Total Pageviews

Thursday, January 31, 2019

Phoebe: A light in the darkness of Rome.

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!


While there was darkness and oppression of women in the Roman culture, there was also a light that penetrated the darkness, revealing a woman who stood up against the adversity and shined brightly the truth of God’s word. That woman’s name was Phoebe. Phoebe was a bright and shining light in the early church, a dedicated servant that the Apostle Paul highly commended in the last chapter of his great epistle to the Roman Christians.

Romans 16:1-2
        “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!

Jesus and the woman caught in adultery.

This is a powerful scene from my book, "Broken yet beautiful: Rising up from their ashes." The pharisees bring to Jesus a woman caught in adultery to test his reaction. What Jesus does shocks them and challenges their cultural view about the status of women. The reaction of Jesus is the perfect model for the church today on how women should be treated with mercy instead of contempt and ridicule.

     The view of women in the culture of Jesus’s day was both sad and deplorable. Women were treated as second-class citizens by the religious establishment:

“The oral law of Jesus’s day,” “Let the words of the law be burned rather than committed to women!” “The woman,” says the Law, is in all things inferior to man. Let her accordingly be submissive.”
(Apion 2:210)
“Praised be to God that he has not created me a gentile: Praised be to God that he created me not a woman.”      (The thanksgiving prayer of a Jew)

               A Rabbi considered it beneath his dignity to speak in public to a woman.
        This was the mood of the Jewish religious culture and it was very hostile to the average woman. It was into this culture that Jesus came to restore the value, dignity and worth of a woman,

        In the Gospel of John, Chapter 8, verses 3-11, the Bible unveils a heated scenario between the Pharisees and scribes concerning a woman caught in the act of adultery. They immediately bring the woman to Jesus with motive of testing him. To the religious leaders the woman was merely property owned by her husband and her vile act had brought disgrace upon him. However, it is interesting and perhaps deliberate that the man caught in the offense was conveniently missing. Why hadn’t he been brought to be stoned along with the woman? It is also worth pointing out that the religious leaders were really not interested in upholding God’s moral law, they were instead intent on exposing Jesus as a false prophet and discrediting him. The adulterous woman had become their perfect propaganda tool to confront and discredit the Son of God. Filled with passionate rage they looked Jesus in the eyes and asked the question:

        “Will you have her stoned as the law required?
        The religious leaders were referencing Deuteronomy chapter 22 and verses 23-30.

        The religious leaders had devised an elaborate scheme to expose Jesus as a false prophet. If he agreed with the law in favor of the woman being stoned, then they would point out that he was betraying his reputation among the crowds as being a compassionate rabbi. If, however he spared the woman’s life, they would cry out that he was disobeying the law of Moses and was therefore a false prophet. The religious leaders were convinced they had cornered Jesus into an impossible trap to escape from.

        Jesus knowing the intent of their deceitful hearts, bent down and began writing with his finger in the sand. While theologians have debated for centuries what exactly Jesus was writing, it is possible that he was writing down their individual sins. However, there is a pertinent passage in the Book of Jeremiah that is more likely referring to what Jesus was writing, a passage that speaks of God’s judgment upon a rebellious religious establishment.

        “O Lord, the hope of Israel, all that forsake thee shall be ashamed, and they that depart from me shall be written in the earth, because they have forsaken the Lord, the fountains of living waters.
                                           (Jeremiah 17:13)
        The text should literally read, “those who turn aside from my ways, will have their names written in the dust and blotted out.”

        In writing in the dust with his finger, Jesus was instead pointing the accusing finger of judgment upon the corrupt religious leaders. Jesus stood up and in a precise and confrontational tone pointed his finger of judgment at them exposing their hypocrisy.

        “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her!”

        With this confronting declaration, Jesus forever silenced the mouths of the religious elite. They were unprepared for this heart-piercing confrontation. Their hypocrisy had been exposed and one by one they let the stones fall from their hands and departed.

        In one of the most beautiful scenes in all of the Bible, the adulterous woman was left alone with Jesus. No doubt she was still shaking with fear and anxiety. Yet Jesus shows tenderness, respect and compassion for this woman. He treated her with great value instead of condemning her for her sin. The religious leaders had treated her as damaged goods with malicious contempt, but the Son of God reached out and showed her mercy instead. He showed respect first by acting contrary to the rabbinic code of that day, He spoke to the woman.

        “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”

        “No one Lord,” The woman replied.

        “Neither do I condemn you, “Jesus reassured her, “Go and from now on sin no more.”     


        This is a beautiful illustration of the compassion and respect that Jesus demonstrated toward women. He confronted the abusive religious leaders, exposed their hypocritical hearts, and stood in defense of this adulterous woman. Jesus did not deny that she had sinned but instead of condemnation he extended grace and mercy toward her. When I read about the horrific stories on the internet of Muslim crowds stoning women to death in Middle-Eastern countries like Pakistan, engaging in honor killings, I immediately think of this beautiful account in John’s gospel. I can picture Jesus standing in defense of these helpless women and pointing the accusing finger back at them. Jesus is the “God of Justice” a defender of the honor of women. He refused to align himself with the false Rabbinic code of his day and instead lifted women out of the gutters of discrimination, restoring to them their dignity as equal image bearers of God.