By Deacon Louis S. Malfara
Special to The CS&T
When I was enrolled in the diaconate formation program at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, I was eager to study the New Testament, especially the letters of St. Paul. I remember asking our professor this question, “What was St. Paul’s attitude toward women?” I was curious because discussions with women over the years did not seem to portray St. Paul’s view of women in a very good light.
Our professor cleared up many misconceptions. He pointed out that many used St. Paul’s writings to promote a narrow view of women. A careful study indicates that St. Paul was more open-minded about women than many people would imagine.
St. Paul had many companions that helped him in his missionary work. He could not have accomplished as much as he did in such a short time had he not recruited, trained and deployed men and women to assist him. It is a sign of his visionary leadership that he delegated so much of his evangelistic efforts to others, both men and women. Ministers today can profit from St. Paul’s ability to entrust ministerial work to others because the harvest is great, but workers always seem to be in short supply.
It is interesting that we find Prisca (sometimes called Priscilla) along with Aquila, her husband, are leaders of a house church in Corinth. In Romans 16:3-4 we get a portrait of this married couple working together in ministry. In using the word “co-workers,” Paul indicates that Prisca and Aquila were equals.
In the epistle to the Romans, St. Paul acknowledges these women: Mary, Junia, Julia, Tryphaena and Tryphosa. Fascinating, too, that St. Paul appreciates the work of Eurodia and Syntyche in Philippe. Apparently, these two were at odds, and Paul was concerned that their personal difficulties would negatively affect their Christian community.
St. Paul also mentions Chloe in 1 Corinthians, where he makes reference to “Chloe’s people,” Christians who met in her house.
Another notable woman was Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth. She was wealthy in her own right and provided hospitality to Paul and his companions. Her house became a “church home.”
Paul speaks of a woman named Phoebe in his letter to the Romans: “I commend to you Phoebe our sister, who is a minister of the Church at Cenchrae that you may receive her in the Lord in a manner worthy of the holy ones, and help her in whatever she may need from you, for she has been a benefactor to many and to me as well.”
The word minister or servant in modern translations is the Greek word diakonos or deacon. Phoebe performed ministerial service in the early Church but not in an ordained ministerial role as had been reserved for men from the Church’s beginning. In Paul’s lifetime the role of deacon had not yet evolved into a distinct, formalized pastoral ministry. It was not until 70 years later that the function of deacon was more specifically defined.
In this brief overview of some of the more notable women who worked closely with St. Paul, it is apparent that he accepted women as equal in dignity to men. This is all the more remarkable in light of the cultural norms regarding women in St. Paul’s era.
Perhaps St. Paul’s attitude toward women was influenced by his upbringing in Tarsus, a major trade route which exposed him to many different cultures, as well as his well-rounded education.
But perhaps his attitude was molded by a more accurate understanding of Genesis 1:26-27, where men and women enjoy equal dignity, sharing the same likeness, the same dominion and the same flesh and bone, while at the same time possessing their own unique gifts.
Deacon Louis S. Malfara is director of parish ministry at St. William Parish in Philadelphia.