The women in Paul’s life were fairly important.
Today, I would like to introduce you to seven of these ladies, from Romans 16. Keep in mind that each of these ladies were Jewish, which means they emerged from a male-dominated religious belief system when they accepted Jesus as their Messiah.
Phoebe was a deacon in the church in Cenchrea. Even though some translations call her a deaconess, the word is actually deacon. Women who labored in churches were not called deaconesses until the fourth century. And she is the first person specifically mentioned as a deacon in history. But not only was she a deacon, she led a specific ministry. The phrase “a great help to many people” in Romans 16:2 actually has a little more force to it. Her ministry was to care and protect. And if she sheltered many people, she probably had wealth and resources.
Priscilla was the wife of Aquila. They are mentioned together six times in the New Testament, with her name listed before her husband’s name four of those times, which was not altogether normal in a male-dominated world. It’s not normal today, either.
She may have been from Rome because her name is mentioned first, but the placement of her name could also mean that she was of a higher social status, and had a greater influence, in the church in Rome than her husband. Both were Paul’s coworkers and they were teachers, mentioned in Acts 18, and their ministry was specifically to the Gentile churches, best known for their work in Corinth. They also taught Apollos, who was a very prominent believer and teacher. In Rome, a church gathering met regularly in their home.
Mary, Tryphena, Tryphosa, Persis
Little is said about them, but their description does matter. Paul writes that they “worked very hard” for the church in Rome. The Greek word Paul used to describe the intensity of their work, too, was used only in reference to the women in this chapter. In other words, only these women “worked hard.” Tryphena, Tryphosa, and Persis were all slave names. They were presumably freed long before Paul wrote this letter, because of the time they were able to give to “work hard” for the Lord. Persis, too, was “beloved” by Paul, and she was, at least, a dear friend of his.
Many English translations call her Junias, which is a male name. But textual scholars almost unanimously agree that the word here is Junia, and that Paul referenced a woman. Even the earliest Greek texts of Paul’s letter to the Romans indicate the word should be Junia, and not Junias.
Junia was a fellow prisoner with Paul, along with Andronicus. Some scholars have linked them as husband and wife by the way Paul wrote their names, but that can’t necessarily be proven. He also called them his relatives, which could mean blood relations, or kinsmen.
Paul also commended her, and Andronicus, as “outstanding among the apostles.” Much has been written about this phrase, but know this: every time Paul used the word apostle, he meant it as someone who had seen Christ, and had been called to deliver a message of grace. It is fairly safe to say that he actually recognized Junia as an apostle, and others did, as well.
Junia was also a believer before Paul accepted Jesus as Messiah. Which means that if she was an apostle, and she did see Christ, she may have been from Palestine. Her testimony would be profound. As a Jewish woman, she could bear witness that Jesus was everything he ever claimed to be.
And for whatever its worth, Paul doesn’t commend anyone else in this chapter with the same forceful and honorable language has he does Junia and Andronicus.
Phoebe was a deacon.
Maria, Tryphena, Trophosa, and Persis worked and labored hard, and the latter three may have even once been slaves.
Priscilla had incredible influence in the Roman church, and, with her husband, taught Apollos.
Junia was recognized in the rank of the apostles, and was imprisoned for publicly proclaiming the message of Jesus.
And while I let you draw your own conclusions about this, we can at least be clear about one thing. Paul had absolutely no problem with these women holding esteemed leadership positions in church assemblies and gatherings across Rome, regardless of what we know to be true about other passages, written by Paul, concerning a woman’s role in a community of believers.
The women in Romans all seemed to yield tremendous influence in various cities across the Roman empire, and that did not seem to change when they returned to Rome. Paul encouraged the Gentile believers there to accept them as such.
As we close this letter, though, let’s remember what Paul desired for the believers in Rome. He wanted them to be together, to live together, to worship together, to eat together. He wouldn’t dare ask them to treat anyone in a submissive way, after all he had written about God’s intentions for harmony and unity within their church. Instead, he asked each cultural group to submit to the other.
And Paul closed this letter, in Romans 16:16, by asking the Gentile believers to embrace and kiss each of the Jewish people he listed in this chapter. They were a family, and they should begin to act like one.
It’s not surprising that he did this. He began his letter with this statement:
For God does not show favoritism. (Romans 2:11; NIV84)
And he ended his letter by showing its reality. The ground is truly level at the foot of the cross. For us to falter in this reality, we truly show our disbelief at God’s miracle of unity.
But I’ll not stop praying for this miracle, and I’ll keep praying these words, from Habakkuk 3:2:
Lord, do great things again in our time!
This is my forty-seventh straight post, while reading through the New Testament in 90 days. Tomorrow we begin 1 Corinthians. You can begin with us tomorrow, or start at the beginning. My posts here are meant to only complement what you read, by sharing how God stirs my own thoughts every day. Thanks for reading.