The last chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans (Rom. 16:1-27) contains greetings to believers Paul knew in Rome. One author wrote, “There is no intent here to teach on any subject, much less on the role of women. So the contents of this chapter qualify as incidental or “idle words.” Really?! I don’t think so! Although it is true that these closing words are not an actual “lesson”, they do shed a great deal of light on the role of women in the early church and there are definitely principles which we can draw upon and apply to women serving in churches today. And it should be noted that the way Paul endorses the women of these verses is truly how he feels about women unlike the way he is usually portrayed as having a negative view of them (which he certainly does not!).
Who are some of the noteworthy women listed in this chapter? Phoebe the letter carrier (Rom. 16:1-2) is mentioned first. Her task involved more work than what our postal workers do. Phoebe was acting as Paul’s personal representative. If there were any questions concerning the content of the letter, Phoebe would be the one answering questions or clarifying Paul’s words. In essence, she carries the same authority as Paul when explaining or clarifying the content of the letter. Phoebe is called a “sister” in the faith, a “helper” (this Greek word is used to describe trainers who dedicated themselves to assist an athlete who is competing for a prize) and a “servant”. The term for servant here (diakonos) is the same word Paul uses to describe Jesus (Rom. 15:8), himself (Eph. 3:7; Col. 1:23, 25), and others in ministry (Phil. 1:1; 1 Tim. 3:8, 12). Paul is using the same title for women and men without changing its meaning or interpretation which definitely challenges the notion that women cannot fill the same sort of ministry roles as men. In the Bible there are no barriers (Gal. 3:26-28) just spiritual gifts given to members of the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:4-12, 27-28) to be used in service to Him.
Junias (Rom. 16:7) also has some significant words associated with her. Paul notes that she, along with Andronicus, was a fellow Jew and had spent time in prison with Paul. In the past Junias has often been portrayed as a man, but this name NEVER appears as a man’s name ANYWHERE. Why is this so important? Because the title “apostle” is assigned to her. In the New Testament the word “apostle” is used in several ways. First, it is used of the twelve men Jesus chose to be His disciples. Second, Paul applies the term to himself with the additional meaning of an “emissary”, a person commissioned by a particular church to go on mission to spread the gospel (2 Cor. 8:23; Phil. 2:25). It is also used in the general sense of an “itinerant missionary” in passages such as Acts 14:4 and 14. Junias is not serving in the background either. She is “episemos” which means “of note” or “prominent”. If Paul designates Junias as a prominent missionary-evangelist, thus leader, this indicates that her gender was not an issue.
Although the verse which mentions Tryphosa and Tryphanea is as brief as soft breeze there is a bit of humor packed in it. The custom of the day was to give siblings, particularly twins, names with a similar root word, so most scholars assume these two women to be twin sisters. Their names mean “delicate” and “dainty” respectively. But these ladies were no shrinking violets. They “worked hard for the Lord” (kopian), a word meaning labored to the point of exhaustion. The “T” sisters were champions in the service arena serving just as tirelessly as any man, perhaps even more so judging by Paul’s assessment of them.
With such distinct descriptions it must be concluded that the early church had less of a gender issue concerning leadership and ministry roles for women than we do in the 21st century. But whatever our interpretation of the specific roles of Phoebe, Junias, Tryphosa, and Tryphanea are, it must be accepted that Paul had a high regard for them and for their contributions to the church. Most importantly it should be remembered that they're not just names at the end of a letter. Each woman was a person who mattered in the kingdom of God. May we all look to them as an example and serve as whole-heartedly as they did (Col. 3:17; 1 Pet. 4:8-11).
Ann H. LeFevre, M. Div.
Week of 9/17/2017