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Career Women of the Bible: Church Overseers, Ministers, and Patrons – Shawna R. B. Atteberry
May 292007

"The Breaking of Bread" in the Catacomb of St. Priscilla/Dorothy Irvin

In the last two articles we have been looking at women who ministered in leadership positions in the New Testament (Apostles and Prophets and Teachers, Elders, and Coworkers). We saw women minister as prophets, apostles, teachers, elders, and coworkers. Now we will look at the last three leadership roles: church overseer, minister, and patron.

Church Overseer

Church overseers were what we traditionally think of as a pastor, and they were normally the person or people who opened their homes for believers to meet for hearing God’s word and worship. Women who were overseers include Priscilla, Phoebe, Euodia, Syntyche, and possibly John Mark’s mother, Chloe, Lydia, and Nympha (Spencer, 108). The church overseer I would like to focus on is the “Elect Lady” of 2 John.

John’s second epistle is addressed “The elder to the elect lady and her children, whom I love in the truth,” (2 John 1). Most of the debate focuses on who the elect lady is. Is she the overseer of the church or is the “elect lady” a metaphor for the church? It would be redundant to address the church twice as “elect lady and her children.” In both 1 and 2 John, “the elder” uses “children” to designate the church he is writing to (1 Jn. 2:1). “Elect lady” is singular and “children” are plural, which also suggests that John is referring to different sets of people. In 3 John the almost identical greeting is given as 2 John: “The elder to the beloved Gaius, whom I love in truth” (v. 1). Given the uniformity of John’s writing, the elect lady then would be the overseer of the church that most likely met in her house.

The phrase “elect lady” also points to this. “Lady” is used to translate the Greek word kuria. Its male counterpart is kurios, which is translated as “lord” or “master” and is the word used to describe Jesus as Lord. The feminine form kuria is only found here and in verse five of 2 John in the New Testament (ibid.). The male form denotes the head of the household, a guardian, or trustee; people who own and oversee slaves are also called kurios (see Galatians 4:1 where Paul uses the word to describe someone who owns an estate and is a guardian or overseer). This woman is in a place of authority–she is probably both the head of her household, and the overseer of a congregation that met there. She is not only a lady with authority but she is eklektos: she has been called or chosen for her position of authority. Spencer gives “elect lady” an alternate translation: “the woman chosen to be master” (p. 109). This woman is called “master” and “chosen,” and she, along with the church, are given instructions to safeguard against false teachings.

Another woman who may have been a church overseer is Lydia. In Acts 16:11-15 Paul and the company he was traveling with arrive in Philippi. Because there was no synagogue there they decided to go to the river on the Sabbath where there was a place of prayer. Lydia was at the river. She was “a worshiper of God” (v. 14), and listened to Paul’s teachings. In fact, we are told “the Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul” (v. 14). In the next verse she and her household were baptized and she urged Paul and his travelers to stay in her house. She is the first convert to Christianity in Europe.

Lydia was a businesswoman, “a dealer of purple cloth” from Thyatira (v. 14). Purple dye was “a symbol of power and honor,” and it was the most expensive and sought after dye in the Roman world. Thyatira was the capitol of the industry and renowned for its purple dyes (Spencer, 112). One had to have plenty of capitol to deal in purple dye and the making of purple garments for sale. Lydia was a career woman, rich, the head of her household, and Acts 16:40 implies that by the end of Paul’s stay in Philippi a new church was meeting in Lydia’s home. All of this could mean that Lydia was the overseer of the first church plant in Europe.

Minister and Patron

“I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church at Cenchreae, so that you may welcome her in the Lord as is fitting for the saints, and help her in whatever she may require from you, for she has been a benefactor of many and of myself as well” (Romans 16:1-2). Another woman Paul highly commended and respected is Phoebe. She is a “sister,” “deacon,” and “benefactor” to the church at Cenchreae as well as a sister and benefactor to Paul.

The odd thing about diakonos being used to describe Phoebe is that it is the masculine form used to describe a woman. Most versions translate it as “servant,” whereas, when it used of men it is translated as “deacon.” Although one of the meanings of diakonos can be serving another’s physical needs for food and shelter, that it is paired with “of the church of Cenchreae” makes it unlikely this is the meaning Paul is using here. This is the only place in the New Testament where diakonos is followed by a specific congregation (Grenz, 88). This is the only place linking a specific person’s ministry with a specific church. This seems to indicate that Phoebe served as a deacon in the church at Cenchreae.

Paul uses another word to describe Phoebe: prostatis. This is the only occurrence of the word in the New Testament (Grenz, 89). It is also another word that is translated in such a way that its main meaning is not obvious in the translation. The normal translation is “helper” or someone who has helped. The basic and most obvious translation of the word is patron or benefactor, and women in this role, are well attested in the Roman world (Dunn, 888). Phoebe was likely another wealthy woman who served the church out of her means as the women in Luke 8 served Jesus out of theirs.

Spencer has also suggested that porstatis could be derived from the root verb proistemi, which means to “to stand, place before or over,” or “to help by ruling” (p. 115). The times the verb appears in the New Testament it has the meaning of ruling or governing (Romans 12:8; 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13), and in the Pastoral Epistles both bishops and deacons were to govern their households well. In other Greek sources, such as Josephus, the masculine form of prostatis is used to describe rulers and leaders like Moses, Herod, and Agrippa (Spencer 116). This word could mean that Phoebe was a ruler or another overseer in the church.

Phoebe was another woman who had her own means, and served the church in a leadership role. Paul comes very close to commanding churches he had no hand in planting, and Christians, most of whom who had never met him, to welcome her and provide anything she needed. She was not only a deacon and a benefactor/ruler in the church, but Paul himself had also benefited from her generous rule.

As we come to the conclusions of these three articles on women in the New Testament, we see these women continued the tradition of being leaders among God’s people through their obedience to God and love for others. These women come from all walks of life: married, single, rich, and working women. Lydia and Phoebe do not appeared to be married, and they are women of means. Priscilla and Aquila ministered together, but Priscilla seems to be the dominant of the two. If Junia was married to Adronicus, it did not affect her calling as an apostle, but she stood side-by-side with her husband in ministry. Again we see that none of their ministries were dependent on being married or connected with what their husbands do (just like Deborah and Huldah). Their ministries and roles as leaders in the early church are dependent on obedience to the God who called them to proclaim the gospel in the cities and world.

Lydia, Phoebe, Priscilla, and the elect lady opened their doors to the early church and provided a place for preaching, teaching and worshiping. They also provided leadership by overseeing and pastoring these churches. Euodia and Syntyche were coworkers with Paul and instrumental enough that their disagreement sent reverberations through the congregations of Philippi. Both Lydia and Phoebe were wealthy, independent women who chose to serve the church with their means, and Junia was prominent among the apostles.

God has always called women to serve him in leadership positions. As we have seen through both the Old and New Testaments all he required of them was to follow him and obey.


Shawna Renee Bound, Your Daughters Shall Prophesy: A Biblical Theology of Single Women in Ministry, unpublished thesis, (© by Shawna Renee Bound 2002), “Women in the Early Church.”

Loren Cunningham and David Joel Hamilton, Why Not Women? A Fresh Look at Scripture on Women in Mission, Ministry, and Leadership (Seattle: YWAM Publishing, 2000).

James D.G. Dunn, Romans 9-16, vol. 38a, (Dallas TX: Waco Books, 1988), 894.

Stanley J. Grenz with Denise Muir Kjesbo, Women in the Church: A Biblical
Theology of Women in Ministry
(Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1995).

Gerald F. Hawthorne, Philippians, vol. 43, Word Biblical Commentary (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1983), 179.

Henry Georg Liddel and Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, eds. Henry S. Jones and Roderick McKenzie, 9th ed. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1968), 522.

Letha Dawson Scanzoni and Nancy A. Hardesty, All We’re Meant to Be: Biblical Feminism for Today, 3rd rev. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.), 1992.

Aida Besançon Spencer, Beyond the Curse: Women Called to Ministry (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1985), 43-63.

All biblical translations are from the New Revised Standard Version unless otherwise noted.

Did you know there are only eight verses in the Bible that discourage women from speaking and holding leadership positions in the church? Did you know there are thousands of verses in the Bible that tell the stories of women who were leaders in their homes, towns, and religious circles? Meet the women in the Bible who were religious & civic leaders, business women, & women who challenged both Jesus and Moses in What You Didn’t Learn in Sunday School. What else didn’t you learn in Sunday School? Find out when you buy What You Didn’t Learn in Sunday School: Women Who Didn’t Shut Up & Sit Down from Wipf and Stock Publishers or Amazon.com today.

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  7 Responses to “Career Women of the Bible: Church Overseers, Ministers, and Patrons”

  1. Shawna, when you were in Rome did you go to the church of Santa Prassede and see the gorgeous Zeno Chapel, with the mosaic of Bishop Theodora? (See Karen Torjeson’s book, When Women Were Priests.) That was one of the highlights of our recent visit to Rome.

    Your Rome pictures are a million times better than mine.

  2. No, we didn’t make it to Santa Prassede. My Hubby is an excellent amateur photographer. 🙂

  3. Thank you for more great information on women, scripture, and ministry–so glad you are getting your thesis research out there to educate people through the blog.

    I have been enjoying Rena Pederson’s *The Lost Apostle* recently–picked it up for my patroness Junia but she does a great job on all the women leaders of the early church.

  4. I’ve seen the book, but I still need to get it and read it. I’m glad to hear it’s good.

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