Why Do Egalitarians Get to Write More About Phoebe?

Whenever men or women bring up Phoebe, complementarians get uncomfortable.

But in addition to Phoebe, Paul mentions eight other women in this section of greeting. “Moreover, five of these women—Prisca (v. 3), Junia (v. 7), Tryphaena and Tryphosa (v. 12), and Persis (v. 12)—are commended for their labor ‘in the Lord.’” (Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, 927). This list of greetings reveals something about Paul’s ministry and his relationships. He isn’t one of those theologians who would prefer to give someone a handful of money rather than spending so much of his precious time outside of his study.

Todd has written a great article about no longer identifying with the complementarian movement due to its troubling teachings, but confidently being able to stand as a confessionalist when asked about his position on men and women and the church. Although most agree that this is a secondary order of doctrine, it does affect the way we worship and so there are some visible divisions in that way. However, because it is a secondary order of doctrine, and because I too stand on the platform of speaking from the confessions of the Reformed church, I do think that I can learn from egalitarians who hold to orthodox positions on first order issues of doctrine.

Before being accused of changing my confessional stance, I am not saying that I am becoming an egalitarian. I am saying that I can learn and be sharpened from particular writings from egalitarians—even when it comes to writing on gender.

And this is a weakness that I have seen among complementarians who demonize all egalitarians as people we should never read. Sadly, many of the topics I would like to learn more about are not written by complementarians. Today I want to introduce one.

Whenever men or women bring up Phoebe, complementarians get uncomfortable. And the Phoebe argument is a hot button issue when it comes to deacons. So this deacon issue can overshadow some other implications from this part of Paul’s epistle. Michael Bird writes about some of those in his little book, Bourgeois Babes, Bossy Wives, and Bobby Haircuts (is that not the best title ever?). In Romans 16:1-2, we discover that Phoebe serves as the envoy of Paul’s letter:

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.

Paul also describes her as a benefactor to him and many others. Bird expands on what the role of a letter carrier was in antiquity, as well as patron-client relationships. He asks some good questions:

If the Romans had any questions about the letter, such as: like “What is the righteousness of God?” or “Who is this wretched man that Paul refers to about halfway through?” then who do you think would be the first person they would ask? (20)

Bird raises another provocative question, suggesting the likelihood of Pheobe reading this letter to the Roman church. I don’t know, Scripture doesn’t tell us. I would imagine an elder of the church would do that. But given her relationship with Paul, and his trust in her to deliver this important epistle, I would agree that she had to at the very least be answering some questions. This is not a church officer role, but certainly involves teaching. Then he drops the doozy:

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