The debate over women leadership in the church is firmly settled by the teachings of the Apostle Paul. Traditionalists try to mold Paul into their theological mindset, but instead the mighty apostle emerges as a staunch supporter of women's ministry in the churches. Paul was anything but a misogynistic apostle! When read in context, He was one of the greatest supporters of women's rights in a Middle Eastern culture rampant with oppression and discrimination!
“I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church in 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.”
Origen, an early church father, scholar and theologian (184-253) shared his insights on the Romans 16 passage written by Paul…
“This passage teaches two things at the same time; “women are to be considered ministers in the church, and ought to be received into ministry.”
I want to make one thing extremely clear from the outset. The Apostle Paul was not a misogynist! Although many conservative scholars teach that he placed Biblical restrictions on what a woman could do or not do in a church ministry, Paul certainly did not fit their mold. Here in Romans 16, he praises several women, Phoebe, Acquila and Priscila, as well as recognizing Junia as an apostle! Through misguided and bias teachings, Paul’s reputation has been tarnished and many scholars have turned him into a rugged, disciplinarian who put heavy restrictions on women in the church. Later on, in section three, I will address the select Scriptures used by those who believe that the Bible has put limitations on the function of women in church ministry.
Returning to Romans 16, there are several important points to consider on what Paul says about Phoebe. Paul refers to Phoebe as servant, using the Greek words, diakonos and doulos. The Greek word, diakonos, is where the term deacon is derived from. A deacon in the first century society referred to one who ministered, a slave considered to be a household servant. In the New Testament, diakonos is the word that Paul used to describe the ministry of Christ as well as his own ministry. In the same way, Phoebe was described by the Apostle Paul as a servant, a messenger like Christ, not making any distinctions because of her gender. Paul puts Phoebe on the same level as other church leaders such as Tychais, Epaphras, and Timothy. It is a well-known fact of history that Phoebe was a house church leader in a local church, the church of Cenchreae.
Phoebe was also the person that Paul probably chose to deliver his letter to the Roman house churches. In Romans 16 he introduces Phoebe as the official letter carrier to the Roman congregation. She read the letter to the congregation and was also able to provide commentary on the doctrinal issues in the book of Romans. Phoebe had proven herself to be a trustworthy and respected church leader to the Apostle Paul, He entrusted Phoebe with the great message of salvation to the Roman world!
“Phoebe carried under the folds of her robe, the whole future of Christian theology!”
In verse 2 of Romans 16, Paul recognizes Phoebe as the “patron” or “benefactor” to many people, including me.”
The Greek word for patron or benefactor is prostatis. The CEV (Contemporary English Version) renders the word, prostatis as “leader” and “defender of many.” According to this Greek word, Phoebe is much more than just a helper.
In the ancient world, the word prostatis which is equivalent to the word, prostates, had a strong connotation toward leadership. Aristotle used the word prostates to describe a person designated to stand before others as a “democratic leader” or a “protector of the people.” These people were responsible for protecting citizens against the attacks of chief magistrates in power. They would defend the underprivileged in the courts.
In Rome, prostates served as a technical term for the “leader” or the “president of the Jewish community.” Why wasn’t this same word translated that way and applied to Phoebe? Unfortunately, once again, the poison of bias has crept into the translator’s mind simply because theologians would not believe that the Apostle Paul would ever be in favor of a woman pastor. Yet here in Romans 16, The Apostle Paul commends and praises Phoebe as someone who is a trustworthy close associate that God mightily used in spreading the gospel in addition to also serving as a competent and bold house church leader in Cenchreae.
God was grieved over the gender discrimination and oppression of women in both the Greek and Roman cultures and raised up Phoebe from the ashes to be a blazing light in the darkness, demonstrating to the world her incredible value and worth as an equal image bearer!