Saint Paul: friend or foe of women?
“Paul reminds us that our Christian communities are enriched when women and men work together for the well-being of all.”
Soon the church’s yearlong celebration of the 2,000th anniversary of Saint Paul’s birth will end after a wide variety of gatherings, events and publications have commemorated this Christian milestone.
One area of intense interest and debate that continues is Paul’s attitude toward and ministry with women. Was he friend or foe of women, an egalitarian or a chauvinist? Looking at various passages in Paul’s letters and in Acts, biblical scholars find a great sense of collegiality and collaboration between Paul and women.
Let’s look at a few remarkable women who became Paul’s coworkers in spreading the gospel.
Lydia: founding patron of the church in Philippi
Chapter 16 of Acts describes Paul’s ministry in the city of Philippi. After a few days in the city, Paul and his companions went along the river outside the gates on the Sabbath to find a place to pray. There they found a group of women and began to preach to them.
One of the women was Lydia, a businesswoman in her own right as a dealer of purple goods and the head of her own household. She listened to Paul, and “the Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul” (Acts 16:14). After she and her household were baptized, she invited Paul to “come and stay at my home” (Acts 16:15).
In only a few verses she went from being one of many pious women who prayed by the river to being the patron of the house church in Philippi. Here was a woman who generously and freely offered all that she was and all that she had to the service of the church.
Prisca: coworker with Paul
Another frequently mentioned leader of a house church is Prisca, along with her husband, Aquila. Both are well-known among Pauline communities for their teaching and missionary efforts. Paul particularly thanks Prisca and Aquila who “risked their necks for my life” (Romans 16:4).
It is striking that in the four of six times Prisca is mentioned in Acts and in the Pauline letters her name precedes her husband’s. In Greco-Roman culture that order normally would have been reversed. This change in order shows how highly Prisca was regarded as a teacher and missionary in her own right who worked alongside Paul in the preaching of the gospel. Paul calls the couple his coworkers (Romans 16:3), a term he also uses for four other women who have “worked very hard among you” (Romans 16:6): Mary, Tryphaena, Tryphosa and Persis.
Phoebe: deacon of Cenchreae
Romans 16 begins with a greeting from Paul: “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church at Cenchreae, so that you may welcome her in the Lord as is fitting for the saints, and help her in whatever she may require from you, for she has been a benefactor of many and of myself as well.” Phoebe provides evidence that women were traveling missionaries, deacons and leaders whose authority and importance were recognized by Paul and many Christian communities as ministers of the gospel. Most significant is the fact that Paul refers to her as a “leader” of many, including himself.
Partners in ministry
These descriptions of a few of the remarkable women who ministered with Paul confirm that Paul appreciated and counted on women to help him spread the gospel. As he often acknowledged, he would not have succeeded without them! We need Paul’s collaborative style of ministry in our church today. Paul reminds us that our Christian communities are enriched when women and men work together for the well-being of all.
In what ways have you witnessed or experienced a collaborative style of ministry in our church? Which women can you identify as partners in ministry to spread the gospel? Share your thoughts by clicking on Contact Us
Tuesday, June, 2, 2009