Women Deacons and Apostles in the Letters of Paul: Gender Roles in the Church Part 3

In my first post in this series, I highlighted what I believe are some of the central issues to be considered when exploring the role of women in the church, and in the second post I examined the place of women in Jesus’ pre-ascension ministry. In this third installment, we’ll take a look at notable women mentioned by Paul, and my upcoming final installment will analyze Paul’s instructions about women (1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy) in light of all the evidence previously examined. The argument I’m attempting to develop in this series is that taking Paul’s statements about restrictions on women in isolation from other Scripture and then applying them to all people, in all churches, in all times, and in all places is a misunderstanding of Paul’s intention.

(And just to reiterate before I proceed: this topic is not my personal soapbox; I am simply doing my best to publicly and clearly articulate my position out of a sense of responsibility as a woman in ministry. I hope doing so will be a help to those who wrestle with the issue. Please see my comments on this in Part 1.)

Recall what I pointed out in Part I concerning the tension that is apparent between the various passages on women in the church. I believe resolution of this tension is key to a correct understanding of what Paul’s view actually is. First, let’s look at the kinds of roles held by two of the women who are specifically named and esteemed by Paul. 

Phoebe the Deacon and Junia the Apostle

In Romans 16:1, Paul says:

I commend to you our sister Phoebe, who is a servant of the church which is at Cenchrea; that you receive her in the Lord in a manner worthy of the saints, and that you help her in whatever matter she may have need of you; for she herself has also been a helper of many, and of myself as well.

The Greek term that is translated here as “servant” is diakonos, which occurs 29 times in the New Testament, sometimes translated as “minister” and sometimes “deacon.” It’s the same term that Paul uses to describe himself in Ephesians 3:7-10:

of which I was made a minister [diakonos], according to the gift of God’s grace which was given to me according to the working of His power. To me, the very least of all saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unfathomable riches of Christ, and to bring to light what is the administration of the mystery which for ages has been hidden in God who created all things; so that the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known through the church to the rulers and the authorities in the heavenly places. (Emphasis, mine.)

One might even argue that Paul’s description of his duties (preaching and teaching) are at least partly characteristic of the responsibilities of a diakonos. Does this mean that his words in Ephesians 3 could reasonably be considered indicative of some of Phoebe’s duties? I don’t think that’s a stretch, given that the same term is used in both places. Now, I am not a Greek scholar. I acknowledge that there may by linguistic reasons why diakonos is translated as “servant” in some places and “minister” or “deacon” in others.

In I Timothy 3:8-13, Paul says this about the specific office of Deacons: 

Deacons likewise must be men of dignity, not double-tongued, or addicted to much wine or fond of sordid gain, but holding to the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. These men must also first be tested; then let them serve as deacons if they are beyond reproach. Women must likewise be dignified, not malicious gossips, but temperate, faithful in all things. Deacons must be husbands of only one wife, and good managers of their children and their own households. For those who have served well as deacons obtain for themselves a high standing and great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus.

Phoebe

Phoebe

I find it remarkable that women are included as the recipients of these instructions on the office of deacon. Some commentators have tried to make a distinction within this passage and say that Paul is talking about “deacons” and “women” completely separately; but that strikes me as a very strange handling of the passage. If Paul intended such a distinction, it seems completely illogical to plop the statement about women right in the middle of his short discourse on deacons. Rather than making a distinction, it seems to me that Paul is being pointedly inclusive of women in his words about the diaconate.

Go back and look again at the above-mentioned passage from Romans, and pay careful attention to what Paul says to the Roman church concerning Phoebe. He exhorts them to “receive her in the Lord in a manner worthy of the saints, and that you help her in whatever matter she may have need of you.” She is to be received with honor and respect, and they (not just the women!) are to help her with whatever she needs in her ministry. Obviously, Phoebe is a servant leader in the church. 

Perhaps it could be argued that even if Phoebe is a deacon proper, her duties as a female deacon would have been different from those of a male deacon. That seems speculative; as Dr. Ben Witherington, in his work, Paul’s Letter to the Romans: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, says: 

Phoebe is not only a Christian sister, she is also a deacon of the church in Cenchreae, one of the ports of Corinth. The form ousan diakonon suggests that she had an ongoing ministry. She seems to be the first mentioned deacon in Christian history. She should not be called a deaconess because the masculine form of the word is used here and because the specific order of women church workers called deaconesses did not exist for another three hundred years. (p. 382)

In Romans 16:7, Paul very briefly mentions a woman by the name of Junia, who he says is “outstanding among the apostles” (NASB). Some Bible translations phrase the passage to read “well known to the apostles,” which communicates something a bit different. Which rendering is correct? N.T. Wright argues that recent scholarship has shown that the passage cannot mean “to the apostles.” Moreover, there is solid evidence that the very early church understood the passage to mean that Junia, like Andronicus (possibly her husband), was a well-known apostle. For example, an early Church Father, John Chrysostom (c. 347-407 AD), wrote, “Oh, how great is the devotion of this woman, that she should be counted worthy even to be called an apostle.” (It is also worth noting that, as Bishop of Constantinople, Chrysostom put a female deacon, Olympias, in charge of all the deacons serving at the great basilica of Hagia Sophia.) 

I have to (briefly) mention the fact that some translators have used “Junias,” a male name, in this passage. However, there is no evidence whatsoever for the existence of this name; it never occurs in any ancient literature or inscriptions, while the name Junia occurs hundreds of times. 

These are not the only two women that Paul mentions in his epistolary greetings and exhortations, but they are the two that play most strongly into the question of women’s roles in the church.

Stay tuned for Part 4, where I’ll compare/contrast this data with the prohibitions in I Corinthians 11 and I Timothy 2, and hash out what the cultural context of these letters means for a correct understanding of how they apply to churches in other places and times.