by Gordon Franz
Sometimes I will see this little ditty on the marquee of a church: “The family that prays together – stays together.” There is a lot of truth to that statement. I suspect that it was true of the household of Stephanas. Not only did they pray together, but they also poured their lives into serving the church at Corinth together.
Stephanas and his household are mentioned in only two passages in Paul’s first epistle to the church at Corinth (1 Cor. 1:16; 16:15-18), and a member of the family is hinted at in one verse in the book of Romans (16:5b). Yet these passages tell us quite a bit about this active family in the city of Corinth. Probably no family in the Early Church did more for the Apostle Paul and their local church than this family, yet they were not fully appreciated for the work that they were doing among the saints at Corinth. The lack of appreciation, I would like to suggest, was due to the Corinthians’ prejudice against non-Corinthians within the church. Paul appealed to the believers in the church at Corinth to give them due recognition.
In the local church, have you ever observed that there are two kinds of people: those who are living only for themselves and their ambitions and agendas and those who are selflessly serving others, expecting nothing in return? Have you observed those who are always suspicious of “outsiders” and those people who are not quite like them; versus those who wholeheartedly welcome anybody and everybody who walks through the front door? If so, you are not the first and you won’t be the last. Because we all have a sin nature, people have not changed over the millennia. Our sin nature creates the same problems in churches today that the Apostle Paul saw and addressed in his day. By examining the way the Apostle Paul understood, addressed, and resolved similar problems in the Church’s earliest days, we can bring timeless Biblical wisdom and truths to our own church problems.
In this study, the self-centeredness of the Corinthian believers will be examined (Paul calls it carnality), and we will ask why it was difficult for the Corinthian church to accept the selflessness of the household of Stephanas, who were not originally from Corinth, and what the solution is to this problem.
Textual, Geographical, and Chronological Problems
At the outset of this study, there is a textual problem that must be addressed. This textual problem has led to a misunderstanding of the geography of the narratives. First Corinthians 16:15 states: “I urge you, brethren – you know the household of Stephanas, that it is the firstfruits of Achaia” (NKJV, NASB, NIV). In Romans 16:5 it states: “Greet my beloved Epaenetus, who is the firstfruits of Achaia to Christ” (KJV, NKJV). The Westcott–Hort tradition states that Epaenetus was the firstfruits of Asia (RSV, NASB, NIV).
It can be suggested that an early copyist saw an apparent conflict between these two texts and wondered how Epaenetus and the household of Stephanas could both be the firstfruits of Achaia. This “problem” was resolved by emending the text in Romans 16 to read that Epaenetus was from “Asia” [Asia Minor is western Turkey today], because 1 Corinthians is clear that the household of Stephanas was from Corinth, the capital of the Roman province of Achaia.
The statement that the household of Stephanas was the firstfruits of Achaia (1 Cor. 16:15) also raises a potential geographical and chronological problem. The household of Stephanas was ministering in Corinth, yet Paul had already led some people to the Lord in Athens (Acts 17:34), which was also part of Achaia. How could the household of Stephanas be the firstfruits of Achaia if Paul has already led people to the Lord in Athens?
I would like to suggest that Epaenetus was a slave, a freedman, or a son within the household of Stephanas. This family originally lived in Athens where Paul first led Epaenetus to the Lord and then eventually the rest of the family. The entire household was baptized in Athens and later moved to Corinth to be involved in the work of the Lord in that city. This view is consistent with all the Biblical, geographical, and chronological data and there would be no need to emend the text in Romans 16 (Lenski 1963:47-48; Hiebert 1992:203).
Achaia in the First Century AD
Epaenetus and the household of Stephanas are both called the “firstfruits of Achaia.” It would be helpful to discuss the historical geographical background to Achaia in order to understand this phrase.
During the Classical period, Achaia was restricted to the northern part of the Peloponnesus, along the southern coast of the Gulf of Corinth (Pausanias, 1995:5:Plate 7). When the Apostle Paul and Dr. Luke wrote about Achaia in the first century AD, they were referring to the Roman senatorial province of Achaia, which was a much larger area than the Achaia of the Classical period (Acts 18:12,27; 19:21; Rom. 15:26; 16:5; 1 Cor. 16:15; 2 Cor. 1:1; 7:5; 9:2; 11:10; 1 Thess. 1:7,8).
In 46 BC, Julius Caesar began to rebuild the ruined city of Corinth into a Roman colony. In 27 BC, his successor, Octavian (known as Caesar Augustus in the Gospel of Luke), separated Macedonia (Northern Greece) from Achaia and made Corinth the capital of the Roman province of Achaia. The province of Achaia consisted of the Peloponnese, Central Greece (including Athens), and possibly Thessaly and Epirus. In AD 15, Emperor Tiberius took Macedonia and Achaia away from the Roman Senate and joined it with Moesia (today, northeastern Bulgaria) under the rule of a legate. Emperor Claudius restored both of these provinces back to the Roman Senate in either AD 41 or 44 (Suetonius, Deified Claudius 25:3; LCL 2:51). “By AD 65 the provinces of Thessaly and Epirus were clearly defined and constituted Achaia’s northern border; Actium and the coastal territory to its immediate south, became part of Epirus” (Pattengale 1992:1:53). Thus, the area of modern Greece was known as “Macedonia and Achaia” in part of the first century AD (Acts 19:21; Rom. 15:26; 1 Thess. 1:8).
During Paul’s second missionary journey in AD 50, he visited the Roman senatorial province of Macedonia. When he left Berea by ship, he was departing from the province of Macedonia. When he disembarked from that ship in Athens, he was in the province of Achaia.
The Household of Stephanas – the Firstfruits of Achaia – 1 Cor. 16:15
When Paul visited a new city, his practice was always to seek out the synagogue of the Jewish community in order to share the gospel with them. He would then proclaim the gospel to the pagans in the agora, or marketplace (Acts 17:17; cf. Rom. 1:16). Based on hints in the Scriptures, I suspect, but cannot conclusively prove, that Epaenetus was part of the household of Stephanas, either as a son, freedman, or a servant, and the family was of Jewish heritage. This suggestion is consistent with the passages in 1 Cor. 1 and 16, as well as Romans 16.
If my suspicion is correct, more than likely Paul met Epaenetus in the synagogue of Athens and shared with him the good news of the gospel. Paul would have showed Epaenetus from the Hebrew Scriptures that the Lord Jesus was the fulfillment of the Messianic passages in his Bible (Gen. 3:15; Ps. 16:8-11; 22; Isa. 7:14; 9:6; 52:13-53:12; Dan. 9:24-27; Micah 5:2). Once this fact was established, Paul would have gone on to share the reason why the Lord Jesus came to earth. As God manifest in human flesh, the Lord Jesus died on the cross of Calvary to pay for all of Epaenetus’ sins and three days later He was raised from the dead.
As Epaenetus listened to the apostle, the Spirit of God convicted him of his sin of unbelief (John 16:7-11). He realized that his righteousness in the sight of a Holy God was like filthy rags (Isa. 64:6). He also knew that he was a sinner because Isaiah said, “all we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned, every one, to his own way; and the LORD has laid on Him the iniquity of us all” (53:6).
Paul carefully pointed out that a sinner is justified (the act of God whereby He declares a sinner righteous) by faith alone in the Lord Jesus and not by any works or merits of his own. He invoked Abraham, the father of the Hebrew nation, who believed that God would send a Sin-bearer to take away his sins and trusted Him to do just that. God declared him righteous because of his faith alone (Gen. 15:6; cf. Rom. 4:1-3). King David, after the Law was given, was declared righteous the same way: by grace through faith in a coming Messiah (Ps. 32:1-2; cf. Rom. 4:4-8).
Paul led Epaenetus to faith in the Lord Jesus as his Messiah and Savior. The joy of sins forgiven, a home in heaven and the righteousness of God freely given to him by grace through faith alone in the Lord Jesus (Phil. 3:9) was more that he could contain. He in turn shared this wonderful gospel, along with his new found mentor, the Apostle Paul, with the rest of those in his household, and they too came to faith. These were Paul’s first converts in the Province of Achaia, and they were subsequently baptized, probably in Athens.
After the Apostle Paul’s defense before the Areopagus, he departed Athens for Corinth. In this city, he met Aquila and Priscilla, exiles from Rome, who apparently had an assembly, possibly started by Peter, meeting in their home in Corinth. Paul joined forces with them in the work of the gospel, but also worked with them in their mutual occupation: tentmakers. Silas and Timothy later joined them in the work of the gospel. Paul, Timothy, and Silas ministered in the city for a year and a half (AD 50-52; cf. Acts 18:11). Sometime after this, Stephanas and his household moved to Corinth and got involved in the work of the Lord in that city. The timing and circumstances of this move are unclear because the Scriptures are silent on this issue.
The Baptism of the Household of Stephanas – 1 Cor. 1:14-17
In the winter of AD 55-56, during Paul’s third missionary journey and six years after Paul began his Corinthian ministry, Paul wrote a letter to the church in Corinth from Ephesus. Some visitors from Corinth, mainly those of the household of Chloe, had told him that there were contentions and divisions within the church of Corinth (1 Cor. 1:10-11). This division was now confirmed by a letter from the church at Corinth that was carried by Stephanas and two other delegates from the church (1 Cor. 16:17). It should not be surprising that the Apostle Paul heard from different believers in Corinth; the maritime lines of communication between the two cities were direct and regular.
The division in the church was over personalities who had ministered in the church within the last six to fifteen years. Some believers were followers of the Apostle Paul, others of the eloquent Alexandrian Apollos, others of the Apostle Peter, and the really pious ones were followers of Jesus (1:12).
Paul wrote to the divided church at Corinth: “I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, lest anyone should say that I had baptize in my own name. Yes, I also baptized the household of Stephanas. Besides, I do not know whether I baptized any other. For Christ did not send me to baptized, but to preach the gospel, not with wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be made of no effect” (1:14-17).
Paul stated that he “baptized none of you [Corinthians] except Crispus and Gaius.” Crispus was the ruler of the synagogue who came to faith in the Lord Jesus (Acts 18:8). Gaius was an individual who later would be Paul’s host and a patron of the church at Corinth (Rom. 16:23). The implication of this verse is that these two believers were the only ones he baptized in Corinth. Once the local church was established in Corinth, Paul moved out of the way and let the local leadership take over the ordinance of baptism, which is a function of the elders in the local church.
Paul then adds, almost as an afterthought, that he “also baptized the household of Stephanas.” Paul does not include the household among the Corinthians. Thus it could be assumed that they were baptized elsewhere, most likely in Athens. I can just imagine Stephanas looking over Paul’s shoulders as he penned these words: “Don’t forget us! We were your firstfruits in Achaia.” (1 Cor. 1:16).
The ordinance of baptism has nothing to do with one’s salvation. The salvation of an individual is determined when a person puts his or her trust in the Lord Jesus Christ and Him alone as his or her Savior. Baptism is an outward testimony before the local church to the changed life of the new believer (1:17). It is also a testimony to the unsaved in the local community and provides an opportunity for both courage and accountability of the one being baptized.
The Ministry of the Household of Stephanas in Corinth – 1 Cor. 16:15-18
The Apostle Paul concludes this epistle with the usual salutations, greetings and exhortations. He writes of the household of Stephanas: “I urge you, brethren – you know the household of Stephanas, that it is the firstfruits of Achaia, and that they have devoted themselves to the ministry of the saints – that you also submit to such, and to everyone who works and labors with us. I am glad about the coming of Stephanas, Fortunatus, and Achaicus, for what was lacking on your part they supplied. For they refreshed my spirit and yours. Therefore acknowledge such men” (1 Cor. 16:15-18).
Paul reminds the believers in Corinth about two things that were unique to the family of Stephanas. First, they were the firstfruits of Achaia. This was an honor that could never be taken away from this family. Others would follow, but they would always be known as the first.
The second thing Paul reminds the Corinthian believers about is that the household of Stephanas devoted themselves to the ministry of the saints. In verse 14, Paul had mentioned: “Let all that you do be done with love” (cf. 1 Cor. 13). He then mentions the household of Stephanas, which exemplified the principle of doing all things in love because they devoted themselves to the ministry of the saints (16:15). Lenski suggests that this family rendered their service of their “own accord with an eye only to the benefit resulting for others” (1963:777). That was Biblical love, seeking the best for the one being ministered to. This love was a self-imposed obsession of this Athenian family that apparently had the financial means to minister to the needs of others, and they voluntarily jumped right into the Lord’s work when they arrived in Corinth.
We are not told what the ministry of the saints was. There are several possibilities. It could be hospitality to the saints, possibly a food kitchen to help the poor and needy believers. They could have opened their home for the church to meet in or hosted traveling preachers and apostles. It could also be a spiritual ministry such as teaching the Word of God. It is interesting to note that, unlike the household of Onesiphorus (2 Tim. 1:16), Paul does not say he was the beneficiary of the household of Stephanas’ ministry to the saints. This lack of personal ministry might suggest that the family arrived in Corinth after Paul left for Ephesus (Acts 18:18-19). Perhaps Paul did not specifically state what their ministry was so that future believers could draw broad applications to their own work.
The household of Stephanas, being filled with the Spirit of God, was submitting to the leadership in the church of Corinth (Eph. 5:18-21). Paul had to admonish the church of their reciprocal duty: “you also submit to such” (1 Cor. 16:16) who work and labor for the Lord. The household of Stephanas worked together and took the difficult tasks in their ministry for the Lord in Corinth.
Apparently the Corinthian believers were suspicious of this family and their motives for coming to Corinth to work because they were Athenians and not Corinthians. The apostle Paul had to admonish the Corinthian believers to submit to those who labor in the Lord’s work (16:16). By implication, he is commanding them to submit to those in the household of Stephanas who are in leadership positions because of their works and appointments. Paul had also admonished the Thessalonian believers: “And we urge you, brethren, to recognize those who labor among you, and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love for their work’s sake. Be at peace among yourselves” (1 Thess. 5:12-13).
Clement of Rome, a bishop (or elder) in Rome at the end of the first century AD, penned an epistle to the church in Corinth. Whereas this epistle is not inspired of the Holy Spirit, it is instructive to the saints. He wrote: “They [the apostles] preached from district to district, and from city to city. And they appointed their first converts, testing them by the Spirit, to be bishops [episkopos] and deacons of the future believers. And this was no new method, for many years before had bishops and deacons been written of; for the scripture says thus in one place ‘I will establish their bishops in righteousness, and their deacons in faith’” (Clement of Rome, 1 Clement 42:4, 5; LCL 1:81). The word that is translated “bishop” in this passage is the same word for the office of elder in the New Testament (Acts 20:28; Phil. 1:1; I Tim. 3:2; Tit. 1:7). Apparently it was the practice in the early church for the apostles to appoint the firstfruits of their converts as elders and deacons in the churches after they were tested by the Holy Spirit. This would suggest that Paul appointed at least Stephanas as one of the elders in the church of Corinth soon after he arrived in the city even though he was originally from Athens. The Corinthians would be suspicious of him and perhaps wonder what his motive was for coming to Corinth.
The Apostle Paul rejoiced in the delegation that came from Corinth to visit him in Ephesus. It included Stephanas, Fortunatus, and Achaicus (16:17; most likely the “brethren” in 16:12). Stephanas was the head of the household and he apparently brought two of his slaves or freedmen, Fortunatus and Achaicus, with him. Fortunatus’ name, commonly given to a Roman slave, has at its Latin root, “blessed,” “fortune,” or “good luck.” His nickname today would be Lucky, a name you would give to a dog, but not to your child! Achaicus was named after the province of Achaia.
The delegation from Corinth supplied to Paul what was lacking in this situation: the Corinthian believers themselves (16:17). Paul’s desire was to be able to talk with the church directly, rather than have to write a letter to them, but the delegation was the next best thing. “They supplied” has the idea of filling a cup full of liquid. Paul was able to talk with the delegation, ask questions, and find out exactly what the problems were so he could address these issues in a letter and give the delegation verbal counsel to take back to the church. This visit refreshed Paul’s spirit as well as the Corinthian believers because they would be the beneficiary of Paul’s counsel (16:18, cf. 2 Cor. 7:13; Philemon 7 and 20).
Paul commands the church to acknowledge, or recognize, this delegation made up of the household of Stephanas because they served the saints (16:16) and also refreshed the saints at Corinth (16:18). Their suspicions about the household’s motives for serving them should be put aside and credit should be given where credit was due.
The Training of a Member of the Household of Stephanas – Romans 16:5b
Paul described Epaenetus as “beloved” and the “firstfruits of Achaia” (Rom. 16:5). Apparently he was a son, servant, or freedman in the Jewish household of Stephanas that Paul led to the Lord in Athens and described him as part of the “first fruits of Achaia” (1 Cor. 16:15). For the next eighteen months in Corinth, Paul, Silas, and Timothy committed the Word of God to Epaenetus as a “faithful man” so that he could teach others the Scriptures (2 Tim. 2:2).
Nine years later Epaenetus is greeted by Paul when he writes to the church in Rome (AD 58). How did Epaenetus get to Rome? One possible conjecture as to how he got to the Eternal City is that when Aquila and Priscilla returned to Rome from Ephesus after the death of Emperor Claudius, they went via Corinth and invited Epaenetus to join them in the work in Rome. If Epaenetus were a son or a freedman in the household of Stephanas, then he would have had no problem leaving Corinth. But if he were a servant in the household of Stephanas, he would have had to have been freed by his master before he went to Rome as a freedman.
In Romans 16, Epaenetus is greeted right after Aquila and Priscilla which suggests that they might be ministering together in the same assembly in Rome that met in the house of Aquila and Priscilla, which, according to tradition, is located on the Aventine Hill (16:3-5).
The word greet in Romans 16 has the idea of giving a big bear hug to the one being greeted. In the epistle to the Romans, the apostle addresses the division that was in the churches of Rome. The division was along ethnic (Jews vs. Gentiles), gender (male vs. female) and economic (slave vs. free) lines. This issue was addressed by the apostle in an earlier epistle (cf. Gal. 3:26-29).
It is very telling that, nine years later, Paul was still in contact with his convert and disciple.
Lessons from the Lives of the Household of Stephanas
There are at least four lessons that can be drawn from the lives and ministry of the household of Stephanas.
First, it does not make any difference what our economic status is; we should all be involved in the work of the Lord in our local assembly. Paul writes that not many noble are called to the service of the Lord (1 Cor. 1:26-29), but there are some exceptions and they were greatly used of the Lord (Meeks 1983: 57-58). In the Corinthian church there was Crispus, the former ruler of the synagogue; Gaius, apparently a well-to-do individual who became the patron of one of the churches in the city; and Erastus, who was the treasurer of the city (Rom. 16:23). The household of Stephanas could be added to this list of the mighty as well.
Second, the household of Stephanas were obsessed with getting involved in the work of the Lord and poured themselves into the ministry. They took to heart the words of the Lord Jesus in His parable about the servants (Luke 12:41-48). Jesus said, “For everyone to whom much is given, from him much will be required” (12:48). The Lord apparently had blessed this family in a material way, and they were good stewards of the wealth that they had. Stephanas, as the head of the household, had a concern for the spiritual oversight of his family and saw to it that they were all involved in the work of ministering to the saints.
The third lesson we can learn from this family applies to the church. The church should be willing to accept outsiders and make them welcome in the assembly, even if they are “different” than most in the meeting, especially those who want to be involved in the work of the Lord and who are doctrinally sound and walking with the Lord. The household of Stephanas was apparently Athenian Jewish believers in the Lord Jesus. They were different than the Corinthians. Paul said to acknowledge them and the work they are doing. A practical suggestion would be to have an “appreciation day” for those who labor in the church. Perhaps an appreciation dinner for the Sunday School teachers or others who are involved in various ministries.
The final lesson to be learned is the importance of follow-up and discipleship in the lives of new believers. The Apostle Paul demonstrated the importance of follow-up in the life of Epaenetus. I am sure he prayed for him on a regular basis and had personal contact with him over the years.
The household of Stephanas may not have been appreciated by their adopted church, but Paul appreciated their labor for the Lord and wanted others to do so as well.
Allworthy, T. B.
1916 Epaenetus. Pp. 341-342 in Dictionary of the Apostolic Church. Vol. 1. Edited by J. Hastings. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.
Clement of Rome
1985 I Clement in Apostolic Fathers. Vol. 1. Trans. by K. Lake. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University. Loeb Classical Library 24.
1992a Achaicus. Pp. 53-44 in Anchor Bible Dictionary. Vol. 1. Edited by D. N. Freedman. New York: Doubleday.
1992b Fortunatus. Pp. 852-853 in Anchor Bible Dictionary. Vol. 2. Edited by D. N. Freedman. New York: Doubleday.
1992c Stephanas. Pp. 206-207 in Anchor Bible Dictionary. Vol. 6. Edited by D. N. Freedman. New York: Doubleday.
Hiebert, D. Edmond
1992 In Paul’s Shadow. Friends and Foes of the Great Apostle. Greenville, SC: Bob Jones University.
1992 Epaenetus. P. 532 in Anchor Bible Dictionary. Vol. 2. Edited by D. N. Freedman. New York: Doubleday.
Lenski, R. C. H.
1961 The Interpretation of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg.
1963 The Interpretation of I and II Corinthians. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg.
1983 The First Urban Christians. The Social World of the Apostle Paul. New Haven, CT: Uale University.
1992 Achaia. P. 53 in Anchor Bible Dictionary. Vol. 1. Edited by D. N. Freedman. New York: Doubleday.
1988 Description of Greece. Books 6-8. Vol. 3. Trans. by W. H. S. Jones. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University. Loeb Classical Library 272.
1995 Description of Greece. Illustrations and Index. Vol. 5. Edited by R. E. Wycherley. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University. Loeb Classical Library 298.
Roberts, J. E.
1916 Fortunatus. P. 418 in Dictionary of the Apostolic Church. Vol. 1. Edited by J. Hastings. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.
1918 Stephanas. P. 525 in Dictionary of the Apostolic Church. Vol. 2. Edited by J. Hastings. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.
1992 Lives of the Caesars. Deified Claudius. Vol. 2. Trans. by J. C. Rolfe. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University. Loeb Classical Library 11.
Revised: June 6, 2010