Men and Women in Romans 16: a portrait for today

Over the past 10 years, I have noticed a significant and growing volume of books, articles and posts talking about men and women. The broader culture is not only debating questions that relate to the equality of the sexes but even the most basic of questions: what is a man and what is a woman? Sadly, many people no longer know the answer, or at least, out of fear they no longer feel safe to give an answer. 

Churches have something positive and wonderful to contribute to this conversation. For example, the book of Genesis takes us back to the very beginning and to humanity’s essential nature.

“So God created mankind in his own image,

    in the image of God he created them;

    male and female he created them”.

While Genesis sets the foundations, it is Jesus Christ who redeems sinful men and women and does so not by eradicating sex and gender but through restoration. This redemption does more than return us to Eden, but points us to the ultimate realisation of humanity, to be known by Christ and found in him. For the Christian, our truest and deepest identity lies in our adoption to sonship, 

“In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will— to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves” (Ephesians 1:4-6).

These concepts are unique to Christianity and for centuries they have provided essential ingredients for societal understanding of and valuing people. It is no wonder that as our culture distances itself from these truths we find growing confusion about the nature of manhood and womanhood. We have not only removed the theological underpinning for human nature but also biology and scientific fact. Trying to speak of men and women is becoming like a game of pin the tail of the donkey, except that not only are we disallowed from using our eyes, they’ve taken away the donkey altogether!

As much as passages like Genesis ch.1 and Ephesians ch.5 deserve repeated study, in this post I want to draw attention to Romans ch.16. My purpose isn’t to dig in and exegete every detail and name mentioned in this grand kaleidoscope, but hopefully, I can present a portrait that is faithful to the Apostle’s telling that is helpful for churches as we consider the roles of men and women in our churches, and therefore how our churches can faithfully execute God’s intention for the church to be “a pillar and foundation of the truth”.

As with all Christian doctrine, we are required to take in all of the Bible and to observe the Bible’s internal story line and logic ( ie, creation, fall, redemption, and consummation).  I’m preaching through 1 Timothy this term at church, and so there will be a few weeks where we look at men and women and their roles in the church and home. As I prepare I have also revisited Romans chapter 16 and it is on this passage of Scripture, that I wish to make a few observations here.

Romans chapter 16 provides us with a different sort of explanation to what we find in some other parts of the New Testament. It’s not different in that it contradicts other NT passages, but rather, the contrast is one of style. Romans ch.16 is not one of the didactic passages which directly outline a theology of men and women.  It is not a narrative like John’s retelling of Jesus engaging with the Samaritan woman. Romans chapter 16 is a list of names. It is a series of greetings that form the closing part of Paul’s letter to the church in Rome. This isn’t the only occasion where Paul’s letters contain such lists, it is however the longest.

Romans 16 isn’t foremost about men and women, it’s about the Apostle Paul commending his ministry team to the church in Rome. It is a team that consists of many people from all kinds of walks of life. Among the number are many men and many women. In other words, the inclusion of women is a beautiful albeit secondary consideration in Paul’s mind. Perhaps for that reason, this natural spilling out of affection for his coworkers reveals the internal workings of the Apostle’s team dynamics. 

Romans 16 does a stunning job in describing the rich layers of contributors in Gospel work that was headed up by Paul. It is a snapshot taken in time that depicts the dynamic advance of the Gospel across the Mediterranean.

There is Phoebe, 

“a deacon of the church in Cenchreae. I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of his people and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been the benefactor of many people, including me.”

Priscilla and Aquila are a married couple who’ve partnered with Paul for years and in various places.

There is Epenetus, a close friend of Paul’s and the first Christian convert in Asia.

Some people are named without any mention of what their ministry role is, but they are known to Paul with affection.

One of the lessons this surely presses home for churches (and for para-church organisations) is an Apostolic appreciation for the breadth of Christian service and which involves men and women. It is however a misstep to conclude from this chapter that there is no delineation in the church between how men and women serve. To be sure, there is much overlap and there is also some distinction.

My friend and brother in Christ, Mike Bird, recently posted some thoughts on Romans 16. Michael is a considered theologian armed with a writing style akin to a firecracker ignited indoors. Mike created a little stir when he commented on how Romans 16 led him to an egalitarian view of men and women in the church.

“For me, it was reading Romans 16, noting all the women that Paul mentions, seeing what he describes them doing, that brought me to the egalitarian position’. 

I remain unconvinced. Romans 16 is an exciting and encouraging passage that shows us the size of Paul’s ministry team and the affection he has for each of them. Far from contravening instructions regarding Pastor/Elders and the task of preaching/teaching to the Sunday assembly, it fit perfectly within those boundaries.

Phoebe is a Deacon. in the New Testament, Deacons are faithful servants set aside by the local church to oversee the practical administration of needs. Deacons are distinct from Elders/Pastors (cf Philippians 1:1l 1 Timothy 3), the latter who are set aside to oversee the local church, primarily through the task of preaching and teaching.

Priscilla and Aquila are a couple renowned for their hospitality. They opened their home to Paul when he visited Corinth. They later accompanied Paul on his missionary journey to Ephesus. While living in Ephesus they welcomed Apollos to stay with them and they “explained to him the way of God more adequately”.  In Romans 16 they are again mentioned for their hospitality, they are hosting a church in their home. 

Junia (who is coupled with Andronicus in v.7) is a somewhat enigmatic figure. There is some debate as to whether the name represents a man or a woman for it can refer to either. Most scholars lean toward the view that Junia is a woman (for various reasons that I won’t delve into here, but I concur). The next question is whether the Greek phrase should be read as ‘known by the Apostles” or “known among the Apostles”. The grammar works both ways. In other words, are Andronicus and Junia two people with a good reputation among the Apostles or are they two Apostles? New Testament scholars are divided and where they land often depends on what prior commitment they hold regarding gender roles in the church. There is one further piece of information that is important in Junia’s profile: the word Apostle has more than one meaning in the New Testament. There are the 12 Apostles, who hold a unique office in the early church. Their authority is unique and non replicable, and so it is only right to discount that possibility from Junia. Sometimes apostle is used as a small ‘a’ apostle and denotes a messenger (2 Cor. 8:23; Phil. 2:25), and this is a plausible reading of Andronicus and Junia. Messengers are vital players in advancing the Gospel but to assume compatibility with the office of Apostle and or with Church Elders is requiring more than the text provides. 

 Romans 16 is a tapestry that sits comfortably within a classical understanding of men and women in the church. One might even say, Romans 16 is precisely what an authentic complementarian should expect to find: men and women serving alongside each other in a variety of ways, and none of which overturn patterns of leadership and gender roles that are taught throughout the New Testament. 

Returning to a bigger picture. Here are some takeaways from reading Roman 16:

  1. Paul is thankful for his ministry team. How can we express thanksgiving for many people who serve in the multitude of ways that together glorify God and see the Gospel advancing?
  2. Gospel coworkers are doing many different works. Let’s honour not only public and formal ministry, but also the informal and personal that occurs in homes and lives every day.
  3. Paul‘s team consists of many men and women. Solo leadership is a disaster area. If Paul needed a big team, so do we all. We are working together and every member of the church is an essential worker.
  4. Romans 16 fits precisely with what we expect to find with a classical understanding of men and women and their roles.
  5. A challenge for complementation churches is to see that women, as well as men, are being encouraged and equipped for ministry. Invite men and women to training programs. At Mentone we have had and are open to women doing a full-time apprenticeships. At our lay leader training events about 50% of attendees are women. 
  6. If women are not pastors or doing the Sunday preaching, ensure they are fully immersed into other areas of church life and are rightly visible and honoured in the Sunday gathering. 
  7. Pastors need to find ways for listening to and engaging with the ideas and concerns of those who are not part of the Eldership (women, other men, youth, elderly, etc).

We live at a time where the world at large is struggling to know how to identify and relate to one another and to understand the most basic of existential and ontological questions. By no means am I saying this is the final answer, I am simply offering a small contribution here by pointing to a great Bible text. I do believe the Bible gives us the answer. The Bible paints a magnificent picture and it is one that is to be displayed in and by the local church. That’s why we mustn’t give up on difficult conversations about men and women and it’s why we must also pursue these conversations with grace and kindness. Too often churches have fallen and failed, either by understating gender or by overstating gender. It is not only gender confusion that is creating issues in every sphere of life, but the wicked issue of abuse has all too readily appeared among the people of God. It must not be. If your church is harbouring misogyny then it needs to be repented of before Christ snuffs out the candle. 

We all can and must learn from the example given to us throughout Scripture including the exciting and attractive panorama that is Romans 16. As Tom Schreiner reminded us recently, 

“Every argument for every perspective should send us back to the biblical witness. The word of God still pierces our darkness and can reshape how we think and live. The Bible can and should still be heard, believed, and followed—even though we are all fallible and culturally situated.”