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Saturday, February 9, 2019

“When Jesus Sees You”

Romans 16:1-2

Paul is ending his letter to the Romans with a series of personal references. The first of  these refers to a woman leader in the church named Phoebe.  She is described as either a deacon or a minister.  The same word in Greek refers to both.  In all probability she was the pastor of the church in Cenchreae.  That would be the most common reading of that verse.

Phoebe is not alone among women leaders in the early church.  Paul mentions several here.  Among them are Prisca (16:3), Mary (v. 6), Julia (v. 7), Tryphaena and Tryphosa (v. 12) and the sister of Nereus (v. 15).  This is not to ignore Eudoia and Syntyche (Phil. 4:2).  Paul mentions that Phoebe has been a benefactor of his (v. 2).  It is clear in these passages that women played a leadership role in the early church as they did in ancient Israel (Miriam, Deborah, Esther, Hulda).

This of course raises the obvious question of why for so many years women were denied leadership roles in the church.  To this day there are churches that do not allow women full participation in leadership.  Given the record of scripture, how can that be?

Two answers that are often given are the negative references Paul makes to women in I Cor. 14:34-36 and I Timothy 2:8-15.  While these texts sound rather harsh we need to understand their context.  The irony is that women had greater freedom in the ancient church than they did in any other part of Roman or Jewish society.  This new found freedom could be abused.  It could lead to disruption. Women could respond to their new found freedom with pride. This is apparently Paul’s concern.  In the final analysis these two texts should not annul the many other scriptures testifying to women’s leadership.

The real reason for women’s marginalization in the church can be traced to the early church’s dependence on Greek philosophy.  The church made this move as an attempt to be more credible to Greek and Roman society.  The early church leader Justin Martyr writing in the second century A.D. called the Greek philosopher Socrates a Christian (based on texts such as John 1:9).  Other writers spoke approvingly of Plato.

Yet in the Greek tradition women were clearly seen as inferior to men.  Some Greeks such as the playwright Aristophanes challenged this idea but it was nonetheless a widespread view reinforced in the laws and practices of the time.

Fortunately scripture points us in a different direction.  We need to praise God for Phoebe and all who have followed her example.

Eternal and loving God I praise you that you have called women and men into your service.  May I resist any discrimination that would make light of a figure like Phoebe.  I pray this in Jesus’ name, AMEN.