By Micah Kiel
(This article is the first in a yearlong series by the theology faculty of St. Ambrose University in Davenport focusing each month on a different saint or important person in the history of the faith.)
Raise your hand if you’ve heard of Epaphras. Not many have. Epaphras was an important figure in the orbit of the apostle Paul and a leader of several churches in the Roman province of Asia. Why has nobody ever heard of him? Why isn’t “Epaphras” trending among popular boys’ names?
Epaphras is mentioned in only two New Testament books: Paul’s letters to the Colossians and to Philemon. In Colossians 1:7, Paul refers to Epaphras as “our beloved fellow slave” and a “trustworthy minister of Christ.” The word “minister” here could also be translated as “deacon.” Because scholars are not sure if “deacon” was an official office in the church at this early date, most translations here use the more general word “minister.” In either case, Paul uses lofty words here to describe the importance and richness of Epaphras’ ministry.
In Colossians 4:12-13, we learn even more: “Epaphras sends you greetings; he is one of you, a slave of Christ Jesus, always striving for you in his prayers so that you may be perfect and fully assured in all the will of God. For I can testify that he works very hard for you and for those in Laodicea and those in Hierapolis.”
The most interesting part of this is the mention of two cities: Laodicea and Hierapolis. Along with Colossae, these three cities formed a sort of triangle in the ancient Lycus valley (about 200km east of Ephesus) in what today is central Turkey. Paul’s words here indicate that there were Christian communities in all three of these cities. Two verses later, Paul refers to a letter he wrote to the Laodiceans, which the Colossians were supposed to read as well. This Pauline letter is now lost to history. The church in Laodicea, likewise, is to read the letter to the Colossians. The churches in these cities, overseen by Epaphras, shared a close connection.
So, what does all this tell us about Epaphras? Unlike other locations to which Paul wrote letters (especially Philippi, Thessaloniki, and Corinth), we don’t have strong evidence that Paul visited, or spent much time, in any of these three cities. It’s likely he had been there at some point, but perhaps only briefly. Instead, Paul relies on his network of co-workers to help build up churches and to maintain their faithfulness. Here is where we can see Epaphras as an essential spoke in the building up of the first decades of Christianity. Paul writes to these communities. But a few-hundred words on a piece of parchment hardly compares to the type of day by day, week by week, work and commitment Epaphras must have shown to the churches in these three cities.
Outside of the reference to Epaphras, Paul’s letter to the Colossians is quite general. There’s not much specific to tie it to Colossae at all. This lack of specificity has led scholars to suggest Paul didn’t write it, that it was intended for a general audience of any Christian, and thus not as important as Paul’s more particular letters.
There’s a different way to read this evidence, however. Epaphras had a unique problem. He was responsible for three Christian communities that were close to each other. Indeed, he could have visited all of them in one day (with a lot of walking!). Epaphras may have been attempting to forge a common identity for these three churches, despite their particularities. Thus, the universal tone of Paul’s letter to the Colossians could be due to Epaphras’ work and influence.
Perhaps he was trying to build a group identity among churches, to get the communities in Colossae, Laodicea and Hierapolis to think of themselves as part of a bigger universal church, beyond just their local iterations. If true (and I’m speculating here), then Epaphras looked beyond local interests in one local city, thinking instead about how churches fit together. He may have been concerned to make universal what had started as local. He was, in a sense, the first catholic.
The Church has still not perfected the idea of community. Reading Colossians, which hits many of the high points of Pauline theology, such as the universality of Christ, the image of the body of Christ, and the importance of forgiveness and reconciliation, might be a good starting point for finding solutions to the ailments of our Church and society today. Epaphras’ influence might offer us a path for thinking of ourselves as part of a universal reality that transcends our particularities and builds up the body of Christ.
(Micah Kiel is a professor of theology at St. Ambrose University in Davenport.)