“Believing wife” or “sister-woman”?
Don’t we have the right to take a believing wife along with us, as do the other apostles and the Lord’s brothers and Cephas? 1 Corinthians 9:5 NIV
A common understanding of Paul’s question in 1 Corinthians 9:5 is that, in New Testament times, some wives travelled with their husbands who were involved in Christian missionary work.
We know that Peter (also known as Cephas) was married because we are told that he had a mother-in-law (Matt. 8:14ff). From 1 Corinthians 9:5 it appears that Peter’s wife travelled with him during apostolic missions. However “believing wife” is just one possible translation, albeit a common one, of the Greek words adelphē gunē used in this verse. There are other possible translations.
Adelphē typically means “sister”. It can refer to a biological sister, as in the case of Mary and Martha (Luke 10:40). Or it can refer to a sister in the Christian faith, that is, a believing woman (Matt. 12:50). Gunē means either “woman” or “wife” depending on the context. The KJV translates adelphē gunē in 1 Cor. 9:5 literally as “a sister, a wife”.
So what exactly was Paul referring to with his expression of adelphē gunē?
In 1 Corinthians 9:5 Paul poses a rhetorical question concerning his apostleship and asks whether he has the right to take an adelphē gunē with him on his missionary travels. It is assumed that Paul was not married at the time of his apostolic ministry, so it is unlikely that Paul is asking whether he can bring a believing wife along on his journeys.
Paul may not have had a wife, but he did have many female co-workers in ministry. For example, Euodia and Syntyche worked with Paul for the gospel (Phil. 4:2-3). And Priscilla and her husband Aquila traveled and ministered with Paul (Acts 18:18 cf Romans 16:3-4). Moreover, Paul refers to Phoebe (Rom. 16:1-2) and to Apphia (Phm 1:2) as “sisters”.
Paul may have had these “sister-women”, or female co-workers, in mind when he asked his rhetorical question. Clement of Alexandria had this same understanding of 1 Corinthians 9:5 when he wrote:
But the [apostles], in accordance with their ministry, devoted themselves to preaching without any distraction, and took women with them, not as wives, but as sisters, that they might be their co-ministers (sundiakonoi) in dealing with women in their homes. It was through them that the Lord’s teaching penetrated also the women’s quarters without any scandal being aroused.
Clement of Alexandria (150-215) Stromata Book 3, chapter 6, 53. Quoted by John Wijngaards in The Ordained Women Deacons of the Church’s First Millennium (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2002, 2011) 15.
Clement of Alexandria refers to the women not merely as companions but as the co-ministers of the apostles. These women were colleagues of the apostles and they played a crucial, and a sometimes a difficult and dangerous role, in taking the Lord’s teaching into new territory.
In places that were influenced more by Greek culture than by Roman culture, Christian women were needed to minister to women, especially widows, who lived relatively secluded lives. Women who lived in Romanised towns and cities such as Philippi, Corinth, and Ephesus, however, had more social freedoms and could attend and participate in church meetings.
The Lord’s Teaching
There is plenty of evidence that women were teachers and baptizers of women in the early church. Grapte was a female teacher mentioned in one of the visions recorded in The Shepherd of Hermas. In Visions 2.4.2, Hermas is asked by an old woman (previously identified as the Church) as to whether he has already given a certain book to the elders. Hermas replies that he hasn’t. The old woman is pleased with this reply because she wants to add more words to the book. The old woman tells Hermas,
So when I finish all the words, they will be made known to all the elect through you. Therefore you will write two little books, and you will send one to Clement and one to Grapte. Then Clement will send it to the cities abroad, because that is his job. But Grapte will instruct (noutheteō) the widows and orphans. But you yourself will read it to this city, along with the elders who preside over the church.
Vision 2.4.2-3, Shepherd of Hermas 8:2-3, The Apostolic Fathers, The Greek Texts and English Translations (3rd edition) edited and translated by Michael W. Holmes (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007) 469.
Grapte was most likely a real woman (just as Clement was a real man, probably the bishop of Rome) even though we only know of her through this vision.
In the vision, Grapte and Clement were to be given a copy of the same book. The contents of the book were to be taught by Grapte, distributed by Clement, and read by Hermas and the elders. Grapte is identified as a Christian teacher, seemingly on par with the men mentioned here, and she was responsible for the doctrinal “instruction and the spiritual development of an identifiable group of widows and their children” in the church. While this passage is about a vision, something unreal, it does reveal some of the realities of early church life, namely, that some teachers were women.
Women teachers like Grapte cannot be compared to the older women in Crete who are mentioned in Titus 2:3ff. There is no indication that these older women were directly involved in missionary work or in teaching Christian doctrine. Rather, they were simply instructed to uphold the gender expectations of their Hellenised (Greek-influenced) culture for the sake of good name of the gospel.
The early church, just like the church today, had varied views and varied practises concerning women in ministry. In some churches, such as the church at Corinth, women and men contributed to the meetings regardless of gender. These contributions included prophecy and teaching, etc. In the early days of the church some house churches were even led by women.
The women who accompanied the apostles were involved in missionary work which involved teaching doctrine and sometimes performing baptisms. Other women, like Grapte, taught local church members. While these women do not serve as examples of women who ministered to congregations which included men, they do serve as examples of women involved in the vital, valuable, and serious ministry of teaching Christian doctrine and theology to women.
 It was highly unusual for Jewish men to be unmarried, especially devout Pharisees as Paul had been. Perhaps Paul was a widower. Or perhaps his Jewish wife had separated after Paul’s conversion to Christianity. Supporting these ideas is 1 Corinthians 7:8 where Paul identifies himself as someone who was unmarried (agamos); he does not identify as a virgin (parthenos). Then again, perhaps, like Jesus, Paul never married. Paul converted to Christianity and was commissioned as an apostle to the gentiles at relatively a young age (Acts 7:58 cf Acts 9:1ff). Considering his calling, Paul may have judged it unwise to get married.
 The Shepherd of Hermas was written in the first or early second century and is included in the works of the Apostolic Fathers. Its use was widespread among orthodox Christians in the second and third centuries, and was considered authoritative. I dislike some of the concepts of the Shepherd and am grateful it was not included in the canon of Scripture. While this work is not included in the Bible it does give us insight into Christian thought and customs in the post-apostolic period.
 Noutheteō is used 8 times in the New Testament. It means to instruct, exhort, or admonish. The word was used by Paul in reference to his own apostolic teaching ministry (Acts 20:31; 1 Cor. 4:14; 1 Thess. 5:12, 14; Col. 1:28). It was also used by Paul in reference to instruction and admonition by others in the church (Rom. 15:14; 1 Thess. 5:12, 14; 2 Thess. 3:15; Col. 3:16).
 Kevin Madigan and Carolyn Osiek (editors and translators), Ordained Women in the Early Church: A Documentary History (Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 2005) 26.
 New Testament women who hosted and led house churches include Nympha (Col. 4:15), Priscilla with Aquila (1 Cor. 16:19), the “Chosen Lady” (2 John 1:1ff), probably Lydia (Acts 16:40), Euodia and Syntyche (Phil. 4:2-3), and possibly Chloe (1 Cor. 1:11).
Image: Fresco of a young Roman woman with a stylus and book, Pompeii, 55-79 A.D.
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