EGALITARIAN CLAIM 7.1: PHOEBE AS LEADER: ROMANS 16:2 SAYS THAT PHOEBE WAS A “LEADER” OR “RULER” OF MANY PEOPLE< AND EVEN OF PAUL HIMSELF (pg. 220).
The egalitarian claim here in 7.1 addresses Paul’s use of the Greek word “prostatis” in Romans 16:2 to describe Phoebe. According to the egalitarian claim, the word means “ruler.” In opposition to this, Grudem writes:
“The two most recent Greek lexicons do not give the meaning ‘leader’ for ‘prostatis’…The BDAG lexicon defines it as ‘ woman in a supportive role, patron, benefactor’ (885), and similarly defines the related masculine noun ‘prostates’ as ‘one who looks out for the interest of others, defender, guardian, benefactor’ (885)” (222).
Grudem writes more, but I think this is enough for us to see the point. The definitions from the BDAG lexicon are already flawed, seeing that the woman’s role here is “in a supportive role,” while the man “looks out for the interest of others” and is “defender” and “guardian.” The woman in the role of “prostatis” is just as much a defender or guardian of someone else’s interests as is the male, the “prostates.”
I spent about two hours looking for references to a “ruler” as a “prostatis” in the Septuagint, and I found nothing. Nevertheless, the word “prostatis” is nothing to snuff at—it is an important title and was clearly used in the LXX (Septuagint) to refer to a royal assistant. Let’s look at a few examples:
In 1 Chronicles 27:31, we find the word “prostatai” in the Septuagint, referring to “stewards of King David’s property” (ESV). These assistants who oversaw the King’s property are included in a list that first starts with the leaders of tribes: Eliezer for the Reubenites, Shephatiah for the Simeonites, Zadok for the Aaronites, etc (vv.16-17). These stewards were special men the king viewed trustworthy.
Our next example comes from 1 Chronicles 29:6. Here, the word “prostatai” refers to “officers.” These men are placed among King David’s leaders: “Then the LEADERS of fathers’ houses made their freewill offerings, as did also the LEADERS of the tribes, the COMMANDERS of thousands and of hundreds, and the OFFICERS over the king’s work.” Once again, the “prostatai” are mentioned among the top men of the nation of Israel.
Then, we have references from 2 Chronicles 8: 10 and 24:11. In 2 Chronicles 8:10, the word “prostaton” is used, referring to officers: “And these were the CHIEF OFFICERS of King Solomon…” The “prostaton” here were not just officers, but CHIEF, the TOP officers, the RULING officers of the people. And, it gets even better. The ESV translates the last part of this verse for us: “the CHIEF officers of King Solomon, 250, who EXERCISED AUTHORITY over the people.” These men were not only the king’s top officers—they even held power over the people! If Phoebe was a “prostatis,” then, according to the Septuagint, she was quite a powerful woman. In addition, she was not only a “prostatis,” but also a “diakonos” of the church at Cenchrea. In Paul’s eyes, she held quite a bit of authority, for Paul tells the church at Rome, “help her in whatever she may need from you…” Whatever Phoebe asked for, Phoebe was to receive. And Paul commending her to the church gave her that much more prestige and honor! In 2 Chronicles 24:11, the “prostatas” were in charge of collecting the Mosaic tax “that Moses the servant of God laid on Israel in the wilderness…whenever the chest was brought to the king’s officers by the Levites, when they saw that there was much money in it, the king’s secretary and the officer of the chief priest would come and empty the chest and take it and return it to its place” (2 Chronicles 24:10, 11). Here, the officers (prostatas) were those who oversaw the collection of the royal tax on the nation, a tax established by Moses.
There are other references to “prostatis” in the Septuagint—and I will cover those another time. For now, though, it is safe to conclude that Phoebe was not just an ordinary helper—she was a woman of importance, a trusted worker of Paul’s, an assistant of his, a woman of prominence in the church at Cenchrea—and now, thanks to Paul, at Rome as well.