I have to confess that I normally just skim over the last chapter of Romans. The whole book is so powerful, jam packed with important thoughts, and the last chapter just seems to be Paul signing off. This last time I read the book of Romans however, I took more care over the last chapter. Actually I got stuck in the first two verses. They excited me.
The Passion translation of the Bible has helped me to look at Scripture through some fresh eyes. I read something and find myself asking if this is anything like what I have heard in this verse before. I check with my NIV and discover that it is frequently not so different. Anything that makes me think afresh about a Scripture has to be good. Let me share the first two verses from Romans chapter sixteen from the Passion translation:
“Now, let me introduce to you our dear and beloved sister in the faith, Phoebe, a shining minister of the church in Cenchrea. I am sending her with this letter and ask that you shower her with your hospitality when she arrives. Embrace her with honor, as is fitting for one who belongs to the Lord and is set apart for him. I am entrusting her to you, so provide her whatever she may need, for she’s been a great leader and champion for many– I know, for she’s been that for even me!”
I have my NIV open in front of me too. It doesn’t say that Phoebe is a shining minister of the church, but rather it refers to her as a deacon. Those who do not want to find anything in Scripture suggesting a woman can have a leadership role in the church would argue that Paul is simply saying that Phoebe is a servant. Certainly she is not a slave however, in fact she is widely believed to have been a wealthy business woman. It would seem that the reason she was carrying this letter to the Romans (v.2) was that she was a woman who travelled to do business, and she had reason to visit Rome and therefore Paul asked her to take this letter with her. Not an insignificant woman.
It is interesting to note that Paul refers to himself as a servant too. It would not be any great stretch to believe that whatever any other deacon was doing in the church, Phoebe was doing also, including teaching and leading.
The next thing I notice in the Passion is that Paul refers to Phoebe as “a great leader and champion for many”. The NIV uses the word benefactor. That can be quite ambiguous. It is not difficult to find out what the original Greek was in this case, with so much available for us on the internet. The Greek word used was prostatis, and it denotes a protectress, patroness. Prostates was the title given to women in Athens who had the responsibility of seeing to the welfare of resident aliens who were without civic rights (Vines Expository Dictionary). Phoebe was not a woman who simply gave some money away, she was a leader of the church in Cenchrea. This is further verified by the lexicographer Joseph Thayer who explains that Justin Martyr used the masculine form of the same Greek word that Paul used here, to describe the leader of a local church, a person who preaches, teaches and presides at the Lord’s table.
Paul did not ask a person of no reputation to deliver the letter of Romans to the leaders of the church there in Rome. He chose a woman he respected, a woman he trusted, he chose Phoebe. And he recommended her to the Christians in Rome and asked them to honour her.
It is not often that I choose to write about theology, but these verses spoke to me with new such strength that I had to take them further. I have seen some powerful women who have desired to use their gifts in the church be rejected, turned away, because of incorrect theology. The church has missed out on so much. Strong ladies – the church needs you, and not just to lead the children’s ministry or the ladies group. Phoebe was a wealthy business woman who used her gifts to help grow the early church. Never be ashamed of the gifts that God has given you. Use them for his glory.