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.”

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.