I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church in Cenchreae. I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of his people and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been the benefactor of many people, including me (Rom 16:1-2 TNIV).
I love messing with my students. Yes, I know it catches them off guard, but exposing their assumptions and ignorance is both enjoyable and actually educational too. When I get to my Romans class, I ask the students four questions:
So who actually wrote Romans?
“Paul,” they immediately reply in chorus.
“No,” I retort, “Who physically sat down and penned the letter to Paul’s dictation?”
Blank faces, deep thoughts, then some bright spark will blurt out, “Oh, oh, that guy, what’s his name, um, Tertius.”
“Correct-a-mundo” comes the teacher’s approving reply who points students to Romans 16:22 which says, “I, Tertius, who wrote down this letter, greet you in the Lord” (Rom 16:22 TNIV).
So who delivered the letter to the Romans then? Who was Paul’s envoy?
Confused faces, odd looks: how can they be expected to know that?
“Turn with me to Romans 16 then” and together we read the text.
Then we have a cool discussion about the meaning of “deacon,” “benefactor,” and the role of letter carriers in antiquity. It gives a good starting point to talk about Christian ministry and patron-client relationships in the context of the Greco-Roman world.
“So then, if Phoebe is a deacon, Paul’s benefactor, and he trusted her to take this very important letter to the Romans, then Phoebe must have been a woman of great abilities and good character in Paul’s mind. Do you agree?”
Heads nod in agreement.
And if the Romans had any questions about the letter like ‘what is the righteousness of God?’ or ‘who is this wretched man about half-way through?’ who do you think would be the first person that they would ask?
Eyes wide opened, some mouths gaping, others looking a bit irritated.
Then I provocatively add: “Could it be that the first person to publicly read and teach about or from Romans was a woman? If so, what does that tell you about women and teaching roles in the early church?”
The end result is an “Aha” moment for some students, confusion and frustration for others.
Then comes the big question…
Think about it people. This is Romans—Paul’s letter to unify the Roman churches and to prevent a potentially fractious cluster of ethnically mixed house churches from ending up like Galatia where there were painful divisions over Law and Halakhah—the oral interpretation on how exactly to obey the Law. This is Paul’s effort to return to Jerusalem with all of the Gentile churches behind him. This is Paul’s one chance to raise support from the Roman churches for a mission to Spain. This is Paul’s gambit to answer rumors about his ministry that he’s either anti-Law or anti-Israel. This is Romans, his greatest letter-essay, the most influential letter in the history of Western thought, and the singularly greatest piece of Christian theology. Now if Paul was so opposed to women teaching men anytime and anywhere, why on earth would he send a woman like Phoebe to deliver this vitally important letter and to be his personal representative in Rome? Why not Timothy, Titus, or any other dude? Why Phoebe?
Some students nod in agreement, others flick through to 1 Timothy 2:12, others sit back and just think.
I’m careful to make the point that this is not the be all and end all of debates about women in ministry. There are other texts, contexts, and interpretations that we have to deal with. This text won’t answer questions for us about who to ordain either, they have to be answered elsewhere. But I point out that taken at face value, Paul evidently had no problem with women having some kind of speaking and teaching role in the churches. I think Paul’s commendation of Phoebe and her role as letter-carrier to the Romans shows that much. What is more, we should also commend women like Phoebe today!