How would you say your goodbyes? It is not something that we like to think about. Paul comes to the end of his letter and his saying hello to many in the church at Rome.
Phoebe and Greeting the Church at Rome (16:1-16)
There are a couple of places that we will spend the majority of our time in our study of Romans 16. The first two verses is one of those places. This one sentence concerning Phoebe has led to much discussion and debate about who she was and the role that she had. The difference in thought can be seen in a comparison of the translations.
I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church at Cenchreae… (Romans 16:1 ESV; cf. HCSB, NASB, NKJV, NET, NIV)
I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church at Cenchreae… (Romans 16:1 NRSV; cf. NLT, TNIV)
I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deaconess of the church at Cenchre-ae… (Romans 16:1; RSV)
So we need to discuss what she was and what she was not. I am very critical of these translations that render that Phoebe was a deacon of the church. I understand that the Greek word is diakonos and one could argue that these three translations are really transliterations. However, the problem is such a rendering creates a meaning that Phoebe held a position in the office of deacon at the church in Cenchreae. The first obstacle to such a view is 1 Timothy 3:12, "Let deacons be the husband of one wife." A woman cannot be the husband of one wife. The second obstacle is of a similar nature and is found in Acts 6:3. "Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty." If there was any good time for women to be deacons, Acts 6 would be the occasion because the Greek Christian widows are being neglected in the distribution of food. The apostles command for men to be selected to the task. These two passages rule out the idea that women hold an official position in the local church.
Unfortunately, too often that is all that is said on the matter. But doing so is quite unfair and also to fail in studying the text. Phoebe is an important person. We cannot simply discard her because we can show that she did not hold an official position in a local church. Phoebe is called a servant of the church. Women can and must serve in the local church. They are not to be silent bystanders in the work of the church. We must stop thinking that women cannot help and cannot work in the local church. Phoebe is a servant worker in the church in Cenchreae. Paul apparently sends her to Corinth.
Paul instructs the Christians in Rome to welcome her. The church was to welcome her into the fellowship, of course. But welcoming her would also include providing lodging, food, and other necessities for her while she is in Rome. Not only was the church to welcome her, but they were to help her in whatever she would need from them. We do not know what this matter is, but we would be hard pressed to think that Paul is instructing the church to help her in something that was not of a spiritual nature. I have a very difficult time thinking that Phoebe was going to do something in the secular world (start a business, work a job, or something of the like) and Paul would tell a church to help her in that effort. A spiritual work makes far more sense as to why Paul would instruct the church in Rome to help her in whatever she needs. We just do not know what she exactly was doing. But this detail really does not matter. Whatever it is she was going to do, Paul instructs the church to help her do it because she has been so useful to so many Christians, including Paul himself.
The point is that women have important work and functioning in the local church. Though they are limited from usurping authority from a man (1 Timothy 2:12), we cannot go to the other extreme and teach that women be quiet nobodies in the Lord’s body. While women cannot be shepherds, deacons, or formal preachers, women can and must perform acts of righteousness. Outside of those leadership roles, women can and must participate in all the other works of the church. We must stop focusing so much on what cannot be done and teach women to see all that can and must be done. From hospitality to teaching, from caring for the sick to reaching the lost, you also can work. Stand in the back and be a greeter of our guests. Teach the lost. Do the work.
We see this truth based on the commending of other women in Romans 16. Not only is Phoebe a servant of the church and a worker, look at the next name. Prisca, who Luke calls Priscilla, is next on the list. Aquila was not the worker and Priscilla was just a tag along. Paul says that they were both fellow workers in Christ Jesus. Read the book of Acts and you will read about their influential impact in the kingdom of God and they travelled and taught the lost. They were so valuable that Paul took both of them with him when he left Corinth. Paul points out in verse 4 that they both risked their lives for Paul. In fact, all of the Gentiles churches give that for Priscilla and Aquila. Look at verse 6 and read of Mary "who has worked hard for you." Friends, I don’t believe Paul would have said that she worked hard for the church in Rome because she made the communion. She must be a spiritual worker for them commending to make any sense. Nine of the twenty-six names in this listing are women. It quickly becomes evident that men were not the only ones who were doing the work of the Lord in Rome. God commands all of us, men and women, to teach, serve, and work in the kingdom!
Before we move on, we need spiritual power couples like Priscilla and Aquila. We need couples together working in the Lord. Not just men who have women who quietly support him. This is good and right. But we need couples who both serve, work, and teach. We need Christian couples to make a decision to be spiritual helpers and powerhouses in God’s kingdom. It does not matter if you have children or not. You can use your children to help serve and teach as it provides unique opportunities to reach the world. If you do not have children, you are able to do more acts of service because you are not tied to the responsibilities of parenthood. Let us join them. Be like Priscilla and Aquila.
Final Warnings (16:17-27)
Paul cannot leave this letter with only greetings to his fellow Christians. One can feel as he goes through these names for whom he has genuine affection that he feels compelled to offer one final warning for their own good and their own protection.
Watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles. We are called upon be alert for those who would cause trouble. We cannot accept people into our fellowship simply because they claim to be Christians. We must watch out for people who will use the name Christian as an opportunity to bring divisions and create stumbling blocks for others. These are people who are overtly living in rebellion to the doctrine that has been taught, but still claim to be Christians. Paul says that they are false in their claims. They do not serve Jesus, but serve their own appetites. They are not interested in living their lives for Jesus. They are selfish and only want their appetites to be fulfilled. Furthermore, they use flattery and are smooth with their words to deceive people’s hearts. They will say all the right things in an effort to try to get into the Christian group and make havoc. They will say everything they think they need to say to deceive you and go forward with their own self-centered efforts. Paul is clear as to what must be done with such people. Avoid them (vs. 17). Do not let these people into the fellowship of the local church. Do not spend time together individually either. Avoid them completely because their pursuit is not Jesus. They are lying about their claim as a follower of Jesus. They cause divisions and cause problems and their lives are contrary to the doctrine of Christ. Please feel the sharpness of Paul’s words and the seriousness of Paul’s words. People who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the scriptures are to be watch for and avoided.
The shepherds of a church have a very serious responsibility. All of us need to be on guard. All of us must watch and avoid such people. Understanding the function of the shepherds to protect the flock, this charge is very serious to watch and avoid those who fit this description.
Paul goes further in verse 19 that they need to be wise to what is good and innocent to what is evil. Do not let such people come in so that we are not pulled into their evil. Stay away so that we are not pulled into their sin and influenced by their evil.
Verse 20 has a reference to the promise in Genesis 3:15, "I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel." (Genesis 3:15 ESV) The promise not only includes the Messiah crushing the head of Satan. Notice that Satan has "offspring." There are going to be evil ones, but those who are of the Messiah will be victorious. To look at it another way, God made a promise about the offspring of Abraham. Isaac was immediately in view, but the Messiah was the full intention of the prophecy. However, Paul has pointed out that we are also the offspring of Abraham when we submit to Christ. I hope we can see that this is how Paul is working the picture here in Romans 16:20. Since you are the offspring of Christ, you know the promise is given to you that you will have victory over Satan’s offspring. The God of peace will crush them under your feet as the gospel continues to spread.
The rest of the letter ends with greetings from Paul’s companions and a doxology, praising God for the gospel and the preaching of Jesus. May we stand firm in the faith, serving the Lord (both men and women) and watching out for those who falsely claim to be followers of Jesus.