Even if in the NT no women were identified by name as elders, overseers, or pastors, and many men were, this would not logically exclude women from those leadership positions any more than the actual lack of Gentile men identified by name as elders, overseers, or pastors in the NT excludes Gentile men from those leadership positions.
In fact, however, apart from Christ (Heb 13:20; 1 Pet 2:25; 5:4), no men or women overseers (ἐπίσκοπος) of a church or pastors (ποιμήν) of a church are named in the NT. John refers to himself in 2 John 1 and 3 John 1 as “the elder,” but nothing in either context associates this title with a local church or with administrative duties. The article indicates that this refers to something unique, which would not apply to local church administration. It probably identifies something like the last surviving elderly apostle and eyewitness of Christ. The only other NT association of ‘elder’ with any named person is Peter’s self-identification as a “fellow-elder (συνπρεβύτερος), a witness of Christ’s sufferings.”
The clearest NT identification of an individual with titles associated with senior local church leadership is not a man at all, but a woman: “Phoebe deacon (διάκονος, not feminine in form, which could imply ‘servant’ or ‘deaconess,’ but masculine in form, hence ‘deacon’) of the church in Cenchrea. I ask you to received her in the Lord in a way worthy of the saints and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been a leader (προστάτις ‘leader, chief,’ ‘president or presiding officer,’ ‘one who stands before,’ LSJ 1526) of many, including myself also”” (Rom 16:1-2). Since Romans was written before any surviving reference to the office of a local church “overseer,” “deacon” may have been the only officially recognized title for a local church leader at that time and/or place. If by προστάτις (“leader”) Paul identifies a church office here, then he describes Phoebe using two titles for a church office that may have been equivalent to the later-documented titles “overseer,” “elder,” and “pastor.”
Translations such as the NIV, which repeats the word “give her any help … for she has been a great help,” hide the fact that the Greek verb translated as “help [her]” (παραστῆτε from παρίστημι, “I help,” which combines παρά = “along side” + ἵστημι = “I stand”) is almost opposite in meaning to the word describing Phoebe as a προστάτις “one who leads,” which combines πρό = “in rank before” + ἵστημι = “I stand.” Paul’s logic is natural, “Help her in whatever matter she has need, because she is a leader of many, including myself also.” It is natural that Paul, who calls all believers to submit to one another (Eph 5:21) should himself submit to the local leadership in churches he visited. If Paul had intended to say simply that Phoebe had “helped” others, it would have been natural for him to repeat παρίστημι to make his reason parallel his request.
Every meaning of every word in the NT related to the word Paul chose to describe Phoebe as a “leader” (προστάτις) that could apply in Rom 16:2 refers to leadership. This includes the usage shortly before in Rom 12:8, “Let the one in leadership [ὁ προϊστάμενος] govern diligently;” 1 Thess 5:12, “respect those who … who have charge over you [προϊσταμένους] in the Lord;” and 1 Tim 5:17, “The elders who rule [προεστῶτες] well are worthy of a double honor.” Used in relation to the family, it means “ruling one’s household” (1 Tim 3:4, 5, 12).
G. H. R. Horsley, “Sophia, ‘the second Phoibe,’ ” New Documents Illustrating Early Christianity: A Review of the Greek Inscriptions and Papyri published in 1977/79 (Macquarie University, NSW, Australia: The Ancient History Documentary Research Centre, 1982/87) 4:239–44, 242 identifies citations of προστάτης, including O. Tebt. Pad. 67 and I. Eph. III.668a, to identify the president of an association. Horsley also cites “Sophia, ‘the second Phoibe’” and six other inscriptions or papyri about “female deacons and office-holders” published in 1979 alone. Προστάτις can also, like the Latin patrona (“patroness”), denote the legal representative of strangers and their protector; for as aliens they were deprived of civil rights. C. K. Barrett, however, in A Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans. (London: A. and C. Black, 1957) 283 argues that meaning does not fit Rom 16:2 because “Phoebe cannot have stood in this relation to Paul since he was born free, Acts 22:28.”
The NRSV “for she has been a benefactor of many and of myself as well” has the disadvantage that this meaning is not listed by LSJ1 or BAG,2 and that Paul’s companion Luke uses a different word that LSJ, BDAG, and BAG identify as meaning “benefactor,” “those in authority over them are called benefactors [εὐεργέται]” (Luke 22:25). Thus, the lexical evidence and the context of Phoebe’s standing in the church strongly favor the normal meaning of the term, προστάτις, namely, “leader.” Since her leadership was in the church it would entail spiritual oversight.
Even Charles C. Ryrie, The Role of Women in the Church (Chicago: Moody Press, 1958), 140 and 88 who teaches that woman’s role in church is “not a leading one,” acknowledges that προστάτις “includes some kind of leadership.” This term almost always refers to an officially recognized position of authority. See the examples in Leonard Swidler, Biblical Affirmations of Woman (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1979), 310–11; James D. G. Dunn, Romans 9–16, (WBC; Dallas: Word, 1988) 888–89; and Philip B. Payne, “The Interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:11–15: A Response to Douglas J. Moo’s Article, ‘1 Timothy 2:11–15: Meaning and Significance’,” TJ 2 NS (1981): 169–97, 195 and Man and Woman, One in Christ (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009) 62-63.
In conclusion, the only person unambiguously identified by name and given a title for local church leader in the NT is Phoebe, and she may be given two such titles, “deacon of the church of Cenchrea” and or “leader (προστάτις) of many.” Consequently, the argument is spurious that since women are not given the title “elder,” “overseer,” or “pastor” in the NT, they may not occupy those offices. The same logic if applied to Christian men would exclude all of them from the offices of overseer and pastor as well.
1 LSJ (1526–27) identifies προστάτις as the feminine form of προστάτης, for which it gives only the following meanings: “one who stands before, front-rank man … leader, chief … ruler … chief authors … administrator … president or presiding officer … one who stands before and protects, guardian, champion … patron … suppliant … prostate gland.”
2 BDAG (885), does, however, list “a woman in a supporting role, patron, benefactor,” citing Horsley, “Phoibe,” 4:242–44, cf. Lucian, in Bis acc. 29, uses προστάτις to mean “patroness,” according to A. M. Harmon (3:140–41 [LCL]). Note, however, Barrett’s observation documented above that “Phoebe cannot have stood in this relation to Paul since he was born free, Acts 22:28.” Furthermore, Horsley also cites instances meaning “guardian” (a person with legal authority) and “president.”