Women in the Roman Church

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

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

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.

Junia

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.

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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!

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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.

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Crossing the Racial Divide

Romans 10 through Romans 12 is quite clear about one thing. Harmony.

Different notes. Chords. Beauty because of the differences, not in spite of them.

Which is never, ever easy. And it is much easier to write, than to live.

It is right, though. Let’s not forget that.

The New Testament letter to the Romans, through a long and deep argument, eventually explains this with clarity. These three chapters are powerful. Here is but a part:

There was a time not so long ago when you were on the outs with God. But then the Jews slammed the door on him and things opened up for you. Now they are on the outs. But with the door held wide open for you, they have a way back in. In one way or another, God makes sure that we all experience what it means to be outside so that he can personally open the door and welcome us back in. (Romans 11:30-32; The Message)

Everyone — every believer — has been on the outside at one time. Everyone.

But before we make this preach something it isn’t, understand this. There was an ethnical obstacle in Rome that was preventing the harmony God wants for his believers.

It was — dare I say it? — a racial divide.

Their division was based on skin color, ethnic heritage, political rulings and cultural preferences. And those things kept the church divided. Jewish people were expelled from Rome, which left the Gentile church to grow in a different direction. Now, the Jewish believers were coming back to town, and weren’t finding the welcome they anticipated. So Paul appealed to them on a much deeper level.

Behind and underneath all this there is a holy, God-planted, God-tended root. If the primary root of the tree is holy, there’s bound to be some holy fruit. Some of the tree’s branches were pruned and you wild olive shoots were grafted in. Yet the fact that you are now fed by that rich and holy root gives you no cause to crow over the pruned branches. Remember, you aren’t feeding the root; the root is feeding you. (Romans 11:16-18; The Message)

God is the tree. Everyone grows from that holy tree as branches. Some fall away. Some are pruned. And some are grafted back.

The sober truth of this passage is that if today, in modern America, we choose to not bridge cultural and racial and political divides, then we look more like culture than heaven.

Our churches, for the most part, mimic our own preferences. We build buildings on the outskirts of town, away from the dirtiness of our cities, because our membership has “moved.” Maybe we’ve believed we’ve led our membership in capital campaigns to build bigger structures. We feel good about what we’ve built. But it could also be true that leadership — or the lack of it — has led our churches to believe personal preferences for location can override the mission of God.

Or, we refuse to go to the “better” part of town for fear of acceptance. We’ve been told, politically, that we should receive the graces of social justice at the expense of those with more, and we’ve been taught that our “have not” should be satisfied by those who “have.” So we believe that, and hold tight to that, refusing to take the bigger step of faith.

Or, we “plant” churches on the other side of town, or just a mile or two away, because we fear what would happen if we begin to combine all of the cultures.

But those actions do not make us look like believers. They make us look like skeptics.

We don’t trust God to bridge the differences.

Would it be messy if wealthy churches stayed in the middle of our cities, and in the middle of impoverished neighborhoods?

Would it be messy if we actually invited, and accepted people of a difference cultural lifestyle into our sanctuaries?

Absolutely. It would be messy. There would be all sorts of issues, and most of them wouldn’t be easy to bear.

But it would be harmony. And miraculous. We would be asking God to do something we obviously can’t do, and obviously don’t want to do. Here are Paul’s words:

So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you. (Romans 12:1, 2; The Message)

Our lack of mutual acceptance tells our world we don’t believe God can do the unthinkable, in our own hearts and against our own spoken or non-spoken prejudices.

Here is the miracle, as described in another translation:

Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is —his good, pleasing and perfect will. (Romans 12:1, 2; NIV84)

We need a transformation, so our churches will not look like the world — or the neighborhoods — around us.

Churches, and church gatherings can prove God is alive by our diversity alone.

Because only God can walk us across racial divides.

This Is Who We Are

Blessings to you today, and thank you for joining me. This is my forty-third straight day reading through the New Testament, and you are reading my forty-third straight blog post over those readings. It has blessed me tremendously.

Today’s reading is Romans 4 through Romans 6. These three chapters are powerful, but I must confess that while reading them, I could only think of a preacher that preaches way too long.

And I mean no disrespect there. It’s really what my mind is willing to handle. Paul has a powerful theological argument, but it’s hard to digest these three chapters. Maybe you’ve found the same thing to be true.

Nevertheless, after switching translations (I linked to The Message above) and reading it fresh, the three chapters made a bit more sense to me. There are powerful words here that speak to us. This letter, in these three chapters, makes it clear that we — me and you and anyone you know — are mere followers in life.

We are powerless. We constantly rely on opinions, consultations, friendships, and counsel. We are born into a world, into a reality, designed for us to live together, in community, and we suffer greatly apart from it.

Culture, though, has seriously polluted community for us. We find illusions to it, now, in social media, where our online connections make us feel whole, even though it is illusory. Genuine community has become the victim to a personalized world. We’ve been taught to follow no one, isolating ourselves in our own hand-built world.

In this letter to the Romans, though, we find who we really are. We find our deepest created tendencies as followers. I find this comforting today. I hope you will, too.

We want to believe.

Belief is powerful. It is the blood of our anticipation. It is how we cope with our own smallness. We want to believe someone can do something that seems impossible to accomplish.

This letter to a disheveled Roman church tunes our ears to this very human instinct, and places our desire to believe squarely in the arena of faith. We want to believe that God will make us right, even against our own failures. We are made to believe that. It is our ultimate belief. Our own guilt is not the byproduct of cultural stipulations. It is the God-given signal that there is, genuinely, a right way to live. And we want to believe that.

Yet our own failures make this an impossibility. Temper, lust, anger, deceit. All of those, every day, prove to us our own inability to just be right — to just live right.

God, though, made Abraham someone he couldn’t become on his own, because he believed God could. God made him a father. He energized Abraham’s physical body to produce a child with his wife, Sarah, whose womb was dry with age. All Abraham had to do was believe it was possible, and then he became the father of us all. His life is a testament to the very power, and very necessity, of belief.

And Abraham believed even before there was some overbearing law that dictated right and wrong. Abraham knew what was right, without any written or taught standard. And his belief was rewarded. Ours is, too, through the awesome miracle of reconciliation.

Not only does God accept our belief, but validates it, every time we sin, by completely restoring our relationship with him. He restores this relationship to the pristine, pre-sin condition. Every time. Even when …

We still want to sin.

But even in the shadow of our own dreams, we are reminded, again, of our complete brokenness. We want to sin. Even writing that phrase, here, makes me shutter. Even my best attempt at holiness is met with my own failure.

Because we share the same desire to sin that was given to Adam. We share the same desire to become our own god. That is why God’s grace is necessary.

Grace is the only thing that can defeat our own tendency to leave God.

This is the verse, this morning, that energized me:

But sin didn’t, and doesn’t, have a chance in competition with the aggressive forgiveness we call grace. When it’s sin versus grace, grace wins hands down. All sin can do is threaten us with death, and that’s the end of it. (Romans 5:20, 21; The Message)

Even our own sin is matchless against the force of God’s grace.

We want to follow.

This letter, in chapter 6, tells the story of humanity, though, even after it shows us our own created tendencies to believe and sin. Ultimately, we are sheep. We want, earnestly, to follow something. Even great leaders in our own human systems rely on opinions and consultations of a larger group. No person makes great decisions on their own.

A baptism into the life of Jesus gives us a way to follow, though. This way changes our desires. It changes our actions. But do we completely understand that?

Our preferences change. Or at least they should, A baptism into the name of Jesus is a baptism into a completely different life. We no longer want to do the same destructive things.

Instead, we sacrifice those desires to live a completely whole life, free of guilt. That is radical.

To a city filled with slaves, Paul wrote about intentional slavery in this letter. Most slaves were held against their will, but the historical record indicates that, in Rome, some families intentionally became slaves for the guarantee of security and food.

Our life is an intentional life of slavery. We will intentionally be enslaved to a lifestyle that will destroy us, or we will intentionally be enslaved to a lifestyle that will always resurrect us.

And this is who we are.

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All through today’s reading, I kept playing this song in the back of my mind. It’s got a great guitar hook, but the lyrics are spot on. By a band called Hyperstatic Union, the song is called Slave. You can find it here.

In the Absence of God

My forty-second day in the New Testament begins with the Paul’s letter to the Romans, and specifically the first three chapters. Thank you for joining me this summer. I also encourage you, too, to leave any comment you would like, on any post.

Here’s where we are, with Paul.

He wrote this letter to the five Roman house churches listed in Romans 16. It is also the last letter he wrote before he was imprisoned, which means he probably wrote this from Corinth around AD 56. Which may or may not matter to you. But historically, it matters a great deal.

In AD 49, Roman emperor Claudius expelled all Jews living in Rome because of the heated disputes between Orthodox Jews and Jewish Christians. The public disturbances must have been great. Rome had a population of between 500,000 and 1 million people, with about 40,000 of them being Jews.

A very small segment of the population had the rest of the population upset.

But when Claudius died, Nero became emperor, and Jewish people began to trickle back into Rome.

The Gentile Christians seemed to have developed a church style that was markedly different from what the Jewish Christians had left, though. Because the church climate was different, both groups had some pretty extreme difficulties accepting each other when they were reunited.

Sounds like our own family reunions, doesn’t it?

Anyway, this could only result in a crisis point in Rome for the church. Paul wrote this letter within a couple of years of this reunion — the disagreements happened quick, then, and they were sharp.

So Paul, who had plans to visit this city, penned a letter to them. He needed the size and importance of Rome to better move God’s message of grace across the Roman empire, but he also needed a safe landing when he arrived. He had no authority there, though. He had not planted that church. But he knew several believers, so he wrote his appeal, and letter, to them.

And so this is what gets us to the opening chapters of this book. And the first three chapters, even though they are a little wordy, will preach.

Because everyone is the same.

We are made to worship. Even those who do not believe in Jesus will worship something. Saviors come in a variety of ways, and Paul, in Romans 1, writes that, usually, any savior other than Jesus will look like something we make with our hands. We make our own visible god.

We like doing that. We like accepting and worshiping visible gods because visible gods do not convict our hearts. We prefer gods we can see, because we prefer gods we can control. We build these visible gods with our passion, our money, and our time, and choose the terms of our relationship.

But when we worship visible gods, we begin a pattern of destroying our lives. We destroy our intimacy with others. We destroy our own identity. And we destroy our relationships with others.

And this is how Paul opens this letter.

These first few verses in Romans 1 enrage us, though. And we typically use them most as a treatise against homosexuality. At least that’s what I learned growing up. That is allowable, from the text, and the language, though. But before we isolate one sinful behavior, we must give equal time to speaking against the other things in this passage, too:

  • Greed
  • Envy
  • Murder
  • Strife
  • Deceit
  • Malice
  • Gossip
  • Slander
  • God-haters
  • Insolence
  • Arrogance
  • Boasting
  • Disobedience to parents
  • Senseless
  • Faithless
  • Heartless
  • Ruthless

But we don’t do that, because most of us struggle with any one the other sins, I suspect. We may not struggle with homosexuality, but greed, on the other hand, can go hand in hand with the American dream, and our want of more and more. Quite a few of us, at least in America, probably struggle with greed.

So see the danger in picking just one sin to exploit? It’s no wonder that those who practice homosexuality generally do not like the practice of Christianity — we miss the forest because of the trees. Any of these destructive behaviors can be adopted by anyone who walks away from God.

Here’s one of the most powerful verses in these three chapters:

You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge the other, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things. (Romans 2:1)

We have no right to speak against anyone. And while we give special weight to the verses of homosexuality, we generally refuse to even mention the other behaviors — even while we bring any, or all, of these very same behaviors to the table of communion and fellowship.

How many of us suffer from arrogance?

How many of us abhor people who have much less than us?

Or how many of us seethe, and are envious, at the success of others?

How many of us readily participate in the gossip Facebook easily affords? Maybe we don’t share it, or “like” it, but we are all too ready to read it.

Do we lie, and lie often?

Are we dishonest on our tax returns, to have a bigger refund?

Maybe some of us even engage in homosexual behaviors.

Go ahead and lump all of those behaviors into one big group. They are the behaviors and patterns of our life, when we live any part of our life in the absence of God.

Paul knows this. You know this. He says as much:

… for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God … (Romans 3:23)

Paul isn’t leveling his audience with guilt. Nor should these words level us with guilt.

We live like non-believers, and we live like them all the time. It’s an obvious statement.

No one is morally superior.

Man, that’s heavy this morning. I must admit, I didn’t know what this post would look like. Reading these three chapters and some outside resources left my head spinning. But this is how Paul opens his most amazing letter.

He exalts God at our expense.

Here is what Paul writes, right before he tells us we all sin all the time:

This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference … (Romans 3:22)

And I love that. God makes us all right, even though we are all sinners. Lives can be different. The behaviors in Romans 1 can stop. While we share the very same sinful behaviors in the absence of God, we all share the very same forgiveness in a life lived for God.

Because, you see, Romans is about grace. And I can’t wait to read the rest of it.