In the eyes of God, all human persons have equal dignity and value by virtue of their being created by him in his image and likeness, and Christ came from heaven to earth to save all humanity.
St Paul wrote in Galatians 3:26-29, “[I]n Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. 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.”
Yet, there is diversity in the unity of the Body of Christ. Women were created to complement men, not to compete with them, and Jesus recognised women had special roles to play in his Kingdom. In all his teachings, as well as in his behaviour, he always respected and honoured the dignity of women as human persons.
Here are seven roles women played in the early Church.
In ancient times, a disciple was a student who followed the teachings of a master and shared in his life to learn anything from a trade to a philosophy. Although Jesus’ inner circle of 12 disciples were all men, many women followed him as disciples too (Luke 8:1-3), and Mary of Bethany, sister of Martha and Lazarus, his good friends whom he visited often, was privileged enough to sit at his feet and listen to him (Luke 10:39). Usually only men could assume this posture of a student before his master.
The woman at the well was no doubt profoundly affected when Jesus, a Jewish man, was willing to engage her, a stranger and a despised Samaritan of questionable background, in authentic and open conversation (John 4:7-42). That was why she could not wait to testify to her personal encounter with Jesus, so much so that she even left her precious water jar behind. As St Augustine observed, “having received Christ the Lord into her heart, what could she do but now leave her water-pot, and run to preach the Gospel?” She evangelised so powerfully that “many Samaritans from that city believed in him.”
An apostle is one who is sent out. St Mary Magdalene, whom St Thomas Aquinas called the Apostle to the Apostles, was the first person to see the empty tomb and the Risen Lord, and was sent by Jesus himself to announce His Resurrection to the Twelve (John 20:11-18). She was the first person to proclaim the kerygma, the core message of the Christian faith that Christ had died but was now risen again.
Among the women disciples of Christ were many who were well-to-do enough to provide for him out of their personal resources. One of these women was Joanna, the wife of Chuza, the steward of Herod the Tetrarch of Galilee. She had been “cured of evil spirits and infirmities” (Luke 8:1-3) by the Lord, and now, in gratitude and devotion, ministered to Jesus in return out of her financial blessings. No doubt she must have witnessed to her healing in Herod’s court as well and converted other people of privilege and position.
Upon arriving in Philippi, Lydia, a merchant from Thyatira, responded to Paul’s message of Christ, and was baptised (Acts 16:11-15). She later opened her home for believers to gather and pray. (Acts 16:40). Thyatira was a prosperous city renowned for its unique and expensive purple dyes. Lydia was a dealer in this dye (Acts 16:14), and an example of the comparatively independent position some women attained to in Asia Minor. In spite of her secular obligations, she still found time to pray by the river where Paul first encountered her. No doubt she too must have testified of her conversion in her business circles.
Priscilla, as a tentmaker, was also a businesswoman, but one very learned in the Way of Christ. Together with her husband Aquila, whom Paul commended as having “risked their necks” for his life, (Romans 16:4) she formed the faith of Apollos, a powerful preacher in the early Church. However, “when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him aside and explained the Way of God to him more accurately.” This was because Apollos knew only “the baptism of John” (Acts 18:25,26) and not the Truth about Christ. With their catechesis, Apollos became one of the pillars of the early Church. St Paul himself wrote “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.” (1 Corinthians 3:6)
- Co-workers with men in the Lord’s Vineyard
In his letter to the Romans, St Paul painted a glowing picture of his “sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church at Cenchreae”, and his faithful “patroness”. (Romans 16:1,2) The word in Greek that Paul used for patroness literally means “one who stands by in case of need” in the context of a trainer at the famed Olympic games, who stood by the athletes to see that they were properly prepared for competition. And the use of the Greek word for deacon was in a similar vein i.e. as his valuable “servant” or “assistant” – deaconesses in the early Church were counted among the laypeople, not the ordained clergy. Certainly, she was held in high esteem by St Paul who bade the Romans give her a welcome that was “fitting for the saints and help her in whatever she may require.”
The gift of women to the Church
In Philippians 4, St Paul urged two women named Euodia and Syntyche, who apparently were in disagreement with each other “to be of the same mind in the Lord”. He asked the Philippian community to help reconcile these women who had struggled beside him in the work of the Gospel – together with the rest of his co-workers, he said, their names are “written in the book of life”. And even women with no particular prominence like Lois and Eunice, the grandmother and mother of Timothy respectively, could live out their faith and evangelise powerfully in their homes and communities (2 Timothy 1:5).
May the examples of these women of the Bible, and the millions of women who have followed them in serving the Church inspire all of us, male or female, young or old, layperson or clergy, to be disciples, witnesses, apostles, teachers, benefactresses, servants and business people for the glory of God.
It is no wonder that Pope St John Paul II wrote in his 1988 encyclical on the dignity and vocation of women, Mulieres dignitatem 31, that:
“The Church gives thanks for all the manifestations of the feminine ‘genius’ which have appeared in the course of history, in the midst of all peoples and nations; she gives thanks for all the charisms which the Holy Spirit distributes to women in the history of the People of God, for all the victories which she owes to their faith, hope and charity: she gives thanks for all the fruits of feminine holiness.”