Saint Paul and Women: A Mixed Record

Statue of Saint Paul outside the Vatican

You might remember a game show from the 1950s called What’s My Line? In this show a celebrity panel tried to guess which of the contestants was the person they each claimed to be. At the end of each round, the host would ask, “Will the real __________ please stand up?”

Many Christians would like to ask that of the multiple versions of Saint Paul they have heard or read, particularly regarding women. Is he the passionate missionary who had an inclusive vision of Christianity in which there was neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free person, male nor female (Galatians 3:28)? Is he the authoritarian leader who directed women to be silent in the churches (1 Corinthians 14:34-35)? Or is he a minister who recognized and appreciated the leadership of women in the early Church (Romans 16:1-16)? “Will the real Paul please stand up?”

Two biblical sources give us glimpses of Paul in relation to women: Paul’s own letters and the Acts of the Apostles. As a means of discovering Paul’s thinking, the letters are, of course, the primary source. Acts was written later by an author who had his own theological purpose and message. The focus in Acts is particularly on the missionary activity of Paul, leaving little room for a developed picture of other ministers in the Church.

As readers in search of Paul’s attitude toward women in ministry, we need to be careful, even in our reading of the letters. Biblical scholars have helped us to realize that not all the letters attributed to Paul were actually written by him. Recent editions of the Scriptures, such as the Catholic Study Bible, have enlightening introductions to each letter that include this kind of information.

Letters generally accepted as Paul’s are Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians and Philemon. We look first to these letters, then, for signs of Paul’s relationship with women. In doing so, we cannot expect to find a thorough presentation of his theology of women and their ministry. These letters were written to specific communities in response to particular questions or problems.

Searching for Paul’s understanding of the role of women in the early Church, then, requires a bit of detective work. We get clues here and there (clues that at times seem quite contradictory) that help us piece together a picture of Paul.

Prisca: Companion, Missionary, Leader

One woman mentioned by Paul in both 1 Corinthians and Romans is Prisca (in some translations, Priscilla). Prisca and her husband, Aquila, were companions and fellow missionaries with Paul. Paul refers to them as he concludes these two letters. Though the references are brief, they reveal several significant things about his relationship with this couple.

In Romans 16:3-4, Paul writes, “Greet Prisca and Aquila, my co-workers in Christ Jesus, who risked their necks for my life, to whom not only I am grateful but also all the churches of the Gentiles….” This greeting reveals a picture of a married couple active in the Christian mission. Their names always appear together, emphasizing that they truly shared their ministry as a couple. Paul’s term, “co-workers,” suggests that he deems them as his equals. Moreover, he is grateful to them for endangering their own lives on his behalf.

Acts 18 tells us that when Paul first arrived in Corinth, he stayed with Prisca and Aquila. The author notes that they were refugees who came to Corinth when the Emperor Claudius expelled all Jews from Rome. Presumably, Prisca and Aquila were already Christians before Paul came to Corinth. They welcomed Paul, a fellow tentmaker, into their home, and he stayed with them for a time. When Paul was ready to sail for Syria, Prisca and Aquila went with him. They stayed for some time in Ephesus.

Acts 18:24-26 specifically casts this married couple in the role of teachers whose authority is recognized by others. When they hear the eloquent Apollo speak, they take him aside and “explain to him the Way [of God] more accurately.”

It is likely that Prisca and Aquila were leaders of a house church in Corinth as they were in Ephesus and Rome. In the early Church, Christians gathered for prayer in relatively small groups in the home of one of the community’s wealthier members. In 1 Corinthians 16:19-20, Paul refers to such a community. “The churches of Asia send you greetings. Aquila and Prisca together with the church at their house send you many greetings in the Lord.” Similarly, in Romans 16, Paul concludes his greeting of Prisca and Aquila with, “Greet also the church at their house.”

Phoebe: Deacon and Benefactor

Paul commends another woman in Romans 16 who was a leader in Cenchreae, a port city near Corinth. “I commend to you Phoebe our sister, who is a minister of the Church at Cenchreae, that you may receive her in the Lord in a manner worthy of the holy ones, and help her in whatever she may need from you, for she has been a benefactor to many and to me as well” (1-2).

The word minister (or servant) in modern translations is the Greek worddiakonos (deacon). Phoebe is the only woman specifically named a deacon in the New Testament. In the days of Paul’s ministry the role of the deacon was evolving. It involved an official function of some kind, most likely a pastoral one. As the Church developed, the position of deacon was more specifically described. Fifty to 70 years later, 1 Timothy 3:8-13 outlines the requirements and obligations of the deacon.

In the present context, Paul’s reference to Phoebe is in the form of a letter of recommendation so that she will be welcomed with hospitality when she reaches the Christian community in Rome. By implication, Phoebe’s ministry includes travel to other places. Paul’s description of her, then, is significant. He recognizes her as a sister in the faith, a deacon or minister whose service is trustworthy, and finally as a “benefactor to many.”

This Greek word can also be translated “helper, protector or patron.” Paul notes that she was also a benefactor or patron to him personally, someone who helped him to spread the gospel.

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Mary, Junia, Julia, Tryphaena, Tryphosa: Workers in the Lord

In his commendations in Romans, Paul mentions five other women by name. Although the descriptions are brief, the fact that Paul singles them out indicates his respect for their ministry.

Julia is merely named as one to be greeted. Of Mary, he notes that she “has worked hard for you.” Similarly, Tryphaena and Tryphosa are commended as “workers in the Lord.” Junia and Andronicus are described with more detail as “my relatives and my fellow prisoners; they are prominent among the apostles, and they were in Christ before me” (16:7).

The name Junia has been a center of biblical debate in recent years, with some translations having the masculine name Junias, and others the feminine name Junia (New American Bible). Early Christian commentators, such as Origen, Jerome and John Chrysostom, clearly understood the name to be that of a woman.

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

The title apostle is used by Luke only to describe “the twelve,” but Paul uses the term in a broader sense. He adamantly claims the title for himself (Galatians 1:1, 1 Corinthians 9:1-2). For Paul, to be an apostle is to have authority, to be sent with the power of the risen Jesus to bring the gospel message to others. Thus, he writes to the Corinthian community, “You are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord.”

For Paul to describe Junia and Andronicus as “prominent among the apostles,” then, implies that they were missionaries imbued with the desire and the grace to carry the message of Jesus to others. Perhaps they, like Prisca and Aquila, were another married couple ministering together in the early Church.

Euodia and Syntyche: Evangelists in Need of Healing

In several of his letters, Paul addresses situations of dissension or division. One of these situations involves two women.

Paul speaks of his appreciation for the ministry of Euodia and Syntyche in Philippi. “They have struggled at my side promoting the gospel” (Philippians 4:3). He also alludes to some tension between the two that needs reconciliation. “I urge Euodia and Syntyche to come to a mutual understanding in the Lord” (4:2). The fact that this difficulty is mentioned in the letter indicates Paul’s concern that the strain between them will have an effect on the Christian community they serve.

Chloe: Potential Peacemaker

Another community Paul addresses about division is the Church in Corinth. In Corinthians 1:10-11, Paul writes of his concern about factions among the Corinthian Christians. Paul had a close relationship with the Church in Corinth, having spent a year and a half with the people there. Together with Prisca and Aquila, he then sailed for Ephesus. When he later learned that there were difficulties in Corinth, he addressed them directly, citing as his source of information Chloe’s people.

The phrase “Chloe’s people” is ambiguous. It could refer to her family or her servants. It is also possible that Chloe was the leader of a house church, and “her people” were some of those who met in her house.

We can infer from Paul’s action based on her word that Chloe was someone whom Paul respected and deemed trustworthy.

Lydia: Hospitable Leader

The Acts of the Apostles tells the story of Lydia, Paul’s first European convert (16:11-15, 40). When Paul arrived at Philippi, he found a group of women gathered on the sabbath. Only one woman is named: Lydia, “a dealer in purple cloth.” Since purple dye was quite costly, Lydia is understood to be a wealthy woman. The author notes that “the Lord opened her heart” to Paul’s words and that she and her whole household were baptized.

Lydia then invites Paul and his companion to come and stay at her home. As a woman of some means, she no doubt had a home spacious enough to welcome guests and to host a house church. The author indicates that her home was a Christian center. After Paul and Silas were released from prison, they went immediately to Lydia’s house to see and encourage the believers gathered there.

Did Paul Mean to Silence Women?

Having looked at several examples of women who ministered with Paul and who were commended by Paul, how are we to understand passages in which Paul sounds hostile to women?

A friend of mine once told me she couldn’t understand why I would write about Paul, since he was so against women in the Church. The passage she had in mind was 1 Corinthians 14:34-35: “Women should keep silent in the churches, for they are not allowed to speak, but should be subordinate, as even the law says. But if they want to learn anything, they should ask their husbands at home. For it is improper for a woman to speak in the church.”

Most contemporary biblical scholars maintain that these verses could not have come from Paul. They contradict his acceptance and commendation of women’s leadership. They also directly contradict an earlier passage in this same letter, where Paul assumes that women do both pray and prophesy in the Corinthian community (11:5).

How, then, did these verses come to be included in the letter? Most likely they were teachings from a later time that eventually were copied into Paul’s letter. Those who copied texts before there were designated chapters and verses at times confused someone’s marginal notes as part of the original document. The notes then became part of the newly copied text.

The silencing of women does not make sense coming from Paul. Women such as Prisca, Phoebe and Junia could not have functioned as Church leaders and apostles if they were not allowed to speak in public.

The teaching in 1 Corinthians reflects the attitudes found in 1 Timothy, a letter attributed to Paul but actually not written until the early part of the second century. By this time, at least in some local communities, there was more concern for order and specified positions. In the pastoral letters (1 and 2 Timothy and Titus), we find regulations concerning deacons, bishops and elders. The ideal here is a well-regulated household.

While Paul acknowledges women’s ministry and leadership in house churches, 1 Timothy maintains that “a woman must receive instruction silently and under complete control” (2:11).

Stand Up and Be Recognized

Still, it is not so simple to say in relation to his view of women’s ministry, “Will the real Paul please stand up?” Nowhere do we have an extended exposition on the topic from Paul’s own hand. We have brief references in letters that were devoted to a variety of issues and questions. In none of them was Paul’s primary concern how or if women were involved in Church ministry.

In the glimpses we do have, we know that women worked with Paul and that he recognized the importance of their ministry in the local churches.

It is important for us to remember that Paul was developing his own ministry and understanding of what it meant to share the gospel with others. When he began his missionary activity, women such as Prisca and Junia were already active in the Church.

In his own letters, he does not appear to have any desire to limit their activity. Rather, he commends them for their work as he does their partners Aquila and Andronicus. Perhaps the question should not be, “Will the real Paul please stand up?” but rather, “Will the real Prisca, Phoebe, Junia, Chloe and Lydia please stand up and remind us of your energy and zeal as women in the early Church?”

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3 thoughts on “Saint Paul and Women: A Mixed Record”

  1. Rhonda G Hoskins

    Wow! Such Great Information and your explanation of the writings attributed to Paul but not written by him have answered the questions I have had about Paul for many years. I’ll never settle for what the current theology is among unlearned men. Thank you so much!

  2. Richard Cunningham

    I’m agnostic/atheist. While I do not believe in a supernatural God, ido accept the reality of the Christian church, which Paul helped to build, more than any other of the early Christian believers. I’m glad that you corrected the misconception concerning Paul’s supposedly hostile atitude toward women in the church. Your refutation, however, does show that biblical text cannot be taken at face value.

  3. Diane K Schneider

    Thank you for resolving this conflict in St. Paul’s works. This inconsistency has bothered me and also seems to conflict with Christ’s relationship to women and his statements about husband and wife.

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