The older I get, the more I appreciate how important people are to my spiritual journey, and yours, too. Americans tend to think of spirituality as something we do by ourselves, but for Christians, the spiritual life is something we do with others. Only together do we form the body of Christ (Romans 12:5).
When Paul talked about Christ’s body, he emphasized both unity and diversity: “In Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us” (Romans 12:5–6).
It’s not just that we play different roles, however. At different times in our lives, we have different relationships with people in the body of Christ. This is evident in Romans 16. As I read the list of people Paul asked the church to greet, I see four relationships in particular: patrons, peers, protégés and pains.
Patrons are people who make our spiritual journeys possible. They open doors for us and provide for our needs. In Romans 16, Paul mentioned three such people in particular.
The first and most prominent is Phoebe (Romans 16:1–2). Paul wrote Romans from Corinth. Phoebe was a deacon at the church of Cenchreae, one of Corinth’s two port cities. It is likely that Paul mentioned her first because she carried the letter to Rome, read it to the Christians there, and answered their questions about it. If so, she was history’s first commentator on Romans.
In Greek, Paul described Phoebe as his prostatis, which translates as “benefactor” or “patron.” The ancient world contained what we call patron-client relationships. Wealthy, well-connected people (patrons) provided material help and protection to those beneath them in the social hierarchy (clients) in exchange for allegiance and service. Evidently, Phoebe served as a kind of patron for many in the church at Cenchreae, including Paul himself. This probably entailed funding her church’s benevolence programs, as well as Paul’s missionary journeys.
Paul also mentioned two other patrons: Rufus’ mother, “who has been a mother to me, too” (verse 13), and Gaius, “whose hospitality I and the whole church here enjoy” (verse 23).
Each of these relationships provided Paul something he needed: financial support (Phoebe); emotional warmth (Rufus’ mother); and a place to meet and eat (Gaius).
In one way or another, patrons make our spiritual journey possible. What we owe such people is gratitude.
Peers are people with whom we share the burdens of the spiritual journey. Paul name-checked nearly 40 individuals in Romans 16. He didn’t give much information about most of them, besides their names, but he used three terms that indicate his relationships with them were on an equal footing.
The first term is synergos, “co-worker,” which Paul used to describe Priscilla and Aquila (verse 3), Urbanus (verse 9), and Timothy (verse 21). He also named several individuals who worked hard for the churches in their spheres of influence: Mary (verse 6), Tryphena, Tryphosa, and Persis (verse 12). The work here is the ministry of the gospel in some form, though we shouldn’t necessarily infer all of these people held formal church offices.
What we owe such workers is a commitment to do things right and get things done. Work teams can only succeed to the extent that everyone puts in equal labor. In the local church, there’s plenty of work to spread around, and we all should work hard alongside one another.
The second and third terms have less to do with work than with the quality of our relationships. The first is agapetos, “dear friend” or “beloved,” which Paul used to describe Epenetus (verse 5), Ampliatus (verse 8), Stachys (verse 9), and Persis (verse 12). The second is adelphos, “brother” or “sister,” which Paul used to describe Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermes, Patrobas, and Hermas, among many others (verse 14).
Take a moment to notice something interesting about the names Paul mentioned, not only under the heading of peers, but throughout the Romans 16 list. Both Jews and Greeks made the list. Paul described both men and women as co-workers, friends, and siblings. And scholars indicate that some of the people on the list had names commonly given to slaves.
In the Church, our status “in Christ Jesus” (verse 3) makes us equal to one another — equal in hard work, friendship, and familial love — regardless of one’s sex, ethnic group, religious background, or socioeconomic status. As Paul puts it elsewhere, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).
Protégés are people we help along the way. Paul named two in particular: Epenetus, “my dear friend” and “the first convert to Christ in the province of Asia” (verse 5), and Timothy, whom Paul described as his “co-worker” (21), but whom we know Paul elsewhere called “my son whom I love” (1 Corinthians 4:17).
We owe our protégés grace. In Paul’s writings, charis, which is the Greek word for grace, has two basic senses. The first is unmerited favor. This is the sense of charis in Romans 3:23–24: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.” The second is spiritual power. This is the sense of charis in Romans 12:6: “We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us.”
Good patrons know their protégés will mess up on the spiritual journey. At those moments, the patrons will model God’s unmerited favor. They also know their protégés need to grow stronger in spiritual power. At times, protégés can benefit from a pep talk or constructive criticism spoken in love. Whatever the case, we owe our protégés grace in both senses of the term.
Finally, pains. These are people who make our journeys hard.
Some spiritual journeys are hard because non-Christians cause us pain. Paul hinted at this when he mentioned that Andronicus and Junia had been “in prison” with him (verse 7), and when he said Apelles “stood the test” (verse 10). These are the pains of persecution, and throughout the world, many of our brothers and sisters in Christ are experiencing them.
But the pains Paul mentioned in Romans 16:17–18 came from inside the church. I like to think of these people as church trolls. Like internet trolls, they use clever words and specious arguments to gain followers, divide churches, and exasperate cool-headed, warm-hearted Christians. As with internet trolls, the best thing you can do is ignore them.
This requires discernment, because sometimes our protégés act like trolls. (And sometimes we act like trolls!) We need the Spirit’s wisdom to know when to give grace and when to stop throwing pearls to pigs (Matthew 7:6).
I close with an observation and some questions.
The observation is that our relationships are not static. Everyone begins the spiritual journey as a protégé, but as we mature, we become peers and patrons. Unfortunately, sometimes we even become pains.
The question is this: Where are you in your relationships today? Who are your patrons, peers, protégés and pains? What are you giving each to enhance their spiritual journey?
May God bring the right people into your life this year so that you make good progress on your spiritual journey! And may you be the right person for someone else’s journey!
P.S. This article was written for InfluenceMagazine.com and appears here by permission.