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).
OUR SISTER PHOEBE
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.
THE FIRST INTERPRETER?
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.”
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