Reclaiming Women in the Early Church

Posted Thu, 03/07/2019 - 14:01 by MCS

Each of the epistles (letters in the New Testament) that is ascribed to an author, is ascribed to a man. The letters focus on the ministry of these men and so the view we can get of the early Church is that of a church dominated by men. However the end of Paul’s letter to the Romans tells a different story. Here Paul sends greetings to many individuals in the Church in Rome, giving us the most comprehensive portrait of an early Christian community.

From this one chapter the diversity of this community is obvious: Jews and gentiles, poor and rich, slaves and free, and men and women1.  Each person is commended as playing an important role in the early Church, including several women. It provides a contrast to the traditional view of male leadership and shows that women took on responsibilities too.

Most inspiring to me are the mentions of Phoebe, a deacon and benefactor of the Church, and Junia, an apostle imprisoned with Paul. However the exact role of these women has been the topic of much debate- far more than that of the men greeted in this letter.

Phoebe: ‘deacon’ or ‘servant’?

I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church in Cenchreae.  I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of his people and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been the benefactor of many people, including me. Romans 16: 1-2

Phoebe is the only woman described as a ‘deacon’ in the Bible and questions about her exact role plays an important part in debate around female leadership today. If a women could take on a leadership role in the early Church, then surely the same applies today.

The word translated here to deacon is ‘diakonos’. This word literally means ‘servant’ and was used by the early Church to describe the office of deacon, who would serve their communities. As Phoebe clearly has a recognised position within the church, being trusted with the important task of taking Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, it seems reasonable to me that she is a deacon.

There is criticism about the decision to translate ‘diakonos’ to ‘deacon’ to describe Phoebe. Some translations choose to use ‘servant’ instead. Yet when Paul uses the same word to describe himself in 2 Corinthians 3:6 it is translated to ‘minister’ without debate.2 This speaks of the inherent bias in translation, where later thoughts about the role of women impact how we read the Bible. We should not allow our own prejudices to diminish the position of Phoebe.

Junia or Junias?

Greet Andronicus and Junia, my fellow Jews who have been in prison with me. They are outstanding among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was. Romans 16:7

Junia must have had a prominent role in the early Church to be so commended by Paul and imprisoned alongside him. But while Phoebe’s role within the Church has been disputed, it is the gender of Junia which has been up for debate. Junia is currently agreed to be female, but some earlier manuscripts used a male suffix on the end of ‘Junia’ to make ‘Junias’.

In part the debate around Junia’s gender has been due to the struggle to find the most reliable early source. For instance early church theologian Origen’s late 3rd century reference to Julia as male was later found to only appear in a medieval copy. Was Julia deliberately changed to a man to fit in with later Christian ideas about gender? Perhaps the idea of a female apostle was so challenging to a patriarchal church that it was thought impossible and the text was altered.3 Like Phoebe, the vital role of Junia played was rejected because it did not fit into later ideas about gender roles.

Current translations now agree that Junia is the accurate translation4 but Junia’s gender is too contentious for the debate to end there. If there was a woman with the title of ‘apostle’ then this challenges the belief that this role was only held by men. Some translations choose to translate the passage as ‘well known to the apostles’ rather than ‘among the apostles’, thereby removing the thorny issue of female apostleship.5 To me this shows an avoidance to question our preconceived ideas about the positions women were able to hold in the early Church.

For Christians who largely read the Bible through translations, it is important that the translations are as accurate as possible and done with rigorous scrutiny. However I find it frustrating that the positions of women in the Bible attract far more scrutiny than the positions of men. Surely the focus should be on celebrating the contribution these women made to the early Church?

It is important to me, as a Christian woman, to see women recognised for their varied and important roles in the early Church. To read the New Testament and see that so many roles are played by men can be disheartening to women. Women such as Phoebe, Junia, Lydia and Prisca, to name but a few, show that women were active and important participants in the early Church. They act as a reminder that women have vital roles to play in the Church today.


Katharine Crew

Campus Leadership Manager





3 Pederson, The Lost Apostle, pp. 128-130


5 Oxford Bible Commentary, Ed. Barton, John and Muddiman, John p.1107