“I commend to you our sister Phoebe, who is a servant of the church in Cenchreae. So you should welcome her in the Lord in a manner worthy of the saints and assist her in whatever matter she may require your help. For indeed she has been a benefactor of many — and of me also. Give my greetings to Prisca and Aquila, my coworkers in Christ Jesus, who risked their own necks for my life. Not only do I thank them, but so do all the Gentile churches. Greet also the church that meets in their home. Greet my dear friend Epaenetus, who is the first convert to Christ from Asia. Greet Mary, who has worked very hard for you. Greet Andronicus and Junia, my fellow countrymen and fellow prisoners. They are noteworthy in the eyes of the apostles, and they were also in Christ before me. Greet Ampliatus, my dear friend in the Lord. Greet Urbanus, our coworker in Christ, and my dear friend Stachys. Greet Apelles, who is approved in Christ. Greet those who belong to the household of Aristobulus. Greet Herodion, my fellow countryman. Greet those who belong to the household of Narcissus who are in the Lord. Greet Tryphaena and Tryphosa, who have worked hard in the Lord. Greet my dear friend Persis, who has worked very hard in the Lord. Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord; also his mother — and mine. Greet Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermes, Patrobas, Hermas, and the brothers who are with them. Greet Philologus and Julia, Nereus and his sister, and Olympas, and all the saints who are with them. Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the churches of Christ send you greetings. Now I urge you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause dissensions and obstacles contrary to the doctrine you have learned. Avoid them, for such people do not serve our Lord Christ but their own appetites. They deceive the hearts of the unsuspecting with smooth talk and flattering words.” (Romans 16:1-18 HCSB)
My family is a study in contrasts. Perhaps, your family is, too. My dad was from the Boston area and his family lineage is easily traced back through the Nickerson family line as they landed on the shores of Cape Cod just two years after the Plymouth colony was established and then back across the Atlantic into England all the way back into the 13th century. My mother’s family is the exact opposite. I can trace them back only a generation or two. I know who my maternal great grandparents were, but not much else. I have very little information about their roots or our family heritage. My dad had only one sibling, a sister with three children, but my mother had seven siblings and they had twenty two children combined.
When it comes to family relationships, I had very little interaction with my dad’s family, his sister and her children but I had daily interactions with my mother’s family, her siblings and their children. I saw my paternal grandmother once ever few years when she would come visit and my paternal grandfather only twice in my childhood before he died, but I was with my maternal grandmother almost daily and my many of maternal cousins at least several times each week. See what I mean, contrasts. I know more about my dad’s family heritage while I know less about them in a personal way but I know little about my mother’s family heritage but I know much, much more about them in a very personal way. And yet, they are all my family.
However, not long after I left my parent’s home and started my own family I discovered something fascinating about family – it includes those who are brothers and sisters in Christ. I have had the incredible blessing of pastoring four great churches over the past 42 years and each of them has loved us like family but spending the last 32 years with the folks here at Hilltop has radically redefined what family means to us. I have walked with many of you through all of the stages of life: childhood excitement, teenage angst, young adulthood adventure, love, courtship and marriage, child birth anxieties, parental fears, struggles and joys, empty nest challenges, mid-life crises, aging parents, planning for retirement, and even death. There’s nothing quite like a life of faith and its triumphs and challenges to forge a bond between us. That’s a really good thing…
In Paul’s closing statements of this letter to the Roman church, he addresses similar circumstances. Some of these folks he knows quite well and he commends them, their faith and their work while he simply greets and acknowledges others in the family. A family of faith at different stages of life, love, relationship, familiarity and commitment but a family, nonetheless. Much like those I see before me as I contemplate, pray and write these words. Those who will physically gather with us this Sunday, those who will join us online and even those who may only read these words but join us in spirit as we gather for worship. A family of faith at different stages of life, love, relationship, familiarity and commitment but a family, nonetheless.
First, Paul commends to them “our sister Phoebe” who is a servant of the church in Cenchreae. It is most likely that Phoebe is the person who carried and delivered Paul’s letter to the Roman church. The word for “servant” is the Greek diakonos and could simply be referencing the idea that each believer is a servant of Christ and, thus, a servant of the church. However, since her name is feminine but the term diakonos is masculine and he ties the term directly to the church in Cenchreae it would seem that Paul is referencing the office of deacon in that church. I know, that sounds dangerously radical in a Southern Baptist church but don’t tune me out, just yet. I want you to notice a couple of things.
I pointed out how Paul specifically references that she is a “diakonos” or deacon of THAT specific church – Cenchreae. Southern Baptist have always deeply held to the importance of and Biblical reference to the autonomy of the local church. Autonomy may mean that they are self-governing and fiercely independent but they are also supportive, cooperative and relational. In other words, her service in the office of deacon is specifically to that church. While I have no doubt that she will serve others wherever she goes, she is a “servant” of the church in Cenchreae and not Rome.
Next, I would point out that our understanding and perception of the office of Deacon is often wrong and misapplied. I mentioned earlier that I have served in four different churches during my 42 year ministry. In each of those churches, including my early years here at Hilltop, I encountered a common misunderstanding regarding the role of deacon as a ruling or governing group of men. I believe, this misunderstanding has really been fueled by another issue – pastoral tenure. It is obvious in scripture, the role of deacon (diakonos) was established by the Jerusalem church in response to a crisis that developed when some of the widows were overlooked in the distribution of food (see Acts 6) and this crisis was clearly related to ethnic division and diversity in the early church. The Apostles asked the church to select seven men with good reputations, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom who would be appointed to “this duty” so they could remain focused on prayer and preaching.
As you can see, the role of deacon was intended to be focused on the task of ministering to the needs of the church members while the Apostles remained focused on prayer and preaching. But that’s rarely how Baptist deacons have functioned over the past 100 or so years. So, what happened? Well, it really is a result of industrialization of America and the resulting move from a rural agrarian society to an urban, industrial society as people moved to the cities and became more mobile.
Do you remember my comments from last week regarding indigenous churches in mission work? An indigenous (or native) church is one in which the leadership and membership primarily consists of those who live and work in that area. In other words, it isn’t led by outsiders or missionaries but is being led by natives indigenous to that tribe and/or region. In many ways, our culture has become so mobile that pastors tend to move around and seek to serve in larger and more financially capable churches. This results in the churches being forced to seek out indigenous leadership for relational stability during frequent pastoral changes. Thus, the role of deacon shifted from being a servant role to a leadership role. Can the biblical role of Deacon be recovered? Sure, if pastors would settle into serving in the same church for a much longer period of time.
Now, let me address the question of “women” deacons. If the biblical role of deacon is recovered and recognized as a ministering servant then I think Southern Baptist angst and concern about women deacons would simply disappear. I’ll be very honest and transparent, here. I have had women “deacons” in every Southern Baptist church I’ve served even though not a single one of them was ever given that “title” or ordained into that role. I have several sitting in this crowd, right now. In fact, if I named them none of you would be surprised. They quietly serve and give themselves to minister to the needs of our church, as single women or often alongside their husbands who are serving in the very same way.
As you can easily see, Phoebe served her church in this same way and Paul not only commends her to the church in Rome but he also asks them to assist her in whatever matter she may require their help. Why? Because she has been a benefactor to many and to Paul, too. Let me just encourage you to follow Phoebe’s lead in these things. As you assist others in the church, in a manner worthy of the saints, they will be there to assist you, as the need may arise. While we are all called to serve each other, a deacon will stand out as an example of service in the church – and I’m proud to say that our deacons and their wives are examples of Christ-like service.
Next, Paul begins to give individual greetings to a long list of Roman church members. Generally speaking, these are probably in order of importance, position or role in the Roman church. He starts with Priscilla (or Prisca) and Aquila and calls them his coworkers in Christ. He also says that they “risked their own necks for my life” and this may refer to the threat he faced in Ephesus (see Acts 19). While I addressed the question of deaconess, above, it is important to note that of the six times Paul addresses Priscilla and Aquila in his writings, four of those list Priscilla in the primary position. In addition, Phoebe is the messenger who is delivering this letter to the Roman church and seven other women are listed in this passage. Women played a significant role in the Roman church and have played and continue to play a primary role in the ministry, growth and overall success of our church, in particular, and the global church, in general. We would be foolish to overlook that.
Paul also references the church that met in Priscilla and Aquila’s home. The Roman church was not one large gathering, but many, many small gatherings in house churches around the city. It wasn’t until after the time of Constantine in the 4th century, that the church began to build buildings in which to meet and worship. So, for the first 300 or so years churches simply met in the homes of members. Generally speaking, it was probably a church member who was a bit more financially blessed and, thus, had a larger home and able to accommodate 40-50 people. Why is that important? I want you to consider how that changes the dynamic of church and church relationships, especially in light of today’s trend towards mega-churches. This is really one of the reasons that larger churches must have small group ministries and smaller churches don’t. Well technically, everything a small church does is small group ministry.
Why is this important? Why do churches need small group ministries and how does it impact church dynamics and spiritual development? We can really only cultivate relationships with a small number of close friends. While there is a significant amount of scientific research into this idea (referred to as Dunbar’s number), it is also clearly visible in our own relationships. We have intimate relationship with very few – 1 or 2, close friendships with a relatively small number of people – about 5, good friendship with a slightly larger group – about 35-50, and friendship with about 150 people. Anything larger and they are generally just acquaintances with whom we have very little or no one-on-one interaction. But faith is really all about relationship, with Christ, first and foremost, and then with each other. It is in these relationships that faith is not only born and developed but also honed and refined. For example, consider the following:
“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faith, gentleness, self-control. Against such things there is no law.” (Galatians 5:22-23 HCSB)
Most of these spiritual fruits that the Holy Spirit desires to develop in us can only be experienced and expressed in relationship with someone else. First, in relationship with Christ but then also in relationship with others. You can’t really grow as Christ would have you to grow in cloistered Christianity – in spiritual or social isolation. Not only can you NOT develop properly, you can’t be fully obedient in spiritual or social isolation. Let that settle into your heart and soul, a bit. Obedience to God and to the commands of our Lord require that we resist self-isolation.
This might not be an issue, for you, but it is for me. I am an introvert and a bit of a loner. While I enjoy being in a group, I don’t like being at the center or the focus of that group. I know, sounds a bit odd for a pastor doesn’t it? I would just as soon go into my office, close my door, gather my books and study as I prepare to write these words. In fact, that’s what I really do each Friday as I sit alone in my home drinking a cup of coffee at my kitchen counter. My wife is at work and I’m home alone reading, studying, researching and writing. It’s my comfortable spot, but not where God wants me to stay. He’s called me to care for the hurting, to comfort the bereaved, to speak hope into the heart of the hopeless, to feed the hungry and help the helpless. You can’t do that sitting in your office or your home.
Catch some of the phrases Paul uses as he sends greetings to this auspicious group of Roman Christians: coworkers who risked their own necks for my life; first convert to Christ in Asia; worked very hard for you; fellow prisoners; noteworthy in the eyes of the apostles; dear friend; and chosen in the Lord. You can’t be obedient or have an impact on others for Jesus in isolation. You can’t speak encouragement with silence. You can’t give or experience love without the risk of rejection or hatred. You can’t fight injustice or speak for the oppressed by disengaging from society. Let me make this a bit more practical for you… You can’t teach children the love of God without sitting on the floor with them. You can’t demonstrate Christ-like love to teens without occasionally looking foolish in your own eyes. You can’t minister to the hurting without exposing your heart to some of their pain and you can’t comfort the bereaved without shedding a few tears.
You see, we often want the benefits of family without the work and we often want a great church without the effort. Neither can happen. Great family relationships come only through all of the associated work it takes to build and make them. It’s not enough to know where your family comes from, you also have to put effort and work into where it is going. Great churches and the associated relationships are grown and built in the same way, with lots of effort and hard work as we strive towards Christ-like behavior and child-like faith. Oh, by the way… grab that hammer and give me a hand.