available from New Testament and early church sources of how such positions functioned. The evidence is clearer for such a structure in the pastorals than earlier, and there are a number of theories which posit different approaches to leadership structures for different New Testament churches. The scope of this chapter does not allow a consideration of such views. Since the suggested differences bear, for the most part, on the way leadership was structured and do not bear upon the nature of positions of government in the early church, focusing on the role of elders, a position that we can see in a rough outline from early sources, is a sounder course for the kind of considerations in this chapter. The view of Käsemann et al. of a purely charismatic church order in the Pauline churches would necessitate a somewhat more qualified approach to this area, but the substantiation for such a theory is more speculative than evidential. Myles Bourke’s critique of such an approach is helpful. (See “Reflections on Church Order in the New Testament,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 30, no. 4 [October 1968]: 493–511.) Such a discussion, however, goes beyond the scope of this book.

132*The only instance of which I am aware that seems to have even a possibility of such a reference from grammatical considerations alone would be the case of Junia(s).