Women in christianity: Women in first Christian communities

In bona fide has produced a mini educational video series Women in Christianity under the project financed by  Global Fund for Women.

Women in first Christian communities
Author of text: Ela Magda Džafić
Editor in chief: Lana Bobić
Production: Natko Stipaničev

What can we conclude about the role of women in first churches by reading the letters of the apostle Paul? That question is still a point of contention in the life of the Church, because there are many cultural and historical factors that influence how we answer it. That question might not exist, if Paul’s letters had never mentioned women. Fortunately, or unfortunately for some, Paul does mention women – and by name – and names their roles, which, if they had been tied to men, would unequivocally be accepted as leadership roles.  

The issue of understanding the role of women in the first church comes from church tradition that has through centuries interpreted biblical texts from the perspective of the governing cultural paradigm. So, the role of women was often diminished, misinterpreted, completely removed, or a woman’s name was turned into a man’s so as to avoid the conflict. These are some of the examples:

During his second mission trip, Paul and his associates arrive to Philippi. In the desire to share the Gospel with the local population, they come to the river bank where they expected to find a place of prayer. There they find a group of women praying, among which there was ‘a woman named Lydia, dealer in purple cloth, from Thyatira; she was a worshiper of the true God.’

Philippi is the first European city in which Paul preached the Gospel message, and so, as the first woman who accepted the Gospel and was baptized with her household, Lydia is considered the first European to become a follower of Christ. Lydia’s conversion presents the beginning of Christianity in Europe. An entrepreneur, a devout woman with an open heart, and obviously very resolute, given that the writer of Acts had to point out how she ‘persuaded’ them to stay at her house. Lydia’s conversion was crucial for the establishment of the church in Philippi. Christians in Philippi developed a narrative of the establishment of their church around this woman, her conversion, her connection to Paul and her role as the one responsible for the house church. 

In his letter to the church in Rome, we find Phoebe. Phoebe was a woman the apostle Paul had sent to carry the letter to the church. At the end of the letter, Paul names Phoebe, recommends her to the church in Rome and designates her as ‘diakonos’, deacon of the church in Cenchreae. Earlier, in the book of Acts, chapter 6, we read about the establishment of the ministry of deacons. They were people ‘full of spirit and wisdom’, charged with the task of caring for the poor and needy. The patriarchal hierarchizing of the church that strategically diminished the importance of women strongly shaped the way Phoebe’s role would be interpreted. For example, when Paul refers to himself, or Apolo, or Timothy as ‘diakonos’, that term in always translated as deacon. However, when that term is applied to a woman, Phoebe, tradition diminishes her role and translates the word as ‘server’, ‘helper’, ‘deaconess’, and describes her as one who served the church.  The fact that Phoebe had great authority in the first church is confirmed by the second noun Paul uses to describe her – ‘prostatis’. It is a noun that comes from the verb ‘proistemi’, meaning ‘to be placed above’, ‘be a protector or overseer’, and it describes an influential and leadership position in the church. That noun is also translated as sponsor. Phoebe’s ministry was important and wide, and it is visible she was Paul’s close associate by the fact that he entrusted her to deliver his letter, to read it to the church and explain whatever needed to be explained. 

The woman that has suffered most injustice by the tradition, is Junia. In Romans, chapter 16, Paul greets Andronicus and Junia, the apostles, his fellow Jews, who have been in prison with him. The issue that is a point of contention for theologians and exegetes is firstly – is Junia male or female, and secondly – does the Greek text say that Junia is an apostle, or that apostles knew of her. If Junia was an apostle, why have women been deprived of that role, and many other leadership roles in the church? The name Junia was a well-known female name, and there is no reason it would be interpreted as a short version of the male name Junian. Besides, in theological tradition, Junia was widely accepted as a woman until the 12th century. Even though research has shown that there should be no question about whether Junia is a woman or not, many widely accepted translations today still list Junia as a man, a well-known apostle. That kind of interpretation culturally fits more with the prevalent patriarchal society and those who, in this way, avoid the conflict about Junia’s identity. Those that can’t read the original Greek text of the New Testament will, without question, accept the androcentric translation and interpretation, and thus lose a piece of information that opens a whole new sphere of understanding the role of women in the Church. 

Paul calls both men and women his associates in Christ. An associate for Paul is someone who, together with him, called by God, works on the common mission of sharing the Gospel. 

Paul writes that both men and women worked very hard in the Lord, that is, that they took part in the building of the Church community and in missionary work. Paul greets Mary, Tryphena and Tryphosa as those working hard in Rome in the missionary work. For Persis, he writes that she has worked very hard in the Lord (Rom 16,6.12)

About Euodia and Syntyche, he writes that they fought for the Gospel (Phil 4,3) with him and other associates. By fought, Paul means spiritual and verbal confrontation with non-Christian adversaries. 

The name that is mentioned most often is Priscilla, and she is always named with her husband, Aquila. Usually, only the husband would be greeted, so the fact that Priscilla is mentioned, and even mentioned first, 4 out of 6 times she is mentioned in Acts and Paul’s letters, points to the fact that she was indeed important and her role as Paul’s associate was more important than her husband’s. Priscilla and Aquila worked together, and their house church was not structured as a patriarchal family, but rather as a faith community that they led together, hand in hand. 

All of these women have, through history, gone through thorough examination and various prisms, and have often lost their true identity due to traditional interpretations that claimed women can’t have roles that were ascribed to them in the New Testament. Their role was strategically diminished in order to contest their leadership roles in the first Christian communities. However, it is difficult to ignore the text and the overwhelming amount of evidence that unequivocally show that women were crucial for the development of the Church and that they weren’t denied any role.