Romans 16:1-16 and Women in Ministry

phoebeThere are a lot of Christians, from Roman Catholics to Fundamentalist Baptists, who do not believe that women should be in ministry. They each have different reasons for this belief. For the Catholics, the priest stands in the place of Christ, and since Christ was a man a woman cannot be a priest. For Protestants, they try to base this belief on certain passages in the New Testament, but in order to do so they ignore other passages and do not read the ones they use in the context of the whole letters in which they are written.

Case in point is the conclusion to the Book of Romans. In sixteen verses Paul identifies ten women who are leaders in the Church. One he explicitly identifies as a deacon and one he identifies as an apostle, along with another that is known as an apostle:

I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church at Cenchreae, so that you may welcome her in the Lord as is fitting for the saints, and help her in whatever she may require from you, for she has been a benefactor of many and of myself as well. Greet Prisca and Aquila, who work with me in Christ Jesus, and who risked their necks for my life, to whom not only I give thanks, but also all the churches of the Gentiles. Greet also the church in their house. Greet my beloved Epaenetus, who was the first convert in Asia for Christ. Greet Mary, who has worked very hard among you. Greet Andronicus and Junia, my relatives who were in prison with me; they are prominent among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was. Greet Ampliatus, my beloved in the Lord. Greet Urbanus, our co-worker in Christ, and my beloved Stachys. 10 Greet Apelles, who is approved in Christ. Greet those who belong to the family of Aristobulus. 11 Greet my relative Herodion. Greet those in the Lord who belong to the family of Narcissus. 12 Greet those workers in the Lord, Tryphaena and Tryphosa. Greet the beloved Persis, who has worked hard in the Lord. 13 Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord; and greet his mother—a mother to me also. 14 Greet Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermes, Patrobas, Hermas, and the brothers and sisters who are with them. 15 Greet Philologus, Julia, Nereus and his sister, and Olympas, and all the saints who are with them. 16 Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the churches of Christ greet you.

Ever bold name is a woman. Phoebe is declared a deacon. Junia is called an apostle along with her husband Andronicus. Prisca is also an apostle along with her husband Aquila.

There are some translations of the Bible that do not call Phoebe a deacon, but merely a servant. This is the work of translators who cannot bear to have a woman explicitly called a deacon, as the word in Greek is diakon, which is the word deacon–a Greek word that translates to one who serves. In other places in the New Testament, if the text mentions men, the translators have no problem using the title in its untranslated form, deacon. Here, because it is used of a woman, the translators obscure the plan meaning that women had this leadership role as well and translate the title to its English equivalent.

Some translations of the Bible change Junia’s name to Junias, a completely made-up male version of the name. This is because the translators cannot allow a woman to have the title of apostle. Paul used the name Junia because he was speaking of a woman named Junia, not a man with a name no one in the entire history of the world had ever heard. The equivalent today of what the translators do when they change the name would be to say that someone named Sarah was really Sarah-o, a new male version of the name.

Prisca, also known as Priscilla (the difference between Anna and Annie) is the same one who met Paul and worked with him in Corinth. She is also the same one who took Apollos aside and taught him the Christian faith more clearly.

The rest of the women listed here are known to be hard workers in the Lord. Given the fact that Paul had not yet been to the Church in Rome, he either knew these women by reputation or because they had moved to Rome and were already working in the churches there. Either way, it would be difficult to assume that these women’s work is not in  helping lead the communities there. Reputations for hard work do not usually spread across an empire if that work is only setting the table and cooking food. Rather, it is because they are hard-working leaders in the Christian communities that are known around the empire to the extent that Paul uses this opportunity to identify with other ministry leaders as he is trying to introduce himself to those communities.

The next time someone suggests women ought not be in ministry, point them to Romans 16 and ask for a good explanation.

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4 thoughts on “Romans 16:1-16 and Women in Ministry

  1. Thank you for this wonderfully insightful post. I have struggled with this for many years and I am sure many women have as well. Michelle

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  2. Thank you, Free Methodist Preacher, for your good work here. I have recently taken Phoebe as one of my biblical role models. Scholars such as F.F. Bruce, Scot McNight, and Craig Keener, agree that not only was she a Deacon, she was possibly the one who delivered the Epistle to Rome. This basically means that Paul gave her Romans, this theologically complex opus of his, to take to the church in Rome. As she delivered this letter, it would have been her duty to explain it, comment on it, preach it, teach it, and give whatever interpretation might be necessary. This is an incredible charge for anyone and Paul picked one that was willing and capable of doing it….just so happened to be a female. Praise God!

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  3. Pingback: 1 Corinthians 14:32-36 and Women Speaking in Church | Free Methodist Preacher
  4. Pingback: 1 Timothy 2:11-12 and Paul’s Opinion of Women | Free Methodist Preacher

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