Women in the History of Small Groups
Image: Saint-Petersburg Orthodox Theological Academy/Flickr

Women in the History of Small Groups

From Pentecost to the modern small-group movement, women have always been involved.
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We see women in ministry throughout the New Testament. Approximately one-fourth of Paul's co-workers were women. There are a total of 12 women who Paul mentions prominently: Euodia, Julia, Junias, Lydia, Mary, Nympha, Persis, Phoebe, Priscilla, Syntyche, Tryphena, and Tryphosa. And seven of them were instrumental in the house-church movement in Rome: Priscilla, Mary, Junias, Tryphena, Tryphosa, Persis, and Julia.

Various women were house church hosts and leaders. Mary the mother of John Mark was a leader of one of the early Christian groups, her house being used for church meetings (Acts 12:12). Lydia's household served as a gathering place for the early believers in Philippi (Acts 16:12-15, 40). Plus, several "leading women" in Thessalonica responded to the gospel in Acts 17:4, as did other Greek women in Berea (Acts 17:12).

The fact that Nympha hosted one of the house churches shows that women were allowed positions of authority and leadership. Nympha was a person of social standing and wealth who had a large home. Kevin Giles writes that she was probably a widow who owned land or managed a business and was the head of an extended family including blood relations, employees, and slaves.

Phoebe made her house available to the congregation as a meeting place, serving as hostess. It could be that Phoebe had a teaching ministry in the house church in Cenchrea and delivered the letter to the Romans but also read and explained it to the house churches in Rome. Paul says about Phoebe, "I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church in Cenchrea. I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of the saints and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been a great help to many people, including me" (Romans 16:1-2).

Prophets, Teachers, and Apostles

In the early church, women were active evangelists, coworkers, patrons, and even apostles. It is virtually certain that Paul refers to the woman Junia as an apostle in Romans 16:7. Some Bibles translate this passage as referring to the male apostle "Junias." But Eldon Jay Epp, an eminent New Testament scholar, has recently done the definitive study on Romans 16:7 in his book Junia: The First Woman Apostle. Consequently, after carefully exegeting the passage, Linda Belleville writes, "Thus the reading of this reference to Junia yields an example of a woman not only functioning as an 'apostle' in the New Testament church but being highly esteemed as such by Paul and his apostolic colleagues."

Women were also prophets. Luke refers to the prophetic ministry of Philip's daughters (Acts 21:8-9). Paul and John also acknowledge the existence of female prophets in the early church. Women prayed and prophesied in public (1 Corinthians 11:5), and Paul writes that a prophet, like an apostle, designated an official role (1 Corinthians 12:28-29).

Priscilla and her husband Aquila became significant leaders of the church in several different locations (Acts 18:18, 26; Romans 16:3; 1 Corinthians 16:19; 2 Timothy 4:19). In 1 Corinthians 16, Paul speaks of Priscilla and Aquila together having a congregation meeting in their home.

Priscilla is a good example of a woman teacher. Four times, Paul and Luke mention Priscilla before her husband, Aquila (Acts 18:18, 26; Romans 16:3; 2 Timothy 4:19). Priscilla's role as teacher emerged when Apollos visited Ephesus. Scripture says, "When Priscilla and Aquila heard him [Apollos], they took him aside and explained the way of God to him more accurately" (Acts 18:24-26). The account shows her teaching role, and she is mentioned before her husband in connection with the instruction of Apollos. Apollos was "well-versed in the Scriptures" (18:24), and so the fact that they explained "the way of God to him more accurately" means they must have had sufficient expertise to gain his acceptance. Michael Green says,

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