Illustration by Vicki Shuck
YOU MIGHT REMEMBER a game show
from the 1950s called What’s My Line? In this show a celebrity panel tried to
guess which of the contestants was
the person they each claimed to be.
At the end of each round, the host would ask,
“Will the real __________ please stand up?”
Many Christians would like to ask that of the
multiple versions of St. Paul they have heard or
read, particularly regarding women. Is he the
passionate missionary who had an inclusive
vision of Christianity in which there was neither
Jew nor Greek, slave nor free person, male nor
female (Galatians 3:28)? Is he the authoritarian
leader who directed women to be silent in the
churches (1 Corinthians 14:34-35)? Or is he a
minister who recognized and appreciated the
leadership of women in the early Church (Romans
16:1-16)? “Will the real Paul please stand up?”
Two biblical sources give us glimpses of Paul in
relation to women: Paul’s own letters and the
Acts of the Apostles. As a means of discovering
Paul’s thinking, the letters are, of course, the primary
Acts was written later by an author who had his
own theological purpose and message. The focus
in Acts is particularly on the missionary activity
of Paul, leaving little room for a developed picture
of other ministers in the Church.
As readers in search of Paul’s attitude toward
women in ministry, we need to be careful, even
in our reading of the letters. Biblical scholars
have helped us to realize that not all the letters
attributed to Paul were actually written by him.
Recent editions of the Scriptures, such as the
Catholic Study Bible, have enlightening introductions
to each letter that include this kind of information.
Letters generally accepted as Paul’s are Romans,
1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1
Thessalonians and Philemon. We look first to
these letters, then, for signs of Paul’s relationship
with women. In doing so, we cannot expect to
find a thorough presentation of his theology of
women and their ministry. These letters were
written to specific communities in response to
particular questions or problems.
Searching for Paul’s understanding of the role
of women in the early Church, then, requires a
bit of detective work. We get clues here and there
(clues that at times seem quite contradictory)
that help us piece together a picture of Paul.
Prisca: Companion, Missionary, Leader
One woman mentioned by Paul in both 1
Corinthians and Romans is Prisca (in some translations,
Priscilla). Prisca and her husband, Aquila,
were companions and fellow missionaries with
Paul. Paul refers to them as he concludes these two
letters. Though the references are brief, they
reveal several significant things about his relationship
with this couple.
In Romans 16:3-4, Paul writes, “Greet Prisca and Aquila, my co-workers in Christ Jesus, who risked
their necks for my life, to whom not only I am
grateful but also all the churches of the Gentiles....”
This greeting reveals a picture of a married
couple active in the Christian mission. Their
names always appear together, emphasizing that
they truly shared their ministry as a couple. Paul’s
term, “co-workers,” suggests that he deems them
as his equals. Moreover, he is grateful to them for
endangering their own lives on his behalf.
Acts 18 tells us that when Paul first arrived in
Corinth, he stayed with Prisca and Aquila. The
author notes that they were refugees who came
to Corinth when the Emperor Claudius expelled
all Jews from Rome.
Presumably, Prisca and Aquila were already
Christians before Paul came to Corinth. They welcomed
Paul, a fellow tentmaker, into their home,
and he stayed with them for a time. When Paul was
ready to sail for Syria, Prisca and Aquila went with
him. They stayed for some time in Ephesus.
Acts 18:24-26 specifically casts this married
couple in the role of teachers whose authority is
recognized by others. When they hear the eloquent
Apollo speak, they take him aside and “explain to him the Way [of God] more accurately.”
It is likely that Prisca and Aquila were leaders
of a house church in Corinth as they were in
Ephesus and Rome. In the early Church, Christians
gathered for prayer in relatively small groups
in the home of one of the community’s wealthier
members. In 1 Corinthians 16:19-20, Paul
refers to such a community. “The churches of Asia
send you greetings. Aquila and Prisca together
with the church at their house send you many
greetings in the Lord.” Similarly, in Romans 16,
Paul concludes his greeting of Prisca and Aquila
with, “Greet also the church at their house.”
Phoebe: Deacon and Benefactor
Paul commends another woman in Romans 16
who was a leader in Cenchreae, a port city near
Corinth. “I commend to you Phoebe our sister,
who is a minister of the Church at Cenchreae, that
you may receive her in the Lord in a manner
worthy of the holy ones, and help her in whatever
she may need from you, for she has been a
benefactor to many and to me as well” (1-2).
The word minister (or servant) in modern translations
is the Greek word diakonos (deacon).
Phoebe is the only woman specifically named a
deacon in the New Testament. In the days of
Paul’s ministry the role of the deacon was evolving.
It involved an official function of some kind,
most likely a pastoral one. As the Church developed,
the position of deacon was more specifically
described. Fifty to 70 years later, 1 Timothy 3:8-13 outlines the requirements and obligations of
In the present context, Paul’s reference to
Phoebe is in the form of a letter of recommendation
so that she will be welcomed with hospitality
when she reaches the Christian community in
Rome. By implication, Phoebe’s ministry includes
travel to other places. Paul’s description of her,
then, is significant. He recognizes her as a sister
in the faith, a deacon or minister whose service
is trustworthy, and finally as a “benefactor to
This Greek word can also be translated “helper,
protector or patron.” Paul notes that she was
also a benefactor or patron to him personally,
someone who helped him to spread the gospel.
Mary, Junia, Julia, Tryphaena and Tryphosa: Workers in the Lord
In his commendations in Romans, Paul mentions
five other women by name. Although the
descriptions are brief, the fact that Paul singles
them out indicates his respect for their ministry.
Julia is merely named as one to be greeted. Of
Mary, he notes that she “has worked hard for
you.” Similarly, Tryphaena and Tryphosa are
commended as “workers in the Lord.” Junia and
Andronicus are described with more detail as
“my relatives and my fellow prisoners; they are
prominent among the apostles, and they were in
Christ before me” (16:7).
The name Junia has been a center of biblical
debate in recent years, with some translations
having the masculine name Junias, and others the
feminine name Junia (New American Bible). Early
Christian commentators, such as Origen, Jerome
and John Chrysostom, clearly understood the
name to be that of a woman.
In a commentary on this passage from Romans,
Chrysostom wrote: “[T]o 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
The title apostle is used by Luke only to describe “the twelve,” but Paul uses the term in a broader
sense. He adamantly claims the title for himself
(Galatians 1:1, 1 Corinthians 9:1-2). For Paul, to
be an apostle is to have authority, to be sent with
the power of the risen Jesus to bring the gospel
message to others. Thus, he writes to the
Corinthian community, “You are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord.”
For Paul to describe Junia and Andronicus as “prominent among the apostles,” then, implies
that they were missionaries imbued with the
desire and the grace to carry the message of Jesus
to others. Perhaps they, like Prisca and Aquila,
were another married couple ministering together
in the early Church.
and Syntyche: Evangelists in Need of Healing
In several of his letters, Paul addresses situations
of dissension or division. One of these situations
involves two women.
Paul speaks of his appreciation for the ministry
of Euodia and Syntyche in Philippi. “They have
struggled at my side promoting the gospel” (Philippians
4:3). He also alludes to some tension between
the two that needs reconciliation. “I urge Euodia
and Syntyche to come to a mutual understanding
in the Lord” (4:2). The fact that this difficulty is
mentioned in the letter indicates Paul’s concern
that the strain between them will have an effect on
the Christian community they serve.
Chloe: Potential Peacemaker
Another community Paul addresses about division
is the Church in Corinth. In Corinthians 1:10-11,
Paul writes of his concern about factions among
the Corinthian Christians.
Paul had a close relationship with the Church
in Corinth, having spent a year and a half with
the people there. Together with Prisca and Aquila,
he then sailed for Ephesus. When he later learned
that there were difficulties in Corinth, he
addressed them directly, citing as his source of
information Chloe’s people.
The phrase “Chloe’s people” is ambiguous. It
could refer to her family or her servants. It is
also possible that Chloe was the leader of a house
church, and “her people” were some of those
who met in her house.
We can infer from Paul’s action based on her
word that Chloe was someone whom Paul
respected and deemed trustworthy.
Lydia: Hospitable Leader
The Acts of the Apostles tells the story of Lydia,
Paul’s first European convert (16:11-15, 40). When
Paul arrived at Philippi, he found a group of
women gathered on the sabbath. Only one woman
is named: Lydia, “a dealer in purple cloth.” Since
purple dye was quite costly, Lydia is understood to
be a wealthy woman. The author notes that “the
Lord opened her heart” to Paul’s words and that
she and her whole household were baptized.
Lydia then invites Paul and his companion to
come and stay at her home. As a woman of some
means, she no doubt had a home spacious
enough to welcome guests and to host a house
church. The author indicates that her home was
a Christian center. After Paul and Silas were
released from prison, they went immediately to
Lydia’s house to see and encourage the believers
Did Paul Mean to Silence Women?
Having looked at several examples of women
who ministered with Paul and who were commended
by Paul, how are we to understand passages
in which Paul sounds hostile to women?
A friend of mine once told me she couldn’t
understand why I would write about Paul, since
he was so against women in the Church. The passage she had in mind was 1 Corinthians 14:34-35: “Women
should keep silent in the churches, for they are not allowed to speak, but should be
subordinate, as even the law says. But if they
want to learn anything, they should ask their
husbands at home. For it is improper for a woman
to speak in the church.”
Most contemporary biblical scholars maintain
that these verses could not have come from Paul.
They contradict his acceptance and commendation
of women’s leadership. They also directly
contradict an earlier passage in this same letter,
where Paul assumes that women do both pray and
prophesy in the Corinthian community (11:5).
How, then, did these verses come to be included
in the letter? Most likely they were teachings
from a later time that eventually were copied
into Paul’s letter. Those who copied texts before
there were designated chapters and verses at
times confused someone’s marginal notes as part
of the original document. The notes then became
part of the newly copied text.
The silencing of women does not make sense
coming from Paul. Women such as Prisca, Phoebe
and Junia could not have functioned as Church
leaders and apostles if they were not allowed to
speak in public.
The teaching in 1 Corinthians reflects the attitudes
found in 1 Timothy, a letter attributed to
Paul but actually not written until the early part
of the second century. By this time, at least in
some local communities, there was more concern
for order and specified positions. In the pastoral
letters (1 and 2 Timothy and Titus), we find regulations
concerning deacons, bishops and elders.
The ideal here is a well-regulated household.
While Paul acknowledges women’s ministry
and leadership in house churches, 1 Timothy
maintains that “a woman must receive instruction
silently and under complete control” (2:11).
Women of the Early Church: Stand Up and Be Recognized
Still, it is not so simple to say in relation to his
view of women’s ministry, “Will the real Paul
please stand up?” Nowhere do we have an
extended exposition on the topic from Paul’s
own hand. We have brief references in letters
that were devoted to a variety of issues and questions.
In none of them was Paul’s primary concern
how or if women were involved in Church
In the glimpses we do have, we know that
women worked with Paul and that he recognized
the importance of their ministry in the local
It is important for us to remember that Paul was
developing his own ministry and understanding
of what it meant to share the gospel with others.
When he began his missionary activity,
women such as Prisca and Junia were already
active in the Church.
In his own letters, he does not appear to have
any desire to limit their activity. Rather, he commends
them for their work as he does their partners
Aquila and Andronicus. Perhaps the question
should not be, “Will the real Paul please stand
up?” but rather, “Will the real Prisca, Phoebe,
Junia, Chloe and Lydia please stand up and
remind us of your energy and zeal as women in
the early Church?”
Barbara Leonhard, O.S.F., a Sister of St. Francis, Oldenburg, Indiana,
is a student of Scripture, with a master’s in biblical studies
and a Ph.D. in Christian spirituality. She now teaches and guides
lay ministers and spiritual directors.