Both Valued and Valuable: New Testament Examples
One of the most amazing things I’ve heard in my travels with teaching and writing has been those surrounding the role of women in the church. So many operate under the misconception that women’s roles are relegated to lesser than their male counterparts. And even more than that, many hold to the view that the Bible supports such a notion.
Whereas differing roles for men and women is a biblically supported viewpoint, the importance of these roles, as well as the influence these roles have, is clear. God never delineated importance or influence to gender biases and since He is ever consistent in His character, it’s safe to say that He never will. His Word supports that both men and women are used by Him in the advancement of His kingdom and to the glory of His name. In this article I would like to look briefly at some examples from the New Testament.
There are many women mentioned in the New Testament, but like the previous article’s glance at the Old Testament, I’ll limit this article to one passage where 2 specific women demonstrate the important places women held in the New Testament church. Romans 16:1-4 reads:
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. 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.
Paul is giving his closing greetings in this chapter and of the 26 names he mentions, 9 of them are women. That is astonishing in a male-dominated culture and in the male-dominated background of Jewish Christianity. This truly shows us the expansive role of women in ministering in early Christianity.
Phoebe, Romans 16:1-2
Phoebe is the one person in these first 16 verses who is not already living there in Rome. She is coming to Rome and Paul is asking the church to receive her in the way the saints ought to by meeting all her needs.
Why is Paul commending her to the Roman Christians?
What seems to be implied is that since she must be coming to them in Rome at the same time as the letter Paul is writing, she must be the one carrying the letter. Again, this is somewhat astounding given the male-dominated society in which Paul lives.
Paul describes her in three ways, all of which point to her importance in his ministry and the advancement of the early church.
1. She’s a “sister.”
First, in verse 1 Paul calls Phoebe “our sister.” He is telling them that she is part of their family, the family of God. Theologically, Paul is reminding the recipients of this letter that both she and they share the same Father in heaven and are moving toward the same inheritance of eternal life. Consequently, he tells them to take care of her.
2. She’s a “servant.”
Secondly, Paul commends Phoebe as a servant, which is the same Greek word as used for “deacon.” She may well have been an official deacon in that church. There is no reason why women cannot be deacons. The elders are men and are charged with the governance of the church, but deacons do not share that same responsibility. All deacons are charged with serving the church and its members by feeding the hungry, taking in the refugees, clothing the needy, caring for the sick, or visiting the imprisoned. This fits with the way Paul describes Phoebe in verse 2.
3. She’s a “patron.”
That word “patron” means that she cared for others. Paul says she has cared for many others as well as himself. In this, she was partnering with him in a complementary fashion and one that he considers extremely important—important enough to mention first and foremost in his closing remarks.
Phoebe was also most likely single, as no husband is mentioned as she travels back. Having no spouse gave Phoebe enormous freedom to travel back and forth from Cenchreae to Rome. So my single women friends, take Phoebe as your challenge today!
Priscilla, Romans 16:3-4
Priscilla is mentioned 3 times in 3 different books of the Bible. In Acts 18:26, Luke writes,
He (Apollos) began to speak boldly in the synagogue, but when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him and explained to him the way of God more accurately.
Priscilla and Aquila were a married couple and it seems from Luke’s description that Priscilla taught Apollos the correct Gospel along with her husband. Then in 1 Corinthians 16:19, Paul writes of the church that met in their house,
The churches of Asia send you greetings. Aquila and Prisca, together with the church in their house, send you hearty greetings in the Lord.
The fact that Luke mentions Priscilla first in his writings may even indicate that she was the primary teacher in that relationship. Paul gives both she and her husband special attention in his closing remarks in Romans 16.
In Paul’s letter to the Romans, as with the account with Luke, Priscilla’s name is mentioned first. That normally would not have happened according to the conventions of Greco-Roman writing. We really don’t know why both Paul and Luke address the couple in this way. There are loads of speculations. Some think that Priscilla came from a higher social class than Aquila, but most agree it was probably because Priscilla was the primary teacher in the relationship.
Additionally, we can see the respect with which Paul speaks of her. He calls her Prisca, not Priscilla, as she is called by Luke and others. Priscilla was the diminutive of Prisca. Calling her Priscilla instead of Prisca is like calling me Debbie instead of Deborah, or calling someone Liz instead of Elizabeth. The formal rendering of her name was Prisca, which is exactly what Paul calls her. Obviously by calling her this, maybe also as well as placing her name first, Paul is showing his respect and love for Priscilla. She is important to his work and to the church, and he conveys that in his address.
But even so, notice that Priscilla is only mentioned in conjunction with her work with her husband. Though her position may have been more influential, she is certainly doing it in a complementarian fashion.
Phoebe and Priscilla are only two of the myriad of examples in the New Testament of women who do important and noteworthy work in the Kingdom of God. Even in regards to the societal parameters that were prevalent in that day, Jesus’ disciples were quick to both use and acknowledge the pivotal role women played in the church. It’s appropriate to surmise that God’s intention for men and women within His work is equal in importance and need today.