Women should expect to serve at every level of God’s church

In this week’s blog I want to explore the important roles women played in the church through the lens of Romans 16.1-16, which at first sight is one of the ‘dryest’ of passages of the New Testament. For what appears to be just a list of names speaks volumes about the key contribution women made to the church in Rome, for a careful reveals that Paul commends more women than men for being especially active in the church. What is more, three of these women played key roles in the church’s life.

First, there was Phoebe who almost certain ran her own house church. The NRSV describes Phoebe as a ‘deacon’ (Rom 16.1), but that is a misleading term, for in Anglican churches a deacon is normally a probationary minister who has yet to be allowed to preside at the Lord’s Table, while in many Baptist churches deacons are lay leaders in a church. I therefore much prefer the GNB’s rendering: Phoebe “serves the church at Cencrheae, the eastern seaport of Corinth.

Secondly, there was Prisca, who may well have been the wife of Aquila, but who was possibly his sister. Prisca and Aquila were long-standing colleagues, literally ‘co-workers’, of Paul (Rom 16.3). The NRSV describes Prisca Aquila as being “relatives” of Paul, but in fact the Greek is probably best translated as ‘fellow countrymen’. However, what is much more significant is that whenever Prisca and Aquila are mentioned by Paul in his letters (see also 1 Cor 16.19 and 2 Tim 4.19) Prisca’s name came first. The implication is that she played the more important role in the church: she was clearly the leader of the church that met in their home.

Thirdly, there was Junia, who was either the wife or the sister of Andronicus: she and Andronicus are described as being “prominent among the apostles” (Rom 16.7). Although in the older English Bible translations such as the RSV and the first edition of the NIV the masculine name of Junias is found, today it is generally recognised that the best Greek manuscripts indicate that Paul here refers to Junia, a woman, who was exercising an apostolic role.

In addition to Phoebe, Prisca and Junia, there were other women who Paul commended as having rendered sterling service. There was Mary who is described as having “worked very hard” in the church (Rom 16.6). Then there were Tryphaena and Tryphosa who are described as “workers in the Lord”. Some commentators suggest that Paul is engaging in a pun, for the Greek names Tryphaena and Tryphosa mean respectively ‘dainty’ and ‘delicate’, whereas the underlying Greek word translated by the NRSV as “workers” implies ‘hard work’ (Rom 16.12), and what is more, not hard work in the kitchen! Then there was also “the beloved” Persis, a Greek name which literally means a ‘Persian woman’, who is also described as having “worked hard in the Lord” (Rom 12). In addition Paul mentioned the mother of Rufus, who he described as “a mother to me also” (Rom 16.4). The implication of this description is uncertain: Paul perhaps was referring to hospitality he had received from her – or alternatively she may have blessed him in some other personal way. There are yet two other women present in this list who Paul greets: Julia and the unnamed sister of Nereus (Rom 16.15).

In summary, as can be seen from this brief study, all the women mentioned by Paul in this list of names in one way or another contributed to the life of the church. The role women played in the life and ministry of God’s people should never be under-estimated. The clear implication is that, in the words of the title of this blog, ‘Women should expect to serve at every level in God’s church’.

Finally, as an ‘addendum, let me comment on those who restrict women from certain key roles in their churches. The general thrust of Scripture is clear: there are no men-only positions in God’s church. To appeal to the complex and obscure passage in 1 Cor 14.33c-36 to bar women from certain ministries in the church is no longer tenable. Without going into detail, this passage cannot be understood as giving general guidance to 21st century Christians, but addresses a particular situation very different from which we faced today: in that regard we can draw a parallel with the passage in 1 Cor 11.2-16 where Paul writes about women having to wear veils. The truth is that churches which limit what women may do in God’s church are undoubtedly the poorer.


  1. I am in wholehearted agreement. It does still need to be said, though I think most nonconformists would have no difficulty in agreeing.

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