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Woman in the Early Church: A Study of Romans 16, from 'Woman as Priest, Bishop and Laity in the Early Church to 440 A.D. by Arthur Frederick Ide

Woman in the Early Church: A Study of Romans 16

Woman as Priest, Bishop and Laity in the Early Church to 440 A.D.
by Arthur Frederick Ide, Ide House 1984, pp. 27-40.
Published on our website with the kind permission of the author

Contrary to the rhetoric of Roman pontiffs from the sixth to the twentieth century, women did serve as ministers: deacons, priests, and bishops in the early Catholic Church and Christian community. In general, they were called diakonos—a word which at that time was understood to mean “ministers” rather than “deaconesses” (e.g. aids to the ministers). The Latin of Pliny the Younger reads, quite clearly:>

Quibus peractis morem sibi discedendi fuisse rursusque coeundi ad capiendum cibum, promiscuum tamen et innoxium; quod ipsum facere desiisse post edictum meum, quo secundum mandata tua hetaerias esse vetueram. Quo magis necessarium credidi ex duabus ancillis, quae ministrae dicebantur, quid esset veri et per tormenta quaerere. Sed nihil aliud inveni, quam superstitionem pravam, immodicam.

[ Even this practice [sharing in the [Agape: Holy Communion], however, they had abandoned after the publication of my edict by which, according to your orders, I had forbidden political associations. I judged it so much the more necessary to extract the real truth, with the assistance of torture, from two female slaves, who were styled ministers, but I could discover nothing more than depraved andexcessive superstition.}

Pliny’s accounts, similar to those left by other civil servants, record in detail how the ministrae “stood fast for the faith” and how their congregations “mourned the passing of their shepherds who they call also diakonos”.(1)

The acceptance, ordination and commissioning of women to serve as ministrae within the early Christian community is well documented. The Greek educated legalist, St. Paul, himself greeted them as leaders of congregations, joined with them, worshiped with them, and took bread with them. The fullest statement on Paul’s knowledge, understanding, and acceptance of women in the clergy is found in the sixteenth chapter of Paul’s Letter to the Romans, which more than probably was delivered to the congregation of Christians by a woman: Phoebe, inasmuch as the first lines read:

The Latin shows that she was the minister of the church in Cenchrea: Commendo autem robis Phoebem sororem nostrum quae est in ministerio ecclesiae quae est Cencris. This introduction, however, tells the reader even more, for the salutation is also a letter of commendation which was a necessity when a Christian traveled from one community to another where that Christian would be unknown. Additionally, by selecting and sending a woman from one church to another demonstrates Paul’s awareness not only of the existence of women, but also their determination to carry any Christian message to any place. Third, as read in line 2: Ut eam suscipiatis in Domino digne sanctis et adsistatis ei in quocumque negotio vestri indiguerit: etenim ipsa quoque adsistit multis et mihi ipsi, Phoebe ministered to those who were of the Christian faith. In this case, this line coupled with the first and the use of the title of minister or deaconess is a clear mark that she performed the same office in the church as men who held that rank (cf. Phil. 1:1; I Tim. 3:8-13). This ministry was not only caring for the poor, the sick, and the desolate, but also a posit for an office: for she, (Paul acknowledges) had even helped him “as she has many others.” The faithful of the church in Rome were enjoined to “receive her in the Lord, as was it worthy of the saints.” To accept Jesus was the same as accepting one of his priests—regardless of the gender of the priest; the phrase “as was it worthy of the saints” undoubtedly meant that the new believers in Rome were to accept Phoebe as she had been accepted by Paul and the apostles, reflecting on what was owed her by them since she had already been accorded it by others. At the same time,this phrase suggests that the Roman Christians were considered “worthy” if they accepted another believer as themselves. That Phoebe was a major figure within the Christian community and not just another “helper” can be seen in the word prostatis which means “one who presides”, and is to be understood in the sense of the verb proistegi (cf. 12:8). This can be the only correct meaning and interpretation of this word; Paul develops into the faith with her assistance, rather than springs into a miraculous full understanding of the fine points of Christianity which makes greater sense than the ossified and chauvinistic interpretation so many male theologians give to this passage, making Paul appear as a Minerva—springing from the head of a god-fully adorned and enlightened. This interpretation gives Paul back his humanity and helps to explain Peter’s difficulty with Paul’s seeming lack of Christian understanding. This interpretation is further enforced and enhanced by noting the position of the name within the salutation - it places Phoebe at the citadel of the mission—a person who had the full confidence of the writer, and thereby was undoubtedly the intimate of the writer. Furthermore, because of her closeness to Paul, and because of her role in the early Church, Paul requires the Christians of Rome to give her every assistance - as deacons render priests and priests give bishops.

Unfortunately ,we know nothing else of this woman (whether or not she married, was learned and wrote, or was a simple woman moved by an intense personal faith to weather all storms both natural and man-made). All we do know is that Phoebe was joined in her missionary work by other women.

Priscilla (also known as Prisca) is listed among the “other women” of the early Christian Church “who toiled” for the faith. She, too, along with Aquila, was saluted by Paul, who recognized his debt to both.

Paul met Priscilla and Aquila at Corinth (Acts 18:2), where they gave him shelter. Later they went with Paul to Ephesus (Acts 18:18-19). While Paul continued his travels Priscilla and Aquila remained behind to teach Apollo the fundamentals of Christianity (Acts 18:26). By the time Paul wrote his letter to the Roman congregation they had returned to their native land (Romans 1:4), since the Emperor Claudius had died and his decrees against the Christians were no longer in effect for various reasons. Paul remembered Priscilla and Aquila long after he parted company with them in Ephesus (cf. 1 Cor. 16:19; 2 Tim. 4:19). He had great respect for both, and saw each as his equal, calling them “fellow-workers in Christ Jesus” (Salutate Priscam et Aquilam adjutores meos in Christo Jesu), not only because they had risked their lives to save his (qui pro anima mea suas cervices subposuerunt) but because they worked hard for the continuance and furtherance of the Church (quibus non solu ego gratias ago sed et cunctae ecclesiae gentium). Not only did Priscilla and Aquila work for the Church universal and the church of Rome, but even gave it the physical shelter of their own home (et domesticam eorum ecclesiam). An English trans-ation of the Greek would read:

Greet Priscilla and Aquila who are my helpers in Jesus Christ, for they have risked their lives to save my life, for which not only do I render gratitude, but so,too do all the Churches of the Gentiles.

Again,we have clear evidence of the contribution a woman (Priscilla) made to the Church. Not only did a woman save Paul’s life, but ministered: to Apollo and to the church in Rome. The fact that she invited the embryo community of Christians in Rome to use her home as a meeting place shows how firm she was in her faith and her willingness to suffer for it, for giving quarters to a banned sect could sound one’s own death peal. As to whether or not the house of Priscilla and Aquilla was used by all of the Christian community of Rome is but speculation. Although it is difficult to imagine that there was but a single community of Christians in Rome, nowhere in this letter of Paul do we read of other congregations in Rome existing or meeting outside of Priscilla’s home. To suggest, as some theological commentators have, that the city of Rome must be viewed similar to the city of Ephesus, as based on 1 Cor. 16:19, is presuming too much. There is no scriptural foundation to support the often given argument that there were churches in Rome—the text is quite clear: it speaks of the church in Rome which meets in the home of Priscilla and Aquila (et domesticam eorum ecclesiam).

What of Epaenetus? Epaenetus is “beloved”—as is Ampliatus (vs. 8), Stachys (vs. 9), and Persis (vs. 12). We know nothing else, except that Epaenetus was the first convert to Christianity in Asia; but inasmuch as he is mentioned by name,we can assume that he was also instrumental in bringing others to the Christian faith—thus Paul would feel a particularly strong affection for him.

Line 6 brings to notice yet another woman: Mary. She,too, labored for the early Church. The fact that Paul emphasizes the fact that she had “much labored” indicates that she was among the earliest converts to the church in Rome, was a part of its organizing group, and continued her work in the church—probably under the direction of Priscilla (Salutate Mariam, quae multum laboravit in vobis) who headed the early group of faithful. Since this is but speculation, should it be fact then might not Priscilla have been a bishop or a co-bishop in the absence of Peter? Every indication is that Paul received most of his information from Priscilla; she would have had to have had power and authority to make such reports; the fact that Paul would cite her and, thus,the reports indirectly shows that her correspondence was certainly not clandestine.

Andronicus and Junias are mentioned in line 7. They were Jewish (cf. 9:3) and “kinsmen” of the Apostle (this need not mean more than that they were Jewish, but could also mean blood relatives, as might be Herodion (vs. 11), Lucius, Jason, and Sosipater (vs. 21) since there are other Jews mentioned who are not called “kinsmen”—or “reltives", as in vs. 3). Andronicus and Junias shared a couple of other distinctions: they had been imprisoned with Paul although we don’t know where), and may have been apostles since they were Christians before Paul’s conversion, and were possibly associated with the other apostles in Jerusalem or Judea, for the line reads “who are of importance among the apostles, who were in Christ before I was" (Salutate Andronicum et Juliam cognatos et concaptivos meos, qui sunt nobiles in apostolis, qui et ante me fuerunt in Christo).

Verses 8 - 11 are salutations. Urbanus (vs. 9) was probably a native Roman. Aristobulus was not necessarily Christian—he is mentioned (vs. 10) only because he gave shelter to Christians.(2) At the same time, this verse does not state nor does it imply that all of his household was Christian, any more than it does in the case of Narcissus and his household (vs. 11).

Line 12 has greater importance. It begins with a recognition of two women, Tryphaena and Tryphosa, who were probably sisters. Persis is also mentioned; Persis is also a woman. All three women, the letter acknowledges, “labored in the lord.” The fact that Paul refers to Persis as having “labored much” can only mean that he was not certain if she was still “working” in the missionfield. It does not mean that she was old or infirmed - only that he had no knowledge of her current status and zeal. The fact that Paul calls Persis “the beloved” indicates that she had already earned her recognition among the faithful and in his eyes.

Rufus may be the son of Simon of Cyrene (Mark 15 : He too was a “laborer”—as was his mother. His mother is more significant. Although the line literally reads “Salute Rufus chosen in the Lord, and his mother and mine” (Salutate Rufum electum in Domino, et matrem ejus et meam), it does not mean that Rufus’ mother was also the mother of Paul. Instead, it is to be read and understood that Rufus’ mother acted as if she were a mother to him: ministering to his physical and emotional needs—but when or where this mothering took place we have no knowledge.

Line 14 is all-male in nature. It is a statement of a certain community of believers—all of whom are male: “Salute Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermas, Patrobas, Hermes, and the brethren which are with them.” The importance of it is in the location it enjoys; it is after the salutation is played to the prominent women of the community—a salutation usually reserved for men, but in this case, to cite a scripture overly quoted “those who would be first are last, and those who are last become first.” The full extent and impact of this reality is seen in the order of the text, lines 12-14.

The importance of woman returns with line 15. With little doubt, Julia is a woman. It is a common name- one found even among slave women in the imperial household.(3) She may have been the wife of Philogus. That she is coupled with other men and women indicates only that she is a member of the Christian community.

The heart of the letter does not appear until line 16. There the encouragement of the osculum pacis, a holy kiss is made—an encouragement which is an enjoinment, and not truly an option. It is similar to Paul’s enjoinment to the Christian community at Corinth (1 Cor. 16:20; 2 Cor. 13:12), and to the church at Thessaly (1 Thess. 5:26).

Peter gives the same charge, calling it the kiss of love (1 Peter 5:14). It was not a Christian innovation, nor was it sexual in intent or nature. Instead it was a customary greeting which was a token of peace, respect and goodwill: a token Christ demanded from Simon the Pharisee in his reprimand “Do you not give me a kiss?” (Luke 7:45), and which became a sign of hypocrisy when Judas misused it, betraying his Christ (Luke 22:48).

The preeminence and paramount distinction of the church of Rome is testified to when Paul declares that “the churches of Christ salute you” (Salutant vos omnes ecclesiae Christi). The significance of this recognition isthat the group who receives this letter and this recognition is led by a woman at the time the letter arrives—Phoebe. Peter is not mentioned—therefore he, at least tacitly placed the shepherding of the church into her hands. This is strengthened even further, for Paul immediately gives directions to the community of faithful, expecting Phoebe and the other ministrae to see that his word is heard and his injunctions followed:

The mood and expression of style is severe. It is an admonition and injunction. It is not a point of reference or a subject for debate. It is a warning, stern and forceful, cautioning the faithful to be aware of false prophets and false teachers. Paul does not include women in either category, nor does he call them heretics or worse. Lines 17-18 considers those who serve their own ends (“their own bellies”: Hujuscemodi enim Christo Domino nostro non serviunt sed suo ventri) to be “troublemakers” (seducunt corda innocentium, literally: “deceive the hearts of the simple”). False teachers could be Judazing zealots, who were Paul’s most heated opponents, whom he believed would not only cause divisions within the Christian community, but also narrow its appeal, for few Gentile men relished the prospect of a circumcision. Paul does not want the congregation to take these “false teachers” on—not only because there is a strong possibility that they could not respond to a debate with any learned discourse, but moreso because he believed the holy Spirit would champion the faithful. Throughout his warning there is no mention of the sex of the “deceivers” or the “beguilers”. The “innocent” are not defined, either, by gender. The Pauline message is one to all persons.

Line 19 reflects once more on the maturity of the church of Rome. The fame of the Christian community at Rome had become universally known, respected, and loved throughout the corpus Christianorum. The crucial place Rome and its church played in the scheme of things and in the world as an order, and the church as a whole was major and had to be retained in its purest form. Nowhere does Paul say or imply that the church of Rome in which Phoebe and the other women “labored much” was filled with “false teachings” or any other form of “corruption”. He does not ask nor does he demand that Phoebe or any of the other “holy women”—or any of the other women who were not called holy—step down; instead the Apostle reiterates his assurance of their fidelity and rejoices in the good fortune of the church in Rome (vs. 19f). Because of their faith, and the faith of the congregation at Rome,God will crush Satan completely. After this,he gives his benediction, and even allows his secretary,Tertius,to include his own greeting to the church (Saluto vos ego Tertius, qui scripsi epistulam, in Domino). The remaining lines are a doxology.

So what is the significance of the sixteenth chapter of Paul’s letter to the congregation in Rome?

More than anything else Romans 16 shows conclusively that women were co-workers in the early Christian church. Since the letter was written approximately A.D. 57, it demonstrates the extent of the work of women and the high regard they were held in by men of the stature of Paul. The spread of Christianity took place not only because women were accepted into the early church, but because they zealously, devotedly, urgently worked to promote it, spread the gospel, evangelize, and care for those who hungered for some mental relief and promise of a better life to come. Of the twenty-eight people Paul salutes, ten were women—and they came first. Even the highly critical bishop of Constantinople, John Chrysostom, who seldom had little favorable to say about women, had to write concerning Paul’s greeting to Mary in Romans 16: 6:(4)

How is this? A woman is again honored and proclaimed victorious! Again are we men put to shame. Or rather, we are not put to shame only, but have even an honor conferred upon us. For an honor we have, in that there are such women among us, but we are put to shame, in that we men are left so far behind them. . . . For the women of those days were more spirited than lions.

The sixteenth chapter of the Letter to the Romans also gives proof that women were highly literate. Some scholars even believe that Priscilla is the author of the anonymous Letter to the Hebrews in the New Testament. Again, St. John Chrysostom, applauds this possibility indirectly when he writes:(5)

It is worth examining Paul’s motive, when he greets them, for putting Priscilla before her husband. Indeed, he did not say, “Salute Aquila and Priscilla,” but rather, “Salute Priscilla and Aquila” [vs. 3] He did not do so without reason: the wife must have had, I think, greater pity than her husband. This is not a simple conjecture; its confirmation is evident in the Acts. Apollos was an eloquent man, well versed in Scripture, but he knew only the baptism of John; this woman took him, instructed him in the way of God, and made of him an accomplished teacher.

The sixteenth chapter of Romans also shows that at least one woman was numbered among the apostles. Some rather bad scholars have vainly tried to argue that Junia is a contraction of a much less common male name, but John Chrysostom, again, noted, “Oh, how great is the devotion of this woman that she should be counted worthy of the appellation of apostle!”(6)—as did Origen of Alexandria (c. 185-253), Jerome (340/50-419/20), and other leading thinkers in the early Church.

At the same time, Paul acknowledges that he, too,was subordinate to a woman—a woman who “ruled over” him. The word he uses is prostatis—it means, in all Greek literature, “ruler”-not “helper” as some attempt to feigned argue. The same word appears in the form of a verb (proistamenous) in 1 Thess. 5:12, and there it is correctly translated as “rule over,” as it is in 1 Tim. 3:4, 5, and 5:17. This word and its use is strictly regulated to where the references are to bishops, priests, and deacons!(7)

The Pauline Letter to the Romans, in short, gives us one of the earliest accounts of the role and significance of women in the early Christian church and community— where women served not only as faithful wives, but with full equality beside men as ministrae (priests, bishops, and deacons) of the faith. To ignore the reality of Romans 16 is to deny the fullness of the Christian life and message. To refuse to accept women as priests today, is to deny the historical proof that they were priests in the days of the apostles who saluted them and were ruled over by them. At best, the 1983 statement by Pope John Paul II that “women will never be priests”, “because of Scriptural prohibitions” is ludicrous; at worse the pontifical pronouncement is dangerous, blasphemous, heretical and destructive to the Christian faith, if left unchallenged.


1. Pliny the Younger, Epitome, XCVI, in Pliny: Letters, with an English translation by William Melmoth (Cambridge, 1958), vol. 2, Bk. X, p. 404.

2. J.B. Lightfoot, Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians (London, 1908), pp. 174f.

3. Ibid., p. 177.

4. Migne, Patrologia. . .Graeca, vol. 51 , cols. 668f.

5. Ibid, cols. 191f.

6. The Homilies of St. John Chrysostom, loc. cit..

7. J. Massyngberde Ford, “Biblical Material Relevant to the Ordination of Women,” in Journal of Ecumenical Studies X.4 (Fall, 1973), pp. 676f. See my Woman in the Apostolic Age (Mesquite, 1980), and my History of Ordination of Women in the Early Church (Saskatoon, 1975).

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