Romans 16: The Backstory of Women in Ministry

If you haven’t been reading the posts inspired by Rachel Held Evans‘s Week of Mutuality, you’re missing out. Search for #mutuality2012 on Twitter or read her blog for updates. I love me a good writing prompt, so here are my thoughts on my favorite Bible chapter that speaks to the role of women in the church.

I’ve heard the discussions all my life: what can a woman do and what can she not do in church? Because, you know, Paul liked submission and and it’s pretty clear when Paul says NO TALKING it means no preaching or teaching (though talking in a video in front of the church is OK) and 1 Peter said no gold chains and Genesis 2 said “cleave” and there’s the whole covering your head thing and then–my personal favorite–there’s that whole “weaker vessel” bit, so there’s that. On the other hand, Deborah and the prophecying daughters and the whole Galatians “neither male, nor female” thing, and Priscilla and Phoebe and Junias and the women at Jesus’s tomb and the way Jesus (rather than Paul) talked about and treated women, and then the fact that women were quite glibly doing things in the Bible they’re not really allowed to do, like being deacons and speaking out and teaching and even (gasp!) being apostles. So there’s that too.

I know they were doing those things because I’ve spent time reading Romans 16. It’s one of those end chapters in which Paul thanks everybody and gives personal messages (“I, Paul, write in my own hand…”). I always like those parts because I love to read stories, so I wonder who those people are. Some of them have the most delicious names–if we ever get two cats, they’re going to be Tryphena and Tryphosa.

The thing I love about that chapter is that, while we argue ad nauseum about what “weaker” means or how “submission” plays out or what “speaking in church” looks like, Paul quietly shows us how women worked in the early church.

Phoebe is commended by Paul as a deacon in the church of Cenchreae, a servant who should be greeted with the respect owed a worthy benefactor of the Lord. She brings the letter; she’s given Paul’s unequivocal stamp of approval.

Priscilla and her husband Aquila (she’s always mentioned first) are described by Paul as his “co-workers.” Can it get much more equal than that? I love the story of the way they invite the man in and teach him about the gospel from Acts. I think Priscilla and I could have been good friends. And Paul greets the church that meets at their house (where I’m sure Priscilla never talked and where she certainly never passed anyone any food). Paul also greets the church that meets in their house–their leadership is generous and hospitable.

Mary is mentioned as a hard worker for the sake of the Roman church.

Junia is outstanding among the apostles–she’s not just an apostle, but a really good one.

Tryphena, Tryphosa and Persis are all women who worked very hard in the Lord and Paul takes the time to affirm them for their actions.

He makes sure, when he greets Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermes, Patrobas, and Hermas, to also include the other brothers and sisters with them (I don’t know the Greek, but when the NIV adds women in, it’s usually because it’s not just the all-inclusive male noun). He also includes women like Julia, and Nereus’s sister, and Rufus’s mother.

He greets the women by name and by title, thanks them for their work and identifies ways in which they are already actively serving the church. There was no one way for women to act because there wasn’t just one woman. Servants and speakers, leaders and listeners, hard-working go-getters and hospitable home-openers: these are the women in the church in Rome.

They look a lot like women in my church, too.

One comment on “Romans 16: The Backstory of Women in Ministry

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