After Jesus’ resurrection and the coming of the Spirit, Jewish followers of Jesus continued to attend Jewish services in the Temple and the synagogues, and gathered in someone’s home on the first day of the week for the preaching of the Gospel and for the breaking of the bread (Acts 2:46-47a).
It wasn’t until much later in the first century- after the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD that formal separation of Christians from Judaism took place. The custom of Christians meeting in homes continued in the Greco-Roman world as the Gospel message spread and Gentiles as well as Jews became members. The houses used were probably those of independent households occupying reasonably large rooms, generally arranged around a central open courtyard or garden.
Since it was usual for women to assume household management, this arrangement would have led to women presiding over the community who gathered in their homes. Prayers, and preaching were carried out within the context of a communal meal. Wherever Christianity spread, women were leaders of house churches such as the one at Colossae where Apphia presided with two other leaders (Philemon v2). From Acts 12:12-17 we learn that Mary, the mother of John Mark, presided over a house of Hellenistic Jews in Jerusalem. In addition Nympha in Laodicea, Lydia in Thyatira, and Phoebe at Cenchreae supervised the gatherings of Christians who met in their houses (Colossians 4:15; Acts 16:15; Romans 16:1). Even though these stories have come down to us through the eyes and pens of men we can often catch a glimpse of the lives of women on their own terms.
Paul speaks frequently of one who ministers with him as a synergos or co-worker. One such co-worker was Prisca. Luke refers to her as Priscilla, the little girl version of her name but Paul underlines her status by using Prisca and also by mentioning her before her husband, Aquila (Rom l6:3; 2 Tim 4:19). In the first century Roman world the only time a wife would be mentioned before her husband was if she outranked him. Clearly Prisca did. The missionary couple were probably leaders among the Christian community in Rome before Paul met them in Corinth. At some stage they had risked their lives for Paul (Rom l6:4) and became leaders of a house church at Ephesus and Corinth (l Cor l6:19; Rom 16:5).
In Acts 18 we learn that they were tentmakers like Paul and that they went with him on his missionary journey to Ephesus where he left them in charge while he continued the journey. The couple instructed the learned Apollo (probably about a baptismal matter since Luke tells us that Apollo knew only of the baptism of John). Obviously Prisca must have known a thing or two about theology as well as tentmaking!
In the early Church the term diakonia (ministry) denoted Christian ministry in general. In 1 Timothy 3:8-13 we are given the most detailed passage in the New Testament of the office of diakonos (deacon). From this passage we can see that both men and women exercised the same office of deacon and on an equal basis. The New Testament associates the term with evangelism and table ministry. These later became the prerogative of bishops and presbyters. In Romans 1:16 we find a female deacon, Phoebe, of the Church at Cenchreae which is the eastern point of Corinth. This is the only place in the New Testament where an individual is called a diakonos of a particular Church. Paul puts Phoebe her at the head of a list of co-workers to be welcomed and greeted by the Church in Rome to which she is being sent as an official minister, one who preaches the Gospel and leads the Lord’s Supper. Paul also acknowledges that Phoebe has been a prostati (benefactor) of many, including himself (Rom l6:2). This meant that she used her resources to support the missionary work of Paul and others, paying their expenses and ensuring connections were made to other wealthy patrons. But more importantly, it also meant that she was able to direct operations – choosing where missionaries were to go and what points they were to include in their message.
What happened to Phoebe and other women ministers? Since such an official public role for women went against the prevailing social custom in Judaism and in Greco-Roman society, pressure from the cultural milieu contributed to the fairly early demise of the practice of women exercising the role of deacon. The more socially acceptable role was that of deaconess which arose during the patristic period when women were being excluded from official ministry in the Church. It was during the second century, after the establishment of the episcopacy, that the term diakonos came to mean a hierarchical office subordinate to the office of bishop. At the same time the introduction of the exclusively male office of the levitical priest as a model for Christian ministry, was another factor which led to the exclusion of women from the office of deacon.
As well as Prisca and Phoebe another significant woman in Acts is Tabitha (9:36-43). Also known as Dorcas (meaning gazelle in Greek), Tabitha is an important woman in the predominantly Jewish Christian community at Joppa, a port city on Judea’s coastal plain. She is a disciple, the only woman in Acts identified as one. Perhaps there may have been other women disciples in Joppa. Luke gives us both names, suggesting that she was known among both the Aramaic and Greek-speaking members of her community. Perhaps her story was addressed to and circulated among these groups. The name itself is a nickname, common among slaves. Tabitha may have been a slave or a former slave.
What does her association with the widows suggest? In the ancient world the term ‘widow’ was applied to any woman without male protection or support. Tabitha may herself have been a widow, or she may have been divorced, or she may have been an unmarried woman no longer under the protection of her father. Widows have always been the object of special concern throughout Jewish history. By the time of Tabitha, ie, first century AD, they had come to be associated with mourning. Thus their presence when Tabitha dies is not unusual.
But the story suggests that somehow Tabitha had a personal connection to the widows at Joppa. Perhaps she supported them out of her own funds. Luke’s account does not necessarily suggest that she was a woman of independent means. On the contrary, the fact that her name was common among slaves as well as the fact that she worked with textiles indicates that Tabitha was probably a woman who had to support herself financially. She may have belonged to a community of widows active in the Joppa Church. As disciples, these women would have confessed Jesus as Lord and would have studied his teachings. Perhaps she was a leader of the early Christian community there. Certainly she was a devout and faithful member.
When Tabitha dies Peter is sent for not just by one man but two and brought to her bedside suggesting that her ministry must have been respected by the whole community. Her value seems to come from her being devoted to good works and acts of charity (9:36). No one else in Acts is described as performing these services. Her good works involved making clothes for the widows of Joppa, hence their reaction on learning of her death. While Luke does not use the word diakonia (ministry) to describe Tabitha’s work of caring for the widows, it is interesting to note that he uses it to describe the men’s care of the widows (6:1).
Thus travelling missionaries, deacons, faithful disciples, widows and co-workers played a central role in the development of the early Christian communities which depended on mobility and patronage. House churches provided opportunities for women to play a leading role in ministry. Women also exercised leadership as apostles and prophets but this would need another article. In the meantime let us remember Prisca, Phoebe and Tabitha and the inclusive nature of Jesus’ ministry which made it possible for women to assume full leadership in the early Christian communities. As Paul points out:
As many of you as were baptised into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus (Gal 3:27-28).