I’ve talked with a number of Christians who hold a complementarian view of how men and women should relate to one another. They believe that God has called men to be leaders in the church and that God has called women to submit to male leadership.
At the same time, many of these brothers and sisters are not entirely comfortable with their position. It strikes them as odd, some have told me, that men lead and women follow. It doesn’t seem quite equitable. There’s a difference in levels of authority, responsibility and opportunity. Simply put, men have more authority; women have less. Men have more responsibility; women have less. Men have more opportunities; women have less.
Though the evident inequality makes some of my complementarian friends uneasy, they hold fast to their beliefs nonetheless. They do this, some tell me, because they must remain true to the word of God, even if it makes them uncomfortable. On one level, I think their steadfast loyalty to the Bible is commendable. I find it very encouraging, for example, when people say “no” to temptation, out of loyalty to God, even if their feelings are telling them to give in. In the case of a complementarian belief system, however, I think loyalty to God and his word has been misappropriated. Please allow me to explain.
In the Greek New Testament, Paul refers to himself as a “diakonos” (Colossians 1:23 and 25). In the New King James Version of the Bible (NKJV) this word is translated “minister”. Paul explains that his duties, as a minister, include “teaching” and “preaching” (Col. 1:28). He also refers to Timothy as a “diakonos“, translated “minister”, and associated with teaching or instruction. In Romans 16:1 the word “diakonos” is used again, this time in reference to a woman, Phoebe. But in this instance the NKJV does not translate the word as “minister”. Instead it refers to Phoebe as a “servant”.
In Romans 16:2, another Greek word is used to describe Phoebe’s role in the church. She is referred to as a “prostatis.” NKJV translates this word regarding Phoebe as “helper”. When similar Greek words are used of men, however, they are translated as “ruling” (1 Timothy 5:17, 1 Timothy 3:4, NKJV). In Romans 12:8, the word is translated as “leading” (NKJV).
If the translators of the NKJV Bible used the same English words for “diakonos” and “prostatis” for both men and women, relevant passages would read as follows (words in question are capitalized):
- “If you instruct the brethren in these things, you will be a good MINISTER of Jesus Christ, nourished in the words of faith and of the good doctrine which you have carefully followed” (1 Timothy 4:6, NKJV).
- “Having then gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us, let us use them:…he who LEADS, with diligence” (Romans 12:6-8).
- “I commend to you Phoebe our sister, who is a MINISTER of the church in Cenchrea, that you may receive her in the Lord in a manner worthy of the saints, and assist her in whatever business she has need of you; for indeed she has been a LEADER of many and of myself also” (Romans 16:1-2).
Unfortunately, the words “diakonos” and “prostatis” are not usually translated the same for men and women. For example, the NKJV translates this last verse as follows:
- “I commend to you Phoebe our sister, who is a SERVANT of the church in Cenchrea, that you may receive her in the Lord in a manner worthy of the saints, and assist her in whatever business she has need of you; for indeed she has been a HELPER of many and of myself also.” (Romans 16:1-2).
Different roles for men and women? In the English translation, apparently yes. In the original Greek manuscripts of the New Testament…no.
In light of these observations, I would encourage my complementarian friends to listen to their consciences if apparent inequalities between men and women make them feel uneasy. At the same time, I would encourage them to steadfastly hold to the truth of the Bible—as it was written in its original language and context.
YOUR TURN: What do you think about these discrepancies between the original language and the English translation? How does understanding the original language change your opinion about Phoebe’s role in the early church? Next week Bob will look at the translation of 1 Timothy 2:12.