Learning to thrive in the new life Jesus offers us – 2 Corinthians 5:16-17

Apphia of Colossae: Philemon’s wife or another Phoebe?

Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother,
To Philemon our dear friend and co-worker, to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier,
and to the church in your house:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Philemon 1:1-3 (NRSV)

Apphia of Colossae: Wife of Philemon or another Phoebe?

The letters of the apostle Paul give glimpses of some of the men and women involved in first-century church life. In a short letter sent to Colossae (or to Laodicea)—a letter which we know as the Letter to Philemon—Paul writes primarily about his friendship with two men, Philemon and Onesimus,[1] but a woman, Apphia, is also addressed in the letter. Who was Apphia, and what was her role, or position, in the church at Colossae?

Sister Apphia

It has been thought that Apphia was Philemon’s wife. This seems unlikely, however, when we compare how Paul speaks about them with how he speaks about people who we know were couples. When Paul mentions a couple—such as Prisca and Aquila (who we know were married) or Andronicus and Junia (who may have been married)—he refers to them as a couple. They are not addressed individually or referred to separately. (See Rom. 16:3-5a; 1 Cor. 16:19; 2 Tim. 4:19; Rom. 16:7.) Apphia, however, is addressed and described individually. (The NRSV translates the Greek of Philemon 1:1 faithfully showing that each person is addressed individually.) Nevertheless, Apphia is mentioned alongside Philemon and another man, Archippus.

The three individuals addressed by Paul are described with different ministry or ecclesial descriptions. Philemon is called “our dear friend and co-worker”, while Apphia is called “sister”.[2] Paul used the description of “sister” or “brother” for certain individuals who were his ministry colleagues.[3] (Timothy is called “brother” in Philemon 1:1.) As well as Apphia, Paul refers to another woman as “sister” in one of his letters. That woman is Phoebe, deacon and patron of the church at Cenchrea (Rom. 16:1-2).

Archippus, the third individual to be greeted in the Letter to Philemon, is called “our fellow soldier”. It was to this Archippus that Paul sent the message, “See to it that you complete the ministry (diakonia) you have received in the Lord” (Col. 4:17 CEB). Archippus may have been a deacon (diakonos) of the church at Colossae, even though he is not identified as such in the Letter to Philemon.

As well as the three individuals, Paul greets a house church, presumably the congregation that all three belong to. However, a singular pronoun is used in the greeting: “to the church [that meets] in your (singular) house” (Philem. 1:2). Whose house did the church meet in? In Philemon’s or Archippus’ home?[4] And how or where does Apphia fit in?

Apphia’s Ministry

Rather than being the wife of Philemon, Apphia may have been a ministry partner. Writing about Apphia, Ross Kraemer suggests that “sister” “may designate the female partner of a male-female missionary team.”[5] In 1 Corinthians 9:5, Paul speaks about the right of taking a “sister-woman” on missions.[6] Philemon and Apphia (or was it Apphia and Archippus?) may have been missionaries, ministering in Colossae as Paul’s emissaries.

A few women involved in Pauline missions are mentioned in ministry partnerships with men, but many more are mentioned without any reference to a male relative: Phoebe, Euodia, Syntyche, Tryphaena and Tryphosa, Mary of Rome, Persis, Nympha, etc. It is not clear if these women were widows, single, or married. Nevertheless, they were active in ministry and prominent in their churches without, or despite, a husband. Apphia is likewise prominent and identified as an individual. She was certainly known well enough by Paul to be mentioned by him in his letter.

I suspect Apphia was one of a number of high-status women who were attracted to early Christianity, and she may have been the patron of the congregation that met in Philemon’s or Archippus’s home, or patron of a network of house churches in Colossae. Perhaps she was like Phoebe who was patron and deacon of the church at Cenchrea. Was Apphia another Phoebe? If so, this makes Apphia a woman of considerable influence. [More about patronage here.]

Ross Kraemer suggests that Paul explicitly names Apphia because he sought her consent to his request concerning Philemon and Onesimus.[7] That is, Paul “carbon-copied” Apphia into his letter to Philemon so that she would be aware of the situation Paul was writing about. However, the house church is also greeted in the letter. The letter would have been read aloud in a church gathering, and everyone would have been made aware of Paul’s wishes concerning Onesimus.

It seems that Paul’s greeting to Apphia is some kind of respectful “hat tip” to her. Just like Philemon and Archippus, who are acknowledged alongside her, she was a minister in the church at Colossae, and quite possibly its patron.[8]


Like many of the men and women involved in churches founded by Paul, it is difficult to know exactly what Apphia’s participation in ministry involved. Yet, “it is fair to assume that Apphia had her share in the church and in its missionary activities, though we do not know in which function and to what extent.”[9] Moreover, like most ministers in the early decades of the church, she probably adapted her ministry as needs and circumstances changed.

At least eighteen women are mentioned in the Pauline letters, which indicates that women were valued for their participation in church life.[10] In fact, almost as many women as men ministered in churches founded by Paul.[11] Apphia, who Paul regarded as “sister”, was one of them.


[1] Throughout the body of the letter, Paul addresses Philemon directly and uses second person, singular language. Nevertheless, the opening and closing greetings are sent to everyone in the church (Phm. 1:2-3, 25).

[2] In some later Greek texts, including the Textus Receptus, Apphia is referred to with the Greek word for “beloved” rather than “sister”.

[3] E.E. Ellis has observed that “The designations most often given to Paul’s fellow workers are in descending order of frequency as follows: coworker (synergos), brother (adelphos) [or sister (adelphē) as in the cases of Apphia and Phoebe], minister (diakonos) and apostle (apostolos).” E.E. Ellis, “Paul and his Coworkers”, Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, Gerald Hawthorne and Ralph Martin (eds) (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1993) 183.

[4] The NIV uses punctuation which gives the sense that Philemon is the owner of the house. (Ancient Greek, including the Greek of the early texts of the New Testament books and letters, did not have punctuation marks.)
“To Philemon our dear friend and fellow worker—also to Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier—and to the church that meets in your home” (Philem. 1:1b-2 NIV) If Philemon was the householder, he may also have been the leader of the congregation, as seems to have been the case in some of the first churches.

[5] Ross S. Kraemer, “Apphia”, Women in Scripture: A Dictionary of Named and Unnamed Women in the Hebrew Bible, the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books, and the New Testament, Carol Meyers et al (ed.) (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003) 53.

[6] A “sister-woman” may not necessarily have been a wife. It may also refer to a female co-worker. More on this here.

[7] Kraemer, “Apphia”,  53.

[8] The practice of patronage was a fundamental and vital part of Roman society and it was vital for the church: “Christianity was a movement sponsored by local patrons . . .” Edwin A. Judge, The Early Christians as a Scholastic Community (London: Tyndale Press, 1960) 8.

[9] Christoph Stenschke, “Married Women and the Spread of Early Christianity”, Neotestamentica 43.1 (2009) 145-194, 155.

[10] The early church was attractive to women, including women of high status. Moreover, “Within the Christian subculture women enjoyed far higher status than did women in the Greco-Roman world at large.” Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity (New York: HarperOne, 1996) 95.

Image credit: Fayum mummy portrait of a Roman Egyptian woman, 120-150 AD, Liebieghaus, Frankfurt am Main, inv. 891. (Source:Wikimedia)

Related Articles

Believing Wives or Female Coworkers (1 Cor. 9:5)?
Was Phoebe a Deacon of the Church at Cenchrea?
The Church at Smyrna and her Women
Paul and Women, in a Nutshell
The First Century Church and the Ministry of Women
Paul’s Greetings to Women Ministers

Posted October 29th, 2016 . Categories/Tags: Bible Women, Equality and Gender Issues, Women in Ministry, , , , , , , , ,

Unkind, judgemental, bizarre, and off-topic comments will be deleted.

12 comments on “Apphia of Colossae: Philemon’s wife or another Phoebe?

  1. Donald Johnson says:

    Following on to the ideas in your article, I think the 2 others mentioned after Philemon were significant influencers in the church; that is, Paul is lining up a group of people to get Philemon to free Onesimus, which I see as the subtext of the letter. He generally wants others in the church to hear/read it, but specifically the other 2 besides Philemon. In other words, even if they were not in attendance when it was first officially read to the congregation, these other 2 are especially to read/hear it.

    The basic cultural background is that Onesimus is a runaway slave; as such under Roman law, any punishment up to crucifixion would have been allowed to be done by the master to him. This is not to say that as a follower of Jesus Philemon would have given a thought to the more extreme forms, but what about the potential fears of Onesimus? Onesimus is taking a big risk in going back and I think Paul wants to give him as much hope as possible in a good outcome. Today, think of a soldier going AWOL or an employee simply not showing up to work one day, what will happen to them when they are persuaded to return?

    Rather than put all of his eggs into Philemon’s basket and hoping he “gets it” all by himself, Paul ensures his appeal has a better chance of his desired outcome.

    Once it is seen that the other 2 are “significant influencers” then it becomes more plausible that they are actually in ministry as leaders in the congregation, since that is what leaders are.

    • Marg says:

      I think it’s likely that Philemon, as the probable householder, was a leader of the congregation that met in his home, that Apphia was a patron/leader, and Archippus was a deacon.

      By the way, some scholars do not see Onesimus as a runaway slave, but as slave sent by Philemon’s church to help Paul. Churches frequently sent people to help Paul when he was in prison (e.g. the Philippian church sending Epaphroditus).

      Your idea about eggs sounds right.

      It is possible that the Onesimus who became bishop of Ephesus, is the same person who had been Philemon’s slave. No doubt, Paul had coached Onesimus in theology and ministry during the time they spent together.

  2. kbonikowsky says:

    The truth that Paul exposes in this letter to Philemon (and Appia) is that faith in Jesus results in an equalizing, relational status change between believers. In verse 16, Paul bluntly tells Philemon that Onesimus is no longer a slave to him, but a brother. And Paul clears up any chance of spiritualizing this family connection by saying Onesimus is a brother in the flesh and in the Lord, and juxtaposes himself and Onesimus in verse 17.

    Receiving Onesimus back as a brother is also an act that affects the welfare of not just the slave, but those around him. Paul continues to emphasize relationship over duty by employing familial terms, calling Onesimus his child, tying the slave to himself as father and the others he names as his family in the introduction. Onesimus has Paul for “father,” an “uncle” in Timothy, and a local “aunt” in Appia, as well as the others listed in the closing. Paul is adjusting the identity of this slave, connecting him to freemen and freewomen as relational equals. And as a result of this identity shift, he asserts there are familial responsibilities that result. The whole company of saints listed in this letter are called as witnesses and silent reinforcement.

    Familial love between believers compels equality and personal sacrifice. This is a subtle truth reinforced to all genders and social statuses by “carbon copying” the letter to a woman as well as men.

    Thank you for taking the time to point that out in this article!

    • Marg says:

      This is beautiful, K.

      There is a lot of love in Paul’s letter. How lovely that the slave Onesimus had Paul for a “father”! (Philm 1:10).

  3. Thanks for another meanningful lesson, Marg. You continually broaden our understanding! Blessings.

  4. Jo says:

    Really only a very minor thought among all these rich teachings and comments…..but could the 3 have been 2 brothers and a sister and, thus with 3 occupants, the house may have been large enough for the church meeting? Love all of this interesting background and the historicity! 🙂

    • Marg says:

      Traditional interpretations say that Philemon and Apphia were married and that Archippus was their son. (I suspect this interpretation has been influenced by culture rather than the Greek.)

      The Greek grammar indicates that the three are greeted individually (this is less clear in many English translations) and this seems to rule out that Philemon and Apphia were husband and wife. I think both the grammar of the greeting and the contents of the letter (with the focus on Philemon) makes it unlikely that the three were siblings living in the same household, but it is by no means impossible. 🙂

  5. I’m always interested in learning about Women during the early church and the roles they played. Nice article once again can’t wait to read more on this subject.

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