Phoebe, Prisca and Junia: Three Women in the Eye of the Evangelical Storm

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In Romans 16 the Apostle Paul mentions three women who have been recently become the subject of a great deal of conversation and controversy in the evangelical church.

Who are these women?

What does Paul say about them?

What impact should these statements have on our understanding of gender and ministry?

Phoebe: A Servant (Deacon?) Of The Church In Cenchreae

I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church at Cenchreae, that you may welcome her in the Lord in a way worthy of the saints, and help her in whatever she may need from you, for she has been a patron of many and of myself as well. (Romans 16:1–2 ESV)

Church historians have long believed that Phoebe was the person who delivered Paul’s letter to the Romans. She is mentioned as “a servant of the church at Cenchreae”. Cenchreae was a port city near Corinth where Paul was located while writing Romans. It seems that she was a wealthy woman and that she had a well established reputation for generous service among the saints.

It is clear from Paul’s mention of her in Romans 16:1 that Phoebe had some recognized standing within the church; but what was her role specifically? How you answer that question, in large part, depends on which English translation you are using. The 2011 NIV has Paul saying: “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church in Cenchreae” (Romans 16:1 NIV11-GK).

The ESV renders the same verse: “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church at Cenchreae” (Romans 16:1 ESV).

The controversy has to do with the correction translation of the Greek word diakonos.  The word technically does mean “servant”, but in the course of church history it came to refer to the office of “deacon”. In what sense then should it be understood here? Thomas Schreiner contends that:

it is likely that she held the office of deacon… for this is the only occasion in which the term diakonos is linked with a particular local church. [1]

He goes on, however, to remind his readers that they must be cautious about reading modern notions of the deaconate back into a first century text. Leon Morris, a convictional egalitarian [2], offers similar counsel:

the social conditions of the time were such that there must have been the need for feminine church workers to assist in such matters as the baptism of women or anything that meant contact with women’s quarters in homes. The form of expression here makes it more likely that an official is meant than the more general term “servant”, though in view of the wide use of the term for the general concept of service this is far from being proved. [3]

It seems reasonable then to suggest that Phoebe was credited as some sort of recognized officer of the church in Cenchreae. This office was likely focused on ministry to women and may have extended to the care of orphans, widows and the sick.

Prisca: My Fellow Worker In Christ Jesus

Greet Prisca and Aquila, my fellow workers in Christ Jesus, who risked their necks for my life, to whom not only I give thanks but all the churches of the Gentiles give thanks as well. Greet also the church in their house.  (Romans 16:3–5 ESV)

Our appreciation of Prisca, or Priscilla as she is known in Acts, is greatly aided by the additional narrative that is supplied in Luke’s Acts Of The Apostles. In Acts 18 for example we are told:

After this Paul left Athens and went to Corinth. And he found a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had commanded all the Jews to leave Rome. And he went to see them, and because he was of the same trade he stayed with them and worked, for they were tentmakers by trade. (Acts 18:1–3 ESV)

Later on in the same chapter, Luke tells us that she and her husband had a positive influence on Apollos, who later became a well known preacher in the church.

He began to speak boldly in the synagogue, but when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him aside and explained to him the way of God more accurately. (Acts 18:26 ESV)

The fact that Paul mentions Prisca first in Romans 16, before her husband, has been suggested by some to mean that she was more knowledgeable than her husband. Thomas Schreiner notes:

This hypothesis may be true, although it is impossible to verify it. [4]

Leon Morris thinks it just as likely that it suggests she was of more noble birth than her husband.

What can be said for sure is that she worked alongside her husband in planting churches with the Apostle Paul, sometimes hosting those churches in their home. Further, it appears she had a very firm grasp of the Gospel and partnered with her husband in mentoring new believers.

Junia: Well Known To/In/Among The Apostles

Greet Andronicus and Junia, my kinsmen and my fellow prisoners. They are well known to the apostles, and they were in Christ before me. (Romans 16:7 ESV)

The debate about Junia, mentioned along with her husband Andronicus, has to do with the phrase “they are well known to the apostles”.  The phrase could also be translated “they are well known (or outstanding) among the apostles” and is translated as such by the 2011 NIV: “They are outstanding among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was”  (Romans 16:7 NIV11-GK).

The Greek construction has the preposition en plus the dative which generally has the meaning “in, on or among”. Thus an equally sound argument can be made that Andronicus and Junia were well known in the circle of the Apostles (the sense of the ESV) or that they were well known as being among the circle of the Apostles (the sense of the NIV).

When a word or a sentence legitimately could be translated in a variety of ways, scholars generally appeal to the wider context to inform them as to the author’s original intent. Unfortunately, in this case, there is no wider context. The names are thrown out in a laundry list of greetings and salutations. There is no accompanying narrative, as in the case of Priscilla, that could help us make sense of this ambiguous phrase. Andronicus and Junia are recognized and greeted by Paul, and then they are never mentioned in Scripture again.

Therefore, unless you are attempting to buttress an otherwise indefensible argument, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of theological or ecclesiological utility to this citation. All that can be said for sure is that Junia was well known and well respected by the Apostle Paul and that she had become a Christian before him. Saying anything else puts you rather far out on a rather thin limb, indeed.

Celebration, Commendation And Caution

As our culture begins to explore and redefine traditional notions of sexuality and gender, the focus on these women and their stories is likely to increase exponentially. Those holding to a more traditional understanding of gender must be careful not to diminish or under represent the significance of these women or their contribution to the Christian story. At the same time, those embracing the new understanding of gender must not ask these texts to bear more theological freight than they can reasonably carry.

With that in mind, I offer the following celebrations, commendations and cautions.

Celebrations:

The church should celebrate its glorious history with respect to the elevation and protection of women. Historian Rodney Stark – who has described himself as “incapable of belief” and yet who writes very positively about the early Christian church says:

Women were especially drawn to Christianity because if offered them a life that was so greatly superior to the life they otherwise would have led. [5]

Jesus welcomed women into his inner circle. He encouraged them to learn, he spoke to them directly and he insisted that they be treated kindly and with respect. Women played key roles in the planting of churches and the expansion of the Kingdom of God throughout the Roman world.

Based on the texts studied above, we can safely add that women held office in the church, they hosted churches in their homes, they funded churches out of their private resources, they ministered to women, widows, the sick and the young; they enjoyed the respect of the Apostles and they were involved in the mentoring of new believers.

This can and should be remembered and celebrated by God’s people.

Commendations:

Based on these texts, a strong argument can and should be made for the practice of planting churches as husband and wife. If a church is “the household of faith”, then it makes sense to have male and female leaders from the planting stage onwards. No credible argument could be made from the Scriptures against this basic assertion.

Furthermore, it should be obvious from these texts and other texts like Proverbs 31 that a woman can be active and successful in the world of business. Women have made and can continue to make an important contribution to the Great Commission as wealthy benefactors. Successful women funded the ministry of Jesus, they funded churches and they funded the missionary work of the Apostle Paul. Women who feel so led and inclined today should be encouraged to follow the examples of Lydia, Phoebe and Prisca in using their businesses to further the Kingdom of God.

Cautions:

None of these texts appears to contribute meaningfully to the current debate about whether or not women should serve as pastors or elders in the church. None of these texts says anything about a woman preaching the sermon in a worship service. None of these texts says that a woman was functioning as a bishop or a pastor or an elder of a local church. None of these texts says anything that would contradict or obscure the clear teaching of the Apostle Paul in 1 Timothy 2 where he says: “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet” (1 Timothy 2:12 ESV).

He said something similar to the church meeting in Corinth; a church that at one point at least may have been meeting in the house of Priscilla and Aquila:

As in all the churches of the saints, the women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says. (1 Corinthians 14:33–34 ESV)

Earlier in the same letter Paul had said that a woman could pray or prophesy in the corporate service (11:4-5); therefore, many scholars understand “keep silent” in chapter 14 to mean “stand down during the public teaching of the word” – an interpretation further strengthened by the immediate context which is dealing with order during public services.

Therefore, while it seems that Paul planted churches alongside gifted couples and while he recognized women as holding the office of deacon and while he had no objection to a husband and wife mentoring a young leader, he does not appear to anywhere endorse women pastors, preachers, elders or overseers.

The stories of these women should be told and enjoyed in the church without forcing them to participate in our twenty first century conflicts with respect to sexuality, gender and ministry.

SDG

Paul Carter

N.B. To listen to Pastor Paul’s Into The Word devotional podcast on the TGC Canada website see here; to listen on SoundCloud see here. You can also find it on iTunes.

N.B. Some of this material was published earlier in articles by the same author.


[1] Thomas R. Schreiner, Romans, Baker Exegetical Commentary On The New Testament, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1998), 787.

[2] The term ‘egalitarian’ refers to an understanding of gender whereby men and women are equal in every way.  It is generally opposed to the view known as “complementarianism” which means “equal but different”. Functionally it has to do with whether roles are assigned in the home and church according to gender.

[3] Leon Morris, The Epistle to the Romans, Pillar New Testament Commentary. Accordance electronic ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), 529.

[4] Thomas R. Schreiner, Romans, Baker Exegetical Commentary On The New Testament, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1998), 795.

[5] Rodney Stark, The Triumph Of Christianity. (New york: HarperCollins, 2011), 122.

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