Women in Church History
WOMEN'S MINISTRIES IN THE EARLY CHURCH
Rev. Kathryn J. Riss
Scripture mentions a wide variety of women's ministries that were approved by
God and praised by the early church. New Testament offices held by women
include apostle, prophet, pastor, deacon, eldress, widow and virgin. In
addition, Paul names a number of women as well as men whom he called "fellow
workers." These women were the apostle's colleagues in ministry. The
New Testament relates even more ministry activities of women, including prayer,
hospitality, teaching and evangelism.
THE APOSTLE JUNIA
In Romans 16:7, Paul praises a woman named Junia as "outstanding among the
apostles." Despite the modern mistranslation of her name as masculine "Junias"
or "Junius," no commentator prior to the 13th century questioned that this
apostle was a woman.1 For example, John Chrysostom, whose writings often express
misogyny, wrote of Romans 16:7, "O how great is the devotion of this woman that
she should be counted worthy of the appellation of apostle!"2 This unanimity of
testimony over a milennium is particularly striking since it remained during a
long period of eroding toleration of women's ministries in the medieval church.
The reason for the witness is simple: all the ancient Greek and Latin
manuscripts commending the oustanding apostles in Romans 16:7 read either "Junia"
or "Julia", both feminine forms.
Both Junia and Julia were very common ancient Greek woman's names, whereas the
masculine alternatives suggested by modern commentators have no manuscript
evidence to support them. "Junius" and "Junianus" suggested by some, are
perfectly good Roman man's names. However, they occur in NO ancient
manuscript of Romans 16:7! Of the hypothetical name "Junias," Bernadette Brooten
writes, "What can a modern philologist say about Junias? Just this: it is
unattested. To date, not a single reference in ancient literature has been
cited by any of the proponents of the Junias hypothesis. My own search for
an attestation has also proved fruitless. This means that we do not have a
single shred of evidence that the name Junias ever existed."3 Note that
Brooten is not only speaking of the lack of this name in NT manuscripts, but in
ANY ancient manuscript, Greek or Latin, secular or sacred!
Certain early manuscripts do contain a variant name, but it, too, is feminine.
"Julia" is found in P46, it, cop, eth, and Ambrosiaster. P46, a papyrus
manuscript dating about 200 AD, is one of the most ancient and reliable Greek
mss of the NT extant. In Romans 16:7, P46 reads "Julia," which can only be
feminine. What does this mean? That in Romans 16, St. Paul commends
a noteworthy woman apostle. It also means that translators who found a
woman apostle unacceptable made up the name "Junias" to substitute their own
word for the Word of God. That is how important limiting women's freedom
has been to religious legalists. We will find that this attitude and
practice have been all too common.
What does the Bible say? Paul calls Junia his kinsman and fellow prisoner.
Like Paul, she had suffered persecution and imprisonment for the Gospel.
Evidently, her ministry and faith were known even outside the church.
Sometimes we forget what early Christians under the iron fist of pagan Rome had
to suffer to proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord. For Junia and Andronicus
(perhaps her husband), being an apostle wasn't a matter of privilege, but
According to Romans 16:7, Junia had become a Christian before Paul himself.
Since his conversion occurred just a few years after the Resurrection of Christ,
Junia must have been one of the earliest converts to Christianity and probably
was one of the founders of the church at Rome. She may have traveled to
Jerusalem for Passover and witnessed the crucifixion and later, the ascension of
the resurrected Christ. Or perhaps she was one of the "visitors from Rome,
both Jews and proselytes," who were converted by the women and men who, filled
with God's Spirit, proclaimed "the wonderful works of God" at Pentecost.
We know that the Roman church was already well established before Peter and Paul
travelled there (Ro. 1:7-13).
Paul writes that after His resurrection, Christ appeared to 500 "brothers" at
one time and later to all the apostles, most of whom were still living (I Cor.
15:5-7). In Greek, "brothers" is a generic, figurative term for all true
Christians.5 Note also that in the I Cor. 15:5-7 passage, the "apostles" who
witnessed the resurrected Christ are distinct from and in addition to the
Paul calls himself "the least of the apostles, who am not fit to be called an
apostle because I persecuted the church" but calls Junia "outstanding among the
apostles." It would be wonderful to know more about Junia, Andronicus and
the founding of the church at Rome, but this seminal body of believers was
largely wiped out during the persecutions of Nero, and their history died with
What do we know about the apostles? According to the New Testament,
apostles are given by God,6 workers of miracles,6 witnesses who proclaimed
Christ's resurrection,7 founders and leaders of churches,8 preachers,9
teachers,10 disciplers, 11 and financial managers of the church.12 While not
every apostle was necessarily involved in all these ministries, there is no
reason to think that a recognized apostle such as Junia was barred from any of
them. Unlike many churches today, 1st century believers honored the women
ministers God gave them. Those who would diminish Junia's contribution
should remember that Paul does not refer to her as a lesser apostle, but on the
contrary praises her as outstanding among the apostles. She was so
outstanding an apostle that the pagan and Jewish persecutors of Christians saw
her as dangerous and imprisoned her to prevent her from continuing her apostolic
mission - unsuccessfully, it seems, for she and Andronicus had been released and
were bravely continuing to minister in the church at Rome when Paul sent his
1. Bernadette Brooten, "Junia. . . Outstanding among the Apostles" A
Catholic Commentary on the Vatical Declaration. New York: Paulist Press, 1977,
2. Chrysostom, Homily on Romans 16, in Philip Schaff, ed, A Select Library
of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, vol. II. Grand
Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1956, p. 555.
3. Brooten, "Junia. . . Outstanding among the Apostles" A Catholic
Commentary on the Vatical Declaration. New York: Paulist Press, 1977, pp. 142.
4. Bauer Arndt Gingrich Greek English Lexicon of the New Testament article
on adelphos p.15-16.
5. Lk. 11:49, I Cor. 12:28, Eph. 4:11
6. II Cor. 12:12, Acts 2:43
7. Acts 4:33
8. Acts 4:37 and 15:4ff, I Cor. 12:28
9. Tim. 2:7 and II Tim. 1:11
10. II Peter 3:2 Jude 17, Acts 2:42),
11. Eph. 4:12-13
12. Acts 4:34-37