Women in Church History
WOMEN PASTORS IN THE EARLY CHURCH
by Rev. Kathryn Riss
The New Testament says very little about pastors. In
fact, as a term for ministers, the word (poimen) appears only once in Ephesians
4:11. While the word is familiar to use from modern usage, we are uncertain as
to the exact role of pastors in the New Testament or how they functioned in
relation to elders, bishops and other leaders. Probably all these roles were
fluid, being in the formative stages.
The meaning of the New Testament word "pastor" is
"shepherd," and so we think of pastors as leaders who tend a flock. Psalm 23
speaks of the Lord as our Shepherd, teaching, leading, guiding and providing for
us. Jesus called Himself the Good Shepherd, setting a model for all true
spiritual leaders who lay down their lives for the sheep. When Jesus called
Peter the second time after His resurrection, He asked him to "feed my sheep."
Thus, pastors are to nurture people and help them to grow.
While the New Testament does not tell us specifically
what pastors did, we do know that both men and women provided spiritual
leadership for churches which met in their homes. In the early church, almost
all Christian meetings were held in private homes. Among these house-church
pastors was Mary, the mother of John Mark, who later became a missionary with
the apostles Paul and Barnabas. It was to her house church that Peter came in
Acts 12:12 after an angelic visitor set him free from prison. The Bible says
that many had assembled there and were praying, no doubt petitioning God for
Peter's release. Their prayers were answered!
Another house church leader was Chloe, according to I. Corinthians 1:11. In that passage, Paul relates that "some of Chloe's household
" had reported that there was strife among the Corinthian Christians. Those
Chloe sent with this message to Paul were probably Christians who were members
of her house church. They may have been relatives or household servants, or they
may have been Christians who lives in the area and gathered at her home for
worship. These believers would have come under Chloe's spiritual guidance, care
and protection. But Chloe's influence extended beyond her own flock. Evidently,
she had sent a deputation from her house church to Paul, who knew her or knew of
her, to inform him of the need for correction in the Corinthian church. She was
a trusted leader and source of reliable information for the apostle Paul.
Acts 16:14-15, 40 tells us about Lydia, Paul's first
European convert to Jesus, who offered Paul hospitality in her home. Scripture
relates that when Lydia was converted, her entire household was baptized and
that her home became the first meeting place for European Christians. Lydia was
a business woman who traded in valuable, dyed garments. The fact that Scripture
mentions no husband or father indicates the high prominence of this woman. Since
first-century Greek and Roman women were almost always under the legal
guardianship of a husband or father, Lydia may well have been a wealthy widow or
only daughter who inherited her parents' estate. Thus, she became the head of
her own household. She either managed the family business or developed a
business of her own after her husband's or father's death.
The Book of Acts says that Lydia's entire household was
baptized upon her conversion to Christ. This follows the custom of ancient Roman
families. Under paganism, household gods were believed to protect and help the
family and its enterprises. Thus, it was the duty of members of these
households, relatives, slaves, and their families to worship the gods adopted by
the head of the household.
Roman households were often large since almost all
businesses were home-based before the industrial age. Those who worked for Lydia
in her business, and possibly others engaging in the trade who belonged to the
dye-makers guild, would have been among her converts. By virtue of her position
as head of household, Lydia had the opportunity and responsibility to lead all
of its members to Christ and then to establish and lead them in the faith. This
put her in a similar position to the modern-day pastor. To fulfill part of this
responsibility, Lydia invited Paul to come and preach in her home.
Paul and Silas established their gospel mission
headquarters in Lydia's house and no doubt preached there regularly. After their
release from prison, Scripture tells us that they returned to Lydia's and,
having met with the brethren, exhorted them. This may have been the first church
planted on European soil, and its pastor was a woman.
Another New Testament woman who led a house church was
Nympha (Col. 4:15). Paul sent greetings to her and to the church at her house. Some modern scholars try to get around this by saying that Nympha was "just" the
hostess, not the pastor. If that were so, who did pastor her house church, and
why would Paul so rudely fail to greet the pastor as well as the hostess?
Another woman house-pastor was Prisca, or Priscilla, as
Paul often affectionately calls her. Romans 16:3-5 expresses his gratitude to
her and her husband, Aquilla. This couple had a team ministry and worked with
Paul in planting the gospel in Rome, Corinth and Ephesus. In his Roman letter,
Paul sends greetings to the church that met in their house, which they pastored
It has often been pointed out by Greek scholars that
Paul's practice of mentioning Prisca's name before that of her husband
emphasizes that she was the more prominent leader. Just as today we would
address a letter "Mr. and Mrs.," so in ancient times, the husband's name
was customarily given before the wife's. Prisca must have been an outstanding
Christian worker for Paul to have reversed custom by honoring her in this way.
The brief, personal letter II John is addressed to a
church and its pastor, a woman with whom the apostle John evidently had warm
ties. John opens the letter, "to the elect lady and her children, whom I love in
the truth. . ." "Children" was a term of endearment that John used for Christian
believers. (I. John 2:1, 12, 18, 28). "Truth" was a term John often used in his
writings for the revelation of Jesus (See, for example, John 1:14, 17; 8:32;
16:13; I. John 1:6-8; 2:4, 21; 3:19; II. John 4; III John 3-4.) The word
"elect," while it usually refers to believers as chosen by God for salvation,
can also be used to refer to the ordained clergy. The second-century church
father Clement of Alexandria does this repeatedly in his Stromata book 6,
chapter 13. John's use of these terms plus the general tone of the letter with
its pastoral direction as in verse 10 demonstrate that II John was written to a
Christian church, not just a family.
While scholars agree that II John was addressed to a
church, most balk at the idea that the "elect lady" was its pastor. They try to
get around this by spiritualizing these terms, saying that they are metaphors
for the church. This approach ignores the universal Greek practice of naming a
letter's recipient(s) at the beginning. Without an addressee or location, it
cannot explain to whom or how the letter was delivered. It also ignores the
plain sense of the text. Additionally, its logic is inconsistent because if both
the "lady" and the "children" stand for the church, how could the letter be
written to "the church and the church?" If so, to which church is it written? No
one writes a letter to a symbol but to a real person or group.
Interestingly, both of the Greek words in II John 1
which are ordinarily translated into English as "elect" and "lady" were also
used in the first century as women's names just as today we might name a girl
"grace" or "Missy." A number of Greek manuscripts of II John 1 use initial
capitals for either or both of these words, indicating personal usage.
In the second century, Clement of Alexandria identified
the "elect lady" as a specific individual. He wrote that II John "was written to
virgins. It was written to a Babylonian lady by name Electa." (Clement of
Alexandria, Fragments from Cassiodorus IV, 1-2 tr. by William Wilson,
Fathers of the Second Century, A. Cleveland Coxe, ed., New York: The Christian
Literature Publishing Company, 1885, vol. 2, p. 576.) Although he does not
elaborate, it appears from this statement that Clement had heard of this woman
and knew that she was the spiritual leader of virgins. Why he called her
Babylonian is a mystery since Babylon had ceased to be a nation many generations
earlier. Perhaps she was of Babylonian descent or came from pagan Rome, which
Christians often derisively called "Babylon." Electa may have been the
leader of an order of Christian virgins, or Clement may have assumed that her
followers were virgins because of the growing emphasis on asceticism in his day,
a half-century after the letter was written.
During the early and medieval periods of church history,
it was very common for devout women to dedicate their homes for Christian
worship and to attract other similarly minded people to join them. Usually, the
converts who came under the pastoral care of such women were household members
or women colleagues. In Electa's case, if Clement is correct, they were
dedicated Christian virgins who constituted one of the order of the clergy in
the ancient church along with widows.
This brief letter closes by conveying a greeting from
the church of another woman-"the children of your elect sister greet you." This
woman was evidently their pastor since John again uses the term "children" which
in his writings means Christians under the care of a spiritual leader. Also, he
calls her "elect" which either means ordained or chosen.
An interesting possibility exists that these two women
pastors were natural sisters as well as sisters in the Lord and in His work. We
know from the late third and early fourth century church historian Eusebius that
in his later years, the apostle Philip and two of his four daughters who were
prophetesses lived at Hierapolis in Asia. A third daughter lived in Ephesus, the
city where John preached. Unlike the other apostles who were martyred decades
earlier, the apostle John lived to a very old age, possibly over 100 years. Close ties existed between John, the church at Ephesus, and Philip and his
daughters. It is possible that after Philip's death, John wrote his second
epistle to one of Philip's surviving daughters still ministering at Hierapolis
(the "elect lady" or "Lady Electa") and conveyed greetings from her sister's
church at Ephesus. If so, we have in II John evidence that these daughters
of Philip established and led Christian communities.
The fourth-century church historian Eusebius quotes a
letter written by Polycrates, bishop of Ephesus, to Victor, bishop of Rome
between 189-198 AD. "For in Asia, also, mighty luminaries have fallen asleep,
which shall rise again at the last day, at the appearance of our Lord, when he
shall come with glory from heaven, and shall gather again all the saints. Philip, one of the twelve apostles who sleeps in Hierapolis, and his two aged
virgin daughters. Another of his daughters, who lived in the Holy Spirit, rests
at Ephesus. Moreover, John, that rested on the bosom of our Lord, who was a
priest that bore the sacerdotal plate, and martyr and teacher, he also rests at
Ephesus." Quite possibly, the "elect lady" and her "elect sister" of II John are
two of these "mighty luminaries" who "lived in the Holy Spirit" and whom Polycrates and Eusebius commemorated.
(Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, book III, chapter. xxxi tr. by Christian Frederick Cruse, Grand Rapids, MI;
Baker Book House, 1955, p. 116.)