In the concluding chapter of his letter to the Romans, the Apostle Paul commends a Christian woman named Phoebe:
I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church at Cenchreae, that you may welcome her in the Lord in a way worthy of the saints, and help her in whatever she may need from you, for she has been a patron of many and of myself as well (Romans 16:1–2 ESV).
Church historians have long believed that Phoebe was the person who delivered Paul’s letter to the Romans; she is mentioned as “a servant of the church at Cenchreae”. Cenchreae was a port city near Corinth where Paul was located while writing Romans. It seems that she was a wealthy woman and that she had a well established reputation for generous service among the saints. Leon Morris for example writes: “There were not many wealthy people in the church of the day, but it seems that Phoebe was one of them.”1
For most of Christian history, that was where the conversation about Phoebe was likely to end. In recent decades however, interest in Phoebe has revived as the discussion around the role of women in the church has intensified. Two words in this brief paragraph have come under intense scrutiny.
The first is the Greek word diakonos which is translated in the ESV as “servant”. The 2011 NIV translation renders that same word as “deacon” as in the citation below: “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church in Cenchreae.” (Romans 16:1 NIV11-GK)
It is unclear whether the office of deacon had emerged by this time in church history but on balance, it does seem that Paul intends us to understand Phoebe as in some sense an official representative of the church at Cenchreae.
Thomas Schreiner for example writes: “it is likely that she held the office of deacon… for this is the only occasion in which the term diakonos is linked with a particular local church.”2
Schreiner goes on to caution us against reading our own understanding of the office of “deacon” back into this first century text. The word “deacon” in some churches today means roughly what the word “elder” means in others, but this is a 20th century evolution in the use of the term. For most of Christian history the office of “deacon” was understood as distinct from the office of elder/pastor/bishop, and had to do with organizing and overseeing the benevolence ministries of the church. In the Old Baptist Confession of 1689 for example we read:
the officers appointed by Christ to be chosen and set apart by the church (so called and gathered), for the peculiar administration of ordinances, and execution of power or duty, which he entrusts them with, or calls them to, to be continued to the end of the world, are bishops or elders, and deacons.3
Bishops and elders were the preachers and overseers, and deacons cared for the sick and the poor. Regardless of whether you hold a late 20th century understanding of the term or one more consistent with its use over the bulk of Christian history, Schreiner’s warning must be heeded. We simply can’t be sure how far the office of deacon had developed within the 1st century context.
Leon Morris, himself a convictional egalitarian and fully aware of the need for caution with respect to the specifics, offers a very reasonable perspective:
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. The form of expression here makes it more likely that an official is meant than the more general term “servant”, though in view of the wide use of the term for the general concept of service this is far from being proved.4
Therefore, I think it would be fair to say that scholars cautiously assume that some sort of office of deacon had emerged, and that Phoebe was installed and recognized in such an office. This office at a minimum focused on ministry to women and likely extended to the care of orphans, widows and the sick.
The other debated word in Romans 16:1-2 is the Greek word prostatis translated in the ESV as “patron” and in the 2011 NIV as “benefactor”. Scholars generally agree that this word likely refers to her financial assistance given to the church generally and to Christian missionaries like Paul specifically. In certain legal contexts it can refer to something like a legal guardian, but in the Roman system, this could only apply to men and so this is almost certainly not what Paul is saying here. Indeed, in the Greek there is an obvious play on words. When Paul tells the Roman Christians to “help her”, he then reminds them that she has been a “benefactor” to many. He uses two similar sounding Greek words, paristemi and prostatis, leading some translators to prefer the more general idea of “helper” than either “benefactor” or “patron”. Paul is saying simply, “help her as she has helped many.”
What is clear from all of this is that Phoebe was a wealthy woman who used her wealth, her mobility and her personal resources to care for the saints and to assist in the spread of the Gospel. Her example should inspire all of us to consider how we can leverage our advantages and opportunities to do the same.
N.B. To listen to the Into The Word podcast, featuring Pastor Paul Carter, see here.
1 Leon Morris, The Epistle to the Romans, Pillar New Testament Commentary. Accordance electronic ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), 530.
2 Thomas R. Schreiner, Romans, Baker Exegetical Commentary On The New Testament, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1998), 787.
3 The Baptist Confession Of 1689, Chapter 26, Paragraph 8.
4 Leon Morris, The Epistle to the Romans, Pillar New Testament Commentary. Accordance electronic ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), 529.