Susan Mathew

Dr. Susan Mathew

M.Sc. Ph.D (Durham University, UK) is teaching at Faith Theological Seminary, Manakala. She is also the Founder and Director of Deepti Special School and Rehabilitation Centre, Manakala.

Paul’s positive approach to women and their roles in the church can be seen in Rom. 16:1-16, and it is paradoxical to hear Paul’s seemingly indifferent tone elsewhere in dealing with the roles of women in the church (1 Cor. 11:2-16; cf.14:34f ; 1 Tim. 2:13f). 1 Cor. 11:2-16 poses an apparent ambivalence with regard to gender relations: on the one hand, the text seems to affirm the subordination of women, especially with reference to the veiling of women in public worship. On the other, it seems to affirm mutuality between gender relations. I think that this passage significantly encourages mutuality in gender relations as in the greetings (Rom. 16:1-16).
In the first stage of Paul’s argument, three parallel statements can be seen (v.3): The head of every man is Christ, the head of every woman is man, and the head of Christ is God. Kephale has been rendered with different nuances, such as ‘head’ or ‘chief’, ‘source’ or ‘origin’ which indicates authority, supremacy, and leadership. Judith Gundry-Volf argues that neither merely ‘egalitarian’ nor merely ‘hierarchical’ interpretations do justice to the complexity of the theological issue for Paul. In this verse, rather than a hierarchy, the relation between God and Christ shows order and differentiation as well as mutual and reciprocal relationships. This is neither meant to show subordination nor inferiority, but rather, as Garland suggests, ‘it establishes the need for loyalty to the head’.
The second stage of argument is found in vv.4-6, where the participation of men and women in the Christian assembly is explained. Every man who prays and prophecies with his head covered dishonours his head, whereas every woman who prays or prophecies with her head uncovered dishonours her head. As Hooker suggests, the man or woman who dishonours his or her own head in the literal sense brings dishonour also on his or her metaphorical head.
Gundry-Volf observes that the characterization of the Mediterranean world as a shame/honour society supplies the background for the shame/glory contrast in 1 Cor. 11:2-16. Moxnes identifies the shame/glory category as: a) a head covering, like that of Romans before their gods in public devotion, reduced his self-respect and shamed his own person and b) this shames his head also in the sense of appearing to demean Christ or God as his Lord and head. It seems that Paul wants to avoid the distractions in Christian worship from self-attention, which makes the person’s head a source of shame. Martin proposes that Paul is anxious about veiling for two reasons: order and sexuality; veiling situates women in their proper position in the ordered hierarchy of society, which also means that they are not intended to be passive but must participate in their covering. He states three reasons why he thinks Paul thought women should be veiled: ‘the society worries about their social vulnerability; a women’s unveiled head constitutes a bodily defect; female sexuality and social order cannot be separated in veiling cultures’.
Watson rightly argues that veiling is the symbol of woman’s authority to speak rather than a symbol of division in the Christian congregation. It is agape and not eros that must rule in the public sphere of the congregation, and the veil is interposed as the condition of women’s free speech and of men’s respect of it. For Watson, the real subject of the passage is togetherness of man and woman ‘in the Lord’, within the fellowship of agape. In 1 Cor. 11:7, Paul asserts that man is the image and glory of God, the woman as the glory of man. Fee rightly asserts that Paul’s use of glory in relation to image, and to the mutuality in v.12, means that the existence of the one brings honour and praise to the other. It is likely that Paul assumes man and woman are the glory of each another.
Mutual interdependence between man and woman in the Lord shows the character of relationality and mutuality in the new creation (v.11). There could be no reciprocity or mutuality unless each was differentiated from the other. It is evident that the custom, which Paul is referring to here, concerns gender distinctions in public worship, and that Paul is addressing both men and women. He accepts the status of men and women in Christian worship as both are given the right to pray and prophesy without ignoring the gender distinctions. Judith Gundry-Volf in her discussion of 11:1-16 identifies three “points of reference,” “lenses,” or “maps” in Pauline dialogue: the order of creation, custom as propriety, and eschatology or the gospel. She bases her arguments on honour and shame on these points, and urges “control over the head” and the relationship of mutuality, reciprocity, and gender distinctiveness.
As Paul advises husbands and wives in 1Cor. 7:3, 4, he gives mutual authority over each other’s body, where we see neither a hierarchical pattern nor the pattern of equality, rather mutuality and reciprocity considering the will of the partner in the marital relationship. It is striking to note that Paul addresses both husband and wife urging them to give ‘themselves over to each other in their marital commitment’. The basis of this relationship is Christian love that uproots selfish desires and upholds pleasing others and belonging-togetherness. Paul wants love to be the basis of mutual relationships in the family and community. Love does not divide, but rather it unites all in mutual relationship and also it governs gender issues in the community as a whole.
If one attempts to establish hierarchy in the man/-woman relationship, there is the a danger of missing out on what Christ has secured for humanity through the New Creation (Gal. 3:28). But on the other hand, if one intends to affirm an egalitarian view, there is an apparent danger of pressing homogeneity that excludes difference. A more viable way of reading the text should be with a view that combines sharing in the benefits of Christ’s redemption by men and women and affirmation of mutuality in gender relations.
Therefore, 1 Cor. 11:11, which highlights the interdependence of man and woman ‘in the Lord’, serves as the hermeneutical key for understanding the text. I consider this text as significant in defining gender relations in the Lord, with its emphasis on the mutual relationship and interdependence of man and woman; hierarchy in one direction is reversed by the hierarchy in the other direction, which supports the Pauline ethos of mutuality in Rom. 12-16.
The Women in Leadership within the Structures of Mutualism
The women named and greeted with specific roles (Rom. 16) are Phoebe, Prisca, Junia, Persis, Mary, Tryphaena and Tryphosa, Rufus’ mother, Nereus’ sister, and Julia. It is quite striking to note that some women clearly exercised leadership roles while others actively participated in the ministry of the church as well and Paul’s mission (Rom. 16:1-16). Their leadership roles and participation are honoured as the same as that of men (or even over men), which seems to be well known and taken for granted by the Roman believers. The mutuality of leadership is a remarkable aspect as men and women were primarily identified by their relation to the Lord. The leadership is gender-blind and without any limitations on women. The practice of mutualism among the leaders serves as a demonstration for the rest of the community to follow.
Paul’s appreciation of these women’s roles drew attention to the fact that they held leadership roles. Firstly, Phoebe as the Diakonos played an important and significant role in the church of Cenchreae (Rom 16.1-2). Her position is further emphasized in the title Prostatis, which revealed her benefaction of many Christians including Paul. Her expected role among the Roman church could not be limited to the Spanish mission, since pragma is not a definite matter in the request for help. Moreover, the chiasm of the passage is woven in such a way as to show the aspect of reciprocity. Her action for others needs to be reciprocated, and she is a woman qualified to receive hospitality and help in whatever matter she needs. On the one hand, this gives an insight into Phoebe’s contribution to the Pauline mission, and on the other it shows, Paul’s way of presenting her and his desire to reciprocate her actions.
Secondly, Paul’s description of Prisca and Aquila (Rom 16.3-5) as his associates, and as having risked their lives for his sake, obviously state their relationship with Paul. But their action on behalf of Paul brought them thanksgiving not only from Paul, but also from all the churches of the Gentiles. Prisca was a co-worker of Paul and possibly acted as the leader of the church in her house, which consisted of a community of saints. Her contribution was profound as she was beneficial to all the churches of the Gentiles, including both men and women.
Thirdly, Paul describes Junia (with Andronicus) (Rom 16.7) as his relatives and fellow prisoners which implies their relationship to Paul and his co-workers. But the other two descriptions: prominent among the apostles and ‘in Christ before me’ explicitly state their relationship to the early Christian community and their significant contribution to the Christian mission. First, Junia is portrayed as an associate of Paul. She is not only an apostle (in the sense of a co-worker) but is prominent among them. The reason for her distinctiveness not specific, but one can speculate that the reasons may include her toil (fellow prisoner) and missionary zeal (in Christ before Paul). Second, Paul’s description of her as ‘prominent among the apostles’ seems to imply that Paul himself will get some benefit by sharing in the reputation of those who are associates with himself (cf. Rom. 16:3, 4). Thirdly, it reveals the mutual obligation that comes about by being in Christ (cf. Rom. 12:5); and obligation that places all human relationships in a deeper context, i.e., all belong together because they are in Christ.
Mary, Persis, Tryphoena and Tryphosa were hardworking women and part of the appreciated and acknowledged team, who had supported Paul and his mission by various means. Rufus’ mother was a mother to Paul. Nereus’ sister and Julia were possibly part of the leadership team of a tenement church. Paul’s presentation of these women’s roles in order to be greeted as well as appreciated by the Roman believers reinforces the Pauline ethos of mutuality.
These women were appreciated for their leadership roles alongside men, and the endorsement of women’s roles elsewhere also gives evidence of Paul’s positive attitude to women in ministry and leadership. Examples include: Apphia (our sister; Phlm. 2); Nympha, greeted with the church in her house (Col. 4:15), and Euodia and Syntyche, co-workers of Paul, who shared his struggles (Phil. 4:2, 3).
‘Pauline Love Mutualism’: A Challenge to Communitarian Ethics
The model of mutuality which Paul wants to highlight in the greetings to men and women in the church seems to be the first practical step towards the fulfilment of the exhortations to the Roman community to practise love, welcome, and honour to one another (Rom. 12-15). The distinctive feature of the Pauline ethos of mutuality is that it is initiated by grace, mediated by love, and sustained by the Spirit. It avoids extremes of either an atomised individualistic approach or a blatant collectivism. Rather it promotes a dialectics of person-in-community. An individual is an isolated being, cut off from all external relationships, and as such, is an antithesis to authentic human existence; whereas to be human is to be a person whose existence is predicated within a web of relationships.
Paul makes it abundantly clear that the well-being of a person potentially leads to the well-being of the community. Persons with different gifts can up-build the community in the ethos of mutuality. In turn, this enhances the significance of the giftedness of each in the context of mutual affirmation. The believers form a close knit family, who are committed to solidarity and mutual care, and mutuality is rooted in their belonging to Christ.
I call this model of mutuality ‘Pauline love-mutualism’, since love has an important role in leading to mutual relations, which is profound in Romans (12-16) and has a constructive impact on the community. Paul advises the Romans that their love should be genuine. He begins this ethos of mutualism with the body metaphor (12:3, 4), and tries to develop mutual relations (12:9-13) by describing different aspects (outdo one another in honouring, hospitality) and more clearly emphasizes how love mutualism works between two groups (the strong and the weak). The uniqueness of Pauline mutuality is that there is a dynamism involved by the perpetual reversal of positions. The notion of hierarchy is also strange to this model as both parties would act in mutual interdependence. The hierarchical model is replaced by a mutuality model, where members act in unity and mutuality with no question of permanent inferiority or superiority.
Thus, Paul alters the static hierarchical model of antiquity to that of equalisation via a constant process of promoting the other. This dynamic is modelled in the pattern of Christ’s service (cf. Rom. 15:1-6) as the two groups come out as mutually edified and mutually welcomed (the strong and the weak). The edification passes on to others in a chain reaction, since each member of the congregation is involved in this process.
The dynamics of mutualism we have explored here fit neither the label ‘hierarchical’ nor ‘egalitarian’ as they are usually understood, since each suggests a static state rather than the dynamic and constantly reversible conditions we have identified. Nor is the label ‘complementarian’ quite appropriate, if that again suggests a permanent division of roles and powers. Rather, Paul seems to promote processes (not states) of reciprocal and constantly reversed asymmetry, in a dynamic trajectory which never stabilises into a permanent hierarchy or division of roles. The end result may be described as a kind of dynamic process of equalisation, since the tasks of mutual promotion are equally incumbent on all parties, but this is not quite identical to the more static models of egalitarianism which are characteristic of modernity.
Paul asks his recipients to practice this love mutualism between them, where he introduces Phoebe and a number of people to be greeted (Rom. 16:1-16). He points to some people, whom he knows well and whom he thinks special with regard to him and the Roman church. Greeting cannot be done without honouring, and the honouring is expected to move in both directions as pendulum of a clock oscillates. Love cannot do wrong to a neighbour, but love is the fulfilment of the law (Rom. 13:10). Mutualism can be negative or positive negative in a sense of judging one another and positive in a sense of welcoming without considering the status):-the strong and the weak. In order to sustain good relationships, one should not think highly of himself or herself and not be of a haughty mind (Rom. 12:3, 16b).
The attitude of the person who exercises love mutualism should be as if one is serving the Lord (12:11c) and serving Christ (14:18); douleu/w means enslaved or serving as a slave. Every believer is enslaved to Christ in order to serve others with an attitude of serving Christ. That means, one who exercises love mutualism fulfils the law and serves Christ: A serves under B; B serves under A.
Divine initiative and grace is involved in love mutualism since grace is bestowed on humans to act in mutuality, which brings glorification to God at the end. Humans are participate with the divine, in the transformative power of Christ to bring glory and honour to God, the Father. This is a challenge to communitarian ethics as it requires divine-human participation and it acts in a way to challenge negative with positive reciprocity. This helps to honour the least honourable in the community and uplift them to the main strata, irrespective of race, colour, sex, and status.
In sum, the leadership of women in the church is placed within the structures of mutuality in Romans 16. Mutuality is the model of relationship Paul wants to urge on Roman Christians and the ethical obligations are guided by the dynamic relationships of ‘love mutualism’. Love mutualism works as mutual service to the other that works within the hierarchies by continually reversing them so that the superiority of x to y is continually subverted by the superiority of y to x.