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Topics: Women, Women in Ministry

Learning From Four Women in the Early Church

July 24, 2014

Women of the bible

By Lauren Dunn

It was a good sermon.  It really was – the pastor made a strong, biblical case for a fundamental difference between men and women.

But he stopped there.

Once he established the fact that men and women are different and that there is a scriptural mandate for their different roles, the sermon was over. I was left with a deeper appreciation for the reality of masculinity and femininity, but no clear ideas or guidance on how that matters in my life.

I have heard many and varied opinions on how to be a godly wife and the importance of raising godly children. But I’m not married (yet).  I don’t have children (yet).  What does being a godly woman look like – for me? What is my calling where I am now? What is my role, my purpose in the family of God?

The Four

I wanted to find a broader vision for Christian womanhood (without reference to marital status or parenting), so I went straight to the New Testament. Flipping through various chapters in Acts and the personal greetings in many of Paul’s letters, I looked for any striking examples of women and what they did that made them stand out. I found more godly women than I had expected, but I focused on four fascinating women – women who are all the more enthralling because of how much we don’t know about them. Those four nearly-unknown women have so much to teach us.

Phoebe’s name comes up in only one place: Romans 16.  Here Paul describes her as a “servant of the church,” a “worthy saint,” and “a patron of many” (Romans 16:1-2).  Other than where she went to church (Cenchreae), that is really all we are told about her.  We don’t know what she did to serve the church, if she was married, or anything like that.  As with the other women, we are told what we need to know (which isn’t much, apparently).

Lydia we find mentioned twice in Acts 16.  We are told that she was a “seller of purple goods” and “a worshiper of God.”  We know that she lived in Philippi and that God “opened her heart.”  She and her household were baptized and she “urged us, saying, ‘If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come to my house and stay.’ And she prevailed upon us” (Acts 16:15).  After Paul and Silas’ memorable night in the Philippian jail and their subsequent release by the authorities, they visited Lydia again before leaving the city.

Out of all four of these women, Priscilla is listed the most – no less than six times in the New Testament.   Interestingly, she is always listed with her husband, Aquila, and he is always listed with her.  It seems that Paul and Luke couldn’t think of one without thinking of the other.

We mostly hear of Priscilla (and Aquila) in Acts 18.  We are told that the couple left Rome during a Jewish persecution, and that they, like Paul, were tentmakers.  They took under their wing the gifted-but-inadequately-informed evangelist Apollos, who eventually became a very competent minister (see 1 Corinthians 3:6), likely due in part to their patient instruction.

Lastly, we hear about Nympha only once, and briefly.  In Colossians 4:15, as Paul is dispensing his usual personal greetings, he writes: “Give my greetings…to Nympha and the church in her house.”  We are given no clues as to what kind of church she hosted (was it a pioneering church or a well-known one?), if she was married (why was it “her” house?), or any other details about her life.  All we are told is that she had a church in her house.

No Cookie Cutters Here

We can see that these four predecessors of ours were not all alike!  Through these few verses we are given insights into their different temperaments and gifting.

We can also see that, while all four were believers, they had different life stories. Some of the women were Greek, others Jewish. We know that Priscilla was married and Lydia had a “household,” but we do not know the family situation for any of the others.

Even their ministries were different! Priscilla and Lydia provided hospitality to ministers of the gospel. Nympha hosted a church. We aren’t even specifically told what Phoebe did, only that she was “a servant of the church.” Clearly these four were very different from each other. But there must be some common thread.

The Common Denominator

Even though these women are obscure to us now, they were important enough to be included in the inspired word of God. Why did they stand out to the New Testament writers? What set them apart from other women of their time?

In all of these different situations, stories, and lives, there is one common denominator: every single one of these four women served the church.  They likely had contact and ministry among unbelievers, but it is recorded that all four served those in the body of Christ.

Phoebe was a “patron of many” and, more specifically, a “servant of the church.” Priscilla encouraged evangelists like Paul and Apollos. Lydia provided hospitality for church leaders, and Nympha showed hospitality by hosting a church.

All four women served the people of God. And they did it well. How do we know? Because Paul commended them as examples to other believers – including us.

The fact that they are all included in scripture leads me to think that their work was important. Perhaps their work was vital to other ministries carried on by the church. Maybe other Christians were able to evangelize, rescue, reach out, and minister to the lost because women like these four were ministering to them and to other believers.  I wonder if the work of these women in strengthening the church enabled (or at least encouraged) much of the activity of the early church. Everyone was working together for God’s glory.

Only One Sentence

Greatness in the lives of these four women was not measured by a list of accomplishments or degree of worldly esteem, but to what extent their lives were marked by love and service to their fellow saints.

What would a summary of my life say?

Do love and service define our lives? If someone wrote only one sentence about us, would it say that we served the saints? Does our love for each other attract a dying world?  Whether married or single, childless or matriarch, we are called to build up the body of Christ, and to do it well.


Lauren Dunn lives in the heart of America with her parents and two brothers. Since completing her communications degree, she has been exploring the field of freelance writing for websites and magazines. Lauren enjoys spending time with her family and friends, blogging at These Traveling Days, working with children at a Christian daycare, and reading on rainy summer days.

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