The importance of women ministers to the Apostle Paul and the spread of the early church.
March 31st, 2019
Bob, Sue, Lewis and Sam are in Chicago this weekend viewing potential colleges for Sam. Being that its March 31st and the ending of Women’s History Month, Bob asked if I would share a message with you today. First off , I was never aware that March was women’s history month so I did a little research and found out that it has its origins as a national celebration in 1981 when Congress passed and the President authorized the week of March 7th 1982 as Women’s History Week. Five years later in 1987 Congress passed the resolution authorizing the President to proclaim March of each year as Women’s History Month and every President has done this since.
This got me thinking about the many women in my life that have been so important to me in my development and particularly my spiritual development. Some of them have personally been in my life, some of them have passed away and many of them are from right here at First Friends. There are also many women from our history as Quakers that have deeply impacted my relationship with God and how I try to live out my transformation in the world. Jamie last week identified some of our important women in our Quaker history including Alice Paul and Margaret Fell. For me, Lucretia Mott was the most significant influence in my embrace of Quakerism. She was born in 1793 and grew up in Nantucket Maine in a whaling town where all the men were gone out to sea for months at a time and the women ran the businesses, the churches and the town. Lucretia saw the effectiveness of women in many different roles when given the chance. With this background she became a minister of the gospel and traveled widely in Quaker circles giving vocal messages and becoming a significant leader in the suffragette movement.
Reading about these Quaker women in leadership and significant ministry roles drew me to the movement and I knew I wanted to be part of a faith community that recognized and supported women in developing all of their gifts. The Quakers did this right from the start in the 1650’s. It was incredibly radical back then (and still radical in some denominations and churches today). But why? Why have women not been recognized as leaders, teachers, ministers, administrators in the church for so long?
When I took a New Testament class at Earlham last year I did a lot of study on the apostle Paul and the important role women played in spreading the good news of Jesus and setting up new congregations.
Paul included women in the work and worship of house assemblies and ministry and they seemed to be a part of his team of apostles. He broke social and political ground by incorporating women into leadership and teaching roles in the early church and seemed to live out his bold statement that Carol read for us in Galatians 3:28, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
But there are a couple of troubling passages that are attributed to Paul that seem to take a giant step backward in understanding the role of women in the church and have been used as a weapon to diminish and silence women as teachers and leaders. One of the most problematic passages is from I Corinthians 14: 34 – 36, “As in all the church of the saints, women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church. Or did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only ones it has reached?”
How do we reconcile the actions of Paul in regards to women in the early church with these verses?
In the book, The Role of Women in the Church, the Pauline Perspective, author John Toews says that “The starting point for interpreting the Pauline texts regarding the role of women in the church is Paul’s over-arching theology of the church. The purpose of God’s saving activity in Jesus is, for Paul, the creation of a renewed community of God’s people, the eschatological people of God.” Paul declared this equality among all in Christ Jesus in several passages. (I Corinthians 12:4-26, II Corinthians 5:16-17, II Corinthians 8:13-14, Philemon 1:15-17). Paul believed that faith in Jesus transcended race, sex and religion and it does seem that he tried to implement this theology in the life of the churches he established.
It is very clear that Paul had female workers in his house churches as he referenced them in his writings. Wendy Cotter in her book Women’s Authority Roles in Paul’s Churches says that "It is “generally uncontested that certain women in Paul’s community exercised authority, and that this authority extended over men as well as women.” He names six of them with some specificity in his writings in our New Testament and in the naming of these women, he does not identify them in terms of their relationship to any man but addressed them in their own right. He offered encouragement and praise for their leadership in the assemblies that he is addressing with his letters.
Prisca is named in I Corinthians 16:19 and Romans 16:3 as he sends greetings from Prisca and Aquila with their church in their home (I Corinthians 16:19). This assembly of believers is likely a church in Ephesus since Paul indicates he is writing from that city (I Corinthians 16:8). It is interesting that Prisca is named ahead of her husband. She is mentioned again in Romans 16:3 with Aquila as Paul offers his thanks to them for risking their lives for Paul’s life. Paul asks all of the churches of the Gentiles to offer their thanks to this couple.
Apphia is mentioned in Philemon in Paul’s salutation calling Apphia his sister. Philemon is named as a fellow worker and Archippus as a fellow soldier, yet it is Apphia that is named as sister giving her the equivalent of naming Timothy as his brother.
Chloe is named in I Corinthians 1:11 by Paul indicting that Chloe’s people have reported to Paul that there were quarrels in the assembly between brothers and sisters. Clearly if Paul is talking about “her people” she is a women that is well known, connected and of influence in the Corinthian community. There had to be some credibility to her name because why would Paul take care to identify his source as he does, and then proceed to address the difficulty with no hint of doubt about the accuracy of the report?
Euodia and Syntyche are named in Philippians 4:2-3 with an urging for both of them to be of the same mind as the Lord. He asked a loyal companion to help these women with whatever conflict was between them. He identified both of them as individuals that have struggled beside Paul in the work of the gospel and he connects them with Clement as co-workers whose names are in the book of life.
Phoebe is introduced in Romans 16:1-2 as a sister and a deacon at the church in Cenchreae (centrea). Paul also described her as a benefactor to many including him. Wendy Cotter in her book states that “Since Paul knows no one in Rome and there is not a sizeable Jewish community to which he could attach himself, he relies on the wealthy and influential Phoebe to pave the way in Rome and stimulate their desire to finance his Spanish mission once he arrives.” Paul asked the Roman community to help Phoebe in whatever she may require from them.
All of these writings of Paul give us evidence of his appreciation of women in ministry and his understanding of their value as leaders, teachers, and hosts and welcomed their contributions to spreading the gospel. Paul’s goal was to share the gospel to as many people as possible and he saw women contributing to this goal.
So how do we now connect Paul’s message in I Corinthians 14: 33-36 concerning women?
There is much debate among Biblical scholars about this text. Many scholars offer the possibility that this passage was not part of Paul’s original letter and was added later by an editor to address church order and the desire of the more established church to reduce and diminish the influence of women. Because why would Paul write these words when his actions were so different?
In I Corinthians 11, Paul addressed the issue of head coverings for women while praying or prophesizing. Paul indicated that it would be a disgrace for a woman to pray or give a prophecy without a head covering. So how could Paul three chapters later in his letter prohibit women from speaking in the service? Doesn’t this completely contradict his prior statement?
Craig Keener in his book Paul, Woman and Wives proposes that “Paul’s solution, like the Corinthians’ problem, is appropriate to a specific cultural context, and that it thus does not apply to every conceivable situation we face today.” There was disorder in the service and Paul is addressing this specific concern related to proper order for the service in Corinth. Keener argues that Paul does have a general principle in mind which is that people should not disrupt the worship service and that these two verses are not transculturally binding. Keener advocates that these verses remain specific to the Corinthian situation and should not be taken as instruction for the church today.
There are clearly many questions about the authority these three verses should have on the institution of the church today. Paul’s actions in the early days of the Christian movement cannot be dismissed by clutching to these few verses that have questionable authorship as a way to silence and diminish the important role that women play in the ministries of the church. However, it is clear that after Paul’s death, the order and structure of the church became dominated by the social mores and culture of the times and the Christian movement that was radical and new in its beginnings changed significantly as time went on.
So the catholic church has kept women in a diminished role. Many fundamentalist churches have kept women in supporting only roles or allowing them to be teachers of children. Even denominations that allow women to be ordained as ministers lag behind in actually hiring the women to lead a church. I am so thankful to be part of a faith community and denomination that has accepted and encouraged women to be ministers and leaders right from the start. I affirm the belief that women can have the same fervor for the gospel of Christ as men. And that our churches need women in leadership roles today to help make the church vibrant, relevant and alive to a hurting world where the message of God’s love is so needed.
As we enter our time of waiting worship, I encourage you to reflect on the women that have touched us in our walk with Christ. What have you learned from these women and what do we still have to learn?