Thursday, June 18, 2009

Phoebe, Part I (Romans 16:1-2)

Today’s post will tackle another “introductory” issue to the study of ordained women in the early church. This new introductory issue to encounter head-on involves three New Testament texts regarding women: (1) Romans 16:1-2, (2) 1 Timothy 3:8-11, and (3) 1 Timothy 5:3-13.

In today’s post I am gonna talk about Phoebe, a woman recognized by Paul in his letter to the Romans, chapter 16, verses 1 &2. I’ll print the text here:

“I commend to you our sister Phoebe, who is a servant of the church which is at Cenchrea; that you receive her in the Lord in a manner worthy of the saints, and that you help her in whatever matter she may have need of you; for she herself has also been a helper of many, and of myself as well” (Rom. 16:1-2, NASB).

I spent some time in the library yesterday researching on Phoebe. I was curious to find out whether or not Phoebe was considered to be a deacon in the early church. After researching 7 commentaries, I got sufficient information on Phoebe. I’ll share with you what I found here:

Several translations call her ‘a deaconess’ (as RSV; cf. NEB, ‘who holds office’). It is not easy to defend that translation, for the word ‘deaconess’ is not found until much later. But Paul’s word, besides meaning ‘servant,’ is the word for ‘deacon’ (it is the word used, e.g., in Phil. 1:1), and it may well be that Paul is describing Phoebe as a deacon of the church at Cenchrea. Some commentators hold that THERE WOULD NOT HAVE BEEN FEMALE OFFICEBEARERS AS EARLY AS PAUL’S TIME AND THUS ARGUE FOR THE MEANING ‘SERVANT’ here. But the social conditions of the time were such that there must have been the need for feminine church workers to assist in such matters as the baptism of women or anything that meant contact with women’s quarters in homes” (Pillar New Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1998, pages 528-529).

Do you see the phrase I’ve capitalized in the quote above? It shows that there are those who are willing to rule out the idea of women being deacons in the early church. And then, read Leon Morris’s response: he states that there must have been a position of helping women that REQUIRED, in some sense, a woman to help. But Acts 6 goes into detail about seven MEN, seven males, who are to aid the Gentile widows (women) regarding their daily needs. It seems then, that the men were appointed to such a task. Could it be that the women, then, were appointed as deacons to aid the widowers (men) in their daily needs?

I won’t dare answer that question. I will say, however, that I think this idea of separating tasks according to gender is a bit absurd. To say that women are ONLY made deacons to aid other women is like saying that the men of Acts 6 were ONLY appointed deacons in order to aid other men. That’s insane! Shouldn’t believers look at the biblical text regarding men and women in leadership and admire both equally WITHOUT separating according to gender and placing the male deacons ABOVE the female deacons? Morris’s quote above makes out Phoebe’s position to be one of NECESSITY—after all, some woman had to become a deacon to HELP OTHER WOMEN, right? But I think Paul tells us how important of a person Phoebe was: according to Leon Morris (same source, “It seems likely that she was the person entrusted with the task of taking the letter to the Roman church, for a commendation of someone not with the letter normally refers to a future arrival (cf. 1 Cor. 16:10; Col. 4:10)” (528). Phoebe wasn’t just a deacon at her church—Paul also entrusted her with this letter to the Romans. By the way, she was a deacon at the church in Cenchrea, some 8 miles, it is believed, from Rome. Phoebe is not mentioned as having a husband, or being a widow, or anything else. She is simply described as an exceptional woman for God. The fact that she is entrusted with this letter tells us the kind of admiration Paul had for her.

According to Douglas Moo, Phoebe’s title is peculiar in and of itself:

But the qualification of ‘diakonos’ by ‘of the church’ suggests, rather, that Phoebe held at Cenchreae the ‘office’ of ‘deacon’ as Paul describes it in 1 Tim. 3:8-12 (cf. Phil. 1:1). We put ‘office’ in quotation marks BECAUSE IT IS VERY LIKELY THAT REGULAR OFFICES IN LOCAL CHRISTIAN CHURCHES WERE STILL IN THE PROCESS OF BEING ESTABLISHED, as people who regularly ministered in a certain way were GRADUALLY RECOGNIZED OFFICIALLY BY THE CONGREGATION AND GIVEN A REGULAR TITLE. Moreover, the NT furnishes little basis on which to pinpoint the ministries carried out by deacons. But based partially on hints within the NT and partially on the later institution of the diaconate, it is likely that deacons were charged with visitation of the sick, poor relief, and perhaps financial oversight” (New International Commentary of the New Testament: The Epistle to the Romans. Grand Rapids, Mi.: William B. Eerdmans, 1996, page 914).

Moo states that those who served in positions were recognized by the church, back in a time when offices were not as clearly defined as many seem to be today. What was the emphasis on? “people who REGULARLY ministered in a certain way.” The offices were not based on gender; the offices were based on ability, giftedness, and calling. If there was a need to be met in the church, someone who was gifted would fulfill that part. Need by-passed the gender hierarchy that has come to dominate our times. Also, because “the NT furnishes little basis on which to pinpoint the ministries carried out by deacons,” deacons served in a variety of capacities, much like they do today. Steven, for example, one of the first deacons (Acts 6), preaches a sermon in Acts 7. In fact, if we never read in Scripture where Steven preached, we would never have believed that he actually DID preach in the early church. Phillip, a noted deacon/evangelist, also contributed. These men were gifted by God in many areas, and when the needs of the church required these other areas of giftedness, the needs were met by such giftedness. I can imagine that if preaching needs were met by deacons, other needs like musicians and teachers and pastors were met by such men as well. Today’s deacons in most churches are there to help administer Holy Communion, baptize, visit the sick, and help the Pastor in whatever need he may have.

When I was 10 years old, I accepted Christ as my Lord and Savior. I grew up in a church where my grandfather was (and still is) the Pastor’s right-hand man. He is the head deacon, and is well-loved and respected by all (of course, I’m BIASED in saying that!!!) Still, though, he helped baptize me and my twin sister back in October 1994 (along with our Pastor then, who is no longer Pastor of the church). As crazy as it sounds, though, the deacons are there to meet WHATEVER NEEDS come their way! As you can imagine, Phoebe had no small part to play in the early church.
Evidently, she could hold her own, for Paul appointed her to deliver the letter to the Roman believers.

In another commentary, Phoebe’s role as a leader is staunchly defended:

Phoebe is called a ‘servant’ (diakonos, GK 1356) of this church. The same word can be rendered ‘deaconess’ (RSV, NJB) or ‘minister’ (REB). WOMEN AS WELL AS MEN SERVED IN LEADERSHIP POSITIONS IN THE EARLY CHURCH, and there is no reason to exclude the possibility that some of the ‘diakonois’ of Philippians 1:1 were women (cf. 1 Tim. 3:11). WOMEN CLEARLY HELD POSITIONS OF RESPONSIBILITY IN LOCAL CONGREGATIONS. Stuhlmacher…rightly comments, ‘Women played a role in the work of the early Christian mission churches which was in no way MERELY SUBORDINATE, but RATHER FUNDAMENTAL.’ In the present passage, THERE IS NOT THE SLIGHTEST CONTROVERSY ASSOCIATED WITH PHOEBE’S BEING A DEACON. Her service in that role is taken for granted (v.2)” (The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Revised Edition: Romans ~ Galatians. Grand Rapids, Mi.: Zondervan, 2005, page 226).

This commentary clearly states that Phoebe was a part of the leadership of the early church. So, without question, women were a part of church leadership in the early days following Jesus’ ascension. The early church had no problem with it, but many conservative evangelicals do so today.

I’ve spent time here at the blog attacking the work of Andreas Kostenberger and his wife, Margaret. However, Dr. Andreas Kostenberger is more open to the idea of women deacons that many professors I’ve met in the last three years. He believes it’s a shame that most Southern Baptist churches don’t include women in the leadership position of deacon, since, according to him, Scripture does. But his position regarding women differs from that of another colleague of his. This colleague has written a book in which he affirms that the characteristics of women in 1 Tim. 3:8-11 refers only to WIVES of deacons, not women as deacons themselves.

In Part II of our study of Phoebe, I will continue to share my research with those of you who want to arm yourselves for the complementarian.


  1. Good post. I've said as much for years, beginning back in the early '70s when I was at MBTS as a student. Sadly, many still seem bent on making "positions" in the Kingdom based on external characteristics instead of gifts and calling as evidenced in actual service. It seems to me that, just as our faith is "validated" by our works (as per James' comments), so too ought any recognition of service be of actual service, not based strictly on service limited to certain classes defined by biology.

    But folks who prefer to abide by their own established traditions without regard for (or, in fact, discounting or editing out or simply reading into) what scripture actually says will always be with us. We must, I suppose "bear with [such] weaker" brothers and sisters among us, as much as we are able to. *heh*

    At any rate, I recognize your service to me in your well-thought-out post. Thanks!

  2. David,

    Thanks so much for commenting. It means the world to me to have someone write in with a similar background in education, who understands the type of presuppositions that exist in a strict, Southern Baptist background. You are right: many still see leadership in the church as biological. And the only individuals who seem to agree with a so-called "creation order" in Genesis that mandates women to be led by men in the church are those who already agree that a woman's place is not in a pulpit or leadership position.

    I wonder if sometimes, we are too much like the Pharisees to even realize what we've done to the women in our conservative churches. At any rate, I'm thankful to God for men like you who are willing to come on a woman's blog and affirm women's giftedness in leadership positions in the church. For doing this, David, you have labeled yourself far more of a man than most conservative men who cannot do the same. God bless.


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