Sisters, servants, fellow-workers
Women in Romans 16
If you ever go to the cinema or even if you watch films at home, I wonder if you watch to the end. If you are like me, you watch the final scene and then the theme music rises and credits start to roll and that is the cue to get up and slide out, or, if at home, switch off the TV, put the kettle on. After all, it’s just a list of names, isn’t it? You don’t know them. What does it matter who did the filmstar’s hair?
But here is the point: someone did. Those filmstars would be precisely nowhere without that massive group of skilled people who perform their various crucial tasks. The gaffer, the best boy, the assistant make-up artist can all have their moment. Stand up and take a bow.
Now Romans 16 is like those rolling credits. You might be inclined mentally to walk out. Paul has finished chapter 15 with a resounding ‘Amen’. And then we get another chapter which is basically a list of names. Most of these people are not mentioned anywhere else in the NT. What is the point?
The most obvious thing to learn is that, like the credits rolling at the end of the film, there are innumerable people involved in, and making a significant contribution to, any local church and therefore to the furtherance of the gospel. Here Paul calls upon them to stand up and take a bow.
A church is people. Every local church is people, all different and special. This is an important perspective because some people think church is all about the leaders – identified by its minister. And yet here are a bunch of people, men and women, some more prominent than each other, maybe, but not given any particular status. They were valued.
So the two questions we are going to examine with regard to this chapter and the subject of women in the local church are:
- What part did these women play in the local church?
- What part should I play in the local church?
1. Women and the local church
It is not a coincidence that when Jesus Christ chose his twelve disciples, who would later be apostles, he chose exclusively men. There were many women who were his friends and supporters and were disciples in the wider sense of the term, but the burden of leadership in the church is placed quite clearly and specifically on male shoulders.
Aha, says someone but look at Romans 16:7. There are those who argue that there was a woman apostle, Junia, mentioned in this verse. If a woman can be an apostle, they say, she can hold any other church office as well.
But there are some problems with that idea. Firstly the name, Junia or Junias, is one of those names that could be either a man’s or a woman’s name. There are many examples of this in our culture, especially these days – Pat, Hilary, Francis etc.
Secondly, the meaning of the phrase translated ‘outstanding among the apostles’ in the NIV is, in the light of the most recent research, better translated ‘well-known to the apostles’. In other words even if Junias is a woman she was not an apostle but the apostles knew her well.
Thirdly, the word translated ‘apostles’ could just mean ‘church messengers’ as it does elsewhere in Paul’s writings. (eg 2 Corinthians 8:23, or Philippians 2:25)
So, to quote Wayne Grudem, “ the claim to female apostleship is built upon one uncertainty (the gender of the name) on top of another uncertainty (the meaning of apostle in this verse) on top of an improbable meaning of a phrase (well known among rather than well known to).”
Women are not to be leaders in the local church, any more than they were to be apostles. This is not to say that women are inferior in value to Christ or his cause. It is rather that just as in the family male and female are equal and yet different in role and function, so in the local church there is to be recognisable male headship.
The important thing to notice from Romans 16 is how very valued the women are alongside the men in the church at Rome. They are appreciated and greeted with no less fervour than the men. Let us now look at what Paul says about these women.
a. They were sisters – reminding us that the local church is a family
Normally when Paul is addressing the church, he uses one word to speak to them, the word, brothers. It is clear that he includes sisters in this term when he is writing to the whole church, for he is well aware that the church is made up of men and women. It would be like the current fashion for saying to a group of boys and girls, ‘Hey, guys’. But he refers to Phoebe as a sister.
But the point is that there is a family bond between members of the church of Jesus Christ. This is an important image when you think about it. The members of any local church are not just like a family, they are a family. They have the same father; they look forward to a share in the same inheritance; they meet regularly around the family meal table.
All this is why Paul can rely on the help and support of the church in Rome to take of Phoebe and her needs. You can ask and expect this kind of thing from family.
b. Servants – reminding us that the church is at the direction of a master.
Phoebe is described as a servant of the church. The Greek word for servant is also translated in some places as deacon. So some call Phoebe a deaconess. That is not necessarily a problem as long as you have a Biblical understanding of the role of deacon. Although in some church traditions deacons have a governing role, that is not the case in the Bible. In the Bible elders rule and teach, deacons serve the church in a variety of practical ways. What is clear is that there were a whole bunch of people, men and women who assisted Paul and the other apostles in their ministry, sometimes doing tasks which released the apostles for the ministry of the word. Whether Phoebe was recognised with the title of deacon or not is not the point; the point is that she was a servant. I . I don’t suppose she cared one jot about her title. She served.
c. Fellow-workers – reminding us that women in the local church are part of a team.
Priscilla and Aquila are described as Paul’s fellow-workers. There is a team aspect to the spread of the gospel, referred to many times in Paul’s letters. God has gifted people differently and a strength of a team is that you can play to people’s strengths. Priscilla and Aquila were good at using their home and getting alongside people one by one. They took the promising young believer Apollos on one side and ‘explained to him the way of God more adequately’. (Acts 18:26)
Think of a tug of war: the more people you have pulling, the more likely your side is to win. To be a fellow worker means getting on the rope of gospel work and putting your back into it, whether by prayer or speaking or maintaining the one who goes out and speaks. In chapter 15 and verse 30 Paul urges the church to join him in his struggle by praying. Priscilla’s part in the struggle included some dangerous business. They stuck their necks out for Paul and the gospel, risking their lives (v4). No wonder the churches were grateful to them.
d. Friends – reminding us that there is an emotional aspect to the local church
Look at verse 12, where Persis is described as ‘my dear friend’. A friend is a special thing and a friend in Christ is extra special. You go to trouble for your friend, you feel for them in their troubles and celebrate with them in their successes. You sometimes clean up after them, cover for them, bale them out. You also sometimes, if you are a good friend, tell them what they need to know which other people won’t tell them. All this because you really care. Persis was like that.
e. Saints – reminding us that we are set apart.
In verse 16 the church at Rome was asked to receive Phoebe in a way ‘worthy of the saints’. Christians are different, chosen by God in Christ and set apart by him and for him. That will show in our behaviour. So, to behave in a way which is worthy of the saints means to live up to the name of Jesus Christ. Don’t let him down by rudeness and selfishness and pride and bad temper. Be well-known for generosity and kindness and humility and patience.
Every local church is made up of unique individuals who each have a crucial and valued contribution to make – sisters, servants, fellow-workers, friends, saints. This is what women in the local church should be. So let us be more specific and ask:
2. What part should I play in the local church?
The thing about your family is that you didn’t choose its various members but here they are and you hang together. That is the church. God has put this motley band of people together. Love them: they are your family. Make meeting with them a priority; make supporting family members in need a priority.
And here is another application. I know many Christian women who are good at giving help but not at receiving it. But you can receive from a family member. Some Christians have an 11th commandment: ‘Thou shalt not put anybody out.’ So here is an elderly Christian who lives alone and struggles to get to church. She is offered a lift and she says no ‘because you’ve got to come out of your way.’ It takes grace to receive help. Let a sister or brother put themselves out for you now and then. They are family.
I hope you do not just attend church but serve there. There are hundreds of ways a woman can serve from the obvious –Sunday school, serving refreshments, arranging flowers, welcoming – to the hidden – writing card of encouragement, praying faithfully for the other members, making a phone call or a cake, babysitting, relieving the burden of a carer etc etc.
Sometimes you might think – this is not really my thing, but when you do it with a smile because it needs doing you are serving. But do it for Jesus sake, not to make a point or to be impressive .
Are you looking on yourself as part of the team? God has gifted you uniquely. Are you using your gifts for the spread of the gospel?
Remember that your gifts are for the church not for your own glory. Fellow-workers do not just recognise their own gifts but the gifts of others. They learn to forebear. They refuse to argue and complain. They cheer for the team.
I sometimes think that the world is better at friends than the church. We know how to be polite and courteous to each other but we don’t make the effort to connect emotionally. And there are lonely people in churches. They need including. Don’t write them off because they are different from you. Invest some time in understanding and enjoying that difference. Make friends across generations.
Never forget that as believers together in the Lord Jesus Christ, you belong to another world. Encourage each other by prayer and word and example to live in a way which belongs to that world. To walk worthy. We all need encouragement in this – to remember that we are different and we live differently. So don’t miss out on meeting together. Strike up that hymn and sing it from your hearts to each other, meeting each other’s eyes. We are marching to Zion, together.
Every local church is made up of unique individuals who each have a crucial and valued contribution to make.