Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Phoebe: A Deacon of The Early Church

"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.."

Also see: 2 Corinthians 6:4, 2 Corinthians 11:15, 2 Corinthians 11:23, Phillipians 1:1,1 Timothy 3:8, 1 Timothy 3:12, and 1 Timothy 4:6.

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

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.


Meliss said...

I was just thinking this week that I need to do a study about Phoebe, and I come across your blog! I found your blog through the Christian Feminists blog. Tonight I have been devouring your posts on women in the Bible. I will have to slow down and read them through again and study more myself. Thank you for sharing your clear thinking and writing.

I am in a denomination that allows women deacons. Increasingly, leaders in the church are publicly questioning (and undermining) that position. I was actually recently asked if I was being "defiant" when I nominated a woman for deacon. The guy who asked me that may have been just joking, but I'm not sure...

Tia Lynn said...

I am so happy to have helped. Yes, please, never take my word for anything and study it yourself. I once uncritically accepted the most of ministry belonged solely in the hands on men and thought any other view was heresy. It took someone sharing their journey with me to start me on my journey on this subject. That's what I hope this series does for others, spur them on to question, examine, and read scripture with fresh eyes. Thank you so much for coming by! :)

Michelle said...

These word studies are the most enlightening to me, thanks as always Tia! good stuff.

Tia Lynn said...

Thanks Michelle. It's amazing how one or two words can change the entire meaning and intent of a sentence. Toying with "technical" accuracy that's colored by biased preconcieved notions just destroys the original meaning.

Tilly Hester said...

It must be a total coincident that nearly every other time Paul uses diakonon it's translated as minister or deacon, but when he applies it to a woman, it's servant. No there's no bias among bible translators at all. ;)

catrina said...

Tonya is here and I am back!

This is the definition of 1247 - from Strongs -(the root for diakonoe - or whatever it is) in the greek. This is what the word means. In every instance in which it is used, it means something listed here. To suppose it means more is stretching....The office of Deacon is described in Acts, she could so easily have carried a letter and even read it to the congregation under Pauls authority, but that is once again suppossing something that we just don't know. We are all called to be ministers whether you are in leadership or not.

)) to be a servant, attendant, domestic, to serve, wait upon

a) to minister to one, render ministering offices to

1) to be served, ministered unto

b) to wait at a table and offer food and drink to the guests,

1) of women preparing food

c) to minister i.e. supply food and necessities of life

1) to relieve one's necessities (e.g. by collecting alms), to provide take care of, distribute, the things necessary to sustain life

2) to take care of the poor and the sick, who administer the office of a deacon

3) in Christian churches to serve as deacons

d) to minister

1) to attend to anything, that may serve another's interests

2) to minister a thing to one, to serve one or by supplying any thing

Michelle said...

Glad to see you two are back! :)

Terry, Ornament of His Grace said...

Based on Catrina's comment (which I checked out for myself in MY concordance), I have to agree with her.

While I can see your point, Tia Lynn, that the translators could have deliberately chose the interpretation that fit with what they wanted to say, it is indeed a stretch to assume that Phoebe was a deacon and not a servant in the sense that we define that term in modern day language. And tere is nothing wrong with be a servant by the way. Remember what Jesus said!

That said, I will say that if, as I read the passage, she was sent by Paul (travelling) to deliver the leter to the church, it does debunk the notion touted among more hyper-patriarchal types because according to that line of thinking there is no way a woman would be allowed to travel to do any type of ministry work, even delivering a letter. And certainly not without a husband to accompany her. And if so, why would the Holy Spirit choose to name her, the "weaker" of the two, rather than her husband. hmmm...

Michelle said...

More on the Strong's definition thing...

When I said that I found word studies enlightening it is because they are far more telling, to me, than a mere definition or translation. We can define a word in our language but still miss its essence when originally used. Translations only go so far.

But when I go and find out where that exact word has been used other times in scripture, all of a sudden a much grander picture opens up to me of what the author intends to say by using that word - especially when those other uses are by the same (human) author, or at least in the same time frame/culture.

So for me, it matters a great deal to understand that Paul did not distinguish in his term between referring to himself or Timothy or the others as servant leaders, and Phoebe here. He used the same term, whatever we say it means in English. That sheds some light for me, on his point of view. A servant leader is exactly, by the way, what any church official should be - pastor, elder, deacon, what have you, male or female, just as Terry pointed out.

okay, my 2 cents :)

Tia Lynn said...

Yes, no one disputes that diakonos literally means servant. Jesus first coined the term to describe the type of behavior and attitude members of His church would display, particularly the apostles who, if they wanted to lead, would be servants. But any honest reader of the New Testament has to admit that the word diakonos became the term to describe an official ministry role, as Paul makes clear when he lays down the "requirements" a person must fulfill before becoming one, such as being more mature in the faith, having a good reputation outside of the church, etc. None of these "requirements" would be necessary for a someone that was SOLELY serving as a letter carrier or table waiter.

Also, this is an official term ESPECIALLY when concerning Phoebe, a woman, because Paul uses the MASCULINE form, diakonos, when introducing her and names the specific church she is a "deacon/minister" of. Had he said, "Phoebe, a servant (in the feminine form) of Christ," maybe this would be a bit more ambiguous, but not much. Instead he says "Phoebe...a deacon (masculine) in the church of Cenchrea..." This is a much more official description of the ROLE she carries out in her home church. Paul could have easily used the feminine form of diakonos if he wanted to convey that Phoebe was an unofficial servant, but the OFFICIAL term for this leadership role in the church was the masculine form, much like ekklesia (meaning church/called out ones) is feminine but applied to both men and women believers and adelphos (brethren) which is masculine but is applied to both men and women believers.

To assert that diakonos literally means servant, so it cannot refer to a leadership position in the church would be as silly as saying that the word "pastor" literally means "shepherd," therefore all "pastors" must literally be out in green pastures herding literal sheep. ALL of the words in the NT coined to describe leadership roles have double meanings that originated from other uses that PARALLEL their new meanings: apostles = messengers, elders = elderly, pastors = shepherds, deacon/minister = servant. The key, as Michele pointed out, is not what the word "literally" means, but HOW the word is used. Paul consistently uses diakonos to describe a leadership role in THE CHURCH.

Also his use of the word "prostatis" tips the scales in favor of this reading, since if we are going by the "literal" meaning of words, "prostatis" literally means "a woman set over others." How do literalists get around that definition? What would Paul's original audience believe about Phoebe with these descriptions? That she came 800 miles to wait tables or that she was leading missionary travels, in which they were to aid her in?

Tell me, if Paul wanted to introduce Phoebe as an official "deacon/minister" what other word would he have used? There are plenty of other words that mean servant, but only diakonos is used to describe the particular leadership role of deacon/minister in the early church.

This sort of "literal" reading sets up an interpretive trap that renders Paul UNABLE to name any woman as a leader in the church because the only words Paul EVER uses to do so are stripped from their consistent contextual usage and whittled down to their root meanings without consideration for how the word evolved in the language and mentality of the early church.

Tonya said...

I'm late on this one I know, but I had to throw in an interesting comment. Guess what my congregation is studying right now. Church Doctrine from the pages of Scripture. LOL!

And guess what the office of Deacon consists of. Serving the Elders. That's it. They did what the Elders asked them to do. If the Elders asked a Deacon to do something, they Deacon's job was to do it. If Paul asked Phoebe (if she was indeed an actual Deaconess, and that is debatable since the word that means "servant", and is used of all the workers and members of the church is also used to label the office of Deacon) to carry a letter, it means that she was acting as his servant. Not as a leader in the church. She was the servant of a person who held authority.

He asked the church to receive her and help her out. If you read to much into that you are in danger of "going beyond what is written" to make your point.

It was fun hanging out with you at the pool party. I forgot how much I laugh when I'm around you:):):). (((Hug)))!

Tia Lynn said...

First of all, ALL leaders in the church ARE servants, as well as "non-leaders." No one said Phoebe was the pope or has some sort of supreme authority, that is hardly the purpose of being a leader in the church. Ofcourse she was executing Paul's request, since she was delivering Paul's letter to the Romans, but his request also imparts "authority" to her, since she was his representative to a church Paul himself had never yet been to. Imagine the stories and reports this church had heard about Paul. Phoebe was probably asked all sorts of questions and asked to recount her firsthand experience with Paul and his labors in the gospel.

You are overlooking the fact that Paul calls her the MASCULINE form of "servant," which would only make sense to do if she was carrying out an official role by that title (that yes, does entail SERVICE) and that he also calls her a "prostatis" which means "a woman set over others."

Paul sends Phoebe to Rome, which she carries out for him, then Paul asks the church in ROME to ASSIST PHOEBE in HER business, to come along side her in the work SHE WAS SENT TO DO. Do you think he sent her 800 miles by boat to only wait tables or that she was there to partner with the church there and spread the gospel? Would she not being "leading" the church in the work Paul sent her to do?

If you are looking for evidence of a woman holding supreme authority over all people in a church in order for her to considered a leader, then ofcourse you will not find any such thing, for the simple fact that that is NOT how leadership is characterized in the new testament for anyone. Ofcourse she is submitted to others. Paul says we should all submitt to each other. There is no "pope" that makes all the decisions. But did Phoebe serve as a well as lead (and by lead, I mean carry out a specific APPOINTED ministry role in the church and guide others to Christ)? I believe she did.

Cathy W. said...

I loved this exegesis. I was actually just looking this up on another web site in which the (male) author didn't even ADDRESS 16:2 or the fact that the "deacon" word was used in the masculine form.

After having looked it up myself on biblecc (funny how clarifying that can be), I see that you are correct and that he was shamefully biased in his interpretation.

I used to scoff at those who believed in a conspiracy against women in the church but I am now beginning to have my eyes opened. I think that such a thing actually exists. I don't think it's deliberate but I do think it's perpetuated (as with all myths) because not enough people are standing up to the status quo decrying the untruths.

Consider me one more standing sister.

Chyntt said...

Hi Tia!

You have some wonderful comments here, and they have really gotten my attention.

For example, it never clicked in with me before that Phoebe carried the letter from Paul to the Romans, which speaks to her position of responsibility and leadership and role of ambassador from him to the Romans.

I believe you've made a solid case that Phoebe is more than just an average Jane Doe servant of a local assembly; she seems to be someone in a recognized leadership role.

I want to thank you for posting this info.

Yet, having said that, I find several errors in your post.

One is that according to the Greek Lexical Parser at (put in your desired verse, click on Greek, then there's the Greek Lexical Parser option), diakonon as used in Romans 16:1 is feminine, not masculine.

But interestingly, it's the same word used of Christ a chapter earlier, in 15:8, where it's masculine.

Secondly, you contrast diakonon with doulos, equating the former with being masculine and the latter with being feminine. But my understanding (as a non-Greek scholar) is that the difference is not of gender, but of meaning, with diakonon meaning a "voluntary servant", and doulous meaning an "involuntary servant (slave)".

Thirdly, you say that this word is the same as used in other places, such as the verses you cite, but it's not quite the same. Of Phoebe, the word is diakonon; of the other passages it's diakonos. I don't know if the different ending is significant in any way (I'm no Greek scholar), but without further explanation, to me, the words are not the same (although they obviously have the same root).

Fourthly, in these other passages you cite, the word seems to refer to some generic service, not a specific role as a "Deacon" appointed as such by a local congregation. So if they are the same word as used of Phoebe, then whatever she is, I don't see that it justifies the notion that she's an official "Deacon[ess]" at Cenchrea; it seems to me more that she's a definite leader/minister, but not a holder of the so-called "office of Deacon" (if that's even a valid term).

In short, I believe you've made a very good case against translating the word in Romans 16:1 as "helper", and that you've made a very good case that Phoebe was more than just "an everyday servant with no leadership role in the church whatsoever". But I think your arguments need some minor refinement so that those in opposition to your view won't have these particular boo-boos to use as ammunition against it.