And I ask you, my true partner, to help these two women, for they worked hard with me in telling others the Good News. They worked along with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are written in the Book of Life. [Philippians 4:3 (NLT)]
From the beginning of His ministry, women were among the earliest followers of Jesus. Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Susanna accompanied and financially supported Him and Martha and Mary offered their hospitality in Bethany. Women were witnesses to His death, burial, and the empty tomb and Mary Magdalene was the first to view the resurrected Christ! Because women get little mention in the New Testament, however, we tend to overlook the role they played in the early church.
Yesterday, when I wrote about the feud between Euodia and Syntyche, I didn’t mention Paul’s commendation of these same two women for diligently working beside Paul, Clement, and others in spreading the gospel. That Paul was troubled enough by their disagreement to ask a ministry colleague to intervene implies these women had influence in the Philippian church. What role did they and other women play in the early church?
Although Philippi was a Roman colony, Euodia and Syntyche are Greek names. It’s a possibility that, like Lydia (a Greek merchant of purple cloth), they were merchants originally from Greece. The two may have been some of the women who met with Lydia at the riverbank for prayer. [Acts 16] Although Lydia merits just a few sentences in Scripture, the Philippian church began with her baptism and the baptisms of the rest of her household! That Lydia was the only Philippian named by Luke indicates she played an important role in the early church. Paul, Silas, Timothy, and Luke stayed at her home while in Philippi.
Along with Lydia, a number of other women served as leaders of the house churches that sprang up in the cities throughout the Roman Empire: among them were Priscilla, Chloe, Apphia, Nympha, Mary (the mother of John Mark), and possibly the woman John addressed as “the chosen lady” in his second epistle. While it is speculation, Euodia and Syntyche, like Lydia, may have led house churches. We know that Priscilla and her husband Aquila travelled with Paul to Ephesus and founded the church there. Both men and women could serve as deacons and Phoebe was a deacon in the church in Cenchrea. In Acts, we learn that Philip’s four daughters were prophetesses.
Paul even entrusted his epistles to be delivered by women and it was Phoebe who carried his letter to the Romans. In Romans 16, Paul specifically greeted Mary “who has worked so hard for your benefit” and a woman name Junia who, along with Andronicus, had been imprisoned for the faith. Among the 29 people he mentioned in this chapter, nine were women. Many of those mentioned, like Priscilla, traveled as missionaries with their husbands or brothers. Whenever Paul referred to someone as a fellow co-worker, he used the same word, synergos, for both women and men!
There is extra-Biblical support of the important role women played in the early church, as well. In the 2nd century, Clement of Alexandria wrote that women accompanied the apostles on their missionary journeys as colleagues. Acting as equals, not subordinates, Clement said they served as “fellow ministers in dealing with housewives…that the Lord’s teaching penetrated also the women’s quarters without any scandal being aroused.” When writing about the “crime” of Christianity, Pliny the Younger mentioned torturing two slave women he called ministrae (or deacons) in the Christian community.
Understanding the important role played by women in the early church, it’s easier to understand Paul’s deep concern about the rift between Euodia and Syntyche. Moreover, it tells me that both the early church and Paul (who has unfairly been accused of misogyny by some) truly lived by the words found in Galatians that, in Christ’s family, previous distinctions like nationality, race, status, and sex no longer exist. In Christ’s body, we truly are one!