Who First Taught Romans? A Surprising Case for Gender Equality in Ministry
Michael Bird says he likes to open his Romans class each year with a special question:
Paul dictated the message of Romans; who actually wrote the message down?
After the class settles on Tertius, he asks another:
Who delivered Romans? Who was Paul’s envoy?
After receiving confused faces and odd looks, he brings his students to Romans 16. Drawing their attention to Phoebe and discussing the role of letter carriers in antiquity, Bird asks yet another question:
If the Romans had questions about the contents of the letter, who would be the first person they would ask?
Yes, Phoebe. In other words a woman would have been the one to teach Romans to the Church of Rome.
This thought-provoking exchange launches a just-as-thought-provoking discussion on gender equality and ministry in Bourgeois Babes, Bossy Wives, and Bobby Haircuts. In it Bird offers an engaging, incisive perspective on biblical gender equality and the egalitarian view.
He believes this seemingly minor detail of Romans is actually a major one—for it reveals three important aspects of Paul’s view of women in ministry: they were his co-workers; he didn’t mind their speaking in churches; and he encouraged them to teach.
Paul Had Female Co-Workers
First, that Paul commissioned a woman as a letter carrier indicates women were his active ministry co-workers.
In the particular context of Romans 16 Paul mentions Mary, Tryphena, Tryphosa, and Persis who “work hard in the Lord” (Rom. 16:6, 12)—an expression that likely means gospel work.
In other words, Phoebe worked just as hard alongside Paul as Timothy and Titus evangelizing, teaching, and ministering to God’s people.
She and other women were Paul’s fellow “co-workers.”
This word is an important word, for it is the same one used for men, as well. Paul uses synergos to describe the ministry labor of Timothy, Titus, and Epaphroditus and Priscilla, Euodia, and Syntyche equally.
“The type of ministry that these women discharged is not explicitly stated, but it was clearly alongside Paul, and we have no immediate reason for thinking that their activities were radically different” from their male counterparts. “Most likely these women worked beside Paul as part of his evangelistic and church planting activities.” (34)
Paul Had No Problem with Women Speaking in Churches
Second, that Paul commissioned a woman as a letter carrier—and thus letter reader—indicates Paul had no problem with women speaking in churches.
How could he if he entrusted the delivery of his important letter to a woman?
Bird makes the point that if Phoebe was literate—which as Paul’s wealthy benefactor is presumed—she most likely read the letter aloud to the house churches, especially given letter reading was a function of such envoys in antiquity.
While Bird does stress “this observation from Romans is not the be-all and end-all of debates about women in ministry,” he does believe this detail in Romans’ travelog is an important one.
“Paul seemed to have no problem with women having some kind of speaking role in the churches.” (21)
And we shouldn’t either, writes Bird.
Paul Encouraged Women to Teach in the Early Church
Finally, that Romans was delivered at the hands of a women serves as an important indication of Paul’s views on women teaching in the church.
“Could it be that the first person to publicly read and teach about Romans was a woman?” he provocatively asks his students. “If so, what does that tell you about women and teaching roles in the early church?” (20-21)
In other words, think about this: If the Romans had any questions about the letter—such as "What is the righteousness of God?"—who would be the first person they would ask?
And who would be the first person to further elucidate the letter's details—to teach the contents of the letter?
“Now if Paul was so opposed to women teaching men anytime and anywhere," continues Bird, "why on earth would he send a woman like Phoebe to deliver this vitally important letter and to be his personal representative in Rome?” (21)
While Bird addresses 1 Corinthians 14:33–36 and 1 Timothy 2:11–15 in depth in regards to women speaking and teaching, he draws some important conclusions from this detail in Romans 16:
Paul’s commendation of Deacon Phoebe…indicates that women were part of the didactic life of the church, and Paul specifically encouraged it…a cursory reading of Paul’s letters shows that women participated in the teaching ministry of the early church. (21-22)
Bird doesn’t suggest this Phoebe detail closes the curtain on the discussion of women in ministry. But it does require careful consideration, as does the rest of his exegesis in his thoughtful, thorough treatment of gender equality in ministry.
It is unfortunate this issue often causes sharp division and discourse in the church. Which is why I’m thankful Zondervan published two other books in their “Fresh Perspectives on Women in Ministry” series. It’s also why we’re going to engage them over the next two weeks.
Jeremy Bouma (Th.M.) is a pastor with the Evangelical Covenant Church in West Michigan. He is the founder of THEOKLESIA, a content curator dedicated to helping the 21st century church rediscover the historic Christian faith; holds a Master of Theology in historical theology; and makes the vintage faith relevant at www.jeremybouma.com.
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