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Women Leaders in the Philippian Church?

An overview of the site of Philippi
An overview of the site of Philippi

Certainly the early Christians lived in a male-dominated, patriarchal society. Some of this is reflected in early Christian leadership: there were twelve male disciples, the apostle Paul became extremely influential, and men were noted as coworkers of Paul. Thus, it is not surprising when readers of the Bible presume that the early church forbade or suppressed female leadership. Such an assumption is understandable when one reads a text like 1Cor 14:34: “Women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says.” There is some debate about whether or not Paul actually wrote this particular part of 1 Corinthians. There are others who would argue that Paul was dealing with a specific problem in one church and that he was not making a universal declaration. Nevertheless, early Christian leaders like Paul sometimes appear to assent to, if not reinforce, male authority, as we find in the so-called household codes in the New Testament, where wives are encouraged to submit to their husbands (see, for example, Col 3:18-4:1).

However, in this regard the church in Philippi (located in present-day Greece) is unusual and perhaps illuminating. First, if we take a quick glance at Luke’s report of Paul’s initial missionary work in Philippi, we come to learn that he went to look for a “place of prayer” and stumbled across a gathering of women (Acts 16:13). One woman named Lydia, a merchant from Thyatira, heard Paul’s gospel with joy, and she and her whole household were baptized (Acts 16:14-15). Thus, this woman was the first Christian convert on the European continent!

While Paul’s letter to the Philippians does not mention Lydia, Paul does refer to two other women: Euodia and Syntyche (Phil 4:2-3). While Paul expresses to the whole church his concern that these women are experiencing some of kind of conflict and disagreement, he commends both of them as women who have “struggled beside me in the work of the gospel” (Phil 4:3). The nature of their work and how they were connected to Paul is not mentioned, but certainly they were both prominent figures in the church. Indeed, one can imagine that their disagreement was of such importance to the church that Paul put them in the spotlight in front of the whole congregation (as this letter would have been read publicly by the letter carrier). It doesn’t make sense to imagine that these women offered non-leadership aid to the church because Paul lumps them together with his other coworkers, even male leaders like Clement (Phil 4:3).

The fact that Paul begins his letter by addressing “overseers and deacons” alongside the rest of the church (Phil 1:1-2) may give us a clue concerning this situation with Euodia and Syntyche. Were they both “overseers” in disagreement, or was one an overseer and the other a deacon, holding alternative views on some kind of administrative matter? We simply cannot know for sure, but we are fortunate to have this short letter, with its snapshot of life in one of Paul’s most important churches. Apparently, women were not only respected in this church but were commended and considered coworkers of the apostle.

  • Nijay K. Gupta

    Nijay K. Gupta is professor of biblical theology at Northeastern Seminary.  He has written a book entitled Worship That Makes Sense to Paul (Walter de Gruyter, 2010), as well as a number of articles focused on the study of Paul’s letters. He is currently completing a commentary on Paul’s Letter to the Colossians.