It is written:
“ I commend to you Phoebe our sister, who is a servant of the church in Cenchrea,2 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.” (Romans 16:1-2)
Two words in this passage speak of the work of Phoebe in the Lord’s church: “servant,” and “helper.”
Both teach us very important lessons.
The word “servant” is the Greek word diakonos. In the New Testament, the word can have both a general and a specific meaning.
When used in its’ general sense, the word carries with it the idea simply of a servant. For example, Christ commands all of His followers to be “servants” (Matthew 20:26; 23:11; Mark 9:35).
Sometimes the word had specific reference to those who were considered “deacons” in the churches (Philippians 1:1; 1 Timothy 3:8, 11).
We will look at 1 Timothy 3:1, 11 in a future article. For now, however, we need to study whether or not Phoebe was simply a “servant” (general meaning of the word), or a “deacon” (or “deaconess”-specific usage of the word).
Certainly, many Bible translations believe that the evidence is strong for this passage to consider Phoebe as a “deaconess” in the Lord’s church.
“With this letter I’m introducing Phoebe to you. She is our sister in the Christian faith and a deacon of the church in the city of Cenchrea.” (God’s Word)
“Now I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deaconess in the church at Cenchrea.” (International Standard Version)
“NOW I introduce and commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deaconess of the church at Cenchreae,”. (Amplified)
The testimony of the early church “fathers” is also very compelling in its’ historical understanding of Phoebe as a deaconess in the church.
“Note how many ways Paul dignifies Phoebe. He mentions her before all the rest and even calls her his sister. It is no small thing to be called the sister of Paul! Moreover, he has mentioned her rank of deaconess as well.” (Chrysostom, Homilies on Romans 30. [NPNF 1 11:549-50.]
“: “Although the text of the letter is already finished, as it were, Paul has attached this material for the purpose of commendation and greeting, as was his custom….Even today, women deaconesses in the East are known to minister to their own sex in baptism or even in the ministry of the Word, for we find that women taught privately, e.g., Priscilla, whose husband was called Aquila. [See Act 18:1-3, Act 18:24-26.]”. (Pelagius, Pelagius’s Commentary on Romans. [PCR 150-51.]
“This passage teaches that there were women ordained in the church’s ministry by the apostle’s authority.… Not only that—they ought to be ordained into the ministry, because they helped in many ways and by their good services deserved the praise even of the apostle.” (Origen, Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans. [CER 5:242-44.])
There can be no doubt that the early church considered Phoebe to be a “deaconess.”
Yet what exactly does this mean?
That question will be the focus of our next study.