Women leaders in the early Church

Wed, Feb 6th 2019 12:00 pm


Many voices, today, are calling for more women to function in decision making in the Catholic Church. A helpful place to begin is St. Paul's letters. In Chapter 16 of his Letter to the Romans, Paul mentions 26 persons, including nine women, three of whom are presented here.
Paul begins by commending Phoebe of Cenchreae to the Romans, asking them to welcome her. Paul describes her as "our sister," a diakonos, and a "benefactor." "Sister" probably merely indicates that Phoebe was a Christian.  "Benefactor" attests that Phoebe provided financial support for Paul and quite possibly shelter as well. The Greek title diakonos for Phoebe has been translated differently over time. Until very recently it has been translated "deaconess." This is not acceptable; there is another Greek word for deaconess. When diakonos is used of a man, it is translated "deacon" and indicates a position in the community, one that grew into the present day Order of Deacon. If this is the translation used for a man, it should be used for Phoebe also. The Revised New American Bible translates diakonos as "minister" and in a footnote states that at the early stage of the Pauline churches, the Order of Deacon was not yet developed. (Interestingly, an inscribed stone, found in Jerusalem, dating from the fourth century, reads: "Here lies the slave and bride of Christ, Sophia, diakonos, the second Phoebe, who slept in peace.")
The next woman mentioned is Prisca, wife of Aquila. This married couple is always mentioned together and in Rome they are heads of a house church as they also were in Ephesus (1 Cor 16:19). In Acts 18:26, Luke indicates that the couple catechized the early Christian missionary Apollos. Other women are also described as heads of house churches: Chloe (1 Cor 1:11), Nympha (Col 4:15) and Lydia (Acts 16:11-40). That women are mentioned as heads of house churches is noteworthy because studies of early celebrations of the Lord's Supper hold that, supposedly, they were presided over by the head of the household.
In 16:7 Paul mentions another couple, Andronicus and Junia, saying that they, too, were imprisoned for the gospel and that they were "prominent among the apostles." The history of the translation of the name "Junia" is fascinating. According to the rules of Greek grammar, the name as it stands can be either female, Junia, or male, Junias. Junia appears more than 250 times in ancient manuscripts and inscriptions. Junias never appears. John Chrysostom (d. 407) understood this person to be a woman. She was switched to a male in the writings of Aegidius in the 13th century. It is conjectured that this switch occurred since no woman could possibly be an "apostle." Most modern, competent translations have restored the name as Junia.
One can also mention Mary, Tryphaena, Tryphosa and Persis who are described by Paul as "working hard" for the community.  This "hard work" is a translation of the same verb Paul uses elsewhere to designate his own work of evangelization and teaching.
Today we are more and more conscious of the tremendous contribution of women in the handing on of the gospel and in leadership in the early communities. In a sense, the voices calling for more women to function in decision making today in the Catholic Church are looking at the roles of women in our own roots in the New Testament as well as in our society.


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