The other Phoebe: Why an alleged chauvinist chose an ordained woman to deliver the world’s most influential letter

The other Phoebe: Why an alleged chauvinist chose an ordained woman to deliver the world’s most influential letter


For many moderns, this is a fitting description of the apostle Paul.

After all, there are a couple of famous passages in Paul’s letters that have been taken as forbidding women from positions of leadership and teaching in the church.

In fact, such texts are more complex than they appear.

And as folks like Ben Witherington have argued (here), they need not be seen as barring women from church leadership and preaching.

Thus my own tradition (The Wesleyan Church) has long affirmed both men and women in ministry, while also maintaining a high view Scripture.  And I am proud of that.

To arrive at this conclusion, however, one must deal not just with the so-called “problem passages” (e.g., 1 Cor. 14; 1 Tim. 2), but also with the real life women who were used by God and affirmed even by the likes of Paul himself (that supposed chauvinist!).

As just one example, there is Phoebe of Cenchreae.

I add her un-hooked-on-phonics town of origin to distinguish her from the more famous Phoebe—the one from Friends (see here).

“If you want to receive emails about my upcoming shows, please give me money so I can buy a computer.” ~Phoebe Buffay


The other Phoebe—the one from Cenchreae—was tasked with delivering what may be the most influential letter ever written: Paul’s epistle to the Romans.

We meet her in chapter 16.

Here, she appears alongside two other female leaders. First, there is Priscilla, who helped to teach the orator Apollos about the way of Jesus. And second, there is Junia, who (according to the best translations) is called an “apostle” in her own right.

But my interest in Phoebe.

As Paul writes:

I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a diakonos 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).

While it was always assumed that Phoebe was the one to take this letter  to Rome—probably tucked inside a heavy cloak, aboard an ancient ship—the discovery of a 9th century manuscript (Codex Angelicus) now adds further confirmation to this belief.


And the delivery was no menial assignment.

As N.T. Wrights states:

The letter-bearer would normally be the one to read it out to the recipients and explain its contents. [Thus] the first expositor of Paul’s greatest letter was an ordained traveling businesswoman.

While some such terms (“ordained”) may be anachronistic, imagine a possible scenario:

After a dangerous journey, Phoebe arrives in the world’s most famous city.

Her hope is to bring gospel unity to a fractured church, divided along ethnic lines. And once there, she proceeds to shuttle between the various house-churches to get Paul’s message out.

Here, in living rooms and upper balconies, Phoebe reads the letter—start to finish—and fields questions on the parts that (still today!) are difficult.  Questions like:

Phoebe, what does Paul mean by “dikaiosune Theou”!?

Phoebe, what does it mean when it says: “God gave them up”!?

Phoebe, how exactly will “all Israel be saved”? And why is Paul so cryptic!?

Phoebe, is the apostle an Arminian or a Calvinist!? *sarcasm

With such possibilities in mind, Michael Bird asks the following in his new Romans commentary:

Could it be that the first person to publicly read and teach about Romans was a woman? If so, what does that tell you about women and teaching roles in the early church?

And for some 3rd century support, Origen of Alexandria states this of Chapter 16 as a whole:

This passage teaches that there were women ordained in the church’s ministry by the apostles’ 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.


In the end, it is possible that Phoebe did little more than hand off the letter, and then return to Corinth.  After all, Romans 16 is hardly sufficient to develop a full theology of women in ministry.

And to be fair, many complementarians have attempted to read the Scriptures faithfully as well.  Not all who disagree with me on this are—to quote the movie Little Rascals—“He-man-woman-haters.” (Some are.  But not all.)

Regardless of one’ position on that question, however, all Christians can be thankful for the brave and crucial service of “our sister Phoebe.”

No one is called to “singleness” (reclaiming spiritual friendship)

No one is called to “singleness” (reclaiming spiritual friendship)

As many have noted, the modern church has sometimes treated “single” adults as we treat those with an unfortunate disease.

There is sympathy to be sure. And encouragement—perhaps in the form of a “small group” that also functions as the non web-based equivalent of e-Harmony.

But ultimately, the hope is to be cured of this unfortunate condition.

Here, the “gift” of singleness sounds somewhat like the gift of mononucleosis (though contracted differently).

Recently, however, some have proposed a recovery of Christian singleness as a sacred vocation.

After all, while many evangelical churches would never hire an unmarried Senior Pastor, folks like Jesus, Paul, Augustine, and John Stott seemed to do okay in ministry.

In short, it’s not just Catholics who have “strange” views on marriage and the ministry. We Protestant evangelicals have also bowed to a tradition that is rooted nowhere in the Bible.

Still, others suggest that the calling of “singleness” also carries problematic connotations if we do not pair it with the recovery of another calling.


In the recently released Two Views on Homosexuality, the Bible, and the Church, Wesley Hill shares part of a personal letter (with permission), sent from a friend:

It was a great relief to me to realize that if God is, in fact, calling me to a vocation of celibacy it does not mean I am called to “singleness.” God does not call anyone to singleness [as we conceive it in contemporary Western societies]. We are all created by God to live within kinship networks wherein we share daily life in permanent relationships.

The point here is that imagery of “singleness” carries connotations of a life lived as a Lone Ranger.

And this would have been news to many celibate ministers and missionaries (including Jesus) throughout Christian history.


Part of the problem, as C.S. Lewis long ago argued, is that our modern view of friendship has left us with an emaciated husk of the ideal.

While the ancients viewed friendship as among the highest of the loves, Freud argued that it could only be a disguised form of homosexual or heterosexual Eros.

Thus when folks from prior generations expressed deep (and even physical) affection for same sex friends, we moderns decided that everyone from Jesus (Jn. 13.23) to Abraham Lincoln was really a closeted homosexual.

Not so, says Lewis.

While homosexual relationships certainly existed throughout history, the claim is that we moderns often read them into the lives of people who simply had deeper friendships than us.

(After all, Facebook is a relatively new invention.)

Lewis then goes on to distinguish Freud’s romantic love from amicitia:

“Eros will have naked bodies; Friendship naked personalities.”

While some might disagree slightly with such a firm distinction (see again Hill in Two Views), the point is not merely to differentiate two types of love.


The goal is also to reclaim deep and abiding spiritual friendship as an alternative to the false choice between either marriage or abiding lonesomeness.

God may call some to celibacy, Hill says, but he calls no one to “singleness” in the sense of a lonely and isolated pattern of living.

In short, we must reclaim spiritual friendship in the pattern of Jesus.


Is social media eroding our humanity?

Is social media eroding our humanity?

By all means, read this–and then contemplate a flip phone.

Since I’m on the road this week for a conference, I wanted a share some excerpts from an article by Andrew Sullivan (“I Used to Be a Human Being”).

While I differ with Sullivan on other issues, this piece is prophetic in detailing the perils of our addiction to technology and social media.

And after a week in which Facebook nearly drove some of us insane, it seems particularly timely.

Read the whole thing here.

Personally, while I continue to use social media (i.e., to share this post), I’ve recently instituted some boundaries after noticing some unhealthy tendencies.

Perhaps we all should.

Below are a few of my favorite quotes from Sullivan’s article in New York Magazine.

May they crush you in the best way possible:


Kim Dong-kyu, based on Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, Caspar David Friedrich


If the internet killed you, I used to joke, then I would be the first to find out. Years later, the joke was running thin.

I was … a very early adopter of what we might now call living-in-the-web. And as the years went by, I realized I was no longer alone. …[T]he rewards were many: an audience of up to 100,000 people a day … a constant stream of things to annoy, enlighten, or infuriate me … and a way to measure success — in big and beautiful data — that was a constant dopamine bath for the writerly ego. If you had to reinvent yourself as a writer in the internet age, I reassured myself, then I was ahead of the curve. The problem was that I hadn’t been able to reinvent myself as a human being.


By rapidly substituting virtual reality for reality, we are diminishing the scope of this interaction even as we multiply the number of people with whom we interact. We remove or drastically filter all the information we might get by being with another person. We reduce them to some outlines — a Facebook “friend,” an Instagram photo, a text message — in a controlled and sequestered world that exists largely free of the sudden eruptions or encumbrances of actual human interaction. We become each other’s “contacts,” efficient shadows of ourselves.


Has our enslavement to dopamine — to the instant hits of validation that come with a well-crafted tweet or Snapchat streak — made us happier? I suspect it has simply made us less unhappy, or rather less aware of our unhappiness, and that our phones are merely new and powerful antidepressants of a non-pharmaceutical variety. In an essay on contemplation, the Christian writer Alan Jacobs recently commended the comedian Louis C.K. for withholding smartphones from his children. On the Conan O’Brien show, C.K. explained why: “You need to build an ability to just be yourself and not be doing something. That’s what the phones are taking away,” he said. “Underneath in your life there’s that thing … that forever empty … that knowledge that it’s all for nothing and you’re alone … That’s why we text and drive … because we don’t want to be alone for a second.”


And so modernity slowly weakened spirituality, by design and accident, in favor of commerce; it downplayed silence and mere being in favor of noise and constant action. The reason we live in a culture increasingly without faith is not because science has somehow disproved the unprovable, but because the white noise of secularism has removed the very stillness in which it might endure or be reborn. …And yet our need for quiet has never fully gone away, because our practical achievements, however spectacular, never quite fulfill us. They are always giving way to new wants and needs, always requiring updating or repairing, always falling short. The mania of our online lives reveals this: We keep swiping and swiping because we are never fully satisfied.

That Judeo-Christian tradition recognized a critical distinction — and tension — between noise and silence, between getting through the day and getting a grip on one’s whole life. The Sabbath — the Jewish institution co-opted by Christianity — was a collective imposition of relative silence, a moment of calm to reflect on our lives under the light of eternity. It helped define much of Western public life once a week for centuries — only to dissipate, with scarcely a passing regret, into the commercial cacophony of the past couple of decades. It reflected a now-battered belief that a sustained spiritual life is simply unfeasible for most mortals without these refuges from noise and work to buffer us and remind us who we really are. But just as modern street lighting has slowly blotted the stars from the visible skies, so too have cars and planes and factories and flickering digital screens combined to rob us of a silence that was previously regarded as integral to the health of the human imagination.

If the churches came to understand that the greatest threat to faith today is not hedonism but distraction, perhaps they might begin to appeal anew to a frazzled digital generation. Christian leaders seem to think that they need more distraction to counter the distraction. Their services have degenerated into emotional spasms, their spaces drowned with light and noise and locked shut throughout the day, when their darkness and silence might actually draw those whose minds and souls have grown web-weary.

Then there were the other snares: the allure of online porn, now blasting through the defenses of every teenager; the ease of replacing every conversation with a texting stream; the escape of living for a while in an online game where all the hazards of real human interaction are banished.


When you enter the temporary Temple at Burning Man, the annual Labor Day retreat for the tech elite in the Nevada desert, there is hardly any speaking. … They come here, these architects of our internet world, to escape the thing they unleashed on the rest of us. 


I haven’t given up, even as, each day, at various moments, I find myself giving in. There are books to be read; landscapes to be walked; friends to be with; life to be fully lived. And I realize that this is, in some ways, just another tale in the vast book of human frailty. But this new epidemic of distraction is our civilization’s specific weakness. And its threat is not so much to our minds, even as they shape-shift under the pressure. The threat is to our souls. At this rate, if the noise does not relent, we might even forget we have any.



When God establishes bad leaders: Reading Romans 13 on election day

When God establishes bad leaders: Reading Romans 13 on election day

As a college professor, one of the Bible courses I teach is Paul’s letter to the Romans.

And as luck (or rather: providence) would have it, the next passage on the docket—for the day after the 2016 presidential election—is none other than Romans 13.

It’s controversial, and it reads like this:

1 Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience. This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor. 

The text has been unpopular for ages, and it has sometimes been abused.

It also raises massive questions.

For instance: What about truly wicked or dishonest leaders (like Hitler, Stalin, or Bill Belichick* [*joke] )? Did God establish them? What does “established” even mean? What are the limits of Christian submission to authority? And while we’re at it, didn’t Paul get his head chopped off by one of these divine “servants” (Nero)?

All this takes on added significance in the wake of this year’s presidential contest/raging dumpster fire.

Because regardless of who wins (I write this on election morning), the majority of Americans will be very disappointed with the kind of person we’ve elected.


Given that, it seems fair to ask this question:

What does Romans 13 have to say to Christians?

A few thoughts:

  1. God is sovereign over nations, kings, and presidents.

It’s worth noting that Caesar Nero would have found this text troubling for the exact opposite reason as many modern Christians. Paul’s claim, if we read carefully, is that all earthly authorities (exousias) fall below a crucified Jewish carpenter on the “org chart” of the cosmos.

As Jesus said to Pontius Pilate “You would have no authority if it were not given to you from on high” (Jn. 19.11). And since the later Caesars viewed themselves as gods, Paul’s statement represents a big demotion. As N.T. Wright likes to say:

“If Jesus is Lord, Caesar isn’t.”

In truth, this does not dispel the vexing questions regarding God’s role in “establishing,” bad leaders. Then again, if you’re expecting this blog to resolve the mystery of divine sovereignty, you’ll be sorely disappointed.

  1. Submission doesn’t mean unqualified obedience, but it does imply respect.

When Paul calls Christians to be subject (hupotassesthō) to governing authorities, he does not mean that we must do everything they say. As the book of Acts makes clear, there will be times when “We must obey God rather than human beings” (5.29).

Still, Paul is clear is that Christians should not be tax-evading (vs. 6–7) insurgents (vs. 2) who take every opportunity to thumb their noses at the emperor.

In 57 AD, Nero’s tax policies had become massively unpopular. There were riots. And in Judea, anti-Roman zeal had reached a fever pitch. Several Jews had even started blogging (*sarcasm).

Yet in the midst of this, Paul’s advice was for the church to remain calm, to remain on mission, to be good citizens, and to be respectful to authorities.

As N.T. Wright goes on:

Rome could cope with ordinary revolutions, but a community committed to the crucified and risen Lord, living out his story and teachings—now that was dangerous! 

  1. Paul practiced what he preached.

It’s easy to be cynical about Paul’s claim that “rulers hold no terror for those who do right.” And indeed, the irony drips like the blood from the blade of Paul’s executioner. (Is not beheading the archetypal form of terror? Turn on the news.)


Yet like Jesus, Paul was willing to live out this non-violent and respectful posture even to the bitter end.

In Acts 23, the apostle lost his temper (which makes me feel better) and shouted at the Jewish high priest who was having him beaten without cause: “God will strike you, you whitewashed wall!” (vs. 3). Then, after regaining his composure, Paul apologized:

Brothers, I did not realize that he was the high priest; for it is written: “Do not speak evil about the ruler of your people” (vs. 5).

Like many of us (read: me), Paul sometimes lost his cool when faced with the nonsense of political elites.  Yet in this case, he chose to respect the office, even when he could not respect the person holding it.

May we do likewise.

Missionaries, not Inquisitors: Columbus, Russell Moore, and Generational Mind Change

Missionaries, not Inquisitors: Columbus, Russell Moore, and Generational Mind Change

In flipping through some old books in my office, I came across this from David Bayles and Ted Orland (Art and Fear):

When Columbus returned from the New World and proclaimed the earth was round, almost everyone went right on believing [it] was flat. Then they died—and the next generation grew up believing the world was round. That’s how people change their minds.

Historically, the Columbus part is rubbish. The explorer did not prove that the world was round. People already knew that. What Columbus proved was that he was wrong about the earth’s circumference, and—more importantly—about Christian ethics.

My interest, however, is in the END of the quotation.

The idea here is that people mostly do not change their minds, even when confronted with new arguments. Instead, we tend to keep believing what we thought before—and then we die. Later on, our kids think differently.

We might call this the principle of GENERATIONAL MIND CHANGE.

For some, the recognition of this tendency leads to a narrative of PROGRESS in which the backward thinking of the past is slowly replaced with enlightenment and freedom. For others, it is tale of LOSS in which the wisdom of the ‘ol days gives way to cultural rot and muddled thinking.

Both are true in certain cases (see here).

My own generation, for instance, is far less likely to excuse, say, racism. But we are also far more likely to follow the Kardashians, or to confuse “tolerance” with full agreement.

Generational tendencies are a mixed bag. And every generation is diverse.

Given this, the point is not that such shifts are usually good or bad, but that (at some broad level) they do exist.

Now for an example:


This week, I watched Russell Moore’s much hailed Erasmus Lecture. entitled: “Can the Religious Right be Saved?” It was a eulogy of sorts for a failed segment of the movement. And it was—in the view of many—brilliant (watch here; overview here).

My new theory is that Moore gives prophetic voice to what many younger evangelicals are feeling on this topic. But because he has the appearance of a 1950s Bible salesman (KJV only!), it is more difficult to dismiss him as “just another millennial” with hemp shoes and a secret love of socialism.

Like Samson, the secret’s in the haircut.


While the whole talk is instructive, Moore addresses a form of generational mind change that has taken place amongst many folks like myself—theologically conservative younger evangelicals (I’m still young, right?).

As he states:

There are no 22 year-old John Hagees. This is not because of liberalization. The next generation of these evangelicals pack orthodox confessional universities and seminaries, are planting orthodox confessional churches with astounding velocity. The evangelicals who are at the center of evangelical vitality are also the least likely to be concerned with politics. Again, this is not because they are liberal but because they keep a priority on the gospel and the mission that they do not wish to lose. The leaders they read and listen to are also often fairly indifferent to politics. … Those who do care about politics, and who lead populist movements, tend to be theologically vacuous, tied to populist ‘God and Country’ appeals that seem simultaneously idolatrous and angry to younger Christians, and often form a kind of “protection racket” seeking to silence Christian voices as “liberal” who wish to speak about such matters as racial justice.

While I might quibble with one or two things here,[1] my overall response is a hearty “Amen!”

As Moore continues:

We must remind ourselves that we are not inquisitors but missionaries [and] that we can be Americans best when we are not Americans first.

The problem, as he argues, is that segments of the Religious Right were never deeply formed by the gospel (the euangelion). Therefore:

One of the assumptions [was] that the church is formed well enough theologically and simply needs to be mobilized politically.

As Moore notes, this is simply wrong. Because when a gospel-formed theology is assumed (even when absent), what rushes in to fill the void is something more pernicious—often the pursuit of money, fame, and power:

As he argues:

The fundraising structure of political activism, left and right, means that often the most extreme and buffoonish characters are put forward. For the Religious Right, the strangeness to the world is not where the New Testament places it—in the scandal of the gospel—but in the willingness to say outrageous things on television. Some would suggest that even broaching this topic is “intellectual snobbery.” And yet, imagine a 1960s civil rights movement led not by Martin Luther King Jr. and John Lewis, but by Al Sharpton and Jeremiah Wright.  King did not simply speak to the passions of his followers but to the consciences of his detractors and to the consciences of those on the sidelines, overhearing it all. Behind that was a coherent set of ideas, grounded in the Bible and the Declaration of Independence.

In the end, Moore holds out hope that Religious Right may be saved, by an overhaul of leadership and by an encounter with more gospel-centered theology.

As he makes clear, his answer is not a withdrawal from the public square. Nor is he suggesting that Christians simply surrender to liberal shibboleths. From his perspective, both quietism and capitulation are copouts. Thus it was interesting to see ringing endorsements of the speech even from segments of the Religious Right itself.

Tweet from the Colson Center

In this way, Moore’s conclusion was all the more jarring because it came from inside the camp of biblical and cultural conservatism. As he argued:

[The current political climate] did not give us this. This is a preexisting condition. The Religious Right turns out to be the people the Religious Right warned us about.

In response to all this, Rod Dreher addressed the question of whether Moore’s speech will change many minds within the old guard.

His answer—with which I agree—is a resounding “No.” That’s just not how these things work.

But in one sense, that point is irrelevant.

Because if Moore is right, the tectonic shift has already happened.

Time does not run backwards.

And for younger evangelicals, attempts to turn back the clock are likely to be about as effective as a robust argument that the world is flat.









[1] To modify Moore’s quote slightly, I would say, first, that many younger evangelicals do care about politics. They simply reject the preaching of partisanship  in place of Christ’s gospel. Likewise, many are frustrated that the old Religious Right has cared about some biblical values while ignoring others (See Moore’s comment about the voter guides which proclaimed a “biblical” position on term limits and the line item veto, but said nothing about racism and the abiding legacy of Jim Crow). Secondly, it may also be that Moore’s claims on the orthodoxy of younger evangelicals are a bit too rosy. My assumption on this point, however, is that his definition of what constitutes an “evangelical” means to exclude herterodoxy from the outset. Thus, he is not technically wrong here, despite the failure to mention the other side of the statistics.