The Indispensable Female Leadership in the Ministry of Paul

I was elected to serve on the elite crossing guard unit when I was in the 5th grade. Karl Semecki wanted the position, but for some reason unbeknownst to me, I got it. Karl didn’t like me much after that. He wanted to fight me on the school playground. I remember being scared (Karl was bigger than me — actually, everyone, including almost every girl in the class, was bigger than me), but mostly I was baffled. I had no desire to punch Karl or anyone else for that matter. Why would anyone want to punch me in the face? Some people don’t need much reason, I would later learn.

women in ministry


The Insufferable Apostle Paul

“[I have] been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones …” (1 Cor. 11:23b-25a).


A lot of people in the First Century Christian world wanted to punch Paul in the face.


Those things don’t happen to mild-mannered, congenial people who are minding their own business. Paul met his share of Karl Semeckis, but I don’t think any of them were women.


Women were an indispensable part of Paul’s ministry.


I will show that Paul incorporated women as an integral part of his ministry team. I will show that they held various roles well beyond the typical domestic arts.


Paul not only allowed women to minister as his equals, but he also expressed tremendous respect for their significant contributions to the work of the gospel.


In other words, Paul was no misogynist. [257]


Priscilla, Missionary Extraordinaire

Greet Priscilla and Aquila, my co-workers in Christ Jesus. They risked their lives for me. Not only I but all the churches of the Gentiles are grateful to them” (Rom. 16:3-4). 


Priscilla and her husband Aquila were two of Paul’s most committed co-workers.


Paul met them when he arrived in Corinth. They had been expelled from Rome a few years before and were working as tent-makers in Corinth. [258]


Paul also had experience in tent-making and therefore joined them in their business. [259]


There are a number of significant observations about Priscilla pointing to her tremendous value as a leader.


1. Priscilla is never mentioned without her husband, Aquila, and vice-versa. 

This would be in keeping with proper protocol and makes it clear that Priscilla was in full partnership with her husband in her missionary work.


2. Priscilla is usually named first. 

When Luke first introduces the couple he names Aquila first (Acts 18:2), and likewise, when Paul is formally introducing them (1 Cor. 16:19).


However, in every other instance, Priscilla is named first (Acts 18:18, 19, 26; Rom. 16:3; 2 Tim. 4:19).


This is highly unusual. In every other instance when Paul or Luke are referring to a married couple they name the husband first. [260]


It is difficult to know what conclusion to draw from this departure from the standard formula.


However, it is likely that the switch indicates that Priscilla took a more active role in the ministry of Paul while Aquila focused on providing financial support through his tent-making business. [261]


3. Priscilla and Aquila gave corrective instructions to Apollos.

Apollos would become a dynamic leader in the early church.


However, when Priscilla and Aquila first met him in Ephesus, his understanding of the gospel was not complete. They invited him to their home where they instructed him more completely in the way of Jesus (Acts 18:26).


Again, Priscilla is named first in the scene which is most likely an indication that she took the lead both in the invitation and the instruction. [262]


4. Paul left Priscilla and Aquila as leaders of his efforts in Ephesus while he sailed on to Palestine.

Not to belabor the point, but once again, Priscilla is named first. It is striking that Luke would say that Paul left “Priscilla and Aquila” in charge, and not “Aquila and Priscilla.”


Again, it is difficult to draw any definitive conclusions, but it is clear that Priscilla is a major player in everything the husband and wife missionary team is doing.


5. Paul commended Priscilla and her husband Aquila.

Paul calls Priscilla his co-worker and praises her (and her husband) because they risked their lives for him (Rom. 16:3).


Priscilla and Aquila were with Paul both in Corinth and Ephesus. In both cities, Paul ran afoul with city leaders, and his life was threatened.


Apparently, in one or both of these cases, Priscilla put her life on the line to save Paul.


The weight of the evidence points to Priscilla as an active participant in the ministry of Paul and someone for whom Paul was extremely grateful.


A straightforward reading of the narrative points to her role as including activities far beyond the typical domestic arts. Were her name masculine, it would be assumed that she was one of Paul’s most important leaders.


Lydia, God-Fearing Businesswoman

One of those listening was a woman from the city of Thyatira named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth. She was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message” (Acts 16:14). 


When Paul arrived in Macedonia he quickly made his way to Philippi, an important city located on the only major East-West route connecting Rome to Macedonia and Asia Minor.


Paul found that there was no synagogue in Philippi, which indicates that there were very few Jews living in the city at that time. [263]


However, Paul did find a group of women praying on the Sabbath. One of them was a Greek woman named Lydia.


William Willimon notes that we should not be surprised that Paul and his companions (near-eastern men) would speak to a group of Greek women in public since we see similar behavior in the life of Jesus and his disciples and Luke mentions the women who traveled with Jesus. [264]


A convert to Judaism, Lydia accepted Jesus and was baptized. Her entire household was baptized as well, which would have included children and servants.


As there is never any mention of a husband, and all others are described as being a part of “her household,” it can be assumed that she was unmarried.


Paul then accepted her invitation for his missionary team to stay at her house.


A number of observations about this extraordinary woman are appropriate.


1. She was an unmarried businesswoman, operating in an exclusive and lucrative industry.

Charles Cousar writes, “a good guess is that she was unmarried or widowed, and as such, she was able to be both a merchant and the mistress of a household and to achieve a fairly high social status in the community.” [265]


Lydia had to have been a strong and extraordinary leader considering her Macedonian cultural context where women were more restricted.


2. Paul dealt with her as a woman who was not attached to any male leadership.

This was more acceptable in Macedonia than it might have been in Jerusalem, however, it was still outside the norm.


Here we have an example of Paul’s missionary zeal combined with his pragmatism. There was no synagogue so he went looking for the next best thing. Conzelmann notes that the phrase “place of prayer,” can mean a synagogue. [266]


Lydia was a part of an informal “synagogue,” in the lack of Jewish leadership in Philippi, and Paul didn’t hesitate to talk to her.


Paul was prepared to do whatever it took, with whomever God placed in his path, to win people to Jesus (1 Corinthians 9:22).


3. Paul agreed to accept her offer of hospitality.

This is important for two reasons.


First, for a group of men to stay at the home of an unmarried woman indicates trust. This is affirmed by the fact that Lydia had to persuade them to accept her invitation (Acts 16:15).


Second, the host would always have a certain amount of respect and authority over all under his/her care.


4. Her house became the earliest meeting place for both male and female Christians in Philippi.

Lydia said to Paul and his companions, “If you consider me a believer in the Lord, come and stay at my home” (Acts 16:15). Her actions reflect the true disciple’s trait of being hospitable (Rom. 12:13; 1 Tim 3:2; Heb 13:2; 1 Peter 4:9; 3 John 5-8) and providing for those who teach the Word of God (Luke 10:7; Gal 6:6; 1 Cor 9:14).


Talbert concludes that Paul staying “in the house of a Gentile believer indicates that Lydia is acceptable as a disciple of equal standing.” [267] The inequality between Jew and Gentile converts found in Judaism had no place in the early Christian church.


Paul is practicing what he preached in Galatians 3:28 — “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”


The fact that Paul and Silas went back to Lydia’s house after their miraculous escape from prison “where they met with the brothers and sisters and encouraged them,” (Acts 16:40) indicates that both men and women Christians met in Lydia’s house.


What started as a small group of women had blossomed into a church under Lydia’s hospitality.


Women in the Ministry of Paul

The evidence so far indicates that Paul had a thriving ministry that included the incorporation of women as full partners.


There is not yet an indication of any limitations on the role of women in the Pauline churches. Paul, the pragmatist, seems to have used whomever God placed in his path, Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female.


In my next blog article, I will examine the other women in Paul’s ministry. Pheobe, Junia, Chloe, Nympha, Euodia, Syntyche, and a host of other lesser-known women will throw more light on Paul’s considerable inclusion of women in his ministry.






257. I use the word, “misogynist” only in its simplest definition of “a person who hates, dislikes, or mistrusts women,” void of all its other socio-political nuances.

258. Hans Conzelmann, “Acts of the Apostles,” Hermenia, (Fortress Press, 1987), p.151-153. Roman historian Seutonius mentions the edict of Emperor Claudius that expelled the Jews from the city of Rome in 49 A.D.: “Since the Jews constantly made disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus (Christos?), he [Claudius] expelled them from Rome.” Since Claudius’ edict seems to have been caused by internal Jewish problems over messianic claims, most assume that they were fighting about what to do with Jesus. Priscilla and Aquila seem to already be Christians when Paul meets them. It stands to reason, therefore, that they were part of the expulsion from Rome and landed in Corinth, sometime after 49 A.D. We also know that Gallio (Acts 18:12) was governor of the province of Achaia from January 51 to January 52 A.D. Therefore, we know that Paul arrived in Corinth in the Spring of 51 A.D. Priscilla and Aquila had been in Corinth only a short time before Paul arrived.

259. F.F. Bruce, “The Book of Acts,” New International Commentary on the News Testament, (Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1988), p. 346. More generally, they were leatherworkers. “This trade was closely connected with the principal product of Paul’s native province, a cloth of goat’s hair called cilicium, used for cloaks, curtains, and other fabrics designed to give protection against wet.” Since Paul, Priscilla, and Aquila were from the same ethnic, faith and vocational backgrounds, it is no surprise that they met and became instant partners in the ministry.

260. See, for instance, Rom. 16:7; Philemon 1-2.

261. Charles H. Talbert, “Reading Acts: A Literary and Theological Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles,” (Smith & Helwys, 2005), p. 166. Talbert notes that “in Lukan practice, whichever of a pair is listed first is regarded as the dominant authority (cf. 11:30; 12:25; 13:2; 13:7; 13:13!; 13:50!).” Most notably this switch takes place when Paul takes leadership of the second missionary journey and Barnabas takes a secondary role (Acts 13:13). For an alternate reason for Priscilla being named first see, F.F. Bruce, “The Book of Acts,” New International Commentary on the News Testament, p. 348.

262. Ibid, p. 166. “Here, then, not only is a male preacher instructed by a woman, but the wife is regarded by the narrator as the dominant religious authority. This shows that in the post-Pauline period, the statement in 1 Tim 2:12 (“I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over men”) was not regarded as the guideline for all circumstances.” Talbert may be stretching the meaning of Priscilla being named first. I will, however, have more to say about 1 Tim 2:12, in general, and the meaning of the word “authority” in particular when I get to that passage in this study.

263. Bruce, “The Book of the Acts,” New International Commentary on the News Testament, p. 310. Bruce notes that the lack of a synagogue in Philippi “can only mean that there were very few resident Jews; had there been ten Jewish men, they would have sufficed to constitute a synagogue.”

264. William Willimon, “Acts,” Interpretation Commentary, (John Knox Press, 1988), p. 137.

265. Charles B. Cousar, “Philippians and Philemon,” The New Testament Library, (Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), p.5.

266. Conzelmann, “Acts of the Apostles,” p. 130.

267. Talbert, “Reading Acts: A Literary and Theological Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles,” p. 141.