Romans 16:1-6 “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church in Cenchrea. I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of the saints and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been a great help to many people, including me. Greet Priscilla and Aquila, my fellow-workers in Christ Jesus. They risked their lives for me. Not only I but all the churches of the Gentiles are grateful to them. Greet also the church that meets at their house. Greet my dear friend Epenetus, who was the first convert to Christ in the province of Asia. Greet Mary, who worked very hard for you.”
One of our neighbours has told someone that when she was a student at the University she came and worshipped once in our church. Apparently I was speaking about women and why I believe they were not called by God to be elders or preachers. So she did not return. You would think that the next thing she would do would be to find a church which has women elders and preachers and there she would work away doing all she could to strengthen that congregation, but she goes nowhere, year after year, but she wants to stand on the moral high ground, as critics of the gospel church always do. She wants to appear more enlightened than evangelical Christians and more loving to women than the Lord Jesus who chose twelve men and no women to be his apostles, or the early church which chose seven men to be deacons and no women. My sermon on women not being called to be preachers was not the real reason she never returned to Alfred Place. She knew that she would have to change her beliefs and lifestyle if she sat under my ministry week by week. It was a price too high to pay.
Some want to portray me an Ayatollah don’t they? – “He always has his own way; he runs the church like a private fiefdom.” Then they don’t have to listen to the word of God week by week, and they hide their rebellion against God behind such calumny. You know that we as a church do not practice Inter-Faith meetings; we do not believe in them, and one of the reasons for this is our respect and love for women. Last month in Iran the police rounded up and arrested 33 women involved in the Campaign for Equality which is aiming to get a million signatures on a petition calling for the end of discrimination in Iranian penal and family codes. In Iran girls as young as nine may be stoned for adultery, and mothers after a divorce have custody rights over their children only until they reach 7 years old. Any prominent woman lawyer, journalist or politician speaks out at grave personal risk. Women must sit in separate rows from male students in lectures. Liberal academics have been purged from the universities, and CCTV cameras keep an eye on how women behave. The Islamic dress code is being imposed with new zeal. In Tehran last month 63,963 women were given a warning by the police to dress properly. That is clerical tyranny, and I despise it, and that is one reason we do not practice Inter-Fatith meetings as though all religions believe the same things.
The passage of Scripture in our text is helpful because three dynamic women are mentioned, all of them great role models for any ladies who want to be one hundred per cent disciples of the Lord. Phoebe was a servant of the church; Priscilla was a fellow-worker of the apostle Paul in Christ Jesus; Mary laboured very hard for the congregation.
PHOEBE WAS A SERVANT OF THE CHURCH.
Phoebe was a wonderful person commended by the apostle Paul himself; “Give her any help she may need from you, for she has been a great help to many people, including me” (vv.1&2). What was Phoebe? She was a ‘servant’ of the church in Cenchrea. Cenchrea was not in Italy it was in Greece; it was one of the ports of Corinth. Phoebe would have had to go on a long journey over land and sea from home to Rome, but this is what she did. The term ‘servant’ in Greek is diakonos and it means ‘one who ministers’ to another. This is its meaning in the vast majority of its uses in the New Testament, a plain servant of the people of God, and that is how Paul generally uses the term but there are some rare occasions when he uses the term to speak of certain church officers, ‘deacons.’ He does so in the opening verse of the letter to the Philippians and in the first epistle to Timothy and its third chapter which describes in detail the character of the deacon. Maybe we can use the same distinction that we have used about the word ‘apostle.’ That word simply means a ‘messenger,’ someone sent by a church to perform a certain ecclesiastical task such as delivering a message or a gift, but then you have what I called Apostle with a capital A, someone sent by the Son of God with all of Christ’s authority behind him. “Those who hear you hear me; those who receive you receive me.” It is the context of the word ‘apostle’ which decides whether we are referring to the Twelve apostles and the special gifts they had as Christ’s plenipotentiaries or the more insignificant messengers sent out by one congregation.
So it is with the word ‘deacon.’ Usually it means a ‘servant’ but in certain places it is a ‘Servant’ with a capital S, what we usually refer to as a deacon of a church, chosen by a congregation, appointed to an office and meeting regularly in deacons’ courts in a congregation. Think of the significance in Welsh culture in the last couple of centuries for it to be said about a certain man in the community, “He is a deacon.” That gave a man a certain significant moral stature with expectations of righteousness. I am saying that there are these two usages of the Greek word diakonos and we have to look at the context and decide what is intended. So we have to ask here whether Paul is commending Phoebe as a member of the church at Cenchrea who has tirelessly served other Christians in the congregation, or was Phoebe an actual deacon in that church? The word itself cannot decide the matter. You have to look at the context for help.
This is the context, that Paul doesn’t commend people in his letters on a casual basis or for personal convenience. The words of our text are official words of commendation of Phoebe to the congregation at Rome. When he sends Timothy and Titus as his representatives he is requiring that they be received well, and likewise Onesimus that even he be received, and this former runaway slave was something of a special case. Many people including John Murray believe that Phoebe carried Paul’s letter to Rome. Imagine that the only draft of these sixteen chapters with these priceless truths had been entrusted by the apostle to her to take from Corinth across land and sea and through many dangers to Rome. So you see the weight of these words introducing this messenger to the Romans, “Honour her and help her in every way.” Paul commends her not only as the new kid on the block but on the basis of her record of past service to God’s people. This is all suggesting that Phoebe went from Cenchrea to Rome in some official capacity, as a servant of the church at Corinth. Certainly we can see here how women were immediately being raised up in their significance in the first century world by the church.
Notice also that Paul tells the Romans that Phoebe had been a ‘great help’ to many people, even of himself. People have argued that the masculine form of the word translated ‘great help’ actually means a ‘leader.’ So was Phoebe a leader in her church, a ruler, or even an elder? I think it is rather doubtful, isn’t it? I am suggesting that Paul is surely not saying, “I am asking you Romans to help Phoebe because she has been a ‘ruler’ or ‘leader’ of many and even of me.” I don’t think that that is what Paul is saying, rather, “She has helped everybody; she has helped me and so you give her any help she needs when she arrives at Rome;” that is surely what Paul is saying.
So this is our question, whether Phoebe was a church officer, a deacon, that is, a Servant with a capital S? Was Phoebe the proto-deacon and so opening the doors for every church to have the office of women deacons? Or was she being commended as a wonderful servant of the churches? The context alone doesn’t allow us to answer that question one way or another, but it is doubtful if Paul intended Phoebe and such women to be official deacons he would leave it to be teased out of an inconclusive verse like this.
So we have to look elsewhere, especially to the main teaching on the work of the deacon in the New Testament which is found in the first letter of Paul to Timothy, chapter three and verses eight to thirteen, “Deacons, likewise, are to be men worthy of respect, sincere, not indulging in much wine, and not pursuing dishonest gain. They must keep hold of the deep truths of the faith with a clear conscience. They must first be tested; and then if there is nothing against them, let them serve as deacons. In the same way, their wives are to be women worthy of respect, not malicious talkers but temperate and trustworthy in everything. A deacon must be the husband of but one wife and must manage his children and his household well. Those who have served well gain an excellent standing and great assurance in their faith in Christ Jesus.”
What do we read? In verse 12 Paul repeats the qualification of the elder in the earlier part of the same chapter that the deacon too must be “the husband of but one wife.” Polygamists are not qualified to be deacons or elders even though they may have repented of that sin. In the same verse Paul says that the deacon must manage his children and his household well. This also is the same qualification that holds for the eldership (v. 4). Concerning the deacons in verse 12, however, Paul does not add the reason for this qualification which is “If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church” (v.5) because he doesn’t need to. The reason has already been spelled out in that earlier verse. How can an officer, whether elder or deacon, take care of the complexities of leading the church of God if he cannot manage the little world of his own household?
It has been argued that the diaconate differs from the eldership in that deacons are called to serve whereas elders are called to rule, and on this basis some have argued for opening the office of the deacon to women while reserving the elders for men. Women may serve, we are being told, even though they are not allowed to lead. This kind of distinction is artificial. Both the eldership and the diaconate are callings to service. Jesus Christ embodies all of the offices he has instituted in his church, and he too came into the world not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many (Mark 10: 45). Both elders and deacons serve by providing leadership in the church in their respective areas of service. That is why both the elders and the deacons must have demonstrated ability to lead in their homes. The fact that both the elder and the deacon must be the husband of but one wife, and that both must have proven their ability first to provide leadership in their own homes, shows that Paul envisions male leadership in both the eldership and the diaconate.
Then in verse eleven Paul addresses the wives of deacons, “In the same way, their wives are to be women worthy of respect, not malicious talkers but temperate and trustworthy in everything.” Here Paul is laying down some qualifications for the wives of deacons. Instead of ‘wives,’ some scholars have found a reference to female deacons, or deaconesses, but the word Paul uses is a term that means simply ‘woman,’ and very often ‘wife.’ The translation suggested in the footnote of the New International Version, ‘deaconesses,’ is not really a translation it is an interpretation. The word diakonos is not in the Greek; it is the Greek word for ‘wife’, in fact it is the word from which we derive the word ‘gynecological.’ Paul is saying not only must the deacons must be a husband of one wife, but such wives must also meet certain qualifications, perhaps because they were involved with their husbands in the practical outworking of the ministry of mercy to needy people in the congregation as was Phoebe.
It might be possible in large Presbyterian churches to separate the office of the elder from the office of the deacon and for the deacons to meet separately and concentrate on the ministry of mercy while the elders were more involved in leadership and discipline, but in small Baptist churches like our own deacons always meet together with the elders five times a year and so the work of the deacon is recognized as a ruling work as well as a ministry of mercy.
So Phoebe was not a deacon but she was a highly esteemed servant of the church. Maybe she was a full-time lady worker and I have a lot of time for that concept. We once invited a woman to come and work in this church, visiting the housebound, working with the young people and so evangelizing, working with students, entertaining and involved in a ministry of hospitality. What a joyful privilege it would have been to have someone full time with her gifts, a real 21st century young Phoebe with her smile and boldness and naturalness of speaking to people about Christ and doing such a work in our own congregation. I wish we could have persuaded her to stay in Aberystwyth working under the oversight of the elders. Maybe one day we will have our own lady worker.
I think of Olwen Jones working in Bethlehem in the church there and befriending Arab women and helping them at childbirth. There are a number of women called ‘Olwen’ in Bethlehem today named after her by grateful mothers. I think of another young woman I met in a long wide valley in Kenya leading down to Mombassa. She was working there with the women in twenty villages teaching them about hygiene and simple saline washing of eyes when they were infected by flies – basic health care that would save a child’s sight. She would teach the women to plant tomatoes and give them to their children, and mix some eggs with the ground corn so that there would be more vitamins for the children to eat. What heroic work it was, and how the Kenyan women loved her. You can see the opportunities for teaching the gospel of Jesus Christ to those desperately hard-working women, a number of their men folk were pathetic husbands, just layabouts and drunkards. The only contribution they made to their wives was AIDS. We think of the problems of the vast African continent with its corrupt men leading their countries into ruin. Without the women of Africa it would be a hundred times worse. I think of another woman who has spent years in Peru selling Christian books and managing book shops and teaching Peruvians how to do so, and leading Vacation Bible Schools and Sunday Schools and writing materials for them. This is wonderful and important work for the church. These are 21st century Phoebes.
We are commanded here by Paul “to receive [such women] in the Lord in a way worthy of the saints and to give [them] any help [they] may need” (v.2). Let us make sure we are doing that, that we run the risk of being considered open to women holding every office in the church (which we are not) in our zeal to receive in the Lord Christian women who work for Christ, and that we do so in a way worthy of true followers of the Lord Jesus and we give them any help they need. Do the women who work in the Book Shop, with the Sunday School, with the young people, with the women in their meetings, in hospitality, in catering, in fellowship lunches, in visiting need any help? It is good to see men often washing and drying the dishes on a Sunday night. Do you women feel we are giving you the honour in the Lord Jesus that you should have as worthy of being the daughters of the King of kings? It is very easy for men to pick up wrong attitudes from the world in which they live, both in a fearful politically correct way, and also with the ribaldry and seaminess which characterizes office banter. Let us avoid both those attitudes and let no unseemly conversation proceed from our mouths, but I ask again are you in need of any help and we men are not seeing it? We are sorry that the building is very old and small. We wish we could build a grand modern kitchen for the church! Please approach the officers with any more reasonable requests.
PRISCILLA WAS A FELLOW WORKER IN CHRIST JESUS OF THE APOSTLE PAUL
Remember where we first meet Priscilla and her husband Aquila? In Acts chapter 18 traveling with Paul and sharing in his labours. It is often pointed out that Priscilla’s name always comes first in the duo – you remember how Paul McCartney once grumbled that though he wrote most of the Beatles’ songs the authorship was known as ‘Lennon and McCartney’ not ‘McCartney and Lennon.’ This husband and wife were known as ‘Prisicilla and Aquila.’ It does seem that she was the dynamic and forceful personality in this marriage, and that God recognizes how some women constantly have to restrain themselves in order not to domineer their quieter husbands. That is pleasing to God. Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth. Let men remember that God has called them to be the head of their wives. There is no home with no dynamic wife where that headship has been annulled by God. It is a divine appointment, and every Christian woman wants it so.
Let us turn to Acts chapter eighteen where we are told in verse twenty-four, “Meanwhile a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria, came to Ephesus. He was a learned man, with a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures. He had been instructed in the way of the Lord, and he spoke with great fervour and taught about Jesus accurately, though he knew only the baptism of John. He began to speak boldly in the synagogue. When Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they invited him to their home and explained to him the way of God more adequately” (vv.24-26). There are many intriguing features about this coming together, the fact that Prisiclla and Aquila heard Apollos at all, because where did they hear him? They heard him speaking in a synagogue. They were converted Jews and yet they were still found every Sabbath in the synagogue. In spite of their conversion they still cherished their old contacts and associations. They regarded them so highly not because of any love of the world but in hope of doing good to their own countrymen with whom they had such cultural sympathies. I can apply that in this way, that so often when we become Christians we turn our backs on our old associates. We cut ourselves off from them so completely that we have forfeited the possibility of influencing them for the gospel. Now Priscilla and Aquila didn’t do that. Even after their conversions they kept up their contacts to witness to them. They would not turn their backs on old relationships, and I am saying that if we have contacts, friendships and associations with men and women who are not Christians, then let us treasure them and use them for God’s glory. Keep the bridges of God open. Don’t turn them into drawbridges keeping them permanently up.
Apollos was a glittering talent, a member of the university community at Alexandria, a learned man, whereas Priscilla and Aquilla came from a very different background, possessing more limited aptitudes and gifts, and yet they were able under God to approach Apollos speaking to him and their faith and earnestness helped him considerably. It is quite evident that Aquila was an earnest Christian and yet we never find him engaged in any kind of public ministry. Most Christian men couldn’t preach and shouldn’t even try, but much personal evangelism is done by Christian men and women who are not called to be preachers. Aquilla could play such a tremendous role in befriending Apollos and helping him in his own calling as theologian and preacher. Aquila could make good those deficiencies in Apollos’ understanding. There are scholars who have suggested that Apollos was the author of the letter to the Hebrews. That might be so, but we don’t know.
Priscilla herself, though so alive to the things of God, was debarred by the word of God from being an elder or preacher, and so many would say, “Poor woman; she cannot serve God or have any influence in the church,” and yet we find her giving hospitality to Paul in Corinth and to Apollos too, and here she is counseling and instructing him. There is an incredibly important private teaching ministry. Would John Newton have been the preacher and pastor he was without those first six years in which his mother prayed with him and taught him the catechisms and their proof texts, and the hymns of Watts? Priscilla heard Apollos preaching in the synagogue and she saw his potential, and yet she spotted his obvious inadequate grasp of some of the aspects of the Christian faith. There was much that was immature; there were limitations to his understanding but Priscilla didn’t decide, “We think that we shall never return to hear that man again.” Priscilla didn’t speak about him behind his back and condemn him. Rather she did her utmost to minister to him and make good his deficiencies, and that surely is the correct biblical response.
Apollos too comes with an enhanced reputation out of this scenario. He was not offended in being spoken to by a less intelligent woman. He was an orator and a scholar and yet he was quite prepared to sit and learn from Priscilla because when she started talking to him he realized quickly that she knew what she was talking about. She knew the way of the Lord more perfectly than he did, and that is going to be our experience throughout our lives. We are always going to meet holier and more loving and wiser believers than ourselves, and we must make sure that we profit from these encounters, that we don’t become envious or defensive, and that we leave those conversations wiser people. Books are great (let me commend to you Fred Leahy’s The Hand of God for holiday reading [Banner of Truth]). There is also a tremendous need for preaching the whole counsel of God, but there is a huge need for preachers to meet ordinary Christians and listen to them as people converse with them, and learn from them. There is enormous value in young Christians being in the presence not of their peers but of older Christians. You gain many valuable insights in overhearing the conversation of senior and experienced Christians.
So that is the rock from which were hewn Priscilla and Aquila Paul’s fellow workers in Christ Jesus. Wouldn’t we like to hear more about them or about so many of these grand characters that we meet in the book of Acts? Whatever happened to them in their future lives? We are given two or three hints in our text about their prolonged usefulness. Firstly they encountered much danger following the Lord. Paul tells us, “They risked their lives for me” (v.4). It was a perilous business following Jesus Christ two thousand years ago, and in many parts of the world it is dangerous today – especially for women. Priscilla risked her life for Paul! There were women amongst the early martyrs of the church. Saul of Tarsus was himself guilty of abusing women. He said, “I persecuted the followers of this Way to their death, arresting both men and women and throwing them into prison” (Acts 22:4). Many fanatical men followed Paul’s example and treated Christian women so inhumanely, and Priscilla suffered as a winsome, caring evangelist. But none of that stopped her activities in every place. We are told, “All the churches of the Gentiles are grateful to [Priscilla and Aquila].” They had a reputation everywhere in Rome, throughout Greece, in Asia Minor as fearless servants of Christ full of evangelistic concern and pastoral gifts. In a dark day people could always turn their minds towards this husband and wife tirelessly working away for Jesus, advancing his kingdom. “Let me tell you what happened to Priscilla and Aquila last month . . .” someone would say and the flames of encouragement would begin to burn in all who heard of them.
But more than an itinerant evangelism, Priscilla and Aquila actually encouraged a church which met in their own home in Rome; “Greet also the church that meets in their house” (v.5). They had moved to Rome, and though in the summer time the whole Roman congregation could meet in the open air somewhere and hold a meeting yet during the wet cold months they met in houses in smaller groups. So it is better for us to speak of the ‘congregations’ of Rome rather than the church of Rome, and one such congregation gathered in Priscilla’s house. What a wonderful fulfilled life as a Christian woman she had, though she did not have the office of preacher, elder or deacon in the church.
MARY WORKED VERY HARD FOR THE CONGREGATIONS IN ROME.
Isn’t the apostle Paul remarkable? There is a mention of his dear friend called Epenetus, his first convert in Asia Minor (v.5) but in the next breath he is greeting another woman in the church. Paul knew about little Mary in Rome though he had never been there. “Greet Mary, who worked very hard for you” (v.6). He is just like his Lord who will know who had visited the sick and the prisoner, and fed the hungry and clothed the naked and helped the weak and elderly. Nothing will have passed Jesus by for the judgment of the tremendous day. Paul knew the situation in the church at Rome so well. Do we know the situation in this church, where the sickness is, where the doubts and questionings are, who visits the housebound, who shops for them, who brings them to church, who works in the Book Shop, who goes to the hospital, who baby-sits that a husband and wife can have an evening out, who drives a member to visit her husband, who is involved with the children and young people? Do you know? Before you start grumbling that the minister does everything, that it is a one man show, do you know who is working and what is going on in the church? Paul knew about a church hundreds of miles away which he had heard about only by diligent inquiry – not by prying.
Mary was clearly one of the early converts in Rome if she was someone who had done much hard work in the church. So she would have been one of those who helped to found and organize the church. Paul honours her because of her good works. Remember the three aspects to justification. A person is justified (1) meritoriously, by Christ’s blood; (2) instrumentally, by faith alone; (3) declaratively, by good works. Mary’s good works did not enter into her justification but they were the necessary evidences of being in a justified state. So Paul highlights them and greets her; she “worked very hard for you” (v.6).
There is nothing to prevent any woman in this church who understands the gospel, and respects the elders, and lives a holy life from working very hard for us all. Let her be a Proverbs 31 woman. Let her be like the Samaritan woman who told all the people of Sychar about Jesus Christ, “Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Christ?” (Jn. 4:29). Let her be like Dorcas, concerned for the poor and needy. Let her be like Lydia and attend diligently to the teaching of the apostle Paul. Let her be like the wives mentioned in Ephesians chapter 5 who obey their husbands in the Lord. Let her by meekness and reverence win her unbelieving husband who doesn’t hear the word of God – what hard work that is! Let her keep her home. Let her give a reason to anyone who asks her why she has hope in a despairing world. Let her sing God’s praise; let her voice be heard in prayer in the various prayer meetings. Let her teach her children the Bible and pray for them. Let her support her husband as he has to go into the hard world of business. Let her be known for hospitality that is without grudging and for her generosity. Let her be a counsellor to other women and young people. Let her be a surrogate mother to students and young people from non-Christian homes. Let her love and care for the fabric of the church building. Let her help with the finance and banking of the church. Let her secretarial skills be used to serve the congregation and pastor. If she does that then she will be like Mary who worked very hard for the church. She will be like Phoebe and Priscilla, and she will have no time to complain that her congregation “does not allow me to be an officer,” and do the mundane tasks of serving on the diaconate or the eldership, or forbids her from being a preacher. Such a woman would simply have too much to do already for the Lord and his people, work that is immensely fulfilling, honouring to God and a blessing to the church. We have many Phoebes, Priscillas and Marys in the congregation. How I wish we had more, and pray to that end.
1 April 2007 GEOFF THOMAS