Romans 16: A glimpse into the ministry of women in Pauline churches

Romans 16: A glimpse into the ministry of women in Pauline churches

Reading Paul’s letter to the Romans is no small undertaking. Paul makes some complex arguments that take some effort to work through, especially for those of us who are removed from the original context of the words by thousands of years. So, once you get to the last chapter and see there a long list of names, you might be tempted to skip that chapter and call yourself done. However, those who skip Romans 16 skip the opportunity to glimpse the diverse and vibrant community of the church in the first century.

Nearly all of Paul’s letters were written to communities he himself had founded. As he traveled the Mediterranean region, Paul used letters to keep in touch with the new Christian communities he had planted in Asia Minor, Macedonia, and Achaia (modern day Turkey and Greece). The letter to the Romans is different, however, because Paul did not found the church in Rome, nor had he ever been there. So instead of being a follow-up letter, it is a letter of introduction. Paul was planning to visit Rome and wanted to introduce himself and his gospel message to the church in advance of his coming.

Paul was eager to express the connection he already felt with the church in Rome, even though he had never been there. This connection began, of course, with their shared status as Christ-followers and the message about Jesus that both he and they preached. But the points of connection also extended to specific people that Paul knew or at least knew about, people who were members of the Roman church at the time Paul was writing to them. In the closing of the letter, Paul sends greetings to more than 20 individuals/pairs/family groups whom he knows to be at Rome. Greeting these people by name solidifies Paul’s connection to a place he has yet to physically visit.

One of the most interesting things about this list of names is that more than a third of them are women. This is a remarkable percentage, considering the very limited role most women played in public and religious matters in the ancient world. Yet here is ample evidence that many women were active participants in the ministry of the early church. Paul’s writings identify both men and women as his co-workers in preaching his message about Jesus. I have marked the women in the passage below. The first woman Paul is sending to Rome. The rest are all people in Rome to whom he is sending greetings:

I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church at Cenchreae, 2 so that you may welcome her in the Lord as is fitting for the saints, and help her in whatever she may require from you, for she has been a benefactor of many and of myself as well. 3 Greet Prisca and Aquila, who work with me in Christ Jesus, 4 and who risked their necks for my life, to whom not only I give thanks, but also all the churches of the Gentiles. 5 Greet also the church in their house. Greet my beloved Epaenetus, who was the first convert in Asia for Christ. 6 Greet Mary, who has worked very hard among you. 7 Greet Andronicus and Junia, my relatives who were in prison with me; they are prominent among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was. 8 Greet Ampliatus, my beloved in the Lord. 9 Greet Urbanus, our co-worker in Christ, and my beloved Stachys. 10 Greet Apelles, who is approved in Christ. Greet those who belong to the family of Aristobulus. 11 Greet my relative Herodion. Greet those in the Lord who belong to the family of Narcissus. 12 Greet those workers in the Lord, Tryphaena and Tryphosa. Greet the beloved Persis, who has worked hard in the Lord. 13 Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord; and greet his mother— a mother to me also. 14 Greet Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermes, Patrobas, Hermas, and the brothers and sisters who are with them. 15 Greet Philologus, Julia, Nereus and his sister, and Olympas, and all the saints who are with them. (Romans 16:1-15, NRSV)

This is a beautiful picture of the diversity of the early church. The people Paul greets are male and female, young and old, Jew and Gentile, slave and free. Their unity comes not from their uniformity but from their connection to a common mission. No matter their gender, social status, economic status, or ethnicity, they are all co-workers in Christ.

How to interpret the words that Paul wrote about women is a matter of ongoing debate in the church and among biblical scholars. But what is clear is that Paul considered many different women to be his valued co-workers in Christ, engaging in the same kind of ministry as their male counterparts.

In my next three blog posts I will take a closer look at three of the women that Paul mentions in this passage: Phoebe, Prisca, and Junia. Stay tuned!

Picture at the top of this post: Early Christian fresco of a female figure holding a chalice during an Agape Feast. Catacomb of Saints Peter and Marcellinus, Rome, Italy; Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=566560

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