Pastoral Commentary: Entrusted to carry the good news
For Mother’s Day, we took a look at Romans 16:1-16. This is not a typical Mother’s Day passage, but it tells us how women were viewed in Paul’s time, despite what many have been led to believe.
Undeniably, women throughout time have been entrusted to carry some precious treasure. Most notably was Mary, who God chose to carry the Christ Child, the very Word of God. Especially in the Orthodox Christian tradition, Mary is called Theotokos, or God-bearer. She is the only one to do so.
Many women who have been able to carry children would agree that it is truly a privilege. Some of us have carried them in our hearts instead of our wombs. Surely all of us, at one time or another, have been mothered by a woman who wasn’t our natural mother and were blessed by it.
What else has God entrusted women to carry? From this passage in Romans, we see that fully one-third of the people Paul greets in the final chapter of perhaps his grandest writing accomplishment are women. One is a mother. Another is an apostle. Many are noted as leaders in the fledgling churches in Rome. Some lead house churches, which numbered from 40 to 80 people, requiring these women to have very large homes.
One leader is Phoebe, who Paul says he’s entrusting to physically carry his letter from her home in Cenchrae, a port in Corinth, to the believers in Rome. Paul notes unabashedly, unapologetically, that Phoebe is a leader in her church — a deacon, or diakonos. Paul calls himself diakonos at least seven times in his writings, and calls other male leaders the same, almost as often. So, he puts Phoebe at the same level as himself, a titled leadership position in the early Church.
Phoebe is generous. Phoebe has given money to Paul and others, helping them to spread the Good News. Paul encourages the letter recipients to welcome Phoebe warmly, to roll out the red carpet! As the letter carrier, scholars believe Phoebe also would’ve read and explained Paul’s letter to the first listeners, before passing it on to others.
Along with Phoebe, the eight or so other women listed in Paul’s greeting in Romans 16 have mostly been forgotten. So have other notable women in positions of biblical leadership. From the earliest written scriptures, we read of Deborah, the judge of Israel at the time, the highest-ranking position in that nation. We read where Deborah sent for Barak, a general, and told him that the Lord said he should go out in battle. Two of the oldest chapters in all of scripture (Judges 4 and 5) recount Deborah’s story, as well as contain lyrics to a song about her. Judges is thought to have been written around 1000 B.C.
When the Israelites decided they no longer wanted judges but kings, so they could be like other nations, a woman named Huldah, who was a prophetess, emerged. In the purest sense, a prophet is someone who speaks for God. A prophetess was simply a female version, operating in the same manner. Huldah is quoted in scripture as saying, “thus saith the Lord” (2 Kings 22:14-20 and 2 Chron. 34:22-28). One cannot see a more pointed example of a woman speaking for God than to have her quoted in scripture, saying thusly. Huldah is not alone in her honorific title and function; six other women are also mentioned in scripture as Old Testament prophetess.
Prophets have always been called by God, not by people. What is typical of them all is that they had to be prodded, coerced or convinced that they were the right person for the job, no matter their gender. We see a hesitancy with answering God’s call in the stories of Moses, Isaiah and Elijah.
God decides who God wants to call, who his messengers will be. Over time, the Church has merely affirmed that calling. If scripture is an indicator, then certainly more men than women have been called as prophets. Yet, one cannot deny that the women are there, recorded for all to see.
In Joel (2:28-29), the prophet speaks of a time when God will pour out his Spirit on all flesh — male, female, old, young, servant and free. No longer just a few prophets here and there, but many people, given particular gifts. This prophecy becomes fulfilled in Jerusalem, at Pentecost, after Christ ascends (Acts 2:1-21). Many people are gathered there, not just the 11 or so original disciples. (Hundreds of people followed Jesus while he was alive, male and female, and were called his disciples, or followers.)
Men, women, old, young, servant and free — God needed many people empowered by his Holy Spirit to carry on the work of Christ, through his church, and God still does. Some were given more ordinary gifts, such as preaching and teaching. Others we think of being more supernatural, such as healing, miracles and tongues. Again, we read in scripture that God’s Spirit gives gifts as he chooses, to whom he chooses — not as we might choose. (I Cor. 12:11)
We see more women endowed with these gifts in Acts. You might remember a man named Philip the Evangelist, who came alongside the Ethiopian eunuch’s chariot to explain who Jesus was, which led to him asking for baptism right then and there. Philip had four daughters who were all called prophetesses, who spoke for God, to God’s people. (Acts 21:9)
But what of the Apostle Paul’s comments about women keeping silent in church? First, remember that a woman, Junia, is also called an apostle, there in Romans 16. Junia was a witness to the risen or ascended Lord, and in some official position of leadership was likely called upon to share her testimony. For years, people have tried to turn Junia into a man by adding an “s” to her name. But in fact, we know, through historical documents, that there were never any men named Junias.
Paul writing about women keeping silent in church, taken at face value, contradicts what he writes concerning what needs to happen when women, and men, stand up to pray and prophesy (preach/teach) in worship (I Cor. 11:4-5). A woman, he says, needs to cover her head; a man does not. The fact that he specifically talks about a woman standing up to pray and prophesy in church tells us all we need to know: Paul did allow women to speak in church. Not only was he grateful for their work as co-laborers, he considered them as something of equals.
The one instance of saying women should keep silent, scholars believe, was perhaps for that one setting, to remedy a certain situation.
More evidence of Paul’s views of women is seen in his use of the word adelphé, or sister (Romans, I Corinthians, Philemon). We, who were raised with King James Bibles, may have heard the word brethren, and wondered if women were even able to enjoy the same kind of relationship with the Lord that men were. However, Paul addressing his sisters alongside his brothers elevates women to the same level of spiritual significance.
In surveying all the above scripture, which gets plowed up from time to time, and then gets covered over again, we know God has not only entrusted women to carry babies, the Christ Child himself, and Paul’s Letter to the Romans, but yes, to even speak for God, himself.