Is there evidence of women pastors and teachers in the New Testament? This is part B of an article responding to Mike Winger’s video ‘Women in Ministry Part 4: Women Leaders in the New Testament: Were Women Overseers, Elders or Deacons?’.
Because of its length we have divided this article into a Part A and a Part B. For Part A, click here.
You can see our articles on other videos by Mike at https://terranwilliams.com/articles/. Or use these links:
- Part 2 (Genesis 1–3) — www.bit.ly/40lo9oh
- Part 3 (OT Women) — www.bit.ly/3jAjCNX
- Part 4 (NT Women) part A — www.bit.ly/3JDVRiB
- Part 4 (NT Women) part B — www.bit.ly/3X08GXx
- Part 5 (Women Apostles) — www.bit.ly/3mMssJV
- Part 7 (Galatians 3:28) — www.rb.gy/2qoig3
- Part 8 (Meaning of Head) — www.bit.ly/3RwliET
- Part 9 (“Wives submit”) — www.bit.ly/3l8CmVv
- Part 10 (Head Covering, 1 Cor 11) — www.bit.ly/3JV6kpD
- Part 11 (“Women be silent,” 1 Cor 14) — www.bit.ly/3naLVUL
- Part 12 (The Meaning of Authenteō, 1 Tim 2:12) — www.rb.gy/7iki8r
CONTENTS OF PART B
A word about gifting
Priscilla is another church host.
Mike makes an important and accurate observation about Priscilla. He says that, with her husband Aquila, she teaches Christian doctrine to a man (Apollos) who became a prominent Christian leader.
However, Mike misdescribes Priscilla’s (and Aquila’s) ministry. Referring to their teaching of Apollos, he says: ‘it’s just two well-educated Christians helping a less educated but gifted person to get better theology’ (0hr37mins).
Mike’s approach here is disappointingly superficial. He would have gained a more secure understanding if he had closely examined the whole context and had considered a timeline of the relevant events.
The story of Priscilla and Aquila
Here is the story of this remarkable couple, Priscilla and Aquila, and their relationship with the apostle Paul, in a timeline with approximate dates:1There are numerous sources where estimated dates can be found. Here, dates are mainly taken from Men and Women in Christ, with invaluable assistance from the very thorough analysis in Martin Mosse, The Three Gospels: New Testament History introduced by the Synoptic Problem (Paternoster, 2007).
PRISCILLA AND AQUILA IN ROME
49 The Emperor Claudius expels the Jews from Rome. Among those expelled are Aquila and Priscilla,2Properly, her name is ‘Prisca’, as in Paul’s letters (1 Corinthians, Romans, 2 Timothy). ‘Priscilla’ is a diminutive, an affectionate nickname – this is how Luke refers to her in Acts and is probably how she was referred to in personal conversation. who are tentmakers. (Acts 18:2-3)
PRISCILLA AND AQUILA IN CORINTH
50 Paul arrives in Corinth and meets Aquila and Priscilla. He stays with them at their house and works with them there as a tentmaker. He also evangelizes in the synagogue. (Acts 18:1-3)
50 When Silas and Timothy arrive in Corinth, Paul stops his tentmaking and devotes himself exclusively to preaching. After hostility in the synagogue, he stops speaking there and instead teaches in the house of Titius Justus. Many respond to the gospel. (Acts 18:5-8).
50-52 Paul continues his ministry in Corinth for about a year and a half. When he leaves in order to preach somewhere new, he takes Priscilla and Aquila (and not Silas or Timothy) with him. Paul’s intended destination is Syria. (Acts 18:11-18)
PRISCILLA AND AQUILA IN EPHESUS
52 En route, Paul, Priscilla and Aquila arrive in Ephesus. Paul immediately speaks in the synagogue, where his message receives a favorable reception. (Acts 18:19-20)
52 The new believers want Paul to stay, but he declines. He cannot guarantee that he will return. He leaves Priscilla and Aquila in Ephesus, and travels on (Acts 18:19-21).
52 While Paul is travelling, Apollos arrives in Ephesus. He is a learned or eloquent man, well versed in the Scriptures (see Acts 18:24, NIV, ESV, NRSV; Greek dunatos – ‘able/powerful/mighty’ in the Scriptures). Apollos teaches about Jesus with great fervor and speaks boldly in the synagogue. When Priscilla and Aquila hear what he says, they take him aside, probably to their house, and explain to him the way of God more accurately. (Acts 18:23-26)
52 After being instructed by Priscilla and Aquila and welcomed into the Ephesian church, Apollos is sent out with a letter of recommendation to Corinth, in Achaia, where he has a very prominent and powerful ministry, building on what Paul had done earlier (Acts 18:27-28; 1 Corinthians 1:12; 3:4-6). A group in Corinth even come to prefer Apollos over Paul (1 Corinthians 3:4).
52 Paul returns to Ephesus (Acts 19:1).3There is no need to be puzzled by Acts 19:1. If one imagines Ephesus as a small town, it might sound as if Paul were arriving at Ephesus for the first time. But Ephesus was a substantial city – the leading city of the richest region of the Roman Empire. He stays for three years. It appears to have been during this period that he ‘fought wild beasts’ in Ephesus (1 Corinthians 15:32).
55 Paul writes from Ephesus to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 16:8). He includes a greeting from Aquila and Priscilla and the church which meets in their house in Ephesus: ‘Aquila and Prisca, together with the church in their house, send you hearty greetings in the Lord.’ (1 Corinthians 16:19, ESV)
55 Paul leaves Ephesus after the riot. (Acts 19:20-21; 20:1, 31)
PRISCILLA AND AQUILA IN ROME AGAIN
57 Paul is back in Corinth, near Cenchreae. He writes his letter to the Romans. (Romans 16:1-2, 23, plus the further information about Gaius in 1 Corinthians 1:14)
57 By this time Priscilla and Aquila have returned to Rome. Here is Paul’s greeting to them in the letter which he writes from Corinth to Rome (Romans 16:3-5, ESV): ‘Greet Prisca and Aquila, my fellow workers in Christ Jesus, who risked their necks for my life, to whom not only I give thanks but all the churches of the Gentiles give thanks as well. Greet also the church in their house.’
57 Paul meets with the elders of the Ephesian church at Miletus (Acts 20:13-38).
63/64 Paul writes to Timothy in Ephesus, perhaps from Macedonia (1 Timothy 1:3). He makes no mention of Priscilla and Aquila in the letter, so it is probable that they have not yet returned to Ephesus (see next entry).
PRISCILLA AND AQUILA IN EPHESUS AGAIN
66 Paul is in prison in Rome. He writes to Timothy a second time (2 Timothy 1:17; 4:21). Timothy is still in Ephesus (2 Timothy 1:16-18, 4:9, 12, 19). At this time Priscilla and Aquila have returned to Ephesus (2 Timothy 4:19).
There is much to be learned from this story, if we consider some simple questions.
Interrogating the story
When Paul leaves Corinth in 52 on a missionary journey, going initially to Ephesus, why does he take Priscilla and Aquila along with him?
Probably, in the course of a year and a half associating with Paul, they had become co-workers with him in the gospel.4We do not know when they first became Christian believers. It may have been much earlier, in Rome or elsewhere. Acts 18:2 could mean either that Paul happened to meet Aquila, or that he deliberately looked for him and found him. Paul may have heard about Aquila as a Jewish Christ-follower in Corinth who could help him. Later, Paul expressly describes them as his co-workers (Romans 16:3).
Luke mentions Aquila before Priscilla in Acts 18:2, when Paul first meets them. Why does Luke reverse the order of names in 18:18 when Paul and the married couple set out together from Corinth?
This needs an explanation, for Greek and Hebrew custom, when naming a couple, was to state the man’s name first.5Payne, Man and Woman, One in Christ: An Exegetical and Theological Study of Paul’s Letters (2009), 64.
Acts 18:2 on its own is neutral. It could be that Paul met Aquila first (so that the order of names is chronological) or it could simply be the customary order, man’s name then woman’s name, at their first meeting. Why the reversal in v 18?
On reviewing the other occurrences of their names, the likely reason is apparent: Priscilla was regarded as more prominent in the church as Paul’s co-worker than Aquila. Four mentions of their names in a context of Christian ministry or Christian fellowship have Priscilla’s name first (Acts 18:18, 26; Romans 16:3; 2 Timothy 4:19).
The only other mention of their names is in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 16:19). There, the order of names is not dependent upon how other people view the couple. This is their own greeting, sent to others, and they use the ordinary convention of stating the man’s name first: ‘Aquila and Prisca, together with the church in their house, send you hearty greetings in the Lord.’ (ESV)6Another explanation has been offered: perhaps Priscilla’s social status was so much higher than Aquila’s that it was socially appropriate to mention her name first. But this does not fit comfortably with 1 Corinthians 16:19. Moreover, the listing of names in the order of prominence in ministry or prominence in the church is a common feature in the New Testament. Peter is named first in the lists of apostles in Matthew 10:2-4; Mark 3:16-19; Luke 6:12-16; and Acts 1:13. In the context of the church in Antioch, Barnabas is named before Paul (Acts 11:30; 12:25-13:1-2, 7), but when they hit the missionary road and Paul becomes more prominent than Barnabas in his preaching and miraculous ministry, from then on Luke names Paul first (Acts 13:43 onwards). Similarly, in the Old Testament, Deborah, as leader of God’s people, is named before her husband Lappidoth (Judges 4:4), and Huldah, as God’s prophet, is named before her husband Shallum (2 Kings 22:14; 2 Chronicles 34:22). So, there is good reason to infer that Priscilla was more prominent in ministry and in the church than Aquila.
We may notice that upon initial arrival in Ephesus, it is only Paul who goes and speaks in the synagogue (Acts 18:19). However, Mike agrees that Priscilla and Aquila labored with Paul in church planting and evangelism (0hr46mins). (Compare Romans 16:3 ‘my fellow workers’.) This is supported by an expositor much closer than us in time, geography and culture, John Chrysostom. (Chrysostom became Archbishop of Constantinople; he died in 407.) He had access not only to the New Testament writings but to historical tradition by word of mouth or in writings now lost. He says that Priscilla’s ‘business … was to spread the word’.7Homily 73 on Matthew 23:14.
When Paul leaves Ephesus in Acts 18:20-21, what then? A ministry team of three had arrived. Only two are remaining behind. So, who will now lead and guide and teach the new group of believers?Will it be some unknown new converts whom Luke does not mention? Or will it be the couple whom Paul had brought with him as co-workers?
Luke’s language in Acts 18:19 – ‘he left them there’ (ESV; Greek verb, kataleipō, ‘leave behind’) – implies that they are commissioned to this task by Paul. And irrespective of the particular language, the situation demands that Paul delegates the teaching and pastoral care of the group to Priscilla and Aquila.
This understanding also finds support in Chrysostom. In Homily 40 on Acts, he says:
‘these [Priscilla and Aquila] he [Paul] left at Ephesus. With good reason, namely, that they should teach. For having been with him so long time, they were learning many things …’
The weight of this testimonial from Chrysostom is magnified by the fact that he was firmly opposed to women leaders in his own day, so we can be confident that he is not over-egging Priscilla’s ministry.
The next event provides further corroboration of the inference that Paul leaves them there to be teachers of the nascent Ephesian church.
After Paul has left, Apollos arrives. He is a forceful public exponent of the gospel. His preaching is enthusiastic about Jesus, but incomplete. Who in Ephesus is in a position to exert some authority over him, take him in hand, and teach him the way of God more accurately? Who has authority to represent the existing Christian group in Ephesus and its apostolic founder, Paul, and to challenge and instruct Apollos?
Rather obviously, only the believers whom Paul had left in charge of the new church. Who is that? Priscilla and Aquila. That is why they challenge and instruct Apollos.
When the couple are named in Acts 18:26, whose name is mentioned first, and why?
Again, it is Priscilla, probably because she is more prominent than Aquila in leading and teaching.
Where did they take Apollos, in order to instruct him? Did they just have a quick chat with him outside the synagogue?
The ESV says that they ‘took him aside’. The NIV says that they ‘invited him to their home’. The Greek verb describing what they did is proslambanō. It is made up of the verb lambanō, which means ‘take’ or ‘receive’ and the preposition pros, which conveys the ideas of ‘to’, ‘towards’, or ‘with’. ESV translates this word as ‘welcome’ in Romans 14:1, 3; 15:7; and in Acts 28:2 where, after the shipwreck, the islanders showed great kindness in making a fire and hospitably ‘welcoming’ those who came on shore wet and exhausted.
An appropriate translation here in Acts 18:26 is ‘they took him in’.
Although the ESV and NIV translations seem superficially very different, in practical terms they probably amount to the same thing. If (per ESV) ‘they took him aside’ in order to get to know him and teach him, where would they have taken him? They would have extended hospitality to him and invited him to their home.8For scholarly references and further discussion of the terminology in Acts 18:26, see https://margmowczko.com/at-home-with-priscilla-and-aquila/. That would enable them to have the lengthy discussions which would be needed in order to instruct him in a more accurate understanding of the apostles’ teaching. Their home is probably also where the Ephesian believers meet (1 Corinthians 16:19). In their home they can introduce him to the other believers.
The next verse shows they are successful in drawing him into the fellowship of the small church. Indeed, Apollos so impresses the community that they write a letter of commendation for him to take with him to the Corinthian church. Given Priscilla’s and Aquila’s established relationship with their former church in Corinth, we may infer that they have a prominent role in the writing of the letter of commendation (Acts 18:27).
What do we learn about Priscilla and Aquila from what is said about them in Paul’s letter to the Romans?
When Paul returns to Ephesus, things do not go smoothly. We do not know who or what the ‘wild beasts’ are that Paul fights with in Ephesus, whether literal beasts in the arena or opponents who try to get Paul killed, or both. But we know that about two years after leaving Ephesus he publicly thanks his fellow workers, Priscilla and Aquila, for risking their own necks to save his life (Romans 16:3-4). That highlights their prominence as co-workers who shared in Paul’s troubles and danger.
When Priscilla and Aquila moved back to Rome, they again hosted a church in their house (Romans 16:5). In the personal greetings in the last chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans, Paul gives them the honor of being the first named people to be given a greeting. It is quite likely that this was appropriate because of their prominence in the church in Rome.
What can we learn from how Paul starts his farewell address to the Ephesian elders at Miletus?
He commences: ‘You yourselves know how I lived among you the whole time from the first day that I set foot in Asia’ (Acts 20:18, ESV). It seems that at least some of the elders present stem from the very first crop of converts from Paul’s visit to the synagogue in Acts 18:19, that is, from the people that Paul left in the care of Priscilla and Aquila. This suggests that Priscilla and Aquila have not only cared for them as new believers but have contributed towards their becoming elders.
Having examined the context and the chronology, we are in a position to assess Mike’s view on Priscilla and Aquila. He says their ministry is:
‘not formal or institutional, it doesn’t appear to be connected to authority at all; it’s just two well-educated Christians helping a less educated but gifted person to get better theology so he can do better ministry’ (0hr37mins)
That view is not consistent with the overall picture that we get from the New Testament text.
Mike’s terms ‘formal or institutional’ are anachronistic. In those early days the churches were not formal or institutional. They were groups of believers meeting mainly in homes. In AD 52 the church in Ephesus had only just come into existence. To understand the nature of Priscilla’s and Aquila’s ministry, we need to consider the functions which they performed and the responsibilities which Paul gave them.
Mike’s assessment ‘it doesn’t appear to be connected to authority at all’ is unrealistic. Even Calvin, who was firmly opposed to women’s leadership and teaching, admitted in his Commentary on Acts: ‘we see that one of the chief teachers of the Church was instructed by a woman’. If Priscilla and Aquila had no standing as leaders of the existing Christian group, why should the learned and forceful Apollos take any notice of them? He needed to know that what they said to him was true apostolic doctrine and ought to be accepted by him. He was able to know that because of their standing as Paul’s delegates and leaders of the group of new believers.
Mike views Priscilla and Aquila as ‘just two well-educated Christians helping a less educated but gifted person’. When we have read the text closely and have understood what is happening, the scenario imagined by Mike is not credible. He appears to have overlooked here that Priscilla and Aquila were two-thirds of Paul’s church-planting team in Ephesus and, when Paul quickly left, they alone were responsible to continue the work. Paul may well have planned it that way, for when he left Corinth his destination was not Ephesus but Syria (Acts 18:18): if he could garner some quick fruit in a major city en route, he would leave Priscilla and Aquila to continue the work while he travelled on.
Luke considers their instruction of Apollos to be of sufficient importance for him to include it in his short and carefully selective history of the early years of the Christian church. As Mike says, ‘this example is here for a reason’ (0hr38mins). But Mike misses the full reason.
One of Luke’s particular emphases is the word, the apostolic message (Acts 6:7; 8:4; 12:24; 13:49; 18:11, 19:20 and many other references). The relatively unusual verb which Luke uses in Acts 18:26 to describe Priscilla’s and Aquila’s teaching (ektithēmi) is the same word which he uses of the apostle Paul’s expository teaching in Acts 28:23, in the passage where he brings his whole narrative to an end.
This is significant. From Acts 16 onwards, Luke’s focus is on Paul’s ministry, so why this one seeming deviation in chapter 18 in order to narrate what Priscilla and Aquila did in Ephesus? It is because even this story is about Paul’s ministry. It shows how the reach of his ministry and expository teaching was extended through co-workers whom he trained. We know that some in the early church saw Apollos as a rival to Paul (1 Corinthians 3:4). Luke probably knew of that. But this story shows that Apollos is not really Paul’s rival, since it is Paul’s own trainees and co-workers, Priscilla and Aquila, who expound the Scriptures and the apostolic message to Apollos and set him up for a fruitful teaching ministry in Corinth.
If, as complementarians claim, there is a special category of Christian teaching which is ‘authoritative’, Priscilla and Aquila do it.
Imagine how Luke’s text would have been expounded if all the biblical facts that we have about Priscilla and Aquila had mentioned only Aquila. Commentators would have said:
‘Here is an early example of a pastor-teacher in the primitive church: he arrives with and assists Paul and helps nurture the new community of believers. When Paul promptly leaves, he is the leader who remains. He hosts them in his house. And his interaction with Apollos gives a vivid insight into his work as Paul’s approved pastor of the fledgling church, in particular his responsibility to preserve and teach apostolic doctrine. Notice how similar he is to Timothy as a pastor: he is trained up by Paul, he travels with Paul, Paul leaves him in charge at Ephesus, and he undertakes authoritative doctrinal instruction.’
The functions of elders or pastor-teachers are to lead and shepherd the flock and to teach apostolic doctrine. Those are the functions which Priscilla and Aquila perform in Ephesus.
We may connect this with what Paul says in his letter to the Ephesians, written perhaps AD 57-59, some two to four years after he had left Ephesus in AD 55.9Another view is that Ephesians was written in 60/61. For present purposes, we do not need to decide when in the period 57-61 it was written. In Ephesians 4:11-12 he speaks of Christ’s gifts to his church, which include evangelists and pastor-teachers, to equip God’s people for service and build up the body of Christ. These are people with particular God-given callings. Paul gives no hint of any gender distinction in this passage. That is as we might expect, after seeing the responsibilities which he hands over to Priscilla and Aquila in Ephesus.
Paul expected a gifted woman, Priscilla, to teach with authority in order to maintain the apostolic doctrine. She fulfilled his expectation.
A word about gifting
Three crucial functions of eldership are shepherding (pastoring), leading and teaching (poimainō, 1 Peter 5:2; proistēmi, didaskalia, 1 Timothy 5:17). These functions correlate with the wording of the gifts of pastoring, leading and teaching (poimēn, didaskalos, Ephesians 4:11; didaskō, didaskalia, Romans 12:7; proistēmi, Romans 12:8). Paul stresses, especially in Romans 12, that gifts should determine who does what. ‘If your gift is … teaching, then teach. … If it is to lead, lead with diligence.’ The abiding principle is that gifting is a crucial indicator for who leads.
It should interest us, though not surprise us, that the three churches which received Pauline letters that included a list of spiritual gifts – the churches in Corinth, Ephesus and Rome – are the same churches where it appears Priscilla served successively on the basis of her God-given gifting.
Complementarians try to sidestep this principle. For example, Kevin DeYoung first acknowledges, ‘Women have vital spiritual gifts, including gifts of teaching and leadership.’ But then he ushers the benefit of these gifts away from men:
‘Women can, and should, exercise powerful gifts of teaching, provided it is not over men. Surely teaching children and other women is not a waste of a woman’s gifts?’10‘Let Us Reason Together About Complementarianism’, May 26, 2021, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/complementarianism/.
But Paul’s teaching about humbly receiving the contributions of other believers warns us against those damaging sentiments:
‘The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.”’ (1 Corinthians 12:21, ESV)
Thus far in Parts A and B, we already have enough basis for women exercising pastoral and teaching authority today. Nonetheless, we should move on to Phoebe, because Mike’s lengthy discussion of her contains some major mistakes. We will find, contrary to Mike’s view, there is good evidence that she was probably authorized by Paul to teach Scripture to a church, including to the men.
In his introduction, Mike plays a clip of N. T. Wright (Tom Wright) talking about Phoebe.
Wright is the best-known New Testament scholar in the world today. After studying Greek and Latin literature and history at Oxford, he moved into theology and into church leadership. He has devoted his life to serving the Lord both in the academy and in the church. He has written more than 70 books. He affirms the truth of the Bible. He understands the Bible as not placing any restriction on the ministry of women as compared with men.
In the video clip he says: ‘The probability is that the first person to expound Paul’s letter to the Romans was a woman, a deacon, from the church in Cenchreae.’ (0hr2mins)
This woman is Phoebe.
Here are the words of the apostle Paul, as rendered by the ESV:
‘I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church at Cenchreae, that you may welcome her in the Lord in a way worthy of the saints, and help her in whatever she may need from you, for she has been a patron of many and of myself as well.’ (Romans 16:1-2)
The recipients are being asked to welcome Phoebe because she is the bearer of the letter. Scholars are in general agreement on this.
However, there are three points on which scholars do not agree:
- whether she was probably the first person to expound Paul’s letter to the Romans;
- whether in v 1 Phoebe was a ‘servant’ of the church at Cenchreae (as in ESV) or whether she was a ‘deacon’ of the church (as Wright says, and as in NIV);
- whether in v 2 she had been a ‘helper’ (ASV), a ‘benefactor’ (NIV), a ‘patron’ (ESV) or a ‘leader’ (CEV) of many and of Paul.
We will look at these three questions.
Q1: Did Phoebe probably expound Paul’s letter? Mike’s objections
Wright believes that Phoebe, as the letter-carrier, probably expounded the letter to the recipients in Rome.
Mike contests that idea. It would make her a teacher approved by Paul. Such a view of Phoebe would collide with the complementarian belief that only men can be approved teachers of the church (despite the example of Priscilla’s teaching authority which we have considered above).
He raises two objections, which we will consider.
His first objection is that there is no evidence for a custom that letter-carriers explained letters; it did not exist.
We believe that Mike’s familiarity with Greco-Roman languages, literature and culture is not comparable with Tom Wright’s. It may seem a little surprising that Mike is contradicting Wright on a matter of Greco-Roman practice in the first century AD.
However, if mistakes are made in scholarship, they should be corrected, irrespective of who makes them. Wright welcomes correction. In the preface to the first volume of his magisterial series on Christian Origins and the Question of God he writes:
‘a final word of warning. I frequently tell my students that quite a high proportion of what I say is probably wrong, or at least flawed or skewed in some way which I do not at the moment realize. The only problem is that I do not know which bits are wrong; if I did I might do something about it. … … since I am aware of the virtual certainty of error in some of what I write, I hope I shall pay proper attention to the comments of those – and no doubt there will be many – who wish to draw my attention to the places where they find my statement of the evidence inadequate, my arguments weak, or my conclusions unwarranted.’11N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God (1992), xvii-xviii.
In this instance, Mike’s comment is about the inadequacy of the evidence.
In the clip, Wright does not cite any evidence to show that a letter-carrier such as Phoebe would have explained the letter. The clip is taken from an interview. We assume that he was not asked about the supporting evidence, else Mike would have identified Wright’s evidence and would have considered it.
Mike turns to something written by another well-known scholar, Craig Keener. in a chapter in Two Views on Women in Ministry. Keener states:
‘The chapter opens with mention of Phoebe, who carried Paul’s letter to Rome, hence plainly functioning as Paul’s agent. Given his commendation, it is possible Paul expects her to be able to explain to the Roman Christians details of his letter if she is questioned (vv. 1–2), as letter bearers sometimes were.’12Two Views on Women in Ministry, 216.
Mike notes the softness of what is claimed here (‘it is possible …’), in distinction from Wright’s firmer claim of probability. Then he examines Keener’s footnote, which says:
‘See, e.g., Xenophon, Cyr. 4.5.34. Bearers might also communicate a letter’s spirit (e.g., 1 Macc. 12:23; Cicero, Fam. 12.30.3; Eph. 6:21–22; Col. 4:7–8).’
He says these ancient sources are Keener’s defense of what he says (1hr17mins).
Examining the passage from Xenophon, Mike says that the text shows a special command to the carrier about answering questions in accordance with the letter, but that does not evidence a custom of giving explaining powers to the carrier. He concludes: ‘I don’t think that this is a real custom. I think that this is something that scholars just say.’ Then, just like Tom Wright, he winsomely invites correction. He says, ‘Maybe I’m wrong you guys, and hopefully I’m sharing enough of my details here that you could notice where I’m wrong. I’m trying to be as transparent as possible.’ (1hr20mins)
He then dismisses Keener’s further references as not relevant. We comment at once: of course, they are not relevant. Keener supplied those further references for a different point, about communicating a letter’s spirit rather than about explaining the letter.
In this part of the video, we see some elementary errors in Mike’s research.
First, Mike has not noticed that Keener’s footnote starts with ‘See, e.g.’ This means ‘See, for example’ (e.g. is an abbreviation for the Latin exempli gratia). Keener is putting forward the Xenophon reference merely as one example. This is not Keener’s list of sources in support of what he says.
Second, as regards sources of evidence, here is what Keener says in the first footnote on the first page of his chapter:
‘Because this essay is intended for a more general audience and because I have provided detailed documentation for most of my points elsewhere (see my Paul, Women and Wives: Marriage and Women’s Ministry in the Letters of Paul [Peabody, Mass: Hendrickson, 1992, rev. with new introduction, 2004]; articles on gender roles in InterVarsity’s Dictionary of Paul and His Letters; Dictionary of the Later New Testament and Its Developments; and Dictionary of New Testament Background [esp. “Marriage,” 680-693], I document relatively lightly in this essay.’
Contrary to Mike’s assertion, the one footnote which mentions Xenophon is not Keener’s defense of what he says. Mike does not say whether he has examined any of the materials listed by Keener in his first footnote.13Keener’s article ‘Man and Woman’ in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters discusses Phoebe and (at 589) refers the reader to his 1992 book (Paul, Women and Wives) pages 237-240 for fuller details.
Third, Mike ignores how Keener’s text continues. On the same page and the next page (216-217), Keener discusses whether Phoebe, in her capacity as a deacon, would be expected to explain Scripture. Mike does not comment on Keener’s argument.
Fourth, Mike jumps to his conclusion without appropriate research.
After mentioning two sentences written by a single scholar (Keener), and misunderstanding one footnote, which gave one example, Mike dismisses the idea that letter-carriers explained letters as just something that scholars say. He says: ‘I spent some time on this. I can’t find anything that supports it in any strong way at all.’ (1hr22mins)
It would appear that he did not look in the right places.
The practices involved in writing and sending letters are referred to in scholarship as ‘epistolary practices’. A good place to look would be the work of scholars who have studied ancient epistolary practices.
One such scholar is Peter Head. Over a number of years, Head has carried out in-depth research into evidence of both Jewish and Greco-Roman epistolary practices, in order to seek a better understanding of New Testament letters.
In an article on Jewish letter-writing, Head concludes:
‘It is clear that the letter carriers do sometimes have an important role in the communication process (esp. when named, where it is generally assumed that they will have a larger role). … … we do find letter carriers involved in reinforcing and supplementing the message of the written letter and thus facilitating the communication process envisaged by the author and sender of the letter.’14Jewish and Christian Scripture as Artifact and Canon (eds. C.A. Evans & H.D. Zacharias; SSEJC 13; LNTS 70; London: T & T Clark / Continuum, 2009), 203-219, 219.
He carried out extensive new research into letters written in Greek from 200 BC to 200 AD. From this, he concludes:
‘Perhaps the crucial point for our thinking about the delivery of Pauline letters is the understanding that the trusted letter-carrier often has an important role in extending the communication initiated by the letter. The letter-carrier thus brings fuller personal knowledge into the communication process, which is only partly embodied in the letter. … … It is generally accepted that the Pauline co-workers who functioned as letter-carriers had an important role in the communication strategy of Paul, offering a personal representative to present his letter (already a speech which substitutes for the apostolic presence). The papyrological evidence surveyed here supports the further idea that in the Pauline tradition the accredited letter-carriers functioned not only as personal private postmen, but as personal mediators of Paul’s authoritative instruction to his churches, and as the earliest interpreters of the individual letters. They related the specific material in their letter to what they knew of Pauline teaching more generally.
This model suggests that the earliest reception of specific Pauline letters would have been accompanied by a Pauline representative who could relate the specifics of the letter to the general Pauline tradition known to him (or her).15Named Letter-Carriers among the Oxyrhynchus Papyri, Journal for the Study of the New Testament 31.3 (2009), 279-299, 298. (emphasis added)
If we apply Head’s conclusion to the letter to the Romans, it would follow that Phoebe probably functioned as the personal mediator of Paul’s authoritative instruction and as the first interpreter of the letter.
Moving our focus onwards by several centuries, other scholars have noted abundant evidence that bishops made use of deacons as letter-carriers (in Latin, tabellarii), many of whom are known by name. Such tabellarii ‘were usually briefed on the contents of the letters entrusted to them and often made supplementary reports on matters that were not set down in writing.’ However, the use of tabellarii was not new – it was already a practice of wealthy people in the late Republic and early Empire, before Paul’s time.16Martin R. P. McGuire, ‘Letters and Letter Carriers in Christian Antiquity’ (contd), The Classical World, Vol 53, No 6 (1960), 184-185, 199-200, 185.
Head’s article on letters written in Greek does not specifically say whether he considers his conclusion to be applicable to Paul’s letter to the Romans. But he has also written a blogpost, commenting on Wright’s views. Head expressly agrees that Phoebe would have had a role in ‘explaining the contents of Romans’.17http://tychichus.blogspot.com/2012/11/nt-wright-on-phoebe.html (published November 27, 2012; accessed 31 October 2022).
Mike has not considered this relevant scholarly evidence, which is based on close study of ancient primary sources. He has no sound basis for his conclusion that Paul’s letter-carriers did not explain the letters.
Mike’s second objection to Wright’s view is based on a consideration of the practicalities. He considers them from the point of view of the sender and from the point of view of the recipient.
If letter-carriers were really relied on to explain letters, how could correspondence take place in the ancient world? When sending a letter, you would need to find someone (1) who is willing to travel, (2) who can carry the letter, (3) whom you can trust, and (4) who is capable of interpreting and teaching your letter. Mike imagines Paul would have to say: ‘OK, this letter’s got to go to Rome, but I need to wait until somebody who’s skilled enough to teach Romans shows up and they can carry it over to Rome.’ He suggests that life doesn’t work that way; in real life it would be: ‘Hey, are you going to Rome? Hey, I trust you. OK, take my letter with you.’ (1hr22mins)
And what about the receiving of a letter? Mike suggests that upon Phoebe’s arrival, the first thing a church leader in Rome would do would be to ‘grab it themselves and read it themselves’.
He concludes that the whole idea of a letter-carrier being the official teacher of the letter to the Romans is ‘so weird, so weird’ (1hr23mins).
We commend Mike for using his imagination in order to try to better understand Romans 16:1-2. In principle, this is the right thing to do. To enter into the meaning of Scripture and truly understand it, we have to use our imaginations.
But uninformed speculation is of no value. What is required is disciplined historical imagination.18We learned the phrase ‘disciplined historical imagination’ from the writings of N. T. Wright. Our use of imagination must be constrained and directed by the text itself and by the available historical and cultural evidence. Lack of this discipline has led Bible scholars into many errors.
Mike’s imaginations about the sender’s difficulties, and about how the recipients would read, do not take into account the historical evidence. We have already seen that Head’s detailed research substantially confirms Tom Wright’s judgment about the likelihood that Phoebe was authorized by Paul to explain the letter to the recipients.
Moreover, the historical evidence shows that getting private letters delivered was indeed not easy, and was often extremely difficult.19Martin R. P. McGuire, ‘Letters and Letter Carriers in Christian Antiquity’ (contd), The Classical World, Vol 53, No 6 (1960), 184-185, 199-200, 185. For example, the problem of finding a suitable person to take a letter is visible in ancient letters:
- Senders mention that they are writing now because they found or happened upon someone who was going to the desired destination: ‘Since Achillas was going downstream I decided that I must greet you in writing …’
- Or else they excuse themselves for not having written earlier because of the difficulty of finding someone: ‘Don’t think that I neglect to write to you; we don’t have anyone with whom to send (a letter)’20Peter M. Head, ‘Named Letter-Carriers among the Oxyrhynchus Papyri’, Journal for the Study of the New Testament31.3 (2009), 279-299, 284, where multiple examples are given.
To consider how recipients dealt with a letter that they received, we must also keep in mind the method of writing.
In our world, we are accustomed to the use of punctuation, including spaces between words, in order to reduce ambiguities, as illustrated by apandagoesintoabareatsshootsandleaves.21Adapted from Lynne Truss, Eats, Shoots and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation (2009).
But in Paul’s world, the words of the letter were run together as a continuous string of capital letters, and punctuation would have been minimal, if there was any at all. Here are the first few lines of Paul’s letter to the Romans in English (ESV):
Making it even harder to read, some words would probably not be spelled in full, but abbreviated.
In the Roman Empire, ‘most people were functionally illiterate’.22Keener, ‘Man and Woman’ in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, 589. And while some of the educated minority were able to read silently, the normal method of reading was to read out loud.
So, a letter to a group of people would not be passed around; it would be read out to the assembled gathering by a skilled lector. We see glimpses of this in the New Testament:
‘After this letter has been read to you, see that it is also read in the church of the Laodiceans and that you in turn read the letter from Laodicea.’ (Colossians 4:16, NIV)
‘I charge you before the Lord to have this letter read to all the brothers and sisters.’ (1 Thessalonians 5:27, NIV)
‘Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near.’ Revelation 1:3 (NIV).
Now, let’s get some historical context for the kind of letter that we are concerned with here – Paul’s letter to the Romans.
Most letters in the ancient world were very short – rarely more than 200 words. But a few people wrote longer letters. Here are some statistics for the great letter writers Cicero (1st century BC) and Seneca (1st century AD):
Cicero’s known letters range from 22 words to 2,530 words (average 295).
Seneca’s known letters range from 149 words to 4,134 words (average 955).
Let’s compare the apostle Paul:
Paul’s known letters range from 355 words (Philemon) to 7,101 words (Romans).23Martin R. P. McGuire, ‘Letters and Letter Carriers in Christian Antiquity’, The Classical World, Vol 53, No 5 (1960), 148-153, 148.
We could reasonably suppose that an elite, educated man in Rome would be comfortable reading a letter of 200 words out loud to himself or, after examining it carefully, reading it out to others. Now imagine the Roman church receiving Paul’s epistle, of more than 7,000 words. That may have been longer than any letter that they had heard in their whole lives. Without help, the epistle would be ‘just a bewildering maze of letters that could be parsed in various ways. Texts in an oral culture do not function like texts in our world.’24See Witherington, cited at Men and Women in Christ, 298.
To a member of that church, Mike’s twenty-first-century idea that a church leader would grab Paul’s letter and read it to himself, and would not have expected to receive explanations from Paul’s authorized representative, would have sounded (if we may gently re-use Mike’s own words) ‘so weird, so weird’.
Phoebe probably explained the letter to the Romans
From the totality of this evidence, what should we conclude? Phoebe, as the letter-carrier, was probably authorized by Paul to explain his exceptionally long and complex letter to the assembled church in Rome.
Mike has wrongly claimed the idea that letter-carriers like Phoebe explained letters to the recipients is ‘just something that scholars say’, unsupported by evidence. Out of fairness to Tom Wright and Craig Keener, Mike would do well to issue a correction.
So far in our analysis, we have concluded that Priscilla (almost certainly) and Phoebe (very probably) were authorized by Paul to teach and explain doctrine to men. They stand as early examples of the ‘reliable people’ that Paul refers to when he says to another of his trainees: ‘And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others’ (2 Timothy 2:2).25The NIV correctly translates these individuals as ‘people’ not ‘men’ (ESV) because the meaning of the Greek word ‘anthrōpos’ is not specifically male. Having taught Priscilla and Phoebe the apostolic doctrines, Paul evidently wants them to teach others, including men in Ephesus and in Rome.
Q2: Was Phoebe a ‘servant’ of the church at Cenchreae (as in ESV) or was she a ‘deacon’ of that church?
On this question, certainty is impossible. We can only judge what was probable.
Probably she was a deacon, for the reasons explained by Mike. On this, Mike agrees with Tom Wright, and also with complementarian scholars Craig Blomberg, Tom Schreiner and Douglas Moo (1hr39mins).
It follows that the term ‘deacon’ is capable of applying to a woman.26In Romans 16:1, the word diakonos is used to refer to Phoebe, in the accusative case (diakonon). It may be helpful to know that there is some possibly controversial parsing of the Greek shown on Bible Hub and on Step Bible. On those two websites, it is parsed as grammatically feminine in that sole instance, but the form is the ordinary grammatically masculine form, just as in Romans 15:8, and in every other use of the word in the New Testament. If someone reading this knows why they have parsed it differently in 16:1, we would be pleased to enlarge our understanding.
However, Mike’s discussion of deacons is marred by some misconceived criticisms of egalitarian writings. He cites Linda Belleville on page 47 of Two Views on Women in Ministry, who states:
‘Women are readily labeled “deacons” in the NT. Phoebe, for example, is applauded by Paul as a deacon.61’
Mike then spends seven minutes taking Belleville to task for saying this. He complains that she is pluralizing a single event (from just one woman to multiple women). He complains that her footnote 61 does not support her text. He expresses his deep concern over the perceived egalitarian misuse of Scripture.
Mike thinks that Belleville’s footnote 61 is supposed to be the support for her statement that women are readily labeled deacons in the New Testament. In that state of mind, he reads out the three Scripture passages in her footnote, and expresses his bafflement. (He does not look at the article by Belleville which she cites in her footnote for further explanation of her thinking.) He makes Belleville look careless and foolish.
Again, it is Mike who has made the mistake here. He radically mis-reads what Belleville has written. His bafflement is easily explained. It would have been useful if he had thought to himself: ‘This seems to make no sense at all, have I misunderstood something?’
Had he looked more closely at the footnote, he would have seen that it starts with ‘Cf.’. This is an abbreviation of the Latin word confer, which means ‘compare’. It signals to an academic reader that this footnote is not support for the proposition in the text, but is other material which is interesting to consider in the discussion.
Had he looked more closely at Belleville’s main text on page 47, he would have realized that her support for the proposition that women were readily labelled deacons is not in the footnote, but in the main text. Belleville first gives the example of Phoebe, and explains why she understands that Phoebe was a deacon, not merely a servant. Then Belleville specifically explains why she pluralizes: ‘The list of qualifications for women deacons in 1 Timothy 3 makes it plain that this was not an isolated case’. She cites 1 Timothy 3:11 and explains why she interprets it as referring to women deacons.
The irony of all this is that Mike agrees with Belleville’s interpretation of Romans 16:1, that Phoebe was a deacon. And Mike agrees with Belleville’s interpretation of 1 Timothy 3:11, that it states qualifications for women deacons. By mis-reading what Belleville wrote, he has wasted seven minutes of his video and has unwittingly misled thousands of listeners as regards the quality of Belleville’s scholarship. Out of fairness to her, Mike would do well to issue a correction.
(Why didn’t Mike discover his elementary mistake here? We are confident it was not because of any lack of intelligence. We would guess he was distracted by seeing weak egalitarian arguments during his studies of the topic of women in ministry. He did not guard against the negative impact of poor arguments. He may even have been caught in a sort of vicious spiral, in which he came to each further egalitarian argument with an ever-increasing expectation of finding fault. Cognitive bias of this kind is a regular feature of a partisan approach to interpreting the Bible.)
Q3: Was Phoebe commended by Paul as a ‘helper’ (ASV), a ‘benefactor’ (NIV), a ‘patron’ (ESV) or a ‘leader’ (CEV)?
In Romans 16:2, Paul commends Phoebe, stating that she has been a prostatis of many and of himself.
There are at least four competing translations of the Greek word prostatis in Romans 16:2. Which is most likely to be correct?
Our initial consideration of this question will involve identifying some further elementary errors made by Mike, due to inadequate research and unskilled use of Greek lexicons.
Mike’s main focus here is on criticizing Philip Payne’s view that the correct option in Romans 16:2 is ‘leader’ (1hr48mins to 1hr53mins).27Mike cites Payne, Man and Woman, One in Christ: An Exegetical and Theological Study of Paul’s Letters (2009), 62.
Mike says it is a ‘significant error’ for Payne to rely on the LSJ Greek lexicon for concluding that prostatis means ‘leader’. He says that LSJ does not focus on the kind of Greek found in the New Testament but on classical Greek ‘and other stuff’; LSJ, in its long article on the meaning of prostates (the masculine form of the same word), does not mention the New Testament.
Instead, Mike recommends BDAG, a lexicon which focuses on NT Greek.28To be more precise, the title of this lexicon is: A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. He reads out the entry on prostatis:
‘a woman in a supportive role, a patron, a benefactor. The relationship suggested by the term is not to be confused with the Roman patron-client system, which was of a different order and alien to Greek tradition.’
On this basis Mike concludes, regarding Payne’s view: ‘This is bogus. This is bogus. … I think this is just bogus’.
Then he describes his checks to see if there are any English versions that actually translate prostatis as ‘leader’ in Romans 16:2. He says that 12 major translations have terms like ‘patron’, ‘helper’, ‘benefactor’, and so on. He says he could find only one translation that says ‘leader’, TPT (the Passion Translation). He pauses and smiles, because his audience knows that he has made a number of videos strongly criticizing TPT as seriously defective.
However, Mike has made mistakes in every step of this argument. If he had taken the precaution of looking at Philip Payne’s academic pedigree at TEDS, Tübingen, Cambridge, Gordon-Conwell, Bethel and Fuller,29See www.pbpayne.com/about/. he might have thought to himself: ‘it looks like Phil has been a student of NT Greek for five decades, and he has a better knowledge of NT Greek than me; I wonder if I should look at this more closely before I describe his conclusion as bogus, bogus, bogus?’
Mike makes five mistakes here.
First, it is right to say that LSJ has much broader coverage of Greek than BDAG. But LSJ’s coverage includes the New Testament. Moreover, it can be particularly helpful for study of the New Testament, for the very reason that it is a secular lexicon. The Greek in which the New Testament was written was generally the ordinary, everyday Greek of the time. When LSJ reports meanings and usages found outside the New Testament, it does so without being influenced by any particular theological agendas. So, contrary to Mike’s view, Philip Payne was totally correct to consult and cite LSJ as a useful aid.
Second, Mike has misunderstood the reason for LSJ not citing the New Testament in its entry on prostates (the male form of prostatis). The reason cannot be that the LSJ omits consideration of the New Testament, for the LSJ gives substantial consideration to the New Testament. The LSJ’s coverage of the New Testament is so useful that it is used as a primary reference source by Step Bible (stepbible.org). The true reason is that the word prostates (the masculine form) does not occur in the New Testament.
Third, Mike’s approach here is illogical. It does not make sense to insist that one ought to consult BDAG for the meaning of prostatis on the ground that BDAG concentrates on the New Testament. That word occurs only once in the NT. There are no other NT uses of it to consider. So, the only possible places for examples of usage are outside the NT. A secular lexicon is therefore an obvious place to look.
Fourth, the BDAG entry is an example of why caution is required in the use of the BDAG lexicon. BDAG is a massive undertaking, representing many years of work and great learning and expertise. But the editors do not claim to be infallible. And the explanations of words provided in BDAG inevitably reflect in some degree the theological opinions of the editors, simply because those opinions will have some influence on their reading of Scripture. In our own research, we have noticed a tendency in BDAG to minimize women in accordance with traditional views. The BDAG entry on prostatis appears to reflect the editors’ understanding of Romans 16:2 – that Phoebe, as a woman, would have been in a junior, supporting role.
The editors are aware of possible views that Phoebe might be a person of importance as a patron. With this in mind, they assert that the relevant meaning in v 2 is ‘not to be confused with the Roman patron-client system, which was of a different order and alien to Greek tradition.’
We believe that the editors here reveal an insufficient or outdated knowledge of Roman and Greek patronage in New Testament times. There was indeed a period when Greek customs were sharply distinguished from the Roman patronage system. That was in the distant past, in the time of the Athenian democracy. (Hence the editors’ reference to ‘Greek tradition’). But from the fourth century BC onwards, Greek patronage resembled the Roman system more and more closely. In Paul’s time, under the Roman Empire, they were almost indistinguishable.30This is well explained in David A. deSilva, Honor, Patronage, Kinship, Purity: Unlocking the New Testament Culture(1st edition 2000), 102-104. This book is essential reading for every expositor of the New Testament, unless they have already read more widely on the same subject. There is now a revised and expanded second edition (published in October 2022).
The BDAG editors’ outlook is the same viewpoint that gave rise to the traditional weak English translations along the lines that Phoebe was a ‘helper’. From that traditional viewpoint, a woman was very unlikely to be in a powerful position, such as a first-century patron. However, modern translations have tended to abandon that old translation, which does not adequately reflect the meaning of prostatis.
Fifth, Mike’s examination of other translations is inadequate. If he had looked on Bible Gateway, in a few seconds he could have examined over 50 English versions to see whether they used the word ‘lead’ or ‘leader’. He would have discovered that the translation ‘leader’ is used in YLT – Young’s Literal Translation (3rd edition, 1898, originally 1862). It is certain that Robert Young (author of an analytical concordance of the Hebrew and Greek of the whole Bible) was uninfluenced by 20th or 21st century egalitarianism. Mike would also have discovered that the CEV, a widely used, scholar-based, modern translation, renders the contested phrase as ‘she has proved to be a respected leader for many others, including me.’
Mike has no valid grounds for describing Payne’s preferred translation as ‘bogus’.
So, is ‘leader’ right or wrong for Phoebe in Romans 16:2?
On balance, our own view is that it is more likely that the translation ‘patron’ or perhaps ‘benefactor’ is correct. But a reasonable case can be made for ‘leader’, as we will show. At the end of this article, we include a postscript assessing the pros and cons of the competing arguments for ‘leader’, ‘patron’ and ‘benefactor’.
Conclusions to Parts A and B
The Lord has entrusted to Mike an important teaching ministry. He is still developing his skills, knowledge, experience and understanding. We commend Mike for his transparency and his modesty. He winsomely invites correction, in case he has made errors.
His video on Women in the New Testament is marred by major errors of research and reasoning, which lead him to unjustified conclusions. Disappointingly, he repeatedly misunderstands, and hence misrepresents, the views of egalitarian scholars.
Contrary to Mike’s view, the qualifications or indicators for church elders in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 do not clearly exclude women from eldership, as prominent complementarian scholars fairly acknowledge.
Mike’s consideration of this central passage is superficial. It contains elementary errors. We have laid out how the Greek text of Paul’s list of qualifications contains indications of gender-neutrality and is capable of applying to women, as is apparent from closely examining it, which Mike omits to do.
The errors which infect Mike’s consideration of the qualifications for elders are carried through into the topic of women deacons. Contrary to Mike’s view, interpreting 1 Timothy 3:11 as a statement of qualifications for women deacons does not provide any support for a restriction of eldership to men.
Contrary to Mike’s view, the egalitarian claim that women who hosted churches in the New Testament period became church elders is probably true.
It is well supported by historical and cultural considerations. Mike mis-reads and misunderstands the work of Lynn Cohick, Linda Belleville and Wayne Meeks, and approaches the matter as if considering what arrangements would be likely in 21st century California.
Contrary to Mike’s view, Priscilla and Aquila were trained and authorized by Paul to engage in ministry as pastor-teachers overseeing the fledgling church in Ephesus.
Mike’s examination of the biblical evidence about Priscilla is superficial and his interpretation is unrealistic.
Contrary to Mike’s view, Phoebe, as Paul’s authorized representative, was very probably the first person to explain to an assembled church Paul’s letter to the Romans.
This probability is supported by serious historical research based on study of primary sources – research which Mike did not consider. Mike’s understanding of how a long letter would be sent and received in the ancient world is deficient.
Finally, returning to the qualifications for elders, we have noted the absence of a definite and clearly communicated rule that women should not be elders or pastors from precisely the places where we would expect to see such a rule if it existed (1 Timothy 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9).
This is a fundamental weakness in any complementarian position on women’s ministry. It is a weakness that Mike fails to address; it seems he is not aware of it.
With this in mind, let’s zoom out on the question of women elders or pastors.
Some complementarians are willing to affirm openly that women are capable of the tasks required of church elders.31Graham Beynon and Jane Tooher, Embracing Complementarianism: Turning Biblical Convictions into Positive Church Culture (2022), 73. Many complementarians readily admit that there were definitely women evangelists and church planters, women prophets, women teachers, women church hosts and women deacons in the New Testament.
But then it makes little sense, as Jamin Hübner says:
‘To relegate “eldership” or “the pastoral office” to a separate, special category from these other functions—such that one sex could be automatically, universally, and permanently excluded from it and yet fulfill all the other functions ….’32Jamin Hübner, ‘A New Case for Female Elders: An Analytical Reformed-Evangelical Approach’ (PhD thesis), 171. Accessed at https://uir.unisa.ac.za/bitstream/handle/10500/14128/thesis_h%C3%BCbner_ja.pdf.
Short of a clear biblical prohibition against it, it is reasonable, not unreasonable, to affirm women elders in those situations where God raises them up and where it is advantageous to the mission—which is certainly the case in egalitarian cultures today. This is especially true when there is no explicit ban on women’s eldership in the New Testament; and when we can be confident that Priscilla functioned as an elder or pastor-teacher, and that Phoebe, though not necessarily a leader, was most probably an authorized teacher of Scripture to a church.
Postscript: Is deacon Phoebe a ‘leader’ in Romans 16:2?
Paul describes Phoebe in Romans 16:2 as a prostatis. Should that word be translated as ‘leader’, ‘patron’ or ‘benefactor’? Lexically, all of these three words express possible meanings of prostatis.
Which meaning of prostatis is the best fit for the particular context of Romans 16:2? This is a difficult question, because what is said about Phoebe is so brief.
There are reasonable points which can be made in support of ‘leader’:
1. In the Septuagint (Greek Old Testament), the masculine form (prostates) is used of superintendents of works (1 Chronicles 29:6; 2 Chronicles 8:10) and of an officer of the chief priest (2 Chronicles 24:11).
2. Outside the Bible, uses of the masculine term include presidents of associations and of synagogues.
3. Since the noun prostatis does not occur anywhere else in the New Testament, we should consider the cognate verb proistēmi, which occurs eight times in the NT. In six of the eight occurrences, the sense has to do with ruling or leading (Romans 12:8; 1 Thessalonians 5:12; 1 Timothy 3:4, 5, 12; 5:17).33The other two occurrences are Titus 3:8, 14.
4. Paul was cautious about accepting financial or material help (Acts 18:3; 1 Corinthians 4:11-12; 9:1-27; 1 Thessalonians 2:9; 2 Thessalonians 3:8-9). This counts against the alternative meanings ‘patron’ or ‘benefactor’.
5. We need not hesitate too long over the idea of Phoebe giving leadership to Paul in some particular context, of which details are not given. The apostle who taught mutual submission in Christian relationships (Galatians 5:13; Ephesians 5:21) presumably practiced what he preached.
There is weight in these points. Philip Payne’s view is supported by responsible reasons, which are worthy of careful consideration. Mike’s description of his view as ‘bogus’ is ill-judged. ‘Bogus’ means ‘a sham’, ‘a counterfeit’, ‘not genuine’. By faulty reasoning, Mike has incorrectly misled thousands of listeners into thinking that Payne’s translation ‘leader’ is bogus. Out of fairness to Phil Payne, a correction to that description would be appropriate.
However, the various arguments for ‘leader’ do not finally persuade us.
The expression ‘for she has been a prostatis of many and of me’ does not sound quite right if prostatis means leader or president. It sounds, rather, as if Paul has had some dealings with her as a prostatis in the same way that others have done, separately from him. This would fit some kind of patronage or benefaction. Nevertheless, this first consideration is mere impression and does not take us far.
Paul employs a little word-play in verse 2. If we adapt the Greek words to function like English words so as to show up the word-play, Paul is asking the Roman believers to para-stat her (stand by her, that is, help her), for indeed she became a pro-stat (one who stood before) to many and to him.
If this is nothing more than a use of related words, then the meaning ‘leader’ remains possible. But it seems better to read it as a play of related ideas also. For there is then a balance not only in the form of Paul’s words in the two clauses, but also in the ideas conveyed. Paul is asking the Romans to be helpful (in an ordinary way) to Phoebe, because she has been helpful (in a prominent way) to many and to him. This is a suitable incentive for their desired helpful behavior towards her.
This would then support the meaning ‘patron’ or ‘benefactor’ (both of which are kinds of helper), rather than the meaning ‘leader’.
Paul’s frequent caution about accepting financial or material help does not rule out Phoebe’s patronage or benefaction. We have no reason to believe that Paul was inflexible about this. He taught: ‘the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel’ (1 Corinthians 9:14, ESV).
We do not know for sure what form such patronage might have taken in Phoebe’s case. As an example, it would not be hard to imagine Phoebe sponsoring his writing of his letter to the Romans by giving him hospitality in Cenchreae and meeting his needs while he was preparing it and then dictating it to Tertius.34Compare Paul Gooder, Phoebe: A Story (2018).
Some may be troubled by the idea of Paul accepting patronage, because of the social obligation of loyalty which he would incur to a patron. However, he may have had sufficient confidence in Phoebe’s godly character and good judgment, not to be concerned about that. From our discussion above, he appears to have had sufficient confidence in her godly character and good judgment to give her the responsibility of explaining his letter to the Romans.
Can we decide between the translations ‘patron’ (ESV) and ‘benefactor’ (NIV)?
If Phoebe was merely a benefactor rather than a patron, the social obligation of loyalty would have been less marked. On the other hand, there is a different Greek word for ‘benefactor’, which is used in Luke 22:25 and is not used here.
As between ‘benefactor’ and ‘patron’, there is little to choose, and we suspect that most English readers will perceive little difference between them.
Theodoret of Cyrrhus (or Cyrus), writing his commentary on Romans 16 in the fifth century, understood Phoebe to be a patron and explained her patronage as involving giving protection and hospitality. So, on balance, we think that the ESV is probably justified in describing her as a ‘patron’ of many and of Paul.
However, having got this far, there is a further question to consider. Even if Phoebe is described as a patron rather than a leader, should we not consider the impact of her being a deacon? If she was a deacon, was she therefore a leader in that capacity?
Expressed like that, this further question is too vague to have a meaningful answer. The problem is twofold: in the New Testament, the responsibilities of deacons are not defined, and in English, the terms ‘lead’ and ‘leader’ are imprecise.
In a church today, someone might take a lead by organizing a rota of people who will provide refreshments after the worship service. Such a person could be described as doing deacon work and as a leader. But that is not usually the kind of leadership that complementarians are concerned to exclude women from. In discussions of leadership and of deacons, there is an ever-present danger of complementarians and egalitarians talking past one another with mutual incomprehension, owing to differing assumptions about deacons’ duties and about what is meant by ‘leader’.
So, we doubt that consideration of this further question concerning deacons’ responsibilities will shed much useful light on the discussion of women in ministry.