Rethinking Gender Roles in the Church_Companion_3

This is the companion for week 3 of my bible study on Gender Roles in the Church.

In week 2 we covered apostles and prophets. This week we looked at other types of roles women played in the New Testament. We looked at Evangelists, Deaconesses, and Helpers. This week we looked at a lot more scriptures from different books of the Bible. Jumping around can be difficult to follow so this companion will help retrace our steps.

We began with Euodia and Syntyche in Philippians 4:2-3. Here is the scripture:

“I entreat Euodia and I entreat Syntyche to agree in the Lord. Yes, I ask you also, true companion, help these women, who have labored side by side with me in the gospel together with Clement and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life.” (Philippians 4:2-3)

I think these characters get overlooked when people talk about women in the church because they are having a disagreement. This is too bad because Paul has good things to say about them. Besides this, Paul, Peter, Barnabas, & Mark, all have their disagreements in the New Testament and yet we still see them as leaders and valuable contributors to Christianity. It is likely these women were leaders in the church of Philippi and their conflict is causing problems for the whole community. If this was simply a personal issue rather than a corporate one, it’s unlikely Paul would even bring it up.

We are told that these women labored side by side with Paul in the gospel, just as Clement did and the rest of Paul’s fellow workers. Fellow workers (Greek: synergon: coworkers) is a phrase used of others who worked with Paul such as, Luke and Mark (Philemon 1:24). Paul refers to himself as God’s fellow worker (1 Corinthians 3:9). There is a connection between “fellow workers” and the apostolic work. These women, whose names are written in the book of life, are part of the apostolic mission.

Another separate but also interesting point to be made from this text is the use of the word “labored” (synathlesan: strive with another at the same time). This word is a term used of athletes. Athleticism was not a feminine role in the Greco-Roman culture. Paul uses a term here tied to masculine gender roles and he uses it about women. All of Paul’s references to athleticism are tied to masculine gender roles.

Next, we looked at Phoebe in Romans 16:1-2. In this passage Phoebe is referred to as a servant and patron. Here is the passage:

“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 word “servant” used here is (diakonos: deacon). The word is used to describe a menial servant in household situations but in a public religious context it can mean an official, intermediary, agent, courier, or someone who gets something done at the behest of a superior or organization. In early Christianity this term would reflect a servant of the church, in a way reflecting the servant nature of Jesus. In the first century household this would be a position better held by women than men. The fact that we see men holding this role is a sign of the reversal Jesus has taught. It was this reversal that caused Peter such a problem in John 13:6-8:

“He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, do you wash my feet?” 7 Jesus answered him, “What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterward you will understand.” 8 Peter said to him, “You shall never wash my feet.” Jesus answered him, “If I do not wash you, you have no share with me.” (John 13:6-8)

In 1 Timothy 3:8-13 which talks about deacons, men are first addressed about their qualifications, then women are addressed in v.11, and finally all deacons are addressed together in v.12-13. Some have translated v.12 to imply that only men are deacons because only men can be “husbands of one wife,” however the expression literally translated means “one woman man” and was an idiom that implied marital faithfulness. The requirement is to manage your household well, not limit the position of deacon to married men. It would also exclude polygamists and adulterers. The issue of fidelity was a bigger problem for men than women, which may be the reason for the specific reference to “one woman man.” Jesus taught that adultery applied to both men and women which was very different than the expectations of his time. In addition, If Paul meant only men could hold the position of deacon or overseer, we would expect him to use only masculine gendered grammar, but Paul doesn’t use it. There are no masculine pronouns used as a requirement for overseers or deacons in 1 Timothy 3:1-12 or Titus 1:5-9. Instead, the use of the word “man” in this idiom appears because the maleness was the default gender in Greek thinking. In addition, since the idiom is a “set phrase,” meaning, it must be read as a complete phrase, “one woman man” it is inappropriate to separate the word “man” and apply it as an additional condition. Paul is speaking of marital faithfulness, not marital faithfulness and male gender.

Phoebe is a deacon and we should recognize her as such. She was Paul’s intermediary who brought his letter to the Romans. Paul and Apollos are both referred to as deacons when they share the gospel as Paul mentioned in 1 Corinthians 3:5.

“What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each.” (1 Corinthians 3:5)

Rather than looking at it as an office in the church we should look at it as a position Paul honors when the culture around him would consider it low-status work. It is a reversal we see in Jesus’ own actions as he serves his disciples. The official, exclusively male, position of Deacon should be reconsidered to reflect Phoebe’s role and Paul’s address of this subject.  

In 16:2 Phoebe is also referred to as a “helper” (prostatis: a woman: set over others, leader, chief, or benefactor). Traditional ideas in the Greco-Roman culture cast women as weak and foolish. In the first century these ideas persisted but they did not reflect the actual practice of wealthy women at that time. Unfortunately, lexicon authors have failed to recognize the change in practice and have interpreted words such as prostatis according to traditional Greco-Roman ideas. The result is a translation that subordinates women known to be in roles equivalent to their male counterparts. One example of how traditional ideas about women did not reflect practice is male guardianship in legal transactions. Women were required to have trustees for their protection in legal matters and this tradition carried through into the 1st century. However, in practice, the guardian was usually nothing more than a token figure. The transaction itself had little to do with the guardian, and his presence was of little concern. Prostatis is derived from the word used to describe elders who “rule” well in 1 Timothy 5:17, and other scriptures such as, Romans 12:8; 1 Thessalonians 5:12; 1 Timothy 3:4,5,12; and Titus 3:8,14.  

Hopefully this helps to recognize some of the things Paul means when he talks about fellow workers, deacons, and leaders. Some women did have authority in the public sphere. This is attested by ancient practice rather than the rhetoric of the time.

Talk to you again next week.

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