See Also: Women and Worship at Corinth (Cascade Books, 2015).
By Lucy Peppiatt
Westminster Theological Centre
There is now a growing wealth of literature on women in the early church from a number of different perspectives. Whether the writer largely focuses on the linguistic and textual evidence, historical background, socio-political factors, theological perspective, narrative and story, or even tries to take all these factors into account, the deciphering of Paul’s view of women and their place in the church in his own time proves to be a complex process. Extrapolating these discoveries and attempting to apply them to the contemporary church simply adds layers of complexity. It is far from a straightforward task. It is, however, both a fascinating and a pressing task as the Bible still functions as the basis for the shape of worship and governance in churches today. How we understand what is written in scripture informs concrete relations between men and women, how and what girls and boys are taught about their place in church, our understanding of identity, calling, and vocation, and not just who we are in the local congregation, but who we are before God. It is no wonder so many of us have an interest in the task.
The Power of the Imagination
My own research took me to 1 Cor 11:2-16. This opened my eyes to the plethora of confusion that one text can generate and caused me to think not just about the conclusions people draw, but how they arrive at those conclusions. I have now lost count of the number of times that I have read the work of a scholar on the topic of women in Paul’s churches who tells me that they find it easy or hard to ‘imagine’ a particular scenario in the early church and thus to reconstruct a scenario that seems to the writer to be the most ‘plausible’ based on the evidence before us. I imagine that they are assuming that I too will find these scenarios easy to ‘imagine’ as well, but this is not always the case. These reconstructed scenarios often paint negative portraits of women: it is easy to imagine, allegedly, a bunch of women all chattering at once through a service; easy to imagine a wife dominating her husband; easy to imagine women in an uncontrolled ecstatic frenzy; easy to imagine female false teachers; easy to imagine Paul’s liberated women going too far and overstepping boundaries. Sometimes though there are positive portrayals: it is easy to imagine Paul elevating women in the congregation and recognizing their gifting; and hard to imagine Paul excluding women from full participation in worship. This imagining of different scenarios is used to illustrate or support various exegetical points that the commentator has made or that they go on to make about the text. The reconstructed snapshot of Paul’s world gives coherence to a person’s reading of the text and vice versa. The text in turn supports the imagined scenario. My observation, however, is that it also reflects something of what the author wishes to be true of both the text and of the early church.
I Corinthians 11:2-16
The reason that this process is so evident among those who work on 1 Cor 11:2-16 is the absolutely astonishing array of explanations for what Paul might have meant when he wrote these verses, if indeed he did write them in the first place. Some evidently think he did not! This is not surprising and they are some of the most difficult verses in the Bible to understand. The meaning is obscure at times, (‘because of the angels’), the theology confusing (is woman also not the image of God?), the message contradictory, and the background information somewhat patchy.
I have tried to discover as much as I can about what has been said about these verses in the early church, through the ages, and in recent literature. The results are fascinating. Some of the explanations I found interesting, some confusing and muddled, and some rather appalling. What I began to notice (including with myself) was that many of the explanations of these verses (and other verses on women) rested on what a particular scholar had decided about Paul and his attitude to women as a person, pastor, theologian, or missionary: he was a revolutionary who overturned accepted social mores; he was torn between eschatological ideals and missionary pragmatism; he was a misogynist; he was deeply influenced by a prevailing philosophical worldview; he was all of the above! I became as interested in how we make decisions about these difficult texts as I am in our conclusions about what they meant to their first hearers, and how they might apply today. This is pertinent because as much as scholars insist (which they do) that their own reading is suitably impartial and is simply allowing the text to speak, the dizzying array of alternative readings of how this text is speaking should cause some considerable caution regarding claims for pure exegesis with no hint of eisegesis. (For my work on 1 Cor 11-14 and details of the wide range of interpretations of 1 Cor 11:2-16, see Peppiatt, 2015)
The Starting Point
One of the key decisions that will determine the outcome of the research is the decision about ‘where to start’. This became very clear to me in my own research on 1 Cor 11. I had been reading one commentator after another who had constructed a particular ‘plausible’ scenario that would make sense of the fact that Paul was imposing the practice of head coverings for praying and prophesying women in all his churches. It was predicated on the premise that it was the women who were the problem. I woke up one morning and thought, but what if it was the men who were the problem? That would change the outcome completely. If, after Paul had left Corinth, the Corinthian men reversed Paul’s habitual lack of restriction for women, then it would be the Corinthian men rather than Paul himself who imposed the requirement of head-covering. Paul, in turn, would be correcting them. I found I was not alone in thinking this might be the case. I have argued in more detail than has previously been argued why this too is entirely ‘plausible’, and demonstrated that this view is more consistent with the letter as a whole and Paul’s overall perspective and practices. (Peppiatt, 2015)
In this article, I will illustrate this principle in a different way in order to argue that when Paul refers to apostles, prophets, and teachers in 1 Cor 12:28, he has women also in view. If this is the case, then it is difficult to defend the exclusion of women from these roles, or the contemporary equivalent of these roles, on the basis of a Pauline foundation. Paul writes in 1 Cor 12:28, ‘And in the church God has appointed first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers…’ It is important to ask whether this applies to women as well in relation to all three roles? For reasons that I will elaborate below, my opinion is that Paul would not have intended to exclude women from any of these roles and that it would not have been heard in that way. However, a mixture of the history of translations with a male bias, assumptions regarding the roles of women, and the silencing of women’s histories has caused certain sections of the church throughout the ages, including the present day, to assume that at least two of these offices were the preserve of men.
Women as Apostles
It is now accepted, but has not always been, that Junia with Andronicus of Rom 16:7 was notable or outstanding among the apostles and that she was a woman! I believe it is also now well known that translators of the Bible in the past adapted Junia (a woman’s name) to Junias (a man’s name) on the grounds that a woman would not have had such a status. The discovery and correction of this in recent years and centuries later, is a modern-day parable. As Scot McKnight writes, ‘Let me be clear … The editors of Greek New Testaments killed Junia. They killed her by silencing her into non-existence.’ (McKnight, 2011, loc. 178) There is now a lingering disagreement as to whether Paul meant that the apostles viewed Junia and Andronicus as outstanding but not of their group, or whether they themselves were among the apostles. It should be noted that while translators believed Junia to be a man, there was no such ambiguity. Junias the man was an outstanding apostle. It is also not the case that it was always read as an error, as if Junia should have been a man. Here is Chrysostom in the 4th C:
To 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 of apostle! (Hom. Ro. 31)
We are not entirely sure what the title ‘apostle’ connotes, however, it is clear that it designates a person of gifting and authority in the church, one who oversees others, a guardian of the truth, missionary, church-planter, worker of miracles. (McKnight, 2011, loc. 92)
Women as Prophets
It is incontrovertible that there were women prophets and that women prophesied with Paul’s approval in the early church. As well as Philip’s daughters (Acts 21:9), we have the clear indication from 1 Cor 11:5 that women prophesied in the assembly. We are not entirely sure what prophecy signifies and should exercise some caution against reading back from contemporary uses of the term say, for example, in Pentecostal or charismatic traditions. Whatever Luke and Paul mean by ‘prophesying’ it is clear that it is some kind of communication to the gathered assembly of a revelatory nature concerning the nature and intentions of God (1 Cor 14:30). The prophet edifies the church and brings instruction (1 Cor 14:4, 31), hence, the need for these messages to be weighed and tested. Witherington writes, ‘Prophecy is addressed to the whole congregation – including the men. Since prophecy involved authoritative exhortation or a new word of God, then it had a didactic purpose. Prophecy is not merely a personal testimony. There is nothing in 1 Corinthians 12–14 to suggest that prophecy (or preaching or teaching) were gender-specific gifts.’ (Witherington, 1988, 95-6: my italics)
Witherington is right to bring out the didactic purpose of prophecy as Paul uses the same verb in 14:31 (μαθεῖν – to learn), ‘that all might learn’ that he uses a few verses later in 14:35 when he purportedly instructs married women ‘to learn’ at home from their husbands. It seems strange that in the space of a few verses he has endorsed the women prophets teaching the assembly and the women hearers weighing, testing, and learning and then apparently backtracks on it all in v.35. For this reason, I argue, along with many others, that vv.33b–35 represents Corinthian thought, as mentioned above. However, this is not the subject of this article.
Regardless of what one thinks of the place of spiritual gifts in today’s churches, it is impossible to refute the fact that Paul approved of women prophesying. In addition to this, the one prophesying is widely acknowledged as having an authoritative voice and message, i.e. with a didactic purpose. John Owen, writing in the 17th C and himself seemingly a cessationist when it came to spiritual gifts, writes the following regarding prophecy: ‘So prophets are the “interpreters,” the declarers of the word, will, mind, or oracles of God unto others. … Hence, those who expounded the Scripture unto the church under the New Testament were called “prophets,” and their work “prophecy,”’ (Owen, 1965, 130) Many modern-day dispensationalists are often opposed to women teaching in church. The two positions seem to go hand in hand. It appears that Owen’s understanding of prophecy (and possibly their own) places them in an impossible dilemma. Whether or not New Testament ‘prophecy’ is really to be understood as the equivalent of modern day teaching and the expounding of scripture, there is no evidence that Paul prohibited women from exercising this gift in a mixed gathered assembly. In fact, it is quite the opposite. Furthermore, the weighing and testing of prophecy seems to have been done by the gathered assembly and not just by a privileged or authorized few (1 Cor 14:29-31). Thus in addition, there is no evidence to tell us that those women prophets/teachers were under the ‘authority’ of a man.
Women as Teachers and Leaders
This brings me to my final point. While I think it is possible, on the basis of the evidence presented above, to make a strong case for the existence of women apostles, prophets, and teachers in Paul’s churches, there is yet further evidence that has recently emerged. As was the case with Junia, the new evidence has emerged through the revision of misleading translations. I refer to Phoebe, the deacon of Cenchrae and patron/leader in the early church. (See McCabe, 2009) Phoebe is called both a diakonos and a prostatis by Paul in Rom 16:1-2. Elizabeth McCabe makes the point that diakonos is the word ‘Paul uses to describe his own ministry (1 Cor 3:5; 2 Cor. 3:6, 6:4, 11:23; Eph 3:7; Col 1:23, 25), but it is unlikely that this parallel could ever be gleaned from English translations alone.’ McCabe, 2009, 99) Whereas the word ‘servant’ is sometimes used for diakonos in relation to men, it is more commonly translated as ‘minister’ when applied to a man. With reference to Phoebe, however, despite a footnote telling the reader that it could be ‘deacon’ or even ‘deaconess’, and this being the better translation, it can still be found translated as ‘servant’ even now. Phoebe is denied her role as a deacon of the church at Cenchrae. McCabe makes the point that Paul describes Phoebe as ‘being’ (the participle οὖσαν) ‘of the church in Cenchrae’ (the genitive ἐκκλησίας), the grammar implying a recognized position or ministry in the local church and not just a service. (McCabe, 2009, 100) Other recent scholarship on the variety of women’s roles and responsibilities in Greco-Roman culture and the nature of the household and house churches has brought to light the likelihood that the women Paul refers to who had churches in their houses did not simply serve as hosts, but occupied leadership roles in local assemblies. (See Cohick, 2009; McCabe, 2009; Osiek, 2006)
Diakonos can also be used of a courier or intermediary, which should not surprise us when applied to Phoebe, as it is now established that she was the letter carrier of Romans. This task would have entailed not simply delivering the letter, but in all likelihood ‘performing’ the letter for the hearers with the correct tone and emphases as if from Paul himself. In other words, she would have read the letter knowledgeably. (See Shiell, 2011) As Romans is the most theologically dense letter we have from Paul, Phoebe’s theological acumen and understanding must have been highly developed. To be entrusted with communicating Paul’s intent was a high calling. I find it near impossible to see how this role can be properly divorced from a public ‘teaching’ role.
In addition to being a diakonos and letter carrier of Romans, Phoebe was a prostatis. Again, in the past this has been translated as ‘helper’, but this is now deemed to be a hopelessly inadequate term for what would have originally been communicated. As prostatis is a hapax legomena, we can only glean its meaning from cognate terms. This leads us to προστάτης (the masculine form of the noun) and προΐστημι (the verb form). In the masculine form, prostatis always connotes authority and the exercise of authority over others. In the verb form it is translated to preside, rule over, direct, maintain etc. With Paul’s formal commendation of Phoebe to the Romans, the picture that we are getting is of a woman patron of Paul’s, a great friend and co-worker, and one who is entrusted with the safeguarding and delivering of sound teaching and doctrine to a strategic church in a key city.
Clearly there is more to be said on the issue of the place of women in Paul’s churches and how this applies to the modern day, and the discussion will go on. This brief account of the ways that key texts have been (mis)translated and interpreted reveals the powerful impact of preconceptions and expectations upon our reading of Scripture. Faced with a text in front of us, we search for some kind of meaning. In order to do this we study the linguistic signs in the text, snippets of historical evidence, relevant intertextual clues, as well as others’ readings as far as we are able. We might consider who was involved in the writing of the text, the date, location etc. All this is used to build a picture of women and men in the early church, of how they operated, and of what the church looked like. In reality, we have little to go on. The power of the imagination, fuelled by the evidence that we have gleaned, functions as a type of connecting fabric through which we build a picture for our readers which, in our view, makes sense of the text in front of us. This picture, first shaped by the text, is then used to shape the text and is able to serve as a foundation for how the church might be shaped today.
Recent scholarship has shown us that this can be a somewhat fragile and fallible process, with every element of our construction containing limited information conjoined with our own highly subjective and personal opinions. Perhaps at times we can only go as far as the limits of our imaginations, and we have to admit that these have been fed by somewhat biased sources. This goes some way to explaining how scholars can come up with (literally) opposing views from a given text. No doubt other factors are involved as well. My observation on this particular topic, of women in the early church, is that our conclusions regarding the place of women in Paul’s churches say as much about ourselves, about what information we attempt to unearth, and about our own imaginings as they do about the texts in front of us in the New Testament and the access we have to historical accounts.
In recent years, both male and female scholars have been looking in different places, finding new evidence, and turning over new stones in relation to women and the early church. Women scholars of diverse ethnic origins are discovering their own histories and telling their own stories, and are bringing to light perspectives that have not been given a voice before. This all serves to change the landscape and inform our readings in new ways.
We cannot deny that, in certain instances, we have been misled by our translators, and misled by traditions, which have privileged certain stories and silenced others. We should be honest and admit that this can mislead our imaginations and expectations. I will leave you with two examples.
The first is from Phil 4:2-3, the reference to Euodia and Syntyche. I wonder what first comes to mind upon hearing their names? As much as I hate to admit it, I realized recently that what first came to my mind was that they were ‘quarrelsome women’. Somewhere along the way (I am pretty sure it was from a sermon I heard a long time ago), I had fixed on their identity as quarrelling women in need of intervention in order to bring about reconciliation, rather than upon their significance as those who had ‘labored side by side with [Paul] in the gospel together with Clement and the rest of [his] co-workers…’ (Phil 4:3). I must have read Philippian numerous times since that sermon, but I only realized this preconception when I read recently of a reference to Euodia and Syntyche as ‘women in ministerial roles’ and it took me by surprise. (Osiek, 2006, loc. 88-95)
Finally, it is interesting to consider whom we might have in mind when we hear of the ‘companions’ Jesus accompanied on the road to Emmaus – Cleopas and another with him. Caravaggio, the Italian Renaissance painter had in mind two men as can be seen in his painting ‘The Supper at Emmaus’. In fact, if we search on the internet for the ‘road to’ or ‘supper at’ Emmaus, we will find that he was not alone. We see almost exclusively images of Jesus with two men. My mother, who loves the Bible and has read it all her life, passed on the idea to me that Jesus met Cleopas and his wife on the road to Emmaus—a man and a woman—whom he first taught and then revealed himself to in a powerful way.
Cohick, Lynn. Women in the World of the Earliest Christians: Illuminating Ancient Ways of Life. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2009
Hoag, Gary G. Wealth in Ancient Ephesus and the First Letter to Timothy: Fresh Insights from Ephesiaca by Xenophon of Ephesus. Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2015.
McCabe, Elizabeth. “A Reexamination of Phoebe as a ‘Diakonos’ and ‘Prostatis’: Exposing the Inaccuracies of English Translations.” In Women in the Biblical World: A survey of Old and New Testament Perspectives, edited by Elizabeth McCabe, 99-116. NY: University Press of America, 2009.
McKnight, Scot. Junia is Not Alone: Breaking Our Silence About Women in the Bible and the Church Today. Englewood, Colorado: Patheos, 2011.
Osiek, Carolyn, Margaret Y. MacDonald with Janet H Tulloch. A Woman’s Place: House Churches in Earliest Christianity. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2006.
Owen, John. Works Vol. III. London: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1965.
Peppiatt, Lucy. Women and Worship at Corinth: Paul’s Rhetorical Arguments in 1 Corinthians. Eugene, Or.: Cascade, 2015.
Shiell, William D. Delivering from Memory: The Effect of Performance on the Early Christian Audience. Eugene: Pickwick, 2011.
Witherington III, Ben. Women in the Earliest Churches. Cambridge: CUP, 19