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Phoebe: "Helper" or Leader?
Allison Quient is a research, writing, and marketing intern at Christians for Biblical Equality and is finishing up her MDiv at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Besides theology of gender she is passionate about church history, the biblical canon, and apologetics.
“I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church in Cenchreae. I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of his people and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been the benefactor of many people, including me.” (Rom. 16:1-2, NIV).
A notable New Testament woman, whose leadership has been deemphasized, especially in modern translations, is Phoebe. Paul trusted Phoebe, deacon of the church of Cenchreae, to deliver his letter to the Romans. True to custom, she remained with the church after delivering the letter in order to explain its contents. Paul calls her a prostatis (leader) over many—including himself (Rom. 16:1-2), but curiously, some Bible translations make her out to be simply “a great help.”
The first question concerning Phoebe is whether she was a deacon, or simply a servant. The verse reads:
“I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church in Cenchreae.”
While there are no men or women specifically listed as overseers or pastors of a local church in the New Testament, Phoebe comes the closest. “Since Romans was written before any surviving reference to the office of a local church ‘overseer,’ ‘deacon’ may have been the only officially recognized title for a local church leader at that time and/or place” (Payne, pbpayne.com). It is also important to note that the word “deacon” is masculine in form for this passage (Rom. 16:1-2) meaning there is no special separate role articulated for women.
Craig Keener brings up more interesting possibilities for Phoebe’s role as a deacon. In a Syrian inscription, the term “deacon” is applied to the equivalent of a synagogue leader, and Paul most often applies the term to a minister of the Gospel. Keener also draws our attention to the fact that translators often interpret the word “deacon” as “minister” for men and “servant” for women, revealing a bias against women holding higher positions within the early church (Keener, Paul, Women & Wives, 239).
A second debate about Phoebe is whether Paul calls her a “leader” or a “great help.” The verse reads:
“I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of the saints and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been a prostatis of many, including myself also.”
The word prostatis conveys leadership, which probably entailed “spiritual oversight” (Payne, Man and Woman: One in Christ, 63). Instead, when referring to Phoebe, translations such as the NLT, NKJV, and NIV 1984 repeat the word help rather than use the word “leader”:
“Give her any help… for she has been a great help.”
But is the translation "great help" accurate? According to Payne and easily confirmable in such standard resources as BDAG, the words translated “help” and “great help” are both based on the same root verb meaning “to stand,” but the first one has a prefix meaning “alongside” so it means “come to the aid of,” “help,” or “stand by someone.” The second, however, has a prefix meaning “precedence in importance or rank.” Paul could have easily repeated the word for help if that is what he meant to say. Instead he chose a word with leadership connotations to describe Phoebe (Payne, pbpayne.com), which is translated elsewhere in the same book as “… if it is to lead, do it diligently” (Rom. 12:8). Some translations use the terms "benefactor" (NIV 2011, NRSV) or "patron" (ESV) to make clearer the idea that Phoebe was not a mere assistant to Paul. Unfortunately, these options are not listed in the two major Greek dictionaries.
Once again, despite the difficulties men and women throughout history have had with female leadership, God has chosen to use women in this capacity. Historically, the church has struggled with what to do with female leaders, but just as God used women and other “unlikely” individuals and groups, he continues to do so today.
In honor of Women’s History Month, read about more historical women at www.cbeinternational.org/whm.