The Bible mentions several women who had a hand in ministry whether directly or indirectly. However, the story of Phoebe while not given so much prominence, tells the story of a woman who could have served in the capacity of a deacon in the church. Due to misinterpretation the same act has contributed to the rise in HIV and Aids cases within the church. CHEU MITA seeks to unravel the truth about the â€˜a Febbieâ€™ in todayâ€™s church in Malawi.
In the Bible Phoebe is referred to as a church leader in Romans 16:1 with the same word Paul uses in 1 Timothy 3:12. “I recommend you to our sister Phoebe who serves the church at Cenchreae.”
It is unclear, though, whether Paul is saying Phoebe is a deacon or whether he is just saying she is a servant. Phoebe may not have had the official designation of “deacon” but Paul thought enough of her to entrust her with the tremendous responsibility of delivering the epistle to the Romans to the church in Rome (Romans 16:1-2). Clearly he saw her not as inferior or less capable, but as a trusted and valued member of the body of Christ.
However, in a report released from a consultative meeting that was held in 2010 and 2011 regarding the issues surrounding HIV and Aids with faith leaders, it came to be known that the term Phoebe was misinterpreted to mean a hostess to a visiting church leader.
According to a report titled; “A glimpse at harmful sexual practices that are attributed to cultural traditions” in light of the HIV and Aids pandemic it was discussed that some of the practices be abolished and interventions put in place to stop them.
For instance, there is the practice of bulangete or pilo wa abusa (blanket or pillow for the pastor) also commonly known as a Febbie tradition.
The report states that in this practice a visiting church minister is accorded a beautiful woman or girl to entertain him sexually all night long.
According to the report which came about after consultations with various church ministers nationwide, this is practised in various parts of the country and among various church denominations.
“The idea is that no man can endure the absence of a wife therefore he needs to be accorded a ready bed mate for the period he is separated from her,” reads the report in part.
In the same vein the concept of the chairlady involves some active lady in the church who offers sexual favours and services to visiting church leadership.
It was noted that like the Phoebe tradition this is practised by various denominations in Malawi especially the respected mainstream churches.
Retired Blantyre Synod Reverend Saul Chitsulo in an interview said he had encountered such traditions while visiting a church in Mangochi.
“In one of my visitations at one of the churches there, the congregation I went for a session I was accorded a lady to entertain me throughout the night but I refused and changed the house where the woman was told to look after me,” said Chitsulo.
He however, said the chiefâ€™s or ministerâ€™s pillow syndrome has left many ministers with the virus especially those who cannot hold themselves from such malpractices.
The report also notes other cultural practices such as the secret society of Napusenapuse where people have sexual orgies as part of prayers.
It was also noted in the report that this is spreading to some churches and denominations where overnight prayers are often turned into sexual orgies albeit in secret. The group of church leaders labelled this practice as satanic.
Other practises include tithing sex, sex done between a pastor and a woman member who is asking for Godâ€™s favour as her tithing.
It was noted that this is done in Pentecostal and charismatic denominations where emphasis is placed on the prosperity gospel.
“Most men of God have fallen into the Aids trap through this and they have been spreading the virus thereby jeopardising the fight against HIV. It is ungodly and must be stopped with the perpetrator seeking repentance and forgiveness,” reads the report.
In response to the report different religious institutions have set up programmes to overcome the harmful practices.
In an interview Blantyre Synod HIV and Aids coordinator Ulanda Mtamba said they are currently training trainers in all their congregations to speak against these practices.
“As a Synod we developed a workplace policy and manual book for our members to follow as guidelines on how they should prevent themselves from such harmful cultural practices,” said Mtamba.
Reverend Brino Chipewa of Mitole CCAP who also attended the ministerâ€™s spouses training is one the synod Reverends who is implementing the workplace policy and manual book in Chikhwawa district.
“In Chikhwawa we are not leaving any stone unturned in this fight against cultural practices because there are many who practice â€˜Kulowa kufa, fisi, nthena among other others,” said Rev Chipewa.