Biblical precedents for women's ministry

Gertrude von Petzold was quite right in citing the precedent of the Early Church in her own quest to fulfil her vocation. For example, Peter, at Pentecost, had quoted the prophecy of Joel: ‘…on my servants and my handmaids I will pour out my Spirit…and they shall prophesy’ (Acts 2:18).
And for me one of the most interesting examples, both of women in the ministry of the Early Church and of the later attempt to deny or conceal it, is to be found in Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Paul ends the letter with greetings to several named individuals, but in particular he introduces to the Christians in Rome a woman named Phoebe. He writes, ‘I commend to you Phoebe, a fellow-Christian who is a minister in the church at Cenchreae’ (Romans 16:1) [my italics]. He continues with this warm recommendation: ‘Give her, in the fellowship of the Lord, a welcome worthy of God’s people and support her in any business in which she may need your help, for she has been a good friend to many, including myself’ (Romans 16:2).

Phoebe was clearly a leader of importance and prestige; a minister with a specific role and position in her home church. She had the confidence, respect, support and affection of Paul himself – whose attitude to women is so often misrepresented.

The Greek word that Paul actually uses to describe Phoebe’s position in the church at Cenchreae is ‘diakonos’, from which we get the English word ‘deacon’. Literally, diakonos means ‘servant’, but it is clear that Phoebe’s role was more specific than this implies. ‘Minister’, which also means ‘servant’, seems a good translation of diakonos. This is how we find it translated in William Tyndale’s groundbreaking English New Testaments in the 16th century (1526 and 1534). It is also how we find it translated in the Revised English Bible of 1990.

It is significant, I think, that other translations have tried to weaken or downgrade Phoebe’s position by the slanted way in which they have translated – or mistranslated – ‘diakonos’. Some (e.g. the Roman Catholic Jerusalem Bible, 1966) use the word ‘deaconess’, even though this is a plainly inaccurate translation. ‘Diakonos’ implies no gender and applies equally to women and to men. This is, of course, in line with Paul’s own insistence on the equality of women and men in the Body of Christ, the Church.

Others (e.g. The Authorised Version, 1611; New International Version, 1973, 1978) use the literal, but surely inadequate, translation, ‘servant’. Perhaps Phoebe as a ‘servant’ is a less threatening concept than Phoebe as a minister!

One (The New English Bible (1961, 1970) opts for the neutral term ‘office holder’, but this implies something like ‘church secretary’, which is surely misleading, even if, strictly speaking, it does reflect the Reformed Protestant conception of what a minister actually is!

Bible translation has thus been used – or abused – to justify the exclusion of women from the full ministry of the Church for many centuries. Just as the Church tried to rubbish the apostolic role of Mary Magdalen by turning her into a prostitute, so too it denied Phoebe her position as ‘a minister in the church at Cenchreae’.

It was this mountain of prejudice and distortion that Gertrude von Petzold challenged in her appeal to the spiritual and gender equality of the Early Church.

Cliff Reed

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