A Look at the Church in Rome
The way Paul writes these greetings seems to indicate that the house churches in Rome were organized into what we would today call congregations. He greets Prisca and Aquila and the church that meets at their house. He also greets those who meet with two different groups in verses 14 and 15. I think it’s neat to see the early church already organizing. We often think of them as a ragtag group who met all over the place and lacked organizational structure, but that’s not the case. They met consistently in small groups that allowed them to be very close to one another and minister to each other. They had habits, traditions and structure.
Some words weren’t really translated when the Bible was printed in English. For example, baptism is simply an English pronunciation of a Greek word rather than a translation. If it were translated, it would be immersed or immersion. Deacon is the same way. It should have been translated into English as servant, but since it had already become a traditional position of church leadership, it was carried over in its Greek form. So, the same word (deacon/servant) that describes the men appointed to feed the widows in Acts 7 is used to describe Phoebe in Romans 16. Does that mean they were simply all servants, that in Acts they were appointed leaders and Phoebe wasn’t, or was Phoebe an appointed leader of the church as well? Some recent translations have decided that it is the latter by changing the word describing Phoebe to deacon (instead of servant). I personally think they should have changed it to servant everywhere it was used. It wouldn’t resolve the problem, but I think it’s a more consistent approach.
That being said, Phoebe is important whether she is an appointed office holder or not. It appears Paul instructs the Christians in Rome to welcome her because she is delivering his letter. It’s significant that Paul would entrust her with one of the most important letters he ever wrote. It also shows that the church in Rome would be willing to receive her with the letter she is delivering. The information that she is a benefactor tells us that she is not only independently wealthy, but that she had used her finances to support and fund Paul and other ministries. Maybe she was a “deacon” and maybe she wasn’t, but it is clear that she has the respect of Paul and other Christians. She is a strong and faithful woman who has made a significant impact on God’s Kingdom. In a world that wasn’t structured to empower women, the church was a place where they could be influential and be significant contributors, and that’s saying something.
I’ve enjoyed our month in Romans. I have such an appreciation for Paul’s passion and commitment to sharing his faith and making sure other understand the Gospel. I also respect his awareness of his calling to preach to the Gentiles while he still longs to proclaim the Gospel to the Jews.