Women in Ministry: Romans 16:1-2

This is part five on the dissertation ‘Women in Ministry.’
For part four, click here: Women in Ministry: 1 Timothy 2:11-15

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Romans: Intro and Context
Sometime in AD 57, in preparation for a visit to Rome, Paul dictated a letter to his amanuensis, Tertius. The primary purpose of the letter was to let the Roman Christians know he was coming, but also to “set before them a full statement of the Gospel as he understood and proclaimed it.”[1] At the end of his letter, he included some personal remarks, commendations, and other housing-cleaning items.

One can only imagine Paul’s surprise were he to learn that three incidental verses within his closing statement would create such debate. His statements were not intended to teach the Roman Christians about the nature of women in ministry, rather they were passing statements. The issue for our context concerns the titles he uses to describe two of his female partners in the ministry: Phoebe of Cenchrea, and Junias.

Romans: Translation of 16:1-2

I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant-leader of the church in Cenchrea, so that you might welcome her in the Lord in a manner worthy of the saints, and help her in whatever way she may need your help—for she has been a benefactor of many, and of myself as well.[2]

Romans: Exegesis of 16:1-2
Insofar as our issue is concerned, Romans 16:1-2 only has two points of contention:  that Phoebe was not only a dia,konon of Cenchreae, but also a prostatis of many, including Paul. As we will see, everything depends upon the interpretation of these two words.

There are examples, of course, of flights of fancy in regard to this passage. J. David Miller suggests that since Phoebe was a person of some wealth and authority, and that she was Paul’s letter carrier, she was also the one to read it publically. He goes on to say:

In the modern church, we have a title for a person who stands before a gathered congregation and with rhetorical skill delivers a prepared message based on Scripture. That title is preacher.[3]

If Phoebe were the one to read Paul’s letter, which we cannot substantiate, that hardly makes her an ex officio elder or pastor. There is a vast difference between reading a letter of Paul’s to a small crowd, and a person spending his time in the ministry of the word and prayer, exegeting scripture, and leading a community of faith with God-affirmed authority. Miller wants the passage to say something it does not say.

There is a textual variation that affects our first pivotal word, diakanon. James Dunn suggests that in Romans 16 there are “textual variations which look like attempts to improve the somewhat stilted style.”[4] One such variation comes from P46 and others of the Alexandrian tradition, which adds a kai. after the ousan in 16:1. Karl Barth suggests it ought to remain because Paul often puts a kai to emphasize the following word, which in this case is diakanon. This occurs also in Romans 8:24.[5]

The argument, then, is that this manuscript variation changes “Phoebe, who is a deacon of the church,” to, as Douglass Moo translates it, “Phoebe, who is also a deacon of the church.”[6] The word ‘also’ suggests that she was not ‘just’ a deacon, but ‘also’ a deacon, among other things. As Barth suggests, diakanon is emphasized with the preceding kai.

Even if one accepts the textual variation, which most do not, all that is accomplished is that Paul has emphasized her being a dia,konon.[7] We have already dealt with this issue at length in the exegesis of 1 Timothy three. A diakanon is simply a position of servant leadership, similar to today’s Music Director, Children’s Director, or other equivalent position. That Phoebe was a diakanon does not affect the debate.

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The bigger issue is Paul’s description of her as a prostatis, which is usually translated as ‘help,’ ‘helper,’ ‘patron,’ or ‘benefactor.’ Egalitarians, as one would expect, argue that prostatis is better rendered as ‘benefactor,’ ‘leader,’ or even ‘president.’ There is strong support for ‘benefactor.’ Moo suggests that the cognate indicates ‘presiding over,’ and that “the best alternative, then, was to give prosta,tij the meaning it often had in secular Greek: “Patron,” “Benefactor.””[8] Elizabeth McCabe also argues that ‘helper’ is a slighted translation. As with Moo, she suggests that “cognate terms of the same root are translated in verb forms with ‘rule,’ ‘lead,’ ‘leadership,’ or ‘leaders.’” She points to 1 Timothy 5:17, which most often translates proistamenos as ‘good leaders’ (CSB), and ‘rule well’ (KJV/NAS).[9]

Phillip Payne furthers the argument by suggesting that prostatis is best translated ‘leader,’ ‘chief,’ or ‘presiding officer.’[10] First, He cites Romans 12:8, in which o proistamenos is universally translated as some kind of leadership position, such as ‘rule (NKJ)’ ‘leading’ (CSB) or ‘leads’ (NAS). Second, he argues from the work of G.H.R. Horsley. In the late 1970’s there were several thousand inscriptions recorded and published from the ancient city of Ephesus. Here is what Horsley found:

prostasia is the abstract noun to denote position/office…held by a person designated as prostates. It is a legitimate inference, in my judgment, to say that Tullia…is clearly thought of as a prostatis.[11]

To further the argument, Horsley also cites a 4th century inscription on a tombstone in Jerusalem, stating: “Here lies the slave and bride of Christ, Sophia, deacon, the second Phoebe, who fell asleep…” In other words, Phoebe was so prominent in her time that a female spiritual giant who came after her was called a ‘Second Phoebe.’[12]

Using Horsley’s work as a springboard, he goes on to say that “This term almost always refers to an officially recognized position of authority…Thus, the linguistic evidence and context of Phoebe’s standing in the church strongly favor the normal meaning of prosta,tij, namely, “Leader.”[13] In his commentary on Romans, Origen even says that:

This passage teaches that there were women ordained in the church’s ministry by the apostle’s authority…Not only that—they ought to be ordained into the ministry, because they helped in many ways and by their good services deserved the praise even of the Apostle.[14]

Given Origen’s comments, and the fact that Phoebe was seen as a patron or benefactor, egalitarians use this as a staple verse, and with good reason.

There is some precedence, however, to translate prostatis as ‘helper.’ Thomas Schreiner argues that a stronger translation “fails to see the connection between the injunction to ‘help’ (parastete) phoebe and her role as ‘helper’ (prostatis).”[15] In other words, this is a play on words. He goes on to say that “It is very unlikely that Paul himself would say that Phoebe served as their ‘leader’ or ‘president’…Nor should the concept of leadership be read into the term here.”[16]

In Piper and Grudem’s work, Recovering Biblical Manhood & Womenhood, Schreiner further suggests that there are two more reasons not to accept prostatis as a leader or president. First, he says it is unlikely that Paul would say that Phoebe was in authority over him, especially when he did not accept the authority of the so called pillars of the church (Gal 1:6-7, 11). John Murray raises the same question when he says: “Paul says Phoebe became prostatis  of many and of me myself. Are we to suppose that she exercised rule over the apostle?”[17] Finally, Schreiner argues that though the masculine form of prostatis  can mean ‘leader’ or ‘president,’ the feminine form does not necessarily follow.[18] Wayne House argues the same thing: that the masculine rendering does not necessarily transfer to the feminine, and that ‘one who presides over’ does not fit the context.[19]

Martin Luther translated prostatis  as beistand, which does not give the impression of a leadership position.[20] Luther used beistand four times in his translation, and none of them suggests a leadership role. Jacobs  Preus consistently translates Luther’s Greek Translation of Romans by rendering besitand as ‘helper’ from the German, even though the Greek uses prostatis and parastete.

It is clear that languages are not codes where one word transfers into another. That said, there is no perfect word which encompasses prostatis  in English. While ‘helper’ is too weak, ‘President’ or ‘leader’ is unconvincing. ‘Benefactor’ remains the strongest choice. Does this rendering dismantle the Complementarian emphasis if Phoebe is in fact a benefactor and not a simple helper? Colin Kruse argues against the belief that because Phoebe was a benefactor or patron, she must also have presided over The Lord’s Supper, which is suggestive of a leadership role. Kruse says that this view “builds too much on the meaning of the term ‘benefactor’ and its use in 16:2.[21]

Even if a Complementarian were to concede the rendering of benefactor, does Phoebe the benefactor equate to Phoebe the elder or pastor? Kruse is right that her designation as a benefactor is not a strong enough argument to establish an egalitarian position from Romans 16. Dunn says it best: “In short, Paul’s readers were unlikely to think of Phoebe as other than a figure of significance, whose wealth or influence had been put at the disposal of the church”[22]

Romans: Conclusions from 16:1-2

In the end, unless one is convinced that prostatis can be rendered ‘president’ or ‘leader,’ Romans 16:1-2 is not pivotal to either the mild Complementarian or egalitarian position. Certainly, it provides insight into Paul’s relationship with the female members of the Christian community. It also provides a strong buttress against an extreme or even moderate Complementarian position. It establishes that women held positions of recognized service. It establishes that women could be wealthy and use their wealth to be benefactors. It also establishes that women could be respected team-members in the propagation of the Gospel. Finally, it establishes that women did indeed have authority. What it does not establish, however, is that women were singular leaders, the equivalent of today’s pastors. This brings us to our final issue in Romans 16.

Women in Ministry: Intro
Women in Ministry: Genesis 3:16
Women in Ministry: 1 Timothy 3:1-13
Women in Ministry: 1 Timothy 2:11-15
Women in Ministry: Romans 16:1-2
Women in Ministry: Romans 16:7
Women in Ministry: 1 Corinthians 11:2-16
Women in Ministry: 1 Corinthians 14:33-35
Women in Ministry: Galatians 3:28
Women in Ministry: Current practice & belief of the SBC
Women in Ministry: Personal practice & belief
Women in Ministry: Epilogue

Footnotes:
[1]. F.F. Bruce, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries: Romans (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1999), 14.

[2]. Author’s translation.

[3]. J. David Miller, “What can we say about Phoebe,” Priscilla Papers, Vol. 25, No.2 (Spring 2011): 18.

[4]. James D.G. Dunn, Word Biblical Commentary: Romans (Nashville, Thomas Nelson, 1988), 866

[5]. Karl Barth, Epistle to the Romans (London: Oxford University Press, 1957), 535.

[6]. Douglass Moo, New International Commentary on the New Testament: Romans (Grand Rapids: William B. Eedrmans’s, 1996), 912.

[7]. The NIV, CSB, KJV do not accept the textual addition of kai.

[8].Moo, New International Commentary on the New Testament: Romans, 916.

[9]. Elizabeth McCabe, “A Reexamination of Phoebe as a “Diakonos” and “Prostatis”: Exposing the Inaccuracies of English Translations,” Society of Biblical Literature,  accessed December 21st, 2013, http://www.sbl-site.org/publications/article.aspx?ArticleId=830.

[10]. Payne, Man and Woman, One in Christ: An Exegetical and Theological Study of Paul’s Letters, 62.

[11]. G.H.R. Horsley, New Documents Illustrating Early Christianity: Review of the Greek Inscriptions and Papyri (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdman’s, 2001), 242.

[12]. G.H.R. Horsley, New Documents Illustrating Early Christianity: Review of the Greek Inscriptions and Papyri (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdman’s, 2001), 239.

[13]. Payne, Man and Woman, One in Christ: An Exegetical and Theological Study of Paul’s Letters, 63.

[14]. Peter Gorday, ed., Ancient Commentary on Scripture: New Testament IX (Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press, 200), 369.

[15]. Thomas Schreiner, Baker Exegetical Commentary: Romans (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1998), 788.

[16]. Thomas Schreiner, Baker Exegetical Commentary: Romans (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1998), 788.

[17]. John Murray, Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdman’s, 1997), 227.

[18]. Piper and Grudem, ed., Recovering Biblical Manhood & Womanhood, 219.

[19]. H. Wayne House, “A Biblical View of Women in the Ministry,” Bibliotheca Sacra, (April-June, 1988): 389.

[20]. Martin Luther, Die Bibel (oderdieganze heilige schrift Privileg.Wurt. Bibleanstalt Stuttgart, 1912).

[21]. Colin G. Kruse, Paul’s Letter to the Romans (Grand Rapids: Wm.B.Eerdmans, 2012), 557.

[22]. James D.G. Dunn, Word Biblical Commentary: Romans, 889.

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