Paul’s letter to the church in Rome challenges the reader in many ways: from how we form our identities, to the way we use power in the church, to how the power of God can create evenness among people who, in society, are not so equal. But beyond all that, in spaces mostly closed off to the average layperson (circles of academia and denominational power) the book of Romans is still challenging the unexamined assumptions about gender roles that many hold in the church today.
I know that my own denomination (C&MA) is still struggling to work through the issue of women’s equality in the church, and I don’t think the discussion is complete without pointing out, not just what the Bible says about the women in the church, but also by point specifically what women DID in the early church long before the cannon was finalized, long before the patriarchy of the Roman Empire crept in, and long before the theology that banished women from the pastorate was ever written and solidified as a church doctrine.
Consider this a small contribution to that discussion.
Part of what I wanted to do in this walk through the book of Romans is to highlight some of the things that bring new light and fresh air to our readings and to point out some of the ways that the Bible challenges us to look beyond our cultural constructs and to see these early Christians for who they really were. So today, I want to focus on the fascinating women of Romans 16. We’ll start with Phoebe.
“Romans 16:1–2 (NIV): 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.”
Phoebe, Paul’s friend and co-worker, was the courier that Paul hired to take the letter from Corinth to Rome. A first century courier was not simply a mail delivery person, they were much more than that.
As McKnight says in his commentary on Romans (Reading Romans Backwards), “Phoebe was the face of Romans.” Before leaving for Rome, she would have been educated in the theology and the teachings that the letter contained. She would have spent ample time with Paul learning the in’s and out’s of the arguments being made and becoming fluent in them to the point where she could perform the letter precisely as Paul would have if he were in their midst. He would have taught her where to bring her voice down to a whisper and when to turn and raise her hand to the sky with a loud proclamation. She was entrusted with bringing the message of the book of Romans to life for that church.
Phoebe was a theological and homiletical powerhouse who was not married and was not connected to any male leaders who were in authority over her. She herself was an authoritative figure in the first generation of the church, and she is a shining example of pastoral gifting and teaching in the church that both women and men can follow today.
“Greet Priscilla and Aquila, my co-workers in Christ Jesus. 4 They risked their lives for me. Not only I but all the churches of the Gentiles are grateful to them. 5 Greet also the church that meets at their house.” (Ro 16:3–5)
Priscilla was also a teacher of theology and scriptures. In fact, she, along with her husband, Aquilla, are said in Acts 18 to have “explained to Apollos the way of God”, which resulted in this follower of John-the-Baptist to put his faith in Jesus alone. She is also listed as one of Pauls “co-workers” and literally risked her life to serve alongside Paul in his ministry of Gentile inclusion into the church.
Many New Testament scholars point to the fact that she is mentioned first when her household is addressed as an argument that she was the leader in the church that met in her house, not her husband (Acts 18:18, 19, 26; Romans 16:3; 2 Timothy 4:19).
She was a preacher, a pastor, a leader and was willing to be a martyr. Priscilla is a shining example of the power of God working and ministering through women in the church, even in the days and places where it seemed unlikely.
“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.” (Ro 16:7)
Junia’s story is one of the more fascinating stories surrounding biblical scholarship as she became an early victim of what appears to be some sort of church politics. She was both a woman and an Apostle, and she was recognized by the Apostles and the church fathers as such. But at somewhere in the 13th century, she was stripped of both of her gender and her status by the scribes and leadership of the medieval church. Her name was changed to Junias (a mans name), and her status as a leading Apostle (Ro 16:7 – “outstanding among the apostles”) was wiped away, making her the equivalent of a “deaconess” (which is not a real thing, but simply a way of emphasizing – read: diminishing – women who serve alongside men as deacons in the church).
According to Bernadette Brooten, the first person to change her gender to a man was Aegidius of Rome, despite the fact that the early church fathers all spoke of her in the feminine, including Origen of Alexandria and St. Chrysostom in the late 4th century. Chrysostom puts it like this:
“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 of apostle.“
But after the reformation, the last shreds of her identity were shredded by men who didn’t believe that God called women to lead in his church. And perhaps the most shocking thing is how recently (1977, in Brootens work, Women Priests) she was proven to be both a woman and an Apostle. In fact, it has since been shown that, despite there being over 250 examples of the feminine name “Junia” existing in the ancient world the name “Junias” (the masculine version of “Junia”) doesn’t exist in antiquity until the third century. She was no man!
Junia was Jewish, and she was ranked equal to men like James, Barnabas, Epaphroditus, and others in the early church. A true woman of valor who should be emulated by all.
It is clear from the book of Romans that women were not background characters in the leading and establishing of the church; they were equals. They preached, shepherded, evangelized, and suffered in every way alongside the men. And we must begin to reconcile what we believe about the role of women in the church today with the work that women were actually doing in the early church.
FUTHER READING ON WOMEN IN THE CHURCH:
“The Blue Parakeet,” by Scot MKnight.
“Reading Romans Backwards” by Scot McKnight
“Anointed Women: The Rich Heritage of Women in the C&MA” by Paul King (for those interested in the great women in CMA’s history).
“Making of Biblical Womanhood” by Beth Allison Barr