Romans 16 has often been overlooked and underappreciated when compared to the rest of Romans. It’s far lower in theological content and subsequently tends to warrant less space in commentaries and fewer mentions in sermons so that many end their reading of Romans without taking a careful look at this chapter. I find this unfortunate, because I consider Romans 16 to be the “cool-down” at the end of a high-energy theological cardio work-out. And as anyone who works out can testify, while it may be tempting to turn off your television and step away from your exercise video once the trainer initiates the cool-down phase, you’ll only be cheating your body if you do. Likewise, Romans 16 does have important lessons to teach us, even if they’re of a much different tone and nature than the heavy theological treatises of the preceding 15 chapters, and we cheat ourselves out of a portion of God’s “revelation of the mystery hidden for long ages past” (v. 25) when we skip over this chapter and call it a day.
Elsewhere in the Pauline corpus and earlier in the timeline of his ministry relative to the writing of Romans, Paul reminded the church that every believer is a member of the same body, and every part of that body is important no matter how small and trivial its role may seem (1 Cor. 12:12-31). Most of Romans 16 is an object lesson of this principle, for here we catch a rare glimpse of the believers who made up Paul’s support team. Paul we know plenty about because he may have written as much as a third of the New Testament, but most of these believers are only mentioned here in Romans 16. Yet Paul could not have been the great missionary and evangelist he was without the support of people like these. Furthermore, this section gives us some tantalizing, rare glimpses into how the earliest Christian churches actually functioned.
Romans 16 is a significant passage for the study of women in the Bible, with two of its sections having provided fuel for significant controversy in the debate over women in ministry in recent years. Verses 1-2 designate a woman named Phoebe a “diakonos,” which carries the technical meaning of “servant” but is used colloquially elsewhere in the Pauline corpus to refer to the office of deacon. Phoebe is also a “prostatis,” which carries the literal meaning of “woman who presides” and colloquially means “benefactor” or “patron.” The clarity of this evidence has caused a number of Protestant churches to re-evaluate their positions on women in ministry and admit women to their diaconates. Less certain but still worthy of consideration is Romans 16:7, where a woman named Junia is said to be “distinguished among the apostles” or “esteemed by the apostles.” I have extensively summarized the details of these debates in my PDF below. (Note: Latter-day Saints remain largely untouched by these controversies due to their dependence on the KJV, which archaically renders Phoebe as a “servant” and “succourer” and implies that Junia is male.)
However, even if one completely ignores the question of whether Romans 16:1-2 or Romans 16:7 can be used to make a case for the ordination of women, the passage is still an extremely significant one for women in ministry. Of the 29 believers whom Paul mentions in verses 1-16, 10 (35%) are women. Paul calls them his co-workers and commends their hard work in the Gospel. He speaks of them tenderly, saying that one of them has been a mother to him, and he commends them for risking their lives for the Gospel and doing prison time because of their faith. I discovered Romans 16 at a time when I was seriously questioning whether Christianity was really a friendly place for women, and the parity shown here between men and women in their labors for the Gospel was part of what convinced me that it was.
Paul spends a few verses exhorting the believers in Rome against “those who cause divisions” and warns them against things that are “contrary to the teaching you have [previously] learned” (v. 17). He reminds them of his joy that they as Gentiles are learning the Gospel and the glory their obedience brings to the church (v. 19). He urges them to be “wise about what is good, and innocent about what is evil” (v. 19), the latter being a likely allusion to Adam and Eve’s decision to know evil through experience when they ate from the tree and transgressed for the first time.
After a shorter set of greetings (v. 21-23) from the believers in Corinth (all men this time, but that’s okay; I’m actually pretty fond of men ;)), Paul issues his final doxology wherein he re-iterates a number of the themes that he covered throughout the epistle (v. 25-27). See Keener’s table on page 9 of my PDF if you’re interested in a careful breakdown of those themes. The epistle closes appropriately by hailing God’s glory forever through Jesus Christ.