Why I Believe in Women in Ministry: Part 20 (Gupta)

Recommended Reading on Women in Ministry

Recent books and classic works worth consulting. [* = Highly recommended]

Non-Technical Books

(suitable for laypeople and readers with little or no theological education)

*James Beck and Craig Blomberg, ed. Two Views on Women in Ministry (Zondervan, 2005).

A helpful counterpoint perspective with multiple contributors.

Michael F. Bird, Bourgeois Babes, Bossy Wives, and Bobby Haircuts: A Case for Gender Equality in Ministry (Zondervan, 2011, Kindle only)

In this short book, Bird gives his take on the issues; he points out non sequiturs in complementarian approaches and the dangers of overinterpretation.

Michelle Lee-Barnewall, Neither Complementarian nor Egalitarian (Baker, 2016)

Lee-Barnewall notes how current conversations can be very individualistic, but God’s vision for the church (and its leadership) requires re-centering on the kingdom and the gospel as a people together.

Cohick.jpg*Lynn Cohick. Women in the World of the Earliest Christians (Baker, 2009).

Cohick is an expert in the lives of women in everyday life in the Roman world, and sheds light on the lives of early Christian women.

Mark Husbands and Timothy Larsen, ed. Women, Ministry, and the Gospel: Exploring New Paradigms (IVP, 2007). 

This book comes out of a Wheaton conference and brings diverse voices together for cooperative discussion on “new paradigms” or new paths forward.

*Alan F. Johnson, ed. How I Changed My Mind about Women in Leadership (Zondervan, 2010).

I love this book b/c too often people make this a conservative (=complementarian) vs. liberal (=egalitarian) issue; but all of these conservative evangelicals in this book talk about how they changed their mind towards supporting women in ministry, while maintaining a high view of Scripture and theological orthodoxy.

Catherine Kroeger and Mary J. Evans, ed. The IVP Women’s Bible Commentary (IVP, 2002).

800+ pages; a multi-contributor commentary on the whole Bible which takes a special interest in the perspectives, lives, and experiences of women. A great resource!

Scot McKnight, Junia is Not Alone (Zondervan, 2011, Kindle only)

McKnight’s short articulation of his approach to women in ministry. Concise, clear, and compelling.

Lucy Peppiatt, Unveiling Paul’s Women: Making Sense of 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 (Cascade, 2018, Kindle only). 

*Lucy Peppiatt, Rediscovering Scripture’s Vision for Women (IVP, 2019, forthcoming).

Peppiatt is quickly becoming a major voice in this subject matter. She has some fresh readings of Pauline texts (obviously 1 Cor 11 is a major focus), but her forthcoming book from IVP articulates a more comprehensive reading of Women in Scripture.

Barbara E. Reid, Wisdom’s Feast: An Invitation to Feminist Interpretation of the Scriptures (Eerdmans, 2016).

I used to think “feminist” was a bad word. Reid changed my mind and helped me see the deep value of this perspective.

F. Scott Spencer, Salty Wives, Spirited Mothers, and Savvy Widows: Capable Women of Purpose and Persistence in Luke’s Gospel (Eerdmans, 2012).

This is a remarkable book on the Gospel of Luke. If you read this book, Luke will never be the same. Spencer especially drew my attention to the beauty and importance of Mary’s Magnificat.

*Derek and Dianne Tidball, The Message of Women (IVP, 2014).Tidball.jpg

If you want to recommend something to your friends that is very evangelical-friendly, simple to understand, and compelling, the Tidballs offer a winsome vision for embracing women and men together in ministry and life.

 

Technical Books

(advanced reading that requires knowledge of Greek and some theological education)

*Richard Bauckham, Gospel Women

When I was at Gordon-Conwell, Bauckham’s influence and status were on the rise. He is considered one of the most weighty NT scholars in the world. So when he did the spadework on the women in the Gospels, I was hooked. READ THIS BOOK!

*Eldon J. Epp. Junia: The First Woman Apostle (Fortress, 2005).

Eldon definitively proves that Junia is a woman, and also gives strong evidence in favor of her as an apostle.

Philip Barton Payne. Man and Woman, One in Christ (Zondervan, 2009).

At 500+ pages, PBP’s work is a rather comprehensive treatment of problem texts in Paul.

*Ronald Pierce, Rebecca Merrill Groothius, and Gordon Fee, Discovering Biblical Equality.

This book was a bombshell for me. Here, all in one place, several expert scholars tackled virtually all of the tough issues related to women in marriage and ministry. Even today, there is nothing that compares in size and scope to DBE! I was especially attracted to Howard Marshall’s essay on the Household Codes. I still refer to back to that today when I teach or write on Col/Eph.

Paul and Gender*Cynthia Long Westfall, Paul and Gender (Baker, 2016).

Westfall has written a well-rounded book, methodologically rigorous, meticulously researched, loaded with new insights; her work on 1 Timothy 2 is especially good.

 

 

 

 

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Why I Believe in Women in Ministry: Part 19 (Gupta)

Does 1 Timothy 2:12 Prohibit Women from Leading and Preaching over Men in the Church?

For those who argue that women should not be preachers, elders, or leaders (over men) in the church, they often appeal to 1 Timothy 2:12 as their most direct and clear biblical foundation. Here are some questions I want to discuss:

  • Is Paul offering universal and general teaching in 1 Timothy 2:8-15?

  • Does this passage teach that women cannot have authority over men in the Church?

 

1 Timothy is an occasional letter, not a comprehensive church leadership manual

The “Pastoral Epistles” are situational letters, from Paul to a particular individual (here Timothy) in order to address certain circumstances. Now, all of Paul’s letters contain some general teaching. But, sometimes, his teaching is more limited to one situation. Only the literary/rhetorical and socio-historical context will tell us whether the teaching is “once and for all.”

Did Paul write 1 Timothy?

Scholars continue to debate whether Paul actually wrote 1 Timothy, or if perhaps it was written in a later era by someone else. My own view is that it probably has some historical connection to the apostle Paul. I admit its style of writing and argumentation don’t match letters like Philippians and Romans, but I don’t see any contradictions in theological teachings when 1 Timothy is compared against the so-called undisputed letters.

Looking at the Text in Context (1 Timothy 2:8-15)

8 Therefore I want the men everywhere to pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or disputing.9 I also want the women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, adorning themselves, not with elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes,10 but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God.

11 A woman should learn in quietness and full submission.12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve.14 And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner.15 But women will be saved through childbearing– if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety. (NIV)

While Paul has some very firm commands to pass on to the Ephesian church through Timothy, one can’t help but notice that he argues in this manner:

-Do THIS, don’t do THIS

The prohibitions (2:8, 9, 12) included here lead me to believe there were serious problems going on in this church precisely on these matters. I think it is fair to assume men were disputing and creating a ruckus. Women were flaunting wealth. And, thus, I take 2:11-12 to be referring to clear misbehavior on the part of some of the Ephesian women.

If we take this as corrective teaching, we can better understand Paul’s harsh tone. Paul recognizes this church has been infected with many diseases of false teaching, in-fighting, and genderized furtive behavior—and he calls the theological physician, Timothy, to put the church on a very strict lifestyle and diet.

What Does “Assume Authority” (NIV) Mean?

This is where things get really tricky. When Paul normally talks about authority (power and leadership over another), he uses kyrieuo (rule over; w.g., Rom 7:1), or some form of exousia (e.g., Rom 13). These are relatively common word groups. But here in 1 Timothy 2:12 Paul uses an extremely rare and unusual Greek word authenteo. It occurs less than a dozen times in ancient Greek (first century AD and prior). Compare that to exousiazo (“to have authority over”) which occurs over 900 times in ancient Greek. We will get to what authenteo means in a minute, but just take a second to think about this: why would Paul choose such a rare word unless it fit a strange and rare situation?

So what does authenteo mean? Many English translations render it as “have/exercise authority” in a neutral/positive sense.

HCSB: “to have authority”

ESV: to exercise authority”

NET: “to exercise authority”

RSV: “to have authority”

Essentially, then, these translation treat authenteo as a synonym of exousiazo. But, again, if they are so close in meaning, why choose such a rare word? 

Based on the meager evidence we have for how ancient Greek writers used authenteo (and other words based on the same root), another set of translators believe it has a more negative meaning of domineer (especially based on other forms of the root).

So the King James: “to usurp authority,” and the NIV seems to have moved in this direction: “to assume authority.” This kind of meaning is supported by the Latin Vulgate translation which reads dominari  (from which we get the English word “dominate”).

To my mind, it would make all the sense in the world that Paul would choose this rare word authenteo if Paul wanted to tell women not to try and dominate over men with their teaching or power. In this kind of situation, Paul would not be rejecting women who want to be equal in the church. He would be demoting women who want to seize total control.

Chew on this #1: It is hard for lay people to fully understand just how rare the usage of authenteo was at Paul’s time. So think about it this way: have you ever used a word that (1) you will never use again, (2) you will never hear from another person ever, (3) and will never read anywhere ever again? That is how unusual it would have been for Paul to use authenteo. So why would he not have chosen a more common word if he was giving a direct and clear universal command through a third party (Timothy)?

Chew on this #2authenteo does not occur (elsewhere) in the New Testament. It does not occur in the Septuagint (including the OT Apocrypha). It does not occur in the Greek OT Pseudepigrapha. It does not appear in any of the works of Josephus. Or Philo. Or any of the Apostolic Fathers. Isn’t that strange?

What about the Appeal to a Creation Story?

Some interpreters argue that women (universally) are taught here to be submissive to men because of the appeal to Adam and Eve in 2:13-14. Certainly when Paul points to key Old Testament stories, he has a broader point in mind. But the focus of this Scriptural appeal is not based on the inherent superiority of men due to privilege of the firstborn. After all, Paul elsewhere places the majority of blame on Adam, not (Rom 5; 1 Cor 15), not Eve. The mentioning of Eve’s deception by Paul is his way of humbling any arrogant Ephesian women who want to cause trouble for the men, believing they were wiser.

Chew on this #3: How could the same Paul who (supposedly) told women to be quiet in church and listen to the men teach also send Phoebe to deliver Romans and commend her as his patroness and deacon/minister? How could he maintain such a cordial relationship with Priscilla who certainly was not quiet in her leadership?

Conclusion

I understand this passage to be corrective of a disturbingly imbalanced situation in Ephesus where women were intentionally trying to domineer over men. Paul’s concern is not to force women into submission in the church under men, but to cultivate a healthy community by rebuking troublemakers. Everyone should learn peacefully and cooperatively.

Further Resources

This is a very complex discussion with many moving parts, so those with some Greek knowledge and training might want to read more. See below:

Cynthia Long Westfall (advanced article on authenteo)

Linda Belleville (more comprehensive discussion of 1 Timothy 2)

Why I Believe in Women in Ministry: Part 18 (Gupta)

The Books that Helped Me Change My Mind about Women in Ministry (written before 2003)

I changed my mind in favor of supporting women in ministry around 2003, while I was in seminary. In this post, I will mention a few books then that moved me along on this issue towards that change. In a separate post I will point to more recent works of note.

Craig Keener, Paul, Women, and WivesHere is a conservative, biblical scholar who is absolutely brilliant, and he had answers to a lot of my questions. Craig is always careful with his scholarship not to overstate what the evidence can prove.

Beck and Blomberg, ed. Two Views on Women in MinistryOn the “pro” side you have Keener and Belleville, on the “not-pro” side you have Schreiner and Blomberg. This book helped me see the strengths of various arguments and how the “other side” would respond.

Ben Witherington, Women in the Earliest Churches. Back then, Ben was someone I admired greatly as a biblical scholar and thought-leader for pastors—and I still love his work, but he is slowing down just a little bit! He made his case with penetrating insight and good scholarship.

Gordon Fee—commentariesIn seminary, I spent ample time in the commentaries of Gordon Fee, esp on 1 Corinthians and Philippians (and also check out his little 1-2 Timothy, Titus NIBC volume). For me, there is no better role model of the passionate and wise biblical scholar than Fee. His exegetical work was significant towards turning me in favor of women in ministry.

Discovering Biblic Eq #2834

Ronald Pierce, Rebecca Merrill Groothius, and Gordon Fee, Discovering Biblical Equality. This book was a bombshell for me. Here, all in one place, several expert scholars tackled virtually all of the tough issues related to women in marriage and ministry. Even today, there is nothing that compares in size and scope to DBE! I was especially attracted to Howard Marshall’s essay on the Household Codes. I still refer to back to that today when I teach or write on Col/Eph.

Richard Bauckham, Gospel WomenWhen I was at Gordon-Conwell, Bauckham’s influence and status were on the rise. He is considered one of the most weighty NT scholars in the world. So when he did the spadework on the women in the Gospels, I was hooked. READ THIS BOOK!

William Webb, Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals. This book put words to some hermeneutical thoughts and questions I had. Whether or not you end up agreeing with Webb, it is a must-read. Webb has forced Christians to think about the ultimate ethics behind Scripture and how we might discern what those ethics are. This was a missing piece I needed.

Linda Belleville, Women Leaders and the Church. This book is clear, concise, and hit all the major concerns. She also introduced me to the work of Brooten, where I learned about what leadership titles women had in the ancient Jewish synagogues.

Klyne Snodgrass, “A Biblical and Theological Basis for Women in Ministry” (The Evangelical Covenant Church). I was very interested in evangelical denominations wrestling with questions about women in ministry. Klyne and his committee did their research on this and came out supporting women in ministry. Klyne is a trusted evangelical scholar, a Gospels expert, he also knows his way around Paul’s letters. I appreciate the ECCs work on this issue.

Daughters.jpeg

Ruth Tucker and Walter Liefeld, Daughters of the Church: Women and Ministryfrom New Testament Times to the PresentThis is a massive book (450+ pp.) which gave me a sense of women in ministry not only in the early church, but throughout history.

 

 

Why I Believe in Women in Ministry: Part 17 (Gupta)

Biblical Interpretation and Modern Cultural Influences

Sometimes I hear this argument: you are just arguing for women leadership because of modern sensitivity to women’s rights.

This is an important issue, because this can be a real obstacle for people accepting an argument in favor of women in ministry—that somehow it is contaminated by cultural pressure and therefore spoiled.

I want to raise the following points in response.

1) Modern culture is not a threat per se to the Bible

We cannot sustain the assumption that all modern cultural forces are bad. There are a lot of good things in culture.

2) Biblical interpretation does not take place in a vacuum

We do not take off our presuppositions, experiences, or values when we approach the Bible. We bring ourselves to the reading of the text.

3) Sometimes modern cultural insights can be beneficial

Imagine that you have a child with a disability. And that you bring interest in people with disabilities to the biblical text. Your eyes are more trained to see those who are different in the Bible. By virtue of these experiences, you have something special to bring to others whose eyes are not trained the same way. This actually enhances your reading of the Bible, and this can help others.

4) Cultural values need to be recognized, not suppressed

We cannot discard our cultural values, but we ought to understand them as best as we can. How do we keep them in check if they might clash with Scripture? We need to be a part of a reading community that can form and help us, and correct us if we are not respecting the holy Word.

Summary

It was seeing women training for and in ministry (and as theologians) that first sparked me to re-think women in ministry leadership. I can readily admit that. But that turned me to the Bible to examine the relevant texts exegetically. Cultural forces are not always bad—they are often eye-opening for our reading of the Bible. Ultimately, though, Christian conviction should be grounded in biblical witness and wisdom. And for me it is. The more I re-read the Bible, the more I see amazing women exercising leadership for the good of the church and society.

Why I Believe in Women in Ministry (Gupta)

Index of Posts

There are more posts in this series to come (total: 20? 25?), but the index page for all links will be here. I will continue to update this page, so feel free to bookmark it and return later.

Post 19: Does 1 Timothy 2:12 Prohibit Women from Leading and Preaching over Men in the Church?

Post 18: The Books that Helped Me Change My Mind about Women in Ministry (written before 2003)

Post 17: Biblical Interpretation and Modern Cultural Influences

Post 16: Junia was a Prominent Female Apostle of the First Century Church

Post 15: “Phoebe: Deacon and Benefactor”

Post 14: Translation Matters: The Generic Use of ἀυτος/autos

Post 13: Should Women Be Silent and Submissive in Church? (1 Cor 14:26-40)

Post 12: Women in the Ancient Jewish Synagogue

Post 11: Is “Headship” Relevant to Women in Ministry Leadership? (1 Cor 11:2-16)

Post 10: Why Translation Matters (ἀνθρωπος/anthropos doesn’t mean “man/men”)

Post 9: Wise Priscilla

Post 8:Mary Magdalene: Equal to the Apostles

Post 7: Marvelous Mary (the Mother of Jesus)

Post 6: Thinking about Patriarchy

Post 5: The Undoing (Gen 3)

Post 4: In the Beginning: Image of God, Male and Female

Post 3: Starting with Deborah

Post 2: Translation and Terms

Post 1: Starting from the Beginning

Why I Believe in Women in Ministry: Part 16 (Gupta)

Junia was a Prominent Female Apostle of the First Century Church 

Did you know there is a woman who is named an apostle in the New Testament? To be accurate, she is actually commended as prominent or noteworthy among the first century apostles.

NIV Romans 16:7 Greet Andronicus and Junia, my fellow Jews who have been in prison with me. They are outstanding among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was. (Rom. 16:7 NIV)

Perhaps you didn’t fully catch how important this little verse is. But why has it escaped the notice of most Christians? In the medieval period, translators and commentators on the Bible shifted this female name “Junia” to a made-up male name “Junias.” Why? Christian scholars and leaders simply could not believe that Paul could call a woman an apostle. So for more than 500 years, Andronicus and Junias were both believed to be men (see RSV)—until more investigation was done on Junia and her female identity restored. All of this is well-documented in Eldon Epp’s now classic work, Junia, the First Woman Apostle (2005).

Now, virtually all translations recognize her female identity (NIV, NRSV, NET, CSB), but there is ongoing debate about whether or not Paul was calling her an “apostle.” I believe the weight of evidence balances strongly in favor of “apostle Junia.” But let’s take our time to get to know Junia.

Junia Was A Prisoner Because of Her Ministry

Paul mentions in his commendation of Andronicus and Junia that they shared imprisonment with him. This implies incarceration for the sake of the Gospel. NT scholar Christoph Stenschke offers these considerations:

Paul presumes “the imprisonment of Rom 16:7 was the consequence of rejected missionary activities which involved Andronicus, Junia, and Paul…Junia must have been involved or at least perceived to have participated in these activities to an extent that she was imprisoned together with the men.” (157; Bibliography below)

That means she was a “front-lines” ministry leader; she was treated by the state as enough of a threat to merit imprisonment. Paul goes out of his way to mention this to commend their risk-taking in ministry, courage, and resilience.

Prominent to the Apostles, or Prominent among the Apostles?

Virtually all English translations now agree “Junia” is a woman. Where there is much ongoing disagreement is on whether or not Paul was calling her an apostle. Based on the Greek text, Paul’s words could be read either way; so:

“They are well known to the apostles” (ESV, HCSB)

“They are outstanding among the apostles” (NIV; see NRSV)

[See bibliography for two views on evidence for these translations]

Can anything break the deadlock of this translation conundrum? One of the tools in the toolbelt of the biblical scholar is listening to the commentaries of the early church Fathers who (1) were much closer in time and culture to the NT writers than we are today and (2) [if they were Greek-speaking] knew better how to interpret Paul’s Greek words.

The early Church Fathers testify clear to Junia’s status as “apostle.”

Let the Greek Church Fathers Testify

Just read the following; I find it deeply inspiring.

Origen (184-253AD)

“He might have called them [Andronicus and Junia] prominent among the apostles and among the apostles who preceded him because they were among the seventy-two who were also called apostles (Luke 10:1).” [Commentary on Romans 10.17; FotC 104.294-295];later he writes they were “fellow-captives in this world and noble among the apostles” (295).

John Chrysostom (348-407AD)

“To be an apostle is something great. But to be outstanding among the apostles —just think what a wonderful song of praise that is! They were outstanding on the basis of their works and virtuous actions. Indeed, how great the wisdom of this woman must have been that she was even deemed worthy of the title apostle” (In ep. ad Romanos 31.2). [It is troubling to me that those who argue that Junia was not as apostle fail to account for Chysostom’s confident statement]

Theodoret of Cyrus (393-457AD)

“He says they were not among the disciples but among the teachers—not any sort of teachers but the apostles!” (Interpret. 82.200; see Epp, 33)

Keep in mind, these are Greek Fathers, meaning Greek was their native language. Yet, none of these ever wondered whether this verse might be translated differently. Put simply, these Greek Fathers believed Junia was a female apostle.

What Does This Mean for Christian Woman Today?

This means women did ministry commended by Paul, and they did it on equal footing as men. If they were gifted to proclaim the gospel publicly as “apostles,” then they were authorized with the highest responsibilities including the authority of evangelizing and planting churches. If Junia was an apostle, this establishes a sterling precedent for women as church planters, preachers, teachers, missionaries, and elders. And they can aim high because she was prominent among the people called “apostles.”

BIBLIOGRAPHY

L. Belleville, “Ἰουνιαν…ἐπισημοι ἐν τοις ἀποστολοις: A Re-examination of Romans 16.7 in Light of Primary Source Materials” NTS 51 (2017): 231-249. [Prominent among the apostles]

M. Burer and D. Wallace, “Was Junia Really an Apostle? A Re-examination of Rom 16.7” NTS 47 (2000): 76-91. [Prominent to the apostles]

J. E. Epp, Junia: The First Woman Apostle. (2005) [Tide-turning study]

S. McKnight, Junia is Not Alone. [Argument for Junia as apostle that is non-technical]

C. Stenschke, “Married Women and the Spread of Early Christianity” Neotestamentica 43.1 (2009): 145-194.

See “Junia, A Female Apostle” (CBE)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why I Believe in Women in Ministry: Part 15 (Gupta)

Phoebe, Deacon and Benefactor (Romans 16:1-2)

Whenever I hear people say, “according to Paul women can’t…”, my first thought is: but women did. And often Paul sent them to do it. When I had a change of mind about women in ministry in seminary, much of this happened when I took a closer look at what women actually did in Paul’s ministries. A good place to start with that is Phoebe.

(If you want a mind-blowing lecture about Phoebe, watch this video by Beverly Gaventa.)

NIV Romans 16:1 I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church in Cenchreae.
 2 I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of his people and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been the benefactor of many people, including me.
 (Rom. 16:1-2 NIV)

Paul commends Phoebe to the Romans, because he has sent her with his letter to the Romans. She probably played the role of letter carrier. She would also be on hand to answer interpretive questions about the letter. And, some scholars believe she actually read the letter to the Romans. (See an overview of the discussion here). Bottom line: she was an important, trusted colleague of Paul. She was not someone’s wife or an errand girl. She is mentioned without naming a counterpart male. That is crucial to recognize in and of itself. Let’s do a quick inventory of some of the language Paul uses for Phoebe.

Sister

This might seem like mundane Christian language, as in “fellow believer.” Perhaps, but this could have been taken for granted in the context of commending her as a deacon from Cenchrae. I read into the mentioning of her as “sister” more of a title of honor, a fellow leader of the church. Two things point in this direction. First, Paul mentions many women in Romans 16, but only calls Phoebe “sister.” Notice in his letter to Philemon, he also addresses it to Apphia whom he also calls “sister” (the only other place where this seems to be a title; Phm 1). Second, several times in his letters, Paul refers to Timothy as “our brother” (1 Thess 3:2; 2 Cor 1:1; Phm 1; Col 1:1). I think this was Paul’s way of commending Timothy as a respected fellow leader.

Servant or Deacon?

Paul calls Phoebe a diakonos from the church of Cenchrea. Some translations render this as “servant,” but diakonos had a rather wide range of usage and could be used as more of a church leadership title (see Phil 1:1). Given Paul’s desire to commend her, the fact that she was setting up operations in Rome and needed help with her work, and her function as a benefactor for Paul (see below), “deacon” is a better term here (so NIV). If she was not an official leader of the church of Cenchrea, I imagine Paul would have used the verb (diakoneo) for her service, rather than the noun (diakonos).

In Paul’s letters, diakonos is applied to the following people:

  • Christ (Rom 15:8)
  • Apollos (1 Cor 3:5)
  • The apostles (by inference; 2 Cor 6:4)
  • Paul (Eph 3:7; Col 1:23, 25)
  • Tychicus (in a commendation; Eph 6:21; Col 4:7)
  • Epaphras (Col 1:7)

This is not a term Paul throws around for any helpful person (and apparently for no other woman named in his letters). He strategically uses this word to recognize servant leaders of churches.

Assist her

Rom 16:2b makes it clear she had some agenda in Rome, and Paul calls upon the church to support her in whatever she needs. We can hardly treat her as anything but a proxy for Paul himself.

Benefactor

Paul is confident that she is deserving of their help, because she helped Paul so much. He refers to her as a prostatis: benefactor. She was a woman of wealth and means; probably she did more than give money though. She used her power and connections to help others in the church. The Cenchrean church may have met at her house/estate. Christopher Bryan refers to Paul as Phoebe’s “client and protege”! (Preface to Romans, pg 34)

Was She a Leader?

Paul does not explicitly say she preached sermons. He does not say she sat on a council of elders. But we need to think about leadership more holistically. Leadership is about input and influence. My desire that women should serve in ministry is not limited to sermons. It is about men sharing influence and power. When it comes to Phoebe, the signals we get from Romans 16 overall is that Paul was not isolated from women, he knew and respected them, especially as co-workers in ministry leadership.

 

Addendum: Notes from Recent Commentaries on Romans

Richard Longenecker NIGTC: Diakonos here “signals some type of active leadership in a Christian congregation at Cenchrea” (1064); re: Phoebe as interpreter of Romans: “Probably Phoebe should be viewed as the first commentator to others on Paul’s letter to Rome. And without a doubt, every commentator, teacher, or preacher on Romans would profit immensely from a transcript of Phoebe’s explanations of what Paul wrote in this letter before actually having to write or speak on it themselves.” (1064-1065)

Frank Matera Paideia: translates diakonos here as “minister” given his reading of her as a church leader in Cenchrea (338-339)

Arland Hultgren (Eerdmans): “Paul refers to her first as a ‘deacon,’ which would have been her public role within the church of Cenchreae, and then as a ‘benefactor,’ a term that applies to her activities in reference to certain persons (‘of many and also of me’). Both terms are important, but the combination of them, and the fact that Paul speaks of her first of all as a ‘deacon,’ points towards a leadership role in worship within her own home” (572)