BIBLICAL PERSPECTIVES/"Phoebe: The Ministry of Women in the Early Church"
Wednesday, April 30, 2014 1:00 PM
Romans 16 is a chapter filled with greetings and personal commendation, and you might be tempted to think that it is somewhat extraneous in terms of giving you any profitable direction for day-to-day Christian life; and if you think that, you're wrong because there is much to learn not only from the commendation that we are going to study today but the greetings and the words of appreciation and expressions of gratitude which this chapter is filled with.
In Romans chapter 16 verses 1 and 2, Paul commends Phoebe, servant of the church in Cenchrea, the seaport of Corinth. He commends her to the Roman church. The word servant that is used for Phoebe in verse one of Romans chapter 16, in some places is translated minister in the New Testament. In other places it is translated deacon in the New Testament, and those who believe in women holding office in the church often appeal to Romans 16:1 as an example of the practice of the early church in regard to women being involved in the eldership or the deaconate.
You know, many people would say, "Why even talk about this issue? It's just not important; it's not important to the gospel." Well, let me ask you a question. Is fidelity to the word of God important to the gospel? Yes it is. Is fidelity to the word of God where the culture is pressing against us, important? Yes, it is extremely important. The real issue here is the authority of Scripture.
Let me begin with three affirmations as we tackle the subject of women in ministry in the early church. From the Bible's perspective, there is no question that women are to be involved in the ministry of the church. The only question is: how? Second affirmation. We should believe and do what the Bible says on this matter even if it is uncomfortable and is politically incorrect. Third affirmation. There is no way I can answer all of your questions on this subject in one article.
Paul's words of recommendation regarding Phoebe totally dispel the myth of "Paul the misogynist."
First, I want you to see Paul's commendation of Phoebe to the Roman church and then in verse two, I want you to see what he asks the Roman church to do for Phoebe. In verse one Paul says, "I commend to you our sister Phoebe, who is a servant of the church which is at Cenchrea." Why is Paul commending this person to the church in Rome? The background of verse one is the fact that in the Mediterranean world, as you traveled from place to place, and especially when you were sent on an errand of some importance, you often brought with you a letter of commendation from the people who were sending you.
By reading between the lines, we can learn three or four things about Phoebe. First of all, it is very probable that Phoebe is the one who is carrying this letter-this letter from Paul to the Romans. Why else would Paul have commended her to the church at Rome unless she was on an errand of great significance for Paul to the Roman church?
Secondly, it is very probable that Phoebe was a Gentile woman, maybe even a freed servant. Phoebe's name derives from pagan Greco-Roman mythology. It was common for masters to name their servant this name in Phoebe's time, and it is unlikely that a Jewish family would have named their daughter after a Greco-Roman mythological figure because of fidelity to the one true God; and so, it is very likely that Phoebe was a Gentile Christian.
Thirdly, it is also very likely that she was a very wealthy businesswoman not unlike Lydia in Acts 16. She is on a visit to Rome and Paul doesn't tell us who those are who are with her. If she had been accompanied by a number of other members in the church, surely Paul at this time would have mentioned them. She is apparently on a business trip to Rome with her own retinue and on this occasion she brings the letter of Paul to the Romans.
Fourthly, we find out in verse two that she was the patroness, or helper, of the Cenchrean church. Paul says, if you'll look at verse two, that she has been a "helper of many." Now that word helper literally means patron. It indicates that she had means at her disposal and she used those means for the edification of the local church. She was a patroness supporting the local church.
Now Phoebe is called a servant here, and the term servant is literally diakanos. Deacon she is called. Paul has a high esteem for Phoebe and he gives her this title, servant of the church, and that title is the standard title and role for every Christian in the New Testament. Jesus is called servant, his apostles are called servants, elders are called servants, deacons are called servants, and congregation members are called servants in the Christian church because our whole business in the Christian church is mutual edification and that means denying ourselves and ministering to one another with preference over ourselves.
This dispels the myth of Paul the woman hater, the misogynist, the man who just can't stand women. Here he is commending this godly woman, Phoebe, to the church. It's not going to be the last time he commends a woman in this chapter. In fact, this is not going to be the only place in the New Testament in which Paul expresses his profound appreciation for the ministry of women in the life of local congregations. Doesn't this show that Paul is a person fully capable of fully appreciating the ministry of women in the church? This chapter shows us something of the heart of Paul in his appreciation of the important role of women in the local congregation.
Paul clearly acknowledges the substantive help that Phoebe has provided to the Church and to himself.
In verse two Paul enjoins the Roman church here to show hospitality and to give help to Phoebe. He clearly acknowledges the substantive help that Phoebe has given the church back in the seaport of Corinth, and now he asks Rome to give her substantive help. If you look at verse two, Paul calls on the Roman Christians to do two things: to receive Phoebe and to help her. When he calls on the Romans Christians to receive her, he is asking them to show hospitality to her. He tells them that they are to do this Christianly and he uses two phrases to emphasize this: Receive her. How? In the Lord and in a manner worthy of the saints. Christian hospitality is born out of the fact that we are united to Christ and that all who are united to Christ are united to one another.
When he asks them to help her he means for them to give tangible aid and assistance to her. She has helped the church; he wants the church to help her. Again, there can be no doubt as to Paul's evaluation of the importance of godly feminine contribution to the ministry of the early church.
Furthermore, in verse two, we see this emphasis on hospitality. Paul is very concerned that the Christian church shows radical Christian hospitality. That emphasis was a mark of the early Christian churches and it needs to be a mark of our churches as well-not simply a cultural manifestation, but something which is deliberately derived from and driven by the gospel and our grasp of the gospel.
The Rev. Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III is Chancellor and CEO of Reformed Theological Seminary. He can be reached at 601-923-1600 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.