I’m back, continuing my research on Phoebe. I promised you that I would provide seven commentators’ remarks, so that is what I’ll do. I’ve provided three of them; I’ll provide three more as well as comments from some of the church fathers regarding this passage.
Bishop N.T Wright has this to say about Phoebe:
“The implication is that Phoebe is a businesswoman who is able to travel independently, and for Paul to trust her with a letter like this speaks volumes for the respect in which she was held; so it is no surprise to discover that SHE IS A DEACON IN THE CHURCH. Attempts to make ‘diaconos’ mean something else fail: to call her a ‘servant of the church,’ with the NIV, does indeed offer a valid translation of the word, but it MERELY PUSHES THE PROBLEM ON A STAGE, since that would either mean that Phoebe was a paid employee of the church (to do what?) or that there was an order of ministry, otherwise unknown, called ‘servants.’ ‘Minister’ (REB) is imprecise, because the word is used for several pastoral offices in today’s church; ‘deaconess’ (RSV, JB, NJB) is inaccurate, because it implies that Phoebe belonged to a specific order, of female church workers quite different from ‘deacons,’ which would not be invented for another three hundred years” (N.T. Wright, The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. X: Acts, Romans, 1 Corinthians. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002, pages 761-762).
N.T. Wright confirms Phoebe as an example of women who would have been part of the order of deacons. Notice that the term “deaconess” wasn’t invented until THREE HUNDRED YEARS LATER! Why did the name change take place for women? Because of a movement within the church to suppress women from ordained office. We’ll get to that in several days.
Thomas Schreiner, in the Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, states the following about Phoebe:
“Scholars debate, however, whether she held an office…is Paul commending Phoebe because she served in a variety of UNOFFICIAL ways in the church at Cenchreae? It is impossible to be sure, BUT FOR SEVERAL REASONS IT IS LIKELY THAT SHE HELD THE OFFICE OF DEACON. First, 1 Tim. 3:11 PROBABLY IDENTIFIES WOMEN AS DEACONS…second, the designation ‘deacon of the church in Cenchreae’ suggests that Phoebe served in this special capacity, for this is the ONLY occasion in which the term ‘diakonos’ is linked with a particular local church. Third, the use of the masculine noun ‘diakonos’ also suggests that the office is intended…women deacons were probably appointed early, ESPECIALLY BECAUSE OTHER WOMEN NEEDED ASSISTANCE FROM THOSE OF THEIR OWN SEX IN VISITATION, BAPTISM, AND OTHER MATTERS…” (Thomas R. Schreiner, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament: Romans. Grand Rapids, Mi.: Baker Academic, 1998, page 787).
Notice that Schreiner talks about the necessity of women deacons, not their existence itself. For him (he quoted Pelagius as the source regarding women deacons serving other women), the office itself was created because of the existence of other women. As I told you in the last post with Leon Morris, to argue that women deacons were needed to help women is like saying that men deacons were created in Acts 6 to help other men! That’s insane. The diaconate was not just an office created to help meet the physical day-to-day needs of the congregation, it was an office of honor, of such honor that the apostles told the church to choose seven men from among the congregation who were full of the Holy Spirit and strong in the faith (Acts 6:3). If these men were selected as godly examples in the community, and were prayed for through the laying on of hands (Acts 6:6), then why undermine the honor of women deacons by arguing for the NECESSITY of the office? It seems as if by doing this, Schreiner (while appearing to cut down the office of women deacons) is actually EXALTING it, since to argue its necessity would make it seem to be MORE VITAL than the male diaconate!!
One more thing regarding Thomas Schreiner: after the above quote given in the Baker Exegetical Commentary, Schreiner writes this footnote:
“The office of deacon, however, must be distinguished from that of overseer/elder. One should not conclude from Phoebe’s role as a deacon that she FUNCTIONED AS A LEADER OF THE CONGREGATION” (787).
To see whether or not Schreiner is correct let’s go to Philippians 1:
“Paul and Timothy, bondservants of Christ Jesus, to all the SAINTS in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, INCLUDING THE OVERSEERS AND DEACONS” (Philippians 1:1, NASB).
According to this verse then, deacons are part of the church leadership! The same thing is demonstrated in 1 Timothy 3. Since that text lists women as deacons (according to a group of characteristics), then women as well as men are in church leadership. Schreiner’s remark, then, is based on a certain view of women in ministry that this text does not uphold. For those who need a syllogism, I’ll provide one:
I. Overseers and deacons are both in church leadership.
II. Phoebe was a deacon.
III. Therefore, Phoebe was in church leadership.
I will leave Schreiner’s view of women here for the moment. In my next post, I will examine the ancient view of Phoebe according to the church fathers.