Taking A Careful Look At The Ministry Of Women In The New Testament Church (Part Six)

“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)

Phoebe is identified as a “‘servant” (or “deaconess”), and as a “helper” of the church in Romans 16:1-2.

What does the word “helper” mean?

“On the other hand, there are those who ascribe great significance to Paul’s use of prostatis in relation to Phoebe, arguing that it denotes one who is a patron and benefactor of others in a legal or financial sense. Contrary to earlier belief that only the masculine form of the word (prostat ē s) was used in this way, 20 recent studies have shown that the feminine form (prostatis) was used of women fulfilling a patronage role. Kearsley, for example, having investigated inscriptional evidence related to two women of importance in the Roman east around the middle of the first century, Iunia Theodora and Claudia Metrodora, who acted as benefactors, concludes that some women did have prominent public roles, and that in relation to Phoebe ‘there appears to be no reason on grounds of sex alone to deny her the role of the benefactor of Paul and the Christians living in Kenchreai’. 21 Jewett cites the work of E. A. Judge, Theissen, Holmberg, Funk, Murphy-O’Connor, Meeks, Kearsley, Trebilco, and Garrison, all of whom document the role played by both male and female benefactors in early Christians communities which provides the social background to Paul’s description of Phoebe as a benefactor. 22 Jewett goes further and argues that Phoebe, being a woman of substantial means and with a house large enough to accommodate the gathering of church members, was the host of the house church in Cenchreae. As such she ‘presided over the Eucharistic celebrations and was responsible for the ordering of the congregation’. 23 This builds too much on the meaning of the term ‘benefactor’ and its use in 16:2. However, it is reasonable to say that recent studies of the word, and the fact that Paul’s description of Phoebe both as a deacon of the church and a benefactor of himself and many others, is sufficient to show that she exercised a significant ministry in the church at Cenchreae in addition to being a patron of Paul’s ministry.” (Colin G. Kruse, The Pillar New Testament Commentary: Paul’s Letter To The Romans, 556-557 (Kindle Edition); Grand Rapids, Michigan; William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company)

Several things can be learned about Phoebe from this word, and subsequently, many important lessons about the role of women in the ministry of the New Testament church.

First, Phoebe was (at the very least) greatly involved in the financial ministry of the church. Perhaps she was a financial contributor to the work of the church? Perhaps a helper in the church’s financial arrangements and management? Whatever the case, Paul clearly acknowledged her as a financial helper of some kind.

Second, it is possible that she owned a home and let the church meet there for worship and fellowship.

Third, by combining the fact that Phoebe was a deaconess with this knowledge, we can clearly see that she was a very important staple in the ministry of the church in Cenchreae-and that Paul fully expected her to continue in the work of the Lord at Rome.

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