Judith Lieu outlines what the Apostle Paul’s letters tell us about the roles of women in mission and church life.
Paul certainly implies that women had roles and were part of the early communities. Now, sometimes we read that evidence in contexts where he seems to be trying to control or restrict it. So when he writes to the early church at Corinth, he is laying down the conditions under which women can or can’t prophesy. And there’s even one passage in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians – people will sometimes debate whether it originally belonged there – where he implies that women would do better to ask their husbands when they got home, rather than making too much of an issue of things in the congregation.
On the other hand, for example, in the last chapter of his letter to the church at Rome, Paul refers to someone who is called Phoebe, who he describes as – the translation is sometimes given as “helper”, but it’s exactly the same word as which in other parts of the New Testament is translated as “deacon”. Now I don’t think she was a deacon like we would have in a modern church, but I think helper sounds just a little bit condescending. And from the way he talks about her, one could well assume that she was someone who in some way acted as a patron or supporter for Paul. And within that same chapter, he refers to other people who have helped him in his mission, people with female names as well as people with male names. So undoubtedly women played a part in Paul’s churches and Paul’s mission.