Okay, confession time: do your eyes glaze over when you read that long list of greetings in Romans 16? Maybe, like me, you’ve been part of a Bible study that looked at each chapter of Romans week by week, only to come to an abrupt halt after chapter 15, because it was considered that there was nothing particularly worthwhile to study in the final chapter. (But isn’t all Scripture “God-breathed and useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness,” per 2 Timothy 3:16?)
Romans 16 – A Treasure Trove of Information About Women in Ministry
Despite the tendency of many pastors, Bible study leaders, study Bibles and even some commentaries to breeze over this “unimportant” bit of Paul’s theologically rich epistle to the church in Rome, this final chapter is actually a treasure trove of material about the status of women in the first-century church. But for most of us, working our way through this treasure is made all the harder by the unfamiliarity of all those ancient Roman names. With the exception of names which are still familiar to us today, like Julia or Phoebe, it’s not clear to the average reader which of these names is male and which is female, making it all the harder to work out the significance of some of what Paul has to say. It’s further hindered by our lack of knowledge of Paul’s leadership terminology, which is sometimes lurking out of sight in our English translations.
In my Men & Women: God’s Design Bible study, we spend a bit of time unpicking what’s going on in this chapter, assisted by this graphic, which I think makes it all clearer. I don’t know about you, but I do like things that are made nice and visual! Paul acknowledges and commends some of the Roman believers in their leadership roles, but also says g’day to other members of the church who don’t appear to hold any particular positions, so the graphic breaks them down into these two groupings.
Breaking Down the Significance of the Names in Romans 16
Let’s break it down a little:
- Paul greets 28 people in the Roman church in chapter 16, and also introduces to them Phoebe, who carried his letter. We will count Phoebe here, because she is part of what we can uncover about the role of women in the church of her day.
- Two of the names, Olympas and Hermas, are rare, and it is not clear whether they were given to males or females.
- Excluding the two uncertain names, Paul greets 17 men and greets or introduces 10 women.
- The graphic above might have made something stand out to you. Despite the fact that Paul greets almost twice as many men as women, he uses leadership terminology to describe more women than men.
- In fact, there is no leadership term used by Paul in this chapter which is not applied to a woman (but some terms are not applied to men).
So even at a simple glance, it’s clear that the Roman church had a strong presence of women in a variety of ministry positions. Although this church was not established by Paul, the strong involvement of women in Christian ministry here is consistent with what we see in Paul’s ministry. It is fitting, then, that he sends a woman (Phoebe) as his envoy to the Roman church, to deliver and teach about his epistle. This chapter also provides valuable evidence of Paul’s attitude toward women in ministry roles.
Introduction to the Early Roman Church
Let’s take a step back for a moment to consider the context of this letter. The year is approximately 56 AD, and Paul is in the midst of his third missionary journey. He has stopped in Corinth, Greece. During his time of ministry there, he reflects on how he has taken the Gospel to the whole region between Jerusalem and Greece, and is thinking ahead to his future ministry plans. Where can he take the Gospel that it has not been taken before? His big dream is to pioneer ministry in Spain.
En route to this new missionary field, he plans to make the rather logical stop in Rome, where there is an established church which could potentially support Paul in his new endeavour. So Paul is using this letter to establish his credentials as an apostle/missionary prior to his arrival. Phoebe, a deacon in Cenchreae, a port city of Corinth, is the person entrusted by Paul to deliver the letter and explain its contents to the Romans. She is clearly someone he regards as a worthy emissary.
Who founded the church in Rome? We don’t know. Although the Apostle Peter is regarded by the Catholic Church as the first Bishop of Rome, no known evidence places him as the founder of the church in that city – any connection Peter had with Rome was clearly in the later part of his life. Had he been in Rome at the time when Paul wrote his letter, he would certainly have greeted him.
Perhaps the foundation of the Roman church was not achieved by any one person or team. Rome’s eminence as the Empire’s capital means that it was a hub for commerce and travel, with large numbers of people flowing in and out of the city all the time. It is quite possible that some of those present at Pentecost had returned to Rome with the Christian message, and that others came and went at other times, bringing the Gospel with them and establishing a number of Christian communities. Priscilla and Aquila may have already been Christians when they were among the Jews expelled from Rome in AD 49.
Paul’s Relationship with the Roman Church
Doubt has sometimes been expressed that Paul would have known so many people to send greetings to in a church he had never visited. (Frankly, some folks suffer a distinct lack of imagination!) That he was already well acquainted with Priscilla and Aquila is firmly established in the book of Acts. It is entirely possible that some of the other Roman believers were also caught up in the expulsion of Jews. If Christianity was treated as a Jewish sect, then it is possible that (almost) the entire Roman church was expelled at that time, so Paul may have met many Roman Christians in Corinth, Ephesus and other locations before they were able to return to Rome.
As we considered above, people often came and went from Rome for a variety of reasons. Paul may have met some of the members of the Roman church as his travels and theirs intersected, especially if they sought out a Christian community to worship with in cities they visited.
Andronicus and Junia are identified as Paul’s relatives, but had clearly come to reside in Rome. Was this apostolic pair perhaps even the Roman church’s founders? Although they are apostles, relatives of Paul and had been jailed with him for their faith, this is the only instance where we hear of them. It is a good reminder that the history of the church which is known to us through the book of Acts reveals just a little sliver of all that was going on in the spread of the Gospel around the Mediterranean region in those first few decades of the Christian faith. The whole book of Acts covers just 23 pages in my Bible – if we wrote an equivalent history today to tell such a rich collection of stories, it would probably cover at least 800 pages, with numerous spin-off books to come later! It’s always wise to remind ourselves just how limited our knowledge is.
It is not necessary to assume that Paul had previously met every person he greeted in his letter, but it is possible that through his relationship with Priscilla, Aquila, Andronicus, Junia and perhaps others associated with the Roman church, he had heard many stories recounted about the faithful followers of Christ in that city, and so wished to establish a personal connection with these men and women.
What is clear is that by the time Paul writes his letter, the Roman church is well established. It exists as a number of house churches, with numerous leaders who Paul either knew personally through prior connection or had been told about. Its leadership is comprised of a mix of men and women with a variety of roles and backgrounds.
In my next post, I will look at the six leadership terms that Paul uses to describe Phoebe of Cenchreae and the Roman church leaders.
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The Men & Women: God’s Design Bible Study is scheduled for publication in 2019. You can follow the progress via Facebook here, or contact me for details to purchase the study when it becomes available.