Text: Romans 16: 1 – 27
Caller to American Christian radio talk show: ‘What
do you think of Philip’s four daughters who prophesied?’ Guest
clergyman: ‘It just means they witnessed for Christ.’ Caller:
‘But why can’t women teach and preach?’ Clergyman: ‘That ministry
is for men only and I can give you a very good reason: God made
roosters to crow and hens to lay eggs.’
Today we celebrate the calling and induction of ….
into the pastoral ministry of this church.
In this ‘charge’ I want to look at one of the most
controv- ersial questions in the church: the issue of women in
leadership ministries – a contemporary issue for Australians,
with the Anglican church agonizing about whether or not to ordain
women priests. I will be presenting a point of view which I believe
is correct, biblically, but I acknowledge there are other views
(and no doubt your letters will help clarify those!).
This article is not addressing the issue of women
in ministry. That’s not in question: all Christian women and men
are ordained to ministry at their baptism. The issue is one of
women in ministries of leadership.
First, eight general observations; then we will look
at the ministries of eight women named by Paul in Romans 12. [The
full sermon concluded with four ideas about pastoral ministry:
this ministry is about (1) disciplining the church’s trouble-makers
(Romans 16:17-18), (2) developing a Christian character (16:19-20),
(3) building a Christian family (16:21-23), and (4) proclaiming
the Christian gospel (16:25-27)].
(1) No one can read the Bible intelligently without
taking into account the cultures which produced the various Scriptures,
and the ‘cultural baggage’ we bring to their interpretation. Some
say, ‘You just simply read what’s there!’ but 20,800 different
Christian denominations in the world today are each asking ‘Be
reasonable – interpret the Scriptures my way!’
A girl in a Christian sect told me God is like a
giant man. He ‘walks on the mountains’ so they’d measured his
size (with help from the geography of Palestine, and some trigonom-
etry!). ‘Does he have wings?’ I asked. ‘No, he’s like a giant
man.’ ‘But what about the Scriptures that tell us he hides us
under his feathers, etc.?’ She then had an attack of cognit- ive
dissonance: her whole interpretive apparatus collapsed: she’d
never thought of that!
Most who ‘take the Bible literally’ don’t stone adulterers
or practise footwashing, or enrol widows over sixty. Some read
the Bible and become pacifists, others militarists. Our reading
of the Bible is always conditioned by our exper- iences, our culture,
Within our own culture many have inferred from the
paucity of women in the highest levels of corporate management
that ‘women are not leaders and therefore shouldn’t be’. However,
others have noted the splendid work of women as pioneer missionaries,
or leading whole denominations (like General Eva Burrows of the
Salvation Army) and ask ‘why not?’ Because I am married to a female
pastor, every day I share experiences of God using her to bless
others, and that has helped shape my approach…
But, more importantly, I believe the Lord has yet
more light and truth to break forth from his holy Word.
(2) There seem to be two paradigms relative to male/female
relationships in the Scriptures – a male-dominated patriarchical
or hierarchical paradigm, and an egalitarian one. Both are there,
and it generally depends on one’s religious, cultural and psychological
predispositions which paradigm one prefers. Or we align ourselves
with the teaching of an admired pastor, or the church of our childhood,
or a well-known author. We then interpret all the difficult texts
to conform with that chosen paradigm. Generally, males have a
tendency to lead; women are generally better than men at ‘adapting’
to others’ leadership. (Notice I didn’t use words like ‘domination’
But fortunately God is not a legalist. Even if male-dominated
cultures produced the Scriptures, he raises up a Deborah to lead
the whole people of God. Some of us wouldn’t have let him do that…
The four daughters of Philip were prophet- esses: can you name
one or two in your church?
(3) Both males and females were created in the image
of God. Roberta Hestenes writes: ‘In Genesis 1 and 2 it seems
clear that God’s intention for man and woman is that of complementary
partnership… and jointly given the charge to be fruitful, subdue
the earth and have dominion… As a result of their sin the note
of subordination is introduced (Genesis 3:16: ‘Your desire shall
be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.’)… In Jesus
Christ [we have a] priesthood of the whole people of God, female
and male (1 Peter 2:9)… The church is built (Ephesians 2:20)
upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets. Women are part
of that foundation.’ (1) Hierarchy results from the Fall, in which
both the man and woman participated. But you say Eve was to be
a ‘helper’ of Adam, implying inferiority. Not at all. The same
word is used of God, helping Israel.
(4) Jesus, Paul and Peter were way ahead of their
chauvin- istic cultures in granting personhood and dignity to
women. Some rabbis debated as to whether women had souls! Women
were there at the cradle of the Messiah, and at the cross and
the resurrection. Women had never known a man like Jesus – he
never put them down or flattered or patronized them. He had no
uneasy male dignity to defend… ‘Women itinerated with Jesus
(Luke 8:13)… They were commissioned by him to tell the good
news of the resurrection… (Luke 24:1-11). The double sexual
standard for men and women was firmly rejected by Jesus (Matthew
5:27-28; 19:3-9; John 8:1-11). Not a trace of hierarchical behaviour
or teaching appears in any of the gospel accounts.’ (2)
(5) At Pentecost the Spirit fell on women and men:
‘sons and daughters’ both prophesied. In the apostolic church
ministries were exercised according to giftedness, rather than
‘office’. That system came later… The early church was more
‘charismatic’ and less institutional, more given to informal contacts
than dependent on structures and constitutions. Prophecy is quite
common in younger churches, and almost non-existent in older churches.
Prophecy, says Paul, is the highest spiritual gift: and both men
and women prophesied in the early church. (3)
(6) Brethren scholar F.F.Bruce suggests our understanding
of male/female relationships must be viewed through the ‘window’
of Galatians 3:28: ‘[In Christ] there is no longer Jew or Greek,
there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and
female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus’. Although Jewish
women did not need to attend worship and were certainly not permitted
to participate vocally in it, Christian women participated freely
in worship, prayer and prophecy (1 Corinthians 11:5, 14:6; Acts
21:9). ‘In Christ’ is a phrase that occurs 164 times in Paul –
ie, ‘within the Body of Christ’ there is neither male or female.
(7) Evangelical Anglican scholar Dr. Leon Morris
says of the Titus 2:5 injunction that women should be ‘submissive
to their husbands so that the word of God may not be discredited’
that ‘these days it would be brought into disrepute by a strict
subjection. Again, women’s subjection is to be such “as is
fitting in the Lord” (Colossians 3:18). In a day like our
own we must ask “What is fitting?” It seems impossible
to empty such passages of cultural standards.’ (4)
The apostles seemed to be putting their foot on the
brake a little so as not to create a scandal by women blatantly
abusing their new-found freedom in Christ. The early Christians
were way ahead of their culture in their attitudes to women (eg
Paul’s radical injunction that husbands love their wives as Christ
loved the church). But many churches today are way behind their
culture – we are creating a scandal for the opposite reason.
(8) The main reason why there aren’t more women in
positions of leadership is, I believe, psychological. The little
boy in us men can’t cope with strong women: we left home to get
away from maternal authority. Indeed, many men seem to have a
near- pathological fear of losing power to a woman. Few men have
women mentors. They usually don’t read books by women. Men usually
define themselves in terms of job success; women in terms of relationships.
When I talk to male clergy they usually volunteer statistics which
measure progress or growth. Women clergy tell stories about people…
Men and women bring different value-systems to the
task of ministry: they are complementary if we are smart enough
to maximize the potentials of each…
TEN WOMEN IN MINISTRY.
In Romans 16, we have people from at least three
races – Latins, Jews, and Greeks, who are ‘all one in Christ Jesus.’
They are from lower and upper classes, including slaves and freed
slaves – these, with people from the privileged groups are now
all ‘one in Christ Jesus.’ Of the 29 people, ten are women. Apart
from Priscilla, none is mentioned elsewhere in the NT. And Paul
– who some think belittled the status of women in the church –
honoured these women and held them in high regard. ‘In spite of
the lack of information on these women, it is reasonably certain
that they must have had some importance in the Church to be included
in this list of greetings.’ (5) Paul also held the church in high
regard: in these verses (1-16) Paul mentions the church at Cenchrea
(1), all the churches of the Gentiles (4), the church in their
house (5), the churches of Christ (16). Paul had a great concern
for the welfare of individuals, and for the churches. The church
of Jesus Christ is glorious, not because it’s perfect, but because
it is being redeemed!
The phrase ‘In Christ’ is mentioned ten times in
the first 16 verses. Whether Paul talks about Christians suffering
or serving, the supreme thought in Paul is that these believers
in Rome were all ‘in Christ’ or ‘in the Lord’ (vv. 2,3,7,8, 9,10,11,13;
cf. 8:1; Philippians 3:14; 4:13).
In the ancient world (as today) when someone is applying
for a position or job they seek testimonials or references from
others who know them well. In the Brethren Assemblies I grew up
in we had ‘letters of commendation’ from one assembly to another
if someone was traveling or moving residence. These sustatikai
epistolai, letters of introduction, were common in business transactions
in the ancient world as well.
So Paul is here commending Phoebe (16:1) to the church
in Rome. She is the bearer of this letter. He asks them to welcome
Two terms describe her – diakonos – deacon, servant,
minister, and prostatis – a great help to many people. Is diakonos
a reference to a special ‘order’ of ministers? We don’t know.
The term is used generically in 1 Thess. 3:2, 2 Cor. 3:6, 11:23;
of a specific group or function in Phil 1:1, 1 Timothy 3:8,12.
And it is used of Christ (Romans 15:8), Apollos (1 Corinthians
3:5), Timothy (1 Timothy 4:6) and of Paul himself (1 Corinthians
3:5, Ephesians 3:7; Colossians 1:23,25). An evangelical NT scholar,
E Earl Ellis, in an article ‘Paul and his Co-Workers’ (1971) concluded
that diakonoa in Paul referred to a special class of co-workers
who were active in preaching and teaching. (6)
She is also a prostatis – the only time in the NT
this word as a noun appears. In secular Greek at that time this
was a relatively strong term of leadership. The verb is used by
Paul in three out of five occurrences to refer to leadership in
the Church. Thus the word probably suggests Phoebe had a prominent
role: one translator uses the word ‘overseer’. And I still meet
churches which won’t have a woman on their diaconate!
Prisca and Aquila (16:3) were a fascinating couple.
Prisca is sometimes called Priscilla (Acts 18:2,18,26) – an affectionate
version of the same name.
When they first appear on the pages of the NT (Acts
18:1-2) they’re in Rome. Claudius banished Jews from Rome in AD
52 and this couple settled in Corinth. They were tent-makers –
the same trade as Paul’s – so in Corinth he stayed with them.
They and Paul left Corinth together and went to Ephesus where
Prisca and Aquila settled (Acts 18:18). A brilliant Alexandrian
scholar Apollos visited Ephesus, and stayed with Prisca and Aquila.
Apollos did not have a full understanding of the Christian faith,
so in addition to hospitality this special couple taught him as
well (Acts 18:24-26). Later, when Paul wrote his first letter
to the Corinthians from Ephesus, he sent greetings from Prisca
and Aquila and from the church in their house (1 Corinthians 16:19).
Next we hear of them back in Rome: the edict banishing Jews must
have lost its steam, and many people like Prisca and Aquila no
doubt drifted back to that city to their old homes and jobs. Once
again we discover they have a church in their home. The last time
they appear is in 2 Timothy 4:19, and they’re back in Ephesus.
One of the last messages Paul sent to anyone was to this couple,
who had come through so much with him.
So wherever these nomadic people are – Rome, Corinth,
Ephesus, back in Rome, or finally again in Ephesus – their home
is a centre for Christian ministry, worship and hospitality (1
Cor. 16:19, Philemon 2).
But there’s something odd about the way they’re mentioned
in despatches in the NT: they are always mentioned together, and
on four of the six occasions Prisca is named before her husband.
Normally – then as now – the husband’s name is mentioned first
– ‘Mr. and Mrs.’. One theory suggested by (Presbyterian) William
Barclay is that she was a member of a noble Roman family: ‘It
may be that at some meeting of Christians this great Roman lady
met Aquila the humble Jewish tentmaker, that the two fell in love,
that Christianity destroyed the barriers of race and rank and
wealth and birth, and that these two, the Roman aristocrat and
the Jewish artisan, were joined forever in Christian love and
Christian service.’ (7) Maybe. But perhaps it’s more likely her
leadership gifts or her role in the church was the reason she’s
Paul calls them fellow-workers: the same term is
used of men such as Timothy and Titus, as well as of women such
as Euodia and Syntyche. ‘He also considers Apollos and himself
God’s “fellow- workers” (1 Corinthians 3:9). It is in
this group of people who take leadership in the ministry of the
gospel that Priscilla, without any distinction related to her
sex, is included as well as her husband Aquila.’ (8) We don’t
know what roles all these people had as ‘fellow-workers’ – perhaps
their roles were as diverse as their gifts.
Mary (16:6). There are at least six Marys in the
NT story – and they are all special people. We don’t know anything
more about this Mary than that ‘she has worked very hard’ among
them, a similar expression to that used of Tryphena and Tryphosa
and Persdis (16:12). What kind of hard work? Did she grow flowers
for Sunday services? Clean out the room before house-church? Serve
eats after the worship? Perhaps – these so-called menial tasks
are honoured when the Lord Christ is served. But the Greek verb
‘work very hard’ is used regularly by Paul to refer to the special
work of the gospel ministry. Only twice does Paul use it in a
common or secular sense – both within a proverbial expression
(Ephesians 4:8, 2 Timothy 2:6). Paul frequently describes his
apostolic ministry with this word, and also the ministry of other
leaders and persons of authority: the context of some of these
stresses the need for respect for and submission to such workers.
[Cf. Euodia and Syntyche (Philippians 4:2,3) two women Paul describes
as having ‘…contended at my side in the cause of the gospel’
Andronicus and Junia (16:7) were Christians before
Paul was – their conversion goes right back to the time of Stephen,
so they must have had a direct link back to the earliest church
There is some debate about the sex of Junia or Junias.
Paul’s word junian may be either masculine or feminine. So we
have to be a bit tentative here. Andronicus was certainly a common
male name, but there’s no evidence Junias was used as a male name.
John Chrysostom (d. AD 407), one of the first Greek fathers to
write extensive commentaries on Paul, and known for his ‘negative’
view of women, understood that Junia was a woman. He marveled
that this woman should be called an apostle! In fact… the first
commentator to understand Junia as a male name (Aegidius of Rome)
lived in the 13th century. (9)
He/she is outstanding among (en) the apostles: does
this mean Junia was well known by the apostles or well known as
an apostle? ‘[The] natural meaning in Greek is that these two
were outstanding as apostles.’ (10) The term ‘apostle’ was used
in the early church not just for the Twelve but for any authorised
Were Tryphaena and Tryphosa (16:12) twin sisters?
Their names mean ‘dainty and delicate’ but they worked (kopian)
to the point of exhaustion! Barclay suggests Paul may have had
a smile on his face when he wrote that!
The mother of Rufus (16:13) was one of two women
mentioned specifically but not named. She brought to Paul the
help and comfort and love which his own family refused him when
he became a Christian. Julia and the sister of Nereus (16:15)
were both greeted without comment.
Note that all these people were commended for their
work: we are called to serve, not just to be church consumers!
Note also the way Paul encourages people: when did we last do
Finally three scholarly comments. # ‘Romans 16:1-16,
then, in an incidental way, allows us to see that Paul had several
women co- workers in the church’s ministry. Mary, Tryphena, Tryphosa
and Persis (as well as Euodia and Syntyche mentioned in Philippians
4:2-3) all shared in the hard labours of a gospel ministry. Priscilla
also was a fellow worker with Paul in the ministry. Phoebe was
a minister of the Cenchrean church and a leader in the Church.
Junia was, along with Andronicus (her husband?) an outstanding
apostle. When the issues of Paul’s view of women in the church
are addressed in reference to such texts as 1 Corinthians 14:
34-35 and 1 Timothy 2:8-15, these women co-workers in the ministry
must not only not be forgotten; they must be accounted for in
the overall assessment of Paul’s view.’ (11)
# ‘That Paul should not only include a woman among
the apostles but actually describe her, together with Andronicus,
as outstanding among them, is highly significant evidence (along
with the importance he accords in this chapter to Phoebe, Prisca,
Mary, Tryphena, Tryphosa, Persis, the mother of Rufus, Julia and
the sister of Nereus) of the falsity of the widespread and stubbornly
persistent notion that Paul had a low view of women and something
to which the Church as a whole has so far failed to pay proper
# ‘Just as the church has moved beyond the NT toleration
of slavery to a recognition that Christian principles forbid slavery,
so too we can with a good conscience accept a larger place for
women in the ministry of the church than was possible in first-
century society.’ (13)
When I visited the largest church in the world in
Seoul, Korea, in 1978, I was not surprised to learn that 80% of
their small group leaders were women. I attended one of these,
led very capably by a woman. The church is immeasur- ably impoverished
when more than half its members are debarred from exercising leadership
ministries not on the basis of the presence or absence of giftedness
or competence, but simply because of gender. I thank God for the
many women who have toiled so graciously for the Lord despite
this discrimination. The time has now come to practise the principle
that in Christ social, racial and sexual barriers have been removed.
(1) ‘Scripture and the Ministry of Women’ in Roberta
Hestenes and Lois Curley (eds.), Women and the Ministries of Christ,
Pasadena, California: Fuller Theological Seminary, 1979, p.7
(2) Hestenes, ibid., pp. 7-8.
(3) See Avery Dulles, Models of the Church, New York:
Doubleday, 1987, chapter 2, ‘The Church as Institution’.
(4) ‘The Ministry of Women’, in Leon Morris, John
Gaden, Barbara Thiering, A Woman’s Place, Sydney, Anglican Information
Office, 1976, p. 27.
(5) David M Scholer, ‘Paul’s Women Co-workers in
the Ministry of the Church’, Atlantic Baptist, 23:4, April 1987,
(6) Ibid, p. 20.
(7) The Letter to the Romans, Edinburgh: The Saint
Andrew Press, 1958, pp. 230-231).
(8) Scholer, p. 20.
(11) Scholer, op. cit., p. 21.
(12) C E B Cranfield, Romans: A Shorter Commentary,
Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1987, p. 377.
(13) I. Howard Marshall, ‘The Role of Women in the
Church’, in Shirley Lees, (ed.), The Role of Women: Eight Prominent
Christians debate today’s issues, Leicester: IVP, 1984, p. 196.