Several years ago, there was a woman who won the jackpot in the Powerball lottery. Let’s just call her Phoebe. Phoebe was exactly the kind of person you’d hope would win the lottery. Raised in a modest family, she was widowed. Her husband died of lung cancer just a few months before their first child, Will, was born. And two years later, she learned that Will was deaf. Though she had to work full-time to support her son, Phoebe dedicated all her spare time to helping her son cope with life in a hearing world. They learned sign language and lip reading together. Phoebe looked everywhere for a preschool that would teach in sign language, but she didn’t have any luck, so Will spent his days at his grandmother’s house.
In her efforts to help Will grow and thrive, Phoebe did a Sunday School class for people with hearing impairments at a local church. She and Will began attending together and it became their lifeline. Before too long, Phoebe was sitting before the church board requesting more funding and resources so that this Sunday School class could do more to help deaf people and to reach even more people with hearing impairments. The board always kindly listened, then gently declined Phoebe’s requests. Phoebe didn’t give up, though; she continued to devote all her spare time to working with Will and the other members of their Sunday School class. They took field trips together and began meeting on Wednesday nights, too.
Then, when Phoebe won the lottery, she became a “patron,” it was a word she had learned in Sunday School. In early Christianity, patrons were folks with money who supported gospel-spreading work of the apostles. Not much changed in her own life; a modest new home, a swing set and a puppy for Will. But Phoebe now had considerable resources to provide for the needs of the deaf community. She purchased resources for the Sunday School class and a van for their field trips. She established a scholarship fund so their hearing-impaired Sunday School teacher could attend seminary. Then, when he graduated, she provided the funds for him to become a full-time member of the church staff. He began a worship service for the deaf and it grew by leaps and bounds. Phoebe even funded a new educational wing at the church, the “Deaf Education Wing.” The deaf ministry thrived under Phoebe’s patronage, and so did the church.
Phoebe was a hero even before she had money. But the money gave her clout. It made a difference. And she made a difference.
I think all of us are more than aware of the time and energy spent over the years debating the role of women in the church. For centuries, women were silenced altogether, their “voices” only heard if their husbands were willing to speak for them. In some church women were even forced to sit separately from their husbands in a space set apart for women. Obviously, such practices meant that women were not preachers, or Sunday School teachers, or committee members. They were present for worship and study, and that was all. And, of course, there was a theology to defend such exclusionary practices. As we so often do, some theologians down through history found some Bible texts that “put women in their place,” and raised them us as texts as sacred and important to the rule of life as Jesus’ words in the gospels.
This was the reality all the way through the early 20th century. Some churches made concessions for women to teach Sunday School to the children, but that was about it. It wasn’t until the women’s suffrage movement really got rolling that churches began to re-think their exclusion of women from leadership. In the Methodist Church, women were not ordained and granted full clergy rights until 1956. And as you all are more than aware, there are still many large Christian denominations, including Catholics and Southern Baptists, who do not have female clergy at all. When asked why these Christian bodies still do not include women among their clergy, they point to a few sentences in some of Paul’s letters, like 1 Corinthians 14: 34-35, which says, in essence, women should be quiet and under control because it is disgraceful for a woman to talk in a meeting of God’s people.
Now, I say these things to you not because I have a chip on my shoulder and I feel like I need to defend my position here, but because we need to know that what history and tradition tell us about the role of women in the church is quite different from what the Bible tells us. There are two reasons for this. The first of those reasons deals with how the Bible as we know it today was originally written and compiled. And the second reason is culled from the lives of women like the three you heard named in this morning’s scripture readings: Prisca, Phoebe, and Junia.
Before we delve into these women, though, let’s take a moment to consider Paul’s writings in the Bible, since his work is most often used to justify exclusion of women from the church leadership. The most important thing to know is that most scholars now agree that such texts were probably not original to Paul. Either they are contained within a letter that was said to have been written by Paul, but which was actually written by someone only using Paul’s name, or they were later additions, inserted by editors generations after Paul who perhaps had a specific patriarchal agenda in mind. There is no conclusive evidence to prove this (like original manuscripts); however, scholars carefully tear apart every aspect of these letters from historical context, to writing style, to theology before coming to such conclusions. And, citing Paul’s collaborative leadership among women (the likes of which we heard about this morning), as well as statements like that found in Galatians 3, “There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free; nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus;” these scholars conclude that it is not fair to exclude women from the leadership of the church based on Biblical writings attributed to Paul.
So let’s take a look at some of these women who Paul worked with so closely in the early Christian church. First, there is Prisca, or Priscilla. Prisca does not stand alone in the narrative. She is constantly linked to Aquila, her husband, but she is not subordinated to him. Together, they represent a male/female missionary couple who are engaged in the spreading of the gospel. It wasn’t just the case that they hosted a house church, but they actually traveled with Paul to Ephesus, where Paul charged them BOTH to carry on the work of the gospel until his return. This is the only glimpse in Acts of a woman who accompanies Paul, and also Prisca is the only woman who is engaged in the Christian mission in the public arena outside the household. But, every time Aquila is mentioned, so is Prisca. And when Apollos appears and is taught about the gospel, it is Prisca and Aquila together who do the teaching. She is an itinerant missionary, a teacher, and a leader in the establishment and spread of the early Christian mission. Sure, she is the only one mentioned in this capacity in Acts, but she may very well stand with and be representative of many other women who shared in similar activities, but whose stories have been silenced and forgotten.
Yet, there are other women mentioned in the New Testament who played other roles in the life of the early church; women like Phoebe. Paul commends her to the Romans in his letter to them. She is listed among many other early church leaders, and of those named here by Paul, almost one-third of them are women. Phoebe is the bearer of the letter. She may have been a traveling missionary, but that is not certain. Nevertheless, only a woman of significance in the early church’s mission would have been given such a task. Paul refers to her as a deacon (literally servant) of the church in Cenchreae, which is a city near Corinth, but also as a patron or benefactor. This is the only occurrence of this descriptor in the whole of the New Testament. Clearly, Phoebe had an important but unique role in the life of the church. Phoebe was more than a “good friend” to many including Paul, she was a woman of considerable means who provided perhaps a household and other resources for the spread of the gospel generally, and for the church of Cenchreae in particular.
Then there is Junia. Junia is listed with Andronicus. Again, a male/female pair, perhaps husband and wife like Prisca and Aquila, or maybe brother and sister, or maybe just partners in ministry. Paul’s reference to Andronicus and Junia being apostles who were “Christians before I was” may well mean that he included them among the apostles who experienced a resurrection appearance before he did. Whatever the meaning, the point is clear; Paul considered both Andronicus and Junia as fellow apostles.
So, there you have it; an itinerant missionary, a deacon and patron, and a fellow apostle. These are just three of the women who had a significant role of leadership in the early Christian church. Nothing in the Biblical account indicates that these women worked in ways that differed in any way from the ways in which men worked for the mission of the church. The early Christian mission was the shared task of many men and women working together and working alone. And here’s what each of us needs to understand. There is nothing that should stand in the way of our leadership in the church; neither history, nor tradition, nor our gender, age, race, class, nor anything else. God has a wonderful plan for all of us, and that plan involves, at least in part, our service to God’s kingdom through the church. Like those women so long ago, and many men and women since, we all have a place in God’s kingdom, and we all have a mission in service to Christ!