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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A Multicultural Experience

Be aware of disputable matters. Because they will be part of a multicultural church experience.

But let’s not make these verses preach something that isn’t there, so let’s forego that temptation today. The disputable matters referenced here are concerned with only two things: food and holidays. Nothing else.

With food, there is some pretty stout language for this multicultural church. Each different group, Jews and Gentiles, will have various dietary preferences. When the table of fellowship is shared, these two groups were to be careful to not offend others by what they served.

It stands to reason that the chiefest experience in a believer’s life is the table of fellowship they share with other believers. It is the kingdom meal. It is the presence of celebration and salvation. It is a table filled with food and communion. At that moment, these two groups were to not offend someone who has different dietary preferences. If there was an offense, the purpose of the kingdom meal would be completely defeated.

These were no small dietary preferences, though. Jewish people were afraid of the meat sold in Roman markets, because it wasn’t kosher, and was probably used in various pagan temples. It was also entirely possible, and probable, that Jewish butchers wouldn’t serve Jewish believers. And meat was generally only afforded by the wealthier people in Rome.

Abstaining from meat, then, was a social point. And insisting on meat would only be done at the expense of unity in the Roman house churches.

But even then, the guiding principle of unity is even larger:

For those who can afford meat — do not isolate and offend those who can’t.

And for those who can’t afford meat — do not isolate and offend those who can. 

The Roman church should be both multicultural and economically diverse.

The man who eats everything must not look down on him who does not, and the man who does not eat everything must not condemn the man who does, for God has accepted him. (Romans 14:3; NIV84)

Now that’s interesting.

Because I’ve always been taught that this passage is about much more frivolous things. Like what should and shouldn’t happen in Sunday morning American church gatherings.

This passage isn’t about such pettiness. It has something bigger for us to consider. It’s an appeal for churches to become multicultural. It’s a way to stem the messiness of bringing together two volatile cultural groups into one setting.

Remember, too. These churches met in homes, not multi-million dollar buildings. There were no elaborate stages or HD screens or playgrounds for the kids. These believers were meeting in intimate settings, sharing meals together. Those small, intimate settings would be shattered if anyone insisted that the communion and fellowship meal serve foods that some couldn’t, or wouldn’t, eat.

But why does all of this really matter?

Here’s why:

But now that there is no more place for me to work in these regions, and since I have been longing for many years to see you, I plan to do so when I go to Spain. I hope to visit you while passing through and to have you assist me on my journey there, after I have enjoyed your company for a while. (Romans 15:23, 24; NIV84)

It matters because Paul wants to continue west, to Spain, to bring the gospel of grace to the barbarians of the Roman Empire — to groups of people who care little about Roman culture and Jewish culture.

The culture of Spain was almost impenetrable, by the way. Augustus Caesar once remarked that the Roman soldiers who trained there became hispanicized, and even regarded themselves as Spanish.

The Hispanicus cared little about Roman etiquette or Roman politics or Roman meals. But if they were to be convinced that the gospel of grace also affords the miracle of unity, then the Roman church has to get it right, to become the example for all Paul intends to share with those on the western most parts of the Empire.

And the same is true for us. Our own cities suffer because of our lack of being counter-culturally multicultural.

The overlooked and despised neighborhoods of our own cities don’t need a church plant. They need proof of transformation. They need proof that at least one thing in the world is different from everything else — that church is the place where various groups of people, from different cultures and different wealth, can share in the communion of Christ together.

That is what the letter to the Romans is about.

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This post is part of ninety different posts through my ninety day reading of the New Testament.

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.

Why Religion Always Fails

The Spirit of life in Christ, like a strong wind, has magnificently cleared the air, freeing you from a fated lifetime of brutal tyranny at the hands of sin and death.

God went for the jugular when he sent his own Son. He didn’t deal with the problem as something remote and unimportant. In his Son, Jesus, he personally took on the human condition, entered the disordered mess of struggling humanity in order to set it right once and for all. The law code, weakened as it always was by fractured human nature, could never have done that. (Romans 8:2, 3; The Message)

Day forty-four, in a 90 day reading of the New Testament, hangs on the passage above.

And it succinctly explains why religion will always fail.

But, let’s define religion for a moment.

Religion is a human-authored theology that is attached to the message of grace. It is any system that becomes exclusive in its belief, to the point that it places anyone in a state of judgment if there is any disagreement.

That definition, by the way, is completely biblical. It is fashioned from Jesus’ conversations with the Pharisees. And it’s fashioned here, by Paul’s words in Romans 7 concerning the “Law.”

But what is the “law”? It was part of the covenant, given by God to the Israelites, when God rescued them from Egypt. It was their part of the covenant that was to be kept.

God rescued them. They followed the law’s demands. And heir law was also a religious requirement, but it was so heavy, with animal sacrifices needed often for transgressions, that it was abandoned within three generations of its giving.

After that whole generation had been gathered to their fathers, another generation grew up, who knew neither the Lord nor what he had done for Israel. Then the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord and served the Baals. (Judges 2:10, 11; NIV84)

It failed. And that was the point. It couldn’t be completely kept. Here are Paul’s words, from our reading today.

For if I know the law but still can’t keep it, and if the power of sin within me keeps sabotaging my best intentions, I obviously need help! I realize that I don’t have what it takes. I can will it, but I can’t do it. I decide to do good, but I don’t really do it; I decide not to do bad, but then I do it anyway. My decisions, such as they are, don’t result in actions. Something has gone wrong deep within me and gets the better of me every time. (Romans 8:17-20; The Message)

But the fault wasn’t the law. The fault belonged to the human race. We are incapable of following, completely, any law. Which means that we are incapable of following, completely, any religion.

Earlier, Paul even called the law good. Holy. And it was. It was given by God — yet given by a God who knew his own creation couldn’t keep it.

But many of us still hold on to our religion, and we hold it tight. I dare say that most quibbles, in church fellowships, come from people who haven’t completely separated grace from their religious belief.

Want to know why? I think it’s because religion is predictable. It’s a standard. It’s the way of our parents and grandparents. It’s so heavy, and so comfortable. It never changes. And any new life breathed into religious establishments is met with heavy suspicion.

Can’t have too much excitement while leading worship. We can only sing the hymns. We can only sing the contemporary songs. Can’t preach about giving. Every public assembly must have an altar call. Women should only teach children. But a sixth-grade boy, who is a Christian, can lead a public prayer. We must have a five-day, four-hour-a-day VBS, every summer. We must teach the “essentials” of salvation in every bible class. We are musically minded, and we need musical notes with our lyrics. All men must wear a tie to church. And khakis. Women need skirts. And we’ve got to hammer these truths to our kids when they are old enough to walk. By the way, I give my money here, so I expect my demands to be met.

See what happens, though? We make our religion an idol. It takes the places, and quick, of the amazing, crazy, redemptive message of grace. Grace frees us from these things! Or, at least, it should.

It’s no wonder that the American church is losing members. Religion is an idol no one wants to follow. People have enough restrictions in their lives. They don’t want it when they come to Jesus.

Yet we’ve turned places of worship into controlled systems at the expense of grace.

This law, this religion, became a force of sin, too, for the Israelites. If we exalt in our own lives, religion will become a force of sin for us, too. Paul wrote as much.

The law code, instead of being used to guide me, was used to seduce me. Without all the paraphernalia of the law code, sin looked pretty dull and lifeless, and I went along without paying much attention to it. But once sin got its hands on the law code and decked itself out in all that finery, I was fooled, and fell for it. The very command that was supposed to guide me into life was cleverly used to trip me up, throwing me headlong. So sin was plenty alive, and I was stone dead. (Romans 7:8-12; The Message)

But God did something special through Jesus. He crucified religion. He sacrificed himself to atone, fully, for every requirement and demand of the law.

And our tendency to create religion, again, in our own towns, is our failure to fully grasp the sacrifice of Jesus. Yes, he was sacrificed for sin, even the sin produced by religion.

It was as if God said, “Enough.”

And this is the new life we’ve been given. Not merely a new life, free from sin. But a new life, free from religion.

If our fellowships add anything to the requirement of a life transformed by Jesus, then those requirements are religious, and therefore, by the sacrifice of Jesus, deemed unnecessary. And even sinful. Because when we make those additions, we make our own fellowship an idol.

Our ministries, our programs, and our ideas should, right now, be sacrificed at the altar of grace. Projects and calendars make our fellowships look more like pagan organizations than the gathering of transformed people.

People, transformed by grace, through the spirit of God, will always supersede any calendar filled with events. Our church fellowships will stop maintenance for the believers, and instead make disciples that will transform lives, families, churches, and neighborhoods.

The spirit of God, by the way, is what does constant maintenance in our hearts. We shouldn’t need a church fellowship, preacher, worship leader, or pastor, to do that. That is the job of the Comforter.

How about a moment of assessment. Are our programs making disciples? Or are they just attracting people to our church from another church?

We look, somewhat, like the Jewish people in Paul’s letter. Here are his words:

And Israel, who seemed so interested in reading and talking about what God was doing, missed it. How could they miss it? Because instead of trusting God, they took over. They were absorbed in what they themselves were doing. They were so absorbed in their “God projects” that they didn’t notice God right in front of them, like a huge rock in the middle of the road. (R0mans 9:30-32; The Message)

What more can we add to grace, though? Nothing.

So, what do you think? With God on our side like this, how can we lose? If God didn’t hesitate to put everything on the line for us, embracing our condition and exposing himself to the worst by sending his own Son, is there anything else he wouldn’t gladly and freely do for us? And who would dare tangle with God by messing with one of God’s chosen? Who would dare even to point a finger? The One who died for us—who was raised to life for us!—is in the presence of God at this very moment sticking up for us. Do you think anyone is going to be able to drive a wedge between us and Christ’s love for us? There is no way! Not trouble, not hard times, not hatred, not hunger, not homelessness, not bullying threats, not backstabbing, not even the worst sins listed in Scripture:

They kill us in cold blood because they hate you. We’re sitting ducks; they pick us off one by one.

None of this fazes us because Jesus loves us. I’m absolutely convinced that nothing—nothing living or dead, angelic or demonic, today or tomorrow, high or low, thinkable or unthinkable—absolutely nothing can get between us and God’s love because of the way that Jesus our Master has embraced us. (Romans 8:31-39; The Message)