The Women of the Early Church
There is, perhaps, no one chapter in the Bible which so marvelously reveals the womanhood of the early church, as the women described in Romans 16:1-27 . The women of this chapter are those who were associated with Paul in his ministry, his missionary journeys, and his spiritual labors.
1. A strange statement concerning Paul and Christian women. Not long ago, a woman came to us quite excited, I would say almost wrathy. She said, "I don't like the Apostle Paul!" I said, "What do you have against him?" She said, "He did not like the women."
When I made further inquiry, I quickly discerned that she knew nothing about Paul's attitude toward the Christian women of his day. Of course, I knew that she referred to the statement of the Holy Spirit through Paul, "Let your women keep silence in the churches." She utterly ignored the distinct and definite testimonies of the same Holy Spirit, through the same Apostle, relative to the abundant labors of the women in the early Church.
2. The women and their place in Divine service. In the Old Testament there were some outstanding women who were used of God in a very remarkable way. We choose, however, to hold ourselves exclusively to the women of the New Testament in our general survey.
It was during the life of Christ that women were often in spiritual contact with their Lord. Mary Magdalene, Mary Johanna, Mary the sister of Martha; and Mary, the mother of Jesus, were all of them recognized as honored servants of the Lord, but the "Marys" did not stand alone in this service. There were other women who received and welcomed Him, and who faithfully served Him.
In the life of the Apostle Paul, as set forth in the Book of Acts, God's women hold a prominent place. Where is one more beautiful of character, and more humble of spirit than Lydia, the business woman, and seller of purple? It was she who led off in the prayer meeting where Paul was wont to go. Think of Dorcas, that woman who was so honored in the Church. When she lay in death, Peter was called, and they said to Peter, Behold, all the "garments which Dorcas made" for the poor. Peter, without hesitancy, took Dorcas by the hand, and said to her, "Tabitha, arise." She was too valuable a woman to be lost to the Church by death, and God gave her back again.
Thus we might go on, but time fails us. It is still true in our day as it was in the days of the Old and New Testaments: the women who publish the glorious tidings are a great host. It is still true that they are serving through every possible persecution and danger. They think it is nothing to be tried with cruel mockings, scourgings, with bonds, and with imprisonments.
3. May we suggest, as we close our opening remarks, that the womanhood of the twentieth century owes its greater share of freedom and honor to the Bible and to the Christian church? Wherever the Bible goes, womanhood is delivered from the chains of superstition, into that place of recognition which is due her sex. In the Church God has definitely said "there is neither male nor female." Man is neither of a superior intelligence, nor of superior service. To be sure, the man is the head of the house; however, no sooner had the Spirit said that women should be subject to their husbands, than He added, even "as the Church is subject unto Christ." Then the Spirit gave the tremendous warning, "Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the Church."
I. PHEBE, OUR SISTER (Romans 16:1-2 )
1. A hallowed relationship between Phebe and the Church. Phebe is spoken of as "our sister." In other words, the church is a great family plan where the relationship between members should be that of Divine family ties. Phebe is "our sister." Paul called himself, more than once, "brother," and he spoke of other saints, as his brethren. Likewise, Paul spoke of certain ones whom he had led to Christ, as his "sons." Would that we kept more of this holy relationship in view. Do you not remember how God has spoken of the Church as the "whole family in Heaven and earth"? God is our Father; and ail we be brethren.
2. A servant faithful in her task. The Spirit speaks of Phebe as a servant of the Church which is at Cenchrea. The Greek word for servant is " diakonis ." The word is sometimes translated "minister"; other times, "deacon." Some one suggested that the word really comes from two words: " dia " and " konis," meaning, "through the dust." At least, Phebe held a place in the Church which might today be called that of a "deaconess." She knew what it was to serve in the spiritual realm and to serve faithfully.
3. "A succourer of many." If we would like to know more in detail of what Phebe did, we read that "she hath been a succourer of many, and of myself also." With Phebe, caring for saints in their needs, had become a "business." Paul said, "assist her in whatsoever business she hath need of you."
May we all stand ready to assist every woman who is serving others, and succoring saints.
II. PRISCILLA AND AQUILA (Romans 16:3-5 )
How beautiful is the expression, "Greet Priscilla and Aquila my helpers in Christ Jesus." It seems to us that this salutation suggests that these saints were worthy of all honor.
1. The woman mentioned first. Let us observe the Divine order in this record: Priscilla, and afterward, Aquila. God does not, as a rule, give the preference to the woman, but here it is so. Priscilla, evidently, was the more active of the two in Divine things. This is the case in many homes and churches. The church prayer meetings have more women than men. The missionary work of the church is usually emphasized by women, more than by men. The teaching of the children in the home, in spiritual things, is often left to the mother, or to a big sister. This is not as it should be; not that we would have the women do less, but that the men should do more. In this case, both were worthy of mention, and both were loyal helpers to Paul.
2. The spirit of martyrdom in Priscilla and Aquila. Romans 16:4 tells us "Who have for my life laid down their own necks." They may not have been slain. Doubtless, they were not, for Paul commanded that they should be saluted; however, they had been defenders of the faith, and of great help to Paul and to the saints, even to the risking of their own personal safety. They knew how to use the Word, and how to guide saints into the truth of that Word.
3. To them all of the Gentile churches were obligated. Paul said that unto them, "not only I give thanks, but also all the Churches of the Gentiles."
May God help us to so live that the churches may feel led to thank God, for our ministry of love.
III. JUNIA (Romans 16:7 )
We now come to a very interesting combination: Andronicus and Junia.
1. Junia and Andronicus were kinsmen of Paul. There is a wonderful story about them, and about one or two others who were Paul's relatives in the flesh. It is a story that touches the scene on the Damascus road, when Paul was stricken with the great light from Heaven. Do you remember how the Lord said to Saul, "It is hard for thee to kick against the pricks"?
What were the "pricks" against which Paul had kicked? The things which had already touched his heart, and pierced his soul prior to the Damascus events the things, however, against which he had kicked. We believe we are right when we say that the kicks, were the prayers of his own kinsmen whom he said "were in Christ before me." They knew of Paul's brilliancy, of the vigor of his youth, and of the intensity of his spirit. They knew he had been educated at the feet of Gamaliel. They coveted him for God. They prayed for him. They talked to him. Perhaps, they wept over him; yet, the young man, Saul, pressed on his way fighting the pricks until he was stricken down on the Damascus roadside.
2. Junia was among Paul's fellow prisoners. Here is a sentence, thrown in, that we may not understand in its fullness. There is no other record given of how they were thrown into jail along with Paul, yet so it was. It must have been a comfort to the Apostle to have had such fellow prisoners. They were captives imprisoned for Christ's sake.
3. Junia was a woman, and yet she was of note among the Apostles. Her name was upon their tongues. Her deeds were kept in their memories. She was recognized; she was honored.
God grant that we may hold a place as honorable as she.
IV. TRYPHENA AND TRYPHOSA (Romans 16:12 )
1. We have before us two women who labored in the Lord. To us, somehow, there is a difference between laboring in the Lord, and casual service for the Lord. The word, "labor," suggests toil; not merely work, but hard work.
God, in writing to the seven Churches of Asia, spoke thus: "I know thy "works," then, He added, "and thy labor." He made a distinction between the two. Labor is painstaking work. It is work carried on steadfastly. We may serve the Lord, and become weary in welldoing. When we labor in the Lord, we are not quick to give up. We press on with dogged determination. By our God we overcome difficulties. Paul said, "having therefore obtained help of God, I continue unto this day."
2. These women not only labored, but they labored in the Lord. The student will readily grant that there are many who labor in the flesh. How much of well intended, but misdirected, work must God undo!
Peter meant well when he struck off the ear of Malchus, however, the Lord had to work a miracle to undo the disaster of a well-meant service. If we labor in the flesh our work will be reckoned as wood, hay, and stubble; if we labor in the Lord, it will be gold, silver, and precious stones. Everything that we do in the flesh is done for effect, for self-interest, and self-honor. At least, it is not the result of pure love. When we labor in the Lord, our labor will count for time and for all eternity.
V. THE BELOVED PERSIS (Romans 16:12 )
1. Here is a woman beloved among saints. She was not beloved in any carnal sense, but in a spiritual way. She was beloved the same way that Daniel was beloved. An angel came from Heaven, and said unto Daniel, "O Daniel, a man, greatly beloved"!
Would that this might be said of us! Would that we might so live, and so act, that the saints would love its, love us because of what we are, because of what we do. and because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts.
2. The beloved Persis labored much in the Lord. Here is an ascending scale. Tryphena and Tryphosa labored in the Lord, but Persis labored much. We wonder if the difference in their labor was not due to the difference of their love. We are, at least, going to suggest that there is an indissoluble connection between the words "the beloved Persis" and the words, "which laboured much."
In other words Persis labored because she loved. Have we not read, "Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, * * it profiteth me nothing?" Giving our gifts to the poor, or giving our bodies to be burned, is not reckoned with God, unless it is the fruitage of a genuine love. Of God it is said, that He "so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son." Of God again it is said, He "commendeth His love toward us, in that, * * Christ died for us." Of Christ it is said "Having loved His own * * He loved them unto the end." Again, it is written of Him that He "loved the Church, and gave Himself for it." God give us "a labor of love."
"Oh, Heavenly love, my heart subdue
I would be led in triumph, too;
Allured to live for God alone,
And fail submissive at His throne."
VI. HIS MOTHER AND MINE (Romans 16:13 )
Here is a woman whose name is not given, but her occupation is given.
1. Rufus, the son of the unnamed mother. This Rufus is spoken of as being "chosen in the Lord." We doubt not that his mother was chosen in the Lord. Somehow we cannot but feel that Rufus, the son, bore testimony to the faith and life of his mother. We know that the Spirit wrote of Timothy of the unfeigned faith, that was first in his grandmother, and in his mother, and then in him. Thus motherhood begins to shine in roseate hues. A new glory crowns its name. A position of honor is given to the mother of Rufus. The Scripture about Rufus and his mother, brings to memory a passage in the last part of Proverbs where it is written: "Her children rise up, and call her blessed." Not only that, but "her husband also, and he praiseth her."
2. Paul, the son, in the Lord, of the unnamed mother. Paul says, in the Spirit, "Salute Rufus chosen in the Lord, and his mother and mine." Have you ever seen a woman who seemed a mother to us all? Her character was so beautiful; her words of wisdom, of comfort, of advice, were so sincere, so considerate, so tender, that everyone called her mother. She was, indeed, a mother to her own; but she was, also, a mother to everyone. Her life was a rose of love in full bloom, the fragrance of which filled the whole Church. When she entered the building, all the sons arose to greet her; they bowed before her; they were ready always to help her, to take her arm, and lead her to her seat in the church.
VII. THE ELECT LADY (2 John 1:1 )
Let us turn to the Second Epistle of John and read the greetings there expressed to the "elect lady and her children." Once more, no name is given, and, yet, the elect lady stands forth in a radiance of glory unequaled, and, perhaps, surpassing any glory that surrounds any man.
1. The lady is elect. We think the expression, "elect," refers not merely to the fact that she was elect of God, but of man: that is, she was "elect" because she was "excellent." She stood among womanhood both "selected" and "elected."
2. The lady is the mother of children. Thank God that her motherhood is mentioned. She had a home. She was a mother. The trivial cares, the daily tasks, the perplexing situations that befall every woman and mother in home life, befell her. However, she rose above them. She shone in her home as a luminary shines, when the shadows lower. She was a star singing songs in the night. The glory, however, of her motherhood was revealed in her children. Behold how the aged John rejoiced greatly, because he found her children walking in the truth. Her children were not only saved, but they were obedient to the faith once delivered.
3. The elect lady was beloved in the truth. John takes the word, "love," out of every possible evil conception, and safeguards it by saying, of "the elect lady * * whom I love in the truth," and then he adds, "and not I only, but also all they who have known the truth."
It was not so much the woman, but the truth which she held, that made her precious and elect. Ere the Second Epistle of John closes, we read these touching words, "The children of thy elect sister greet thee. Amen."
The women of the early Church were workers.
It happened in a hospital in India. One of the women of a certain town had been sick for a long while, with a disease which, according to the native doctors, was incurable. She was a woman of means, and had tried one after another of the doctors in her own and neighboring towns. She finally heard of the wonderful cures being effected by the medical missionaries in the hospital established in a town some distance from where she lived. After much persuasion she managed to get permission from her husband to go to this place and see it the "Christians" could do anything for her. When she arrived at the hospital she had to undergo an examination, and the verdict was that she could be thoroughly cured if she stayed at the hospital for a month. During this time she received the kindest care and the most scientific treatment, and daily improved physically, At the same time her spiritual welfare was not neglected. She was instructed in the Christian religion, and told about the "Great Physician," who can heal, not the body only, but also the soul, so that by the time she was entirely cured she had accepted this "Great Physician" as her Saviour. When the time came for her to leave the hospital she clung to the missionaries and implored them to let her stay with them. But the missionary said, "There's your husband; he is not a Christian. Go home to your husband and tell him how great things the Lord hath done for thee, and hath had compassion on thee," And she went back to her native town telling about the "Great Physician," with the result that not only her husband, but scores of her friends accepted this same "Great Physician" as their Saviour also.
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Text Courtesy of BibleSupport.com. Used by Permission.
Neighbour, Robert E. "Wells of Living Water Commentary on Romans 16". "Living Water". https://www.studylight.org/
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