Ever heard of Phoebe? You probably have, but I had not. At the time I was obsessing over understanding grace. Entrenched in legalism and feeling smothered by guilt and shame, I could never do enough or be enough for God, hiding it all under a mask of what I now see as self-righteousness. I found the book of Romans to be a spring of life showing me the freedom I had in Christ. I clung to its message like a drowning man holds on to a life preserver. This was a season when almost everything in my system of beliefs was being upended as I searched the scriptures for truth. Every new discovery created a tug of war in my soul between the faces of those who taught me otherwise, and the words in print before me. There were times when I felt I was not just fighting with my mentors, but God Himself.
As I read each chapter seeking to glean all Paul had to say, I happened to notice a woman named Phoebe in Romans 16. She was described as a “servant” of Christ whom Paul commends. For some reason, I decided to do some research on Phoebe and found some interesting facts in the process. The Greek word used to describe her is “diakonon,” which can also be translated “deacon” or “minister.” In fact, in most modern English translations it is used to describe men in leadership. Paul, Apollos, Tychicus, Epaphras, Archippus, and Onesimus are all referred to using this same word in the KJV with it being translated “minister.” If Paul wanted to avoid labeling her a leader, he could have easily used the word “doulos,” which is more often translated “servant.” I had to wonder if there was a male bias in some translations. While this would not necessarily assume teaching responsibilities, it did peak my interest. A second word is used to describe Phoebe’s role. She was also a “prostasis,” which is a word almost always used to describe an “overseer,” or “manager,” but in my Bible was translated “helper.” How do we decide what the word means? The translation of both words should be considered in light of their context. Phoebe was carrying this very letter to the Roman church with her! Would Paul more likely seek to emphasize her servitude or leadership to those receiving it?
This was only the beginning. I kept reading and noticed a woman named “Junia” in verse 7 who, among others, was noted as outstanding among the “apostles.” Why had I never heard of her? One reason is that some translations change the name to “Junias,” assuming a masculine name in spite of the fact that the name Junias is not found anywhere in ancient literature, and Junia was extremely common. It is much more likely that Paul was commending another woman in leadership among the apostles.
What about Priscilla and Aquila in verse 3? Paul also commends this married couple who were leaders of a house church. What is especially compelling, is the mention of wife before husband in the name order. It was normative in Roman culture to refer to husband before wife. (i.e. Adam and Eve, Ananias and Sapphira) Many scholars believe this is due to Priscilla being more prominent than Aquila. In Acts 18:26 we find that these two actually corrected or TAUGHT Apollos, who was one of the most prominent teachers mentioned in the New Testament!
As I expanded my research, I realized it was not just Romans 16 that referenced women in leadership or teaching roles. Acts 21:9 mentions the “daughters of Phillip” who were prophetesses. What is prophecy? It is the speaking of the will of God to the people. Can one prophesy without teaching? While it is certainly possible that they only spoke to their own sex, there is no qualification made in the text. What about I Corinthians 11:5? Paul assumes that men and women will prophesy as he gives instructions on how this should be done properly in the church. A woman named Anna is also admonished in the Gospels as a prophetess who would speak to “anyone who awaited” the messiah!
If we look to the Old Testament, we see even more women in prominent positions among or over men. In Exodus, Miriam (you know, the one who saved Moses’ life) and the women of Israel led the entire nation in worship when they crossed the Red sea, and was called a “prophetess.” In Micah 6:4 she is also mentioned among the leaders of Israel who led the people out of Egypt.
Deborah was a judge and prophetess of Israel, giving leadership and instruction to the people of Israel. “The sons of Israel came up to her for judgment.” When she prophesied concerning the demise of Sisera, commanding Barak (a man) to lead an army to attack him, Barak said, “only if you go with me.” As a result of his cowardice, it was a woman (Jael) who killed Sisera by driving a tent peg through his skull, (You go girl!) and is honored among the people.
In 2 Chronicles a female prophet named Hulda is sought out by the King to give the word of the Lord. She did not break into a meeting uninvited and proclaim and shout “I am woman, hear me prophesy!” She was SOUGHT OUT by a male king to give instruction!
In all, there are about a dozen passages of scripture that either directly state or possibly infer that women instructed men. Was that a result of God’s back up plan because men had failed in their responsibility to lead, as I have heard some claim? Do you believe God is sovereign? Do you believe God was unable to raise up a man to do His work? Surely not. This line of reasoning is insulting to both the power of God, and the value of women! Seriously, in the words of that Sonic commercial dude “Don’t bring that weak tot action!” If we claim the authority of scripture, we must consider its entire testimony. I encourage you to examine these passages for yourself. So… what about that 1 timothy passage? Does the Bible give mixed or even contradictory messages concerning women in ministry? We will discuss that in the next post.