"What was Phoebe's work? Was it material or spiritual? Was her chief duty to 'mend men's socks,' as one fellow put it? Was that the way she served, or deaconed the Church? The phrase "whatsoever business" (affairs) implies that she rendered a variety of service. It is not at all reasonable to suppose that the Holy Spirit would make such prominent and important mention of Phoebe if she did nothing more than mend socks for "many and for Paul." Can anyone honestly dodge the fact that she was an official?"--A. S. Copley
Phoebe is an intriguing character briefly mentioned at the end of Romans. Paul, who had not yet been to Rome, sends Phoebe to deliver his letter, what we now know as the book of Romans. Think, Phoebe was entrusted with the original scripture to carry over 800 miles, by boat, to the Romans. Letter carriers also were given verbal instructions to explain parts of the letter as they read it out loud to the recipients.
"I commend to you Phoebe our sister, who is a servant of the church in Cenchrea, that you may receive her in the Lord in a manner worthy of the saints, and assist her in whatever business she has need of you; for indeed she has been a helper of many and of myself also."--Paul, Romans 16:1-2:
There are three key Greek words used to describe Phoebe, adelphe, "sister;" diakonos, "deacon/minister/servant;" and prostatis, "patroness/protector."
English versions tend to translate these words found in this verse with technical accuracy, but fail to achieve contextual and consistent accuracy. If Phoebe was a man the words "diakonos" and "prostatis" would be translated as deacon/minister and leader/protector. But because Phoebe is a woman, translators opted for "servant" and "helper." The word helper is especially misleading. In English, "helper" connotates the weaker, less qualified aid that comes under a superior, more qualified leader and carries out their bidding or tends to their menial business to free the superior one to tend to more important matters. However, a helper in Hebrew and Greek was considered to be one of superior strength and status with superior resources, who was in a position to rescue or lift others out of dire situations. In fact, the word helper in Hebrew, ezer, is attributed to God 17 times in the Old Testament and a handful of times to the Holy Spirit in the New Testament. One who helps was seen as the stronger, not the weaker. The word prostatis literally means "a woman set over or put in front of others" and should be translated as protector or benefactor. Paul asks that the church (men and women) to come along side her and provide assistance with her affairs.
Paul is abundantly clear that Phoebe was a prominent leader in the church of Cenchrea because she helped him and many others. Prostatis is the feminine form of the Latin patronus, which means "one who is the legal representative of the foreigner." In Jewish communities it meant
the legal representative or wealthy patron. Phoebe somehow was the legal protector of the Christians at Cenchrea. In the Old Testament this noun is used of officials in charge of the work of the King (1 Chron 29:6) and of chief officers “who ruled over the people” (2 Chron 8:10). In its verb form the word means “to be at the head of, to rule, to direct” and it is used of those who “rule” in the church (Romans 12:8, 1 Thess 5:12, 1 Tim 5:17).
Translators also the conveniently choose the word "servant" for diakonos instead of minister or deacon, but this is an inconsistent interpretative-choice based on the biased theological supposition that asserts a woman could not be an "official" deacon/minister, so Paul must have meant that Phoebe was an everyday servant with no leadership role in the church whatsoever. However, this is not how Paul used the word diakonos in his letters, nor does it fit the immediate context of his introduction of her. Paul, who had not yet been to Rome, vouches for Phoebe to verify her leadership role in the church, so the people will cooperate with her and join in on the mission she was on. Why would Paul entrust a "table waiter" to be his representative 800 miles away to a church he had never been to and give her the sole responsibility of delivering and explaining what would become scripture and ask the church in Rome to assist her in whatever work she was there to do? This is obviously missionary language and an official recommendation for Phoebe.
Paul consistently used diakonos to describe an official leadership position and tied it with the ministry of the word, evangelism, missionary work, preaching and teaching the gospel to others with authority from God to do so.
Paul applies diakonos to Phoebe in the same way he applies it to himself and to other colleagues in his ministry who preached, taught, and lead. He described her as a (or even the) deacon of the church in Cenchrea.
Consider these scriptures:
Col. 1:23-25: "...Of this church I was made a minister (diakonos) to the stewardship from God bestowed on me for your benefit, that I might fully carry out the preaching of the word of God..."
1 Cor. 3:5: "What then is Apollos? And what is Paul? Servants (diakonos) through whom you believed, even as the Lord gave opportunity to each one."
Ephesians 3:7: "Whereof I was made a minister (diakonos), according to the gift of the grace of God given unto me by the effectual working of his power."
2 Corinthians 3:6: "Who also hath made us able ministers (diakonos) of the new testament; not of the letter, but of the spirit: for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life."
1 Thessalonions 3:2: "And sent Timotheus, our brother, and minister (diakonos) of God, and our fellowlabourer in the gospel of Christ, to establish you, and to comfort you concerning your faith..."
Ephesians 6:21: "But that ye also may know my affairs, and how I do, Tychicus, a beloved brother and faithful minister (diakonos) in the Lord, shall make known to you all things.."
Paul consistently ties being a "deacon/minister/servant" with preaching the word, teaching the word, nourishing others with the word, holding onto good doctrine, and being a vessel through which others come to Jesus. So are we to think that because Paul addresses a woman with this title that all of a sudden the word diakonon means something other than it's official usage in the early church? That these women remained silent and only waited tables? (nothing wrong with waiting tables and doing domestic chores, Christ washed his disciples feet. The point is that doing those acts does not preclude one from teaching, preaching or using whatever spiritual gift they have been endowed with in the midst of the entire church body.)Paul's form even denotes that Phoebe is an official deacon/minister in the church of Cenchrea. He calls her diakonon in its masculine form. If he wanted the Christians in Rome to believe she was some sort of waitress, he would have called her a doulos or used the feminine form for "servant," but no, he uses the masculine, official term consistently used throughout the new testament to describe a specific leadership role within the church.
Advocates for women priests concur:
"Are we to change the meaning of the exact same words just because they are applied to a woman? When a man is called a deacon, it means he was a leader in the church, could be as prominent as Stephen, but a woman is called a deacon, it means she nothing but a letter carrier with no leadership authority to guide others in the church into a closer walk with Christ. The early Greek Fathers certainly understood Phoebe to have been an ordained minister. Clement of Alexandria (150 - 215) speaks of the ‘women deacons’ (diakonoi gunaikes) whom ‘the noble Paul mentions in his letters’. Origen (185 - 255) states: ‘This text (Romans 16,1-2) teaches with the authority of the Apostle that also women are instituted as deacons in the Church’. And may we omit the testimony of Pliny the Younger, Roman governor of Bithynia (112 AD), who reports that he arrested a group of Christians whose two female leaders bore the title of ministrae (Latin for diakonoi)?"---from womenpriests.org
How the role of deacon got separated from preaching, teaching, and leading is the product of church tradition, not biblical precedent. Paul regularly ties the role of "diakonon" to teaching the gospel to others.
I thought the writer of this website explained the evolution of diakonon well:
Yes, "diakonos" can mean servant, but in Pauline ecclesiological usage "servant" takes on the nuances inherent in "Servant of the Lord" language from the OT, especially in regard to Moses. While non-ecclesiological usage could refer to someone who does menial task, anyone who is referred to as a diakonos in ministry takes on a high status. In fact, according to context, diakonos is often translated as "minister".Moreover, the fact that Phoebe is listed as a diakonos "of the church Cenchrea," makes likely the diakonos is an official position. This is all the more obvious when we take into account that Paul is giving formal introduction to her to the Roman churches. Such formal introductions were commonly given in letters of referral, which this epistle contains for her. In such letters, the referrer would normally emphasize the referee's official capacity.--from Treasures Old and New Biblical Texts.
Dianne McDonnell elaborates about the evolved meaning of diakonos and Phoebe's legacy in this article: Phoebe: Traveling Through Time.