6.3 – Putting Others First (Romans 16)

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The last chapter of Romans has amazing new creation overtones running through it. This is the final stage of Israel’s history, life in the resurrection of Christ. It’s impossible not to notice the extent to which women feature in this chapter and on Paul’s ministry team.

We first notice this in the Gospel of John. John’s Gospel focuses on new creation from its opening chapter. To the Hebrew reader, the God who came in spirit, word and light in the first creation, has returned in the same through the gospel of Jesus Christ, to raise up his children once again, to drive back the chaos and darkness in the world. (John 1:1-14) This theme follows all through John, especially in his renewed temple emphasis from Ezekiel, through which heaven comes to bring new creation. The “water into wine,” the temple cleansing, the “destroy this body,” the “rivers of living water,” the scenes of teaching around the temple, the Davidic shepherd song, the true vine and the “Father’s house,” with its shekinah presence, all invoke Israel’s expectation of new creation.

So possibly, this also forms part of John’s crucifixion and resurrection account. Jesus’ body is a new temple, a new Adam, the bridge between our old and new creations. Christ dies on the sixth day of the week saying, “It is finished,” that is, the old creation that is being destroyed by sin. He rests on the seventh day in the grave. He rises on the first day of a new week, which in Jewish symbolism means a new creation has begun. This is John’s 1:1-14 new creation, beginning to unfold through the resurrection, meaning a new world transforming heart for the family of God.

If we were to announce something as important as the resurrection and new creation, how would we do it? We would want to make the announcement look as important as possible.

But in the culture of that time, God does the opposite. He chooses women to be the first, and also Mary, a sinner, out of whom were driven several demons. They were the first to announce that the new creation had begun in Christ.

Mary thought that Jesus was the gardener. This has overtones to the first creation, in which Adam and Eve walked with God in the Garden. The first Adam was a gardener. The gardener in the tomb speaks of the new Adamic commission restored and a renewed world. John’s use of these historical events in his narrative tells a clear story to the Jewish reader. The resurrection of Christ was a new creation, that would focus firstly on the rejected and weak of society. It would not promote itself through what our cultures consider to be important.

And the gardener depicts the kind of things God values about his creation. It isn’t the grand economics of our societies, in which our nations compete for resources and go to war, or our commercial industries that take over the world, exploiting the interests of the weaker people, storing up wealth in the hands of a few. The important things to God exist in the more simple and humble things of life. Rome was about empire, greatness, divisions, slaves: the new creation is about sinners, women, the despised, gardens, relationships.

When we think of Paul’s mention of women in Romans 16, the significance of this often escapes us. It’s like us not noticing how significant it is that Paul speaks of Jews and gentiles eating at one table in Romans 14. It seems a minor point to the reader today, but at Paul’s time, it would have been an earth-shattering chapter to read. Romans 16 is equalling earth- shattering.

An ancient blessing goes, “Blessed are you O God, King of the universe, who has not made me… a gentile, a slave, or a woman,” disclosing the patriarchy of Paul’s day. Even today we may not notice, or possibly wish to ignore, Paul’s mention of the women on his apostolic team. Paul had a large team, through whom he planted and oversaw many churches. It seems that the Roman house churches were led by Priscilla and Aquilla, members of Paul’s team. Priscilla was the leading member in this husband and wife team, and most likely the founding and head apostle in Rome. (Acts 18:1-4, 18-19, 2426, 1 Corinthians 16:19, Romans 16:3-5)

The significance of this is as huge as Jews and gentiles eating at one table. This is a massive cultural change and only something as huge as the new creation could account for such a change in the culture. It reflects Paul’s dictum that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, bond nor free, rich or poor. (Galatians 3:28) Paul was very serious about this. Each part of this statement, on its own, was a massive revolution in Paul’s day. Together, these statements, and the new family they reflect, would completely turn the world upside-down. This is surely new creation.

Paul’s statements about women in his various letters can be confusing to readers today. But there is no doubt his ministry team was filled with women leaders. What about Corinthians, in which Paul states that women are the image and glory of the man? (1 Corinthians 11:7) Paul often quoted others in his letters and then corrected them. This seems to be a clear case of that. Genesis said that both male and female were made in the image of God.

It seems Paul was overthrowing the patriarchy at Corinth, as he did also in Ephesus. If “Eve was first deceived,” according to the men at the church, then “she should learn,” Paul countered. (1 Timothy 2:14) Women learning as disciples in that day was a huge cultural shift.

Paul was following Jesus, who admitted Mary to “sit at his feet,” a phrase that meant she was a disciple of the rabbi.

(Luke 10:39) This offended Martha. Jesus was making a massive break from the culture of the day. A disciple learns, with the intent to pass on the word, teaching others. The new creation would overturn the patriarchy of men who often ruled over others uncaringly. God would not have this human culture in his new kingdom. Power would be renewed: be it the power of government, of armed forces, of business, or of patriarchy. The least would be honoured. Power would serve the least. This includes pastors. Our whole way of leadership is renewed, so as not to be self-honouring. (Matthew 20:25) The revolution wouldn’t come about through a dishonoring of culture. Women were to respect their husbands, just as Christ respected Pontius Pilate, and slaves respected their masters.

(Ephesians 5:21-33, 1 Peter 2:11-3:1-22) But this was neither to condone patriarchy, nor the clearly ungodly rulers of their day, or slavery. It was rather to show the opposite, selfless spirit, by which the church reforms cultural powers.

If we are confused by some of Paul’s statements in his various letters, due to our lack of background, then this new creation, the kingdom of God way of life, should guide our interpretation. Romans 16 makes it clear what Paul felt about women ministers.

Firstly, Paul speaks of Phoebe, the lady who delivered Paul’s letter to the Roman churches. (Romans 16:1) In Paul’s day the person who delivered a letter also read the letter to the recipients, in order to explain any misunderstandings. The one who delivered the letter explains the author’s intent by the words used in the letter, to ensure the message was clearly communicated and understood. So, Phoebe was the first person to give a commentary of the letter of Romans. I wish we had a copy of her commentary today. It would be very useful.

Paul called Phoebe a minister, or servant, of the church at Cenchreae. This term for servant was used to denote leaders in the church. It is used equally of men and women. It means that in Christ, a leader is the lowest, the servant of all. Phoebe was a leading servant in the church. Paul used the same term for Phoebe as he used in describing his own ministry. Phoebe had an apostolic role on Paul’s team.

As Paul continues in Romans 16, he says the same about several women. In fact, it is mostly the women that Paul mentions first. He mentions Priscilla, Mary and Junia, who Paul says was noteworthy among the apostles. These were all apostles. Apostleship didn’t have the kind of hierarchical and patriarchal import that we invest in it today. They were simply servants of the church, important to God, but among the church they lead as servants.

Romans 16 simply makes no distinction between women and men in regards to the terms used for them as servants of the church. The one aspect Paul claims over and over again that qualifies a person to lead in the church, is their servanthood.

That is, their agenda. Have they come to serve the church, or to serve themselves? Have they come to lift up others, or to lift up themselves?

That is, the way Paul speaks of ministry in the church, is the same way he has been speaking of Jew and gentile relationships throughout his whole letter to the Romans. Jews and gentiles should not think they are of some import and exclude the other group from privilege. In the same way, those who lead in the church should do so in the manner of Christ, who didn’t seek his own import, but gave himself for others.

This is the qualification for leadership in the church, not our gender.

Men and women today should not think either is more important than the other, and position themselves above the other, but serve together in humility, allowing each one’s gifts to come out naturally within the church to serve the interests of all. Once we impose ourselves on the other, or upon the other gender, we are no longer serving in the spirit of Christ.

If churches don’t have the weaker people ministering, including younger people, trainees, or even people with disabilities, but only the one who can exert himself more strongly over others, then something is very wrong with the expression of Christ in those churches. Our job in Christ is to put others forward, not ourselves forward. This means leadership is from the back, raising others up. This brings a whole new cultural witness to our wider communities, transforming the meaning of power: a witness of acceptance of others, raising up others and service, which Paul was aiming for in his letter to the Romans.

Phoebe cared for many. Priscilla and Aquila gave their lives for the safety of Paul. Every other apostle Paul mentioned laboured, giving themselves for the church, who even became “fellow-prisoners” with Paul, for the sake of serving the churches. (Romans 16:2, 4, 6, 7, 9, 12) This is what “approved them in Christ.” (Romans 16:10) This was the consistent quality Paul mentioned with every leader he spoke of. He didn’t once speak of the gender, but only of their agenda in the church, how they served. This is Paul’s qualification for leadership in the kingdom of God.

“Now I beseech you, brethren, mark them that are causing the divisions and occasions of stumbling, contrary to the doctrine which you learned: and turn away from them. For they that are such serve not our Lord Christ, but their own belly; and by their smooth and fair speech they beguile the hearts of the innocent.” (Romans 16:17-18)

Here again, we see the point of Paul’s letter. It is to build the unity of the church. Those who divide the church based on tradition, are to be avoided. They claim to be serving God, making a distinction on the basis of their own group’s beliefs, but they are really serving their own interests. If they were serving Christ, they would be building the unity of the body he died for and loves. But instead, they are serving their own career or organisation. We are not called to serve the interests of our own sectarian body, but the interests of the one who was crucified for us all.

They make “smooth” speeches about the theological importance of their division, but this hides their real motive.

Such self-interests should not be followed. Often, we mask our division in “sincere theological concern,” but our concern maybe ambitions within our group or denomination. We should be striving to build the unity of the church, honouring the blood of Christ, who died for us all to be on family, not building again the walls of division Christ took down in his flesh. (Ephesians 2:15)

Therefore, be “wise to that which is good, and simple to that which is evil.” (Romans 16:19) That which is good builds family, that which is evil divides. “And the God of peace shall bruise satan under your feet shortly.” (Romans 16:20) This is probably a reference to the dividing forces within the Jewish community at that time, that were trying to maintain control over the wealth of Jerusalem. We divide today for the same reason, to keep the wealth or political control of our group intact. If we do this, the God of peace, who is building a new creation based on family love, is opposed to us serving our own interests.

“Now to him that is able to establish you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery which has been kept in silence through times eternal, but now is manifested, and by the scriptures of the prophets, according to the commandment of the eternal God, is made known to all the nations to obedience of faith: to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory for ever. Amen.” (Romans 16:25-27)

The mystery is that we of all nations should be one in Christ, for the healing of the world in the love of Christ. This is the “righteousness of God,” his promise to heal the nations unfolding in his new community. This is what our nations are to obey, following the church’s witness of love for neighbor, not our divided self-interest. This is Paul’s mystery in all his letters: the Lordship of Christ, reconciling the powers to himself, bringing all things together into one. (Ephesians 1:910)

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