Phoebe Through the Eyes of Paul

by Julie R. Frady | March 25, 2021

Paul taught that women were second-class citizens in God’s Kingdom. Or did he?

How Paul spoke of one specific woman, Phoebe, is telling. We know about her only through Paul’s eyes. What did he see?

In Romans 16, Paul affirmed twenty-eight coworkers in ministry, including ten women. Considering the patriarchal culture of the time, that is amazing! Leading this list is Phoebe, of whom Paul wrote: “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church at Cenchreae, so that you may welcome her in the Lord as is fitting for the saints, and help her in whatever she may require from you, for she has been a benefactor of many and of myself as well” (Rom. 16:1–2, NRSV).

Scholars agree that Paul wrote Romans. Yet it is hard to believe the man who authored Romans 16:1–2 thought that women should not speak in the churches or that women are easily deceived and should not teach or have authority over men. Even so, many people read 1 Corinthians 14:34–35 and 1 Timothy 2:11–15 to say just that. If we accept that Paul wrote all three of these letters (and I do), then this means we have misunderstood something somewhere. But why should two seemingly obscure verses from the final chapter of Romans cause us to reconsider the restrictions many believe Paul put on women in other letters?

A basic principle of Bible interpretation is to use “clear” texts to shed light on “unclear” texts, not the other way around. What is “clear” or “unclear” depends on the way Paul wrote in Greek, not on our English translations. If we consider 1 Corinthians as a whole, the passage in chapter 14 seems to contradict what Paul wrote in chapter 11 verse 5, when he gave instructions on how women were to speak in church. The 1 Timothy 2 passage lends itself to several interpretations. Yet many people interpret Phoebe’s ministry through the lenses of these unclear passages, rather than by what Paul clearly wrote in the Greek of Romans 16:1–2.

What Does Romans 16:1–2 Teach Us About Phoebe?

First, Paul commended (synistēmi) Phoebe to the Christians in Rome. Then, he called her a deacon (diakonon) of the church in Cenchreae. Next, he instructed the Roman believers to welcome (prosdexēsthe) Phoebe and give her any help that she needed because she had been a benefactor (prostatis) to many people.

As a suburb of Corinth in Greece, Cenchreae was far from Rome. Why would the Romans care who Phoebe was or what she did?

“I commend to you our sister Phoebe…”

Phoebe carried Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome, and he wanted them to know they could trust her. The Greek verb for “commend” has a variety of meanings, but they all have to do with the idea of standing with someone in a trusted relationship. Paul was telling the Romans that he knew Phoebe well, and he endorsed her without reservation. Why would that be important?

Phoebe did not just carry Paul’s letter: she delivered it. Punctuation had not yet been invented to indicate how the text should be read, so couriers likely read letters aloud to the recipients, mimicking the author’s tone of voice and facial expressions. Phoebe would probably have rehearsed the letter with Paul, noting where he spoke with sarcasm or sadness, and where his eyes rolled or flashed with intensity. This was especially important because Paul had not yet visited the Christians in Rome, so they would not know how he spoke when he preached.

Paul highly commended Phoebe so the Christians in Rome would know that he trusted her to read his letter exactly the way he wanted them to hear it.

A man who believed women should not speak in church would never have done that.

“…a deacon of the church at Cenchreae…”

After commending Phoebe, Paul informed the Romans that she was a deacon in the church at Cenchreae. Many churches have deacons today, and their duties vary by denomination. What was a deacon in the early church?

Diakonos literally means “servant.” It is used with that meaning in the Gospels, but by the time of Paul, diakonos was being used by Christians to indicate a leader set apart for ministry. How did this come to be? People first filled the type of role we now recognize as deacons in Acts 6, when the apostles needed leaders who could minister to widows and heal relations between minority and majority culture Christians. The early church likely chose the word diakonos as a church leadership title precisely because it meant servant, as in Jesus’s command to his disciples in Matthew 20:25b–26.1

We see evidence in Acts and Paul’s letters that deacons referred to leaders who ministered to the poor and who taught and preached. We see Stephen and Philip preaching and teaching in Acts 6:8–10; 8:5, 26–40. In his letters, Paul referred to Apollos, Timothy, Epaphras, and Tychicus2  as ministers, using the term diakonos. Much of the book of Acts depicts Paul’s ministry, and he referred to himself as a diakonos in five of his letters.3  The idea that deacons preached is not a new or controversial idea. Back in 1891 the Rev. B.T. Roberts wrote, “there is not a single passage in which the word deacon is used to designate an officer of the church, where there is any indication that this deacon was not a preacher.”4

How do we know that Phoebe was a deacon and not just a servant? First, Paul used the same term for the men named above as he does for Phoebe. If we are going to translate diakonos as "deacon" or "minister" for men, but as "servant" for Phoebe, then we make a distinction that Paul never did. Second, Paul wrote that Phoebe was a diakonos of the church in Cenchreae. As Roberts noted, “The churches of that day had no servants, in the ordinary sense of the word servant. The churches were poor. Their meetings were held in private houses. They had no church edifices.”5

When Paul called Phoebe a diakonos in the church at Cenchreae, he was not praising her “spirit of servanthood” to the Roman Christians. He was telling them that Phoebe held an official, titled position in her church. This meant that she had been vetted in her character and doctrine, and she had authority to preach and teach. She was thus qualified to be Paul’s representative and to interpret anything in his letter—including points of theology—that they did not understand.

He does not sound like a man who believed women should not teach or have authority over men.

“…so that you may welcome her in the Lord as is fitting for the saints…”

Paul then told the Roman Christians to “welcome” Phoebe “as is fitting for the saints.” The Greek verb for welcome used here means to receive, to accept fully. That is, he was commanding them to embrace her and her ministry with enthusiasm. The prevailing culture considered women to be inferior, but Paul thought otherwise. By commanding the Roman Christians to receive Phoebe in this way, Paul declares that she is trustworthy and should be accepted as fully as a male believer in the same position.

In addition, Paul instructed the Romans to “help her in whatever she may require from you.” This may have included financial help. Given that Paul stated his desire to take the gospel to Spain and that he wanted the Romans to “assist me on my journey there” (Rom. 15:24b), Phoebe’s mission likely involved collecting money to fund that missionary journey.

He does not sound like a man who believed women are easily deceived and could not be trusted as leaders in the church.

But wait, there’s more!

“…for she has been a benefactor of many and of myself as well!"

Paul then called Phoebe a “prostatis of many.” This term does not have an English word that perfectly communicates its various meanings, but many scholars agree that "benefactor" or "patron" are the closest. Many older English translations translate prostatis merely as “help” or “helper,” but a Greco-Roman prostatis was much stronger than that. A benefactor had the means to intervene on behalf of people in legal, political, or financial trouble. Benefactors wielded great influence toward the well-being of those under their care. Craig Keener notes that patrons of religious groups were wealthy individuals who facilitated meetings in their homes, adding: “A patron was generally a prominent and honored member of the group and generally exercised some authority over it.”6 Benefactor and patron best convey the sort of prostatis Paul intended.

However, he could have had other meanings in mind as well. One of the most respected Greek-English lexicons says that prostatis is the feminine form of prostates,⁷  and that a prostates is someone who “stands before” or is “a front-rank-man” and can refer to a president or ruler. A prostates can be a “protector, guard, or champion,” a patron who takes care of the disenfranchised, and even someone who can “stand before a god to entreat him.”.⁸As a prostatis, then, Phoebe likely stood before the congregation to lead. She had clout in both the community at large and in the church. Phoebe had power, and she used that power for the benefit of others, rather than for herself. That is why Paul told the Romans to give Phoebe whatever she requested. He added that she had been a prostatis of not just a few, but many people, even Paul himself! Had Paul placed himself under the leadership of Phoebe in any way? Given the meanings of prostatis/prostates, that seems possible.

Not an Exception to the Rule

Paul highly valued his relationship with Phoebe. He informed the Romans that she was a respected leader in her local church. The apostle esteemed Phoebe so much that he entrusted her to deliver an important letter to a church he had not yet visited, to explain complex theological issues to adults of both sexes, and possibly to collect a large sum of money on his behalf. She was a teacher, a preacher, and a champion of others.

The Greek of Romans 16:1–2 is clear. If Paul wrote these verses—and I am not aware of any scholars who doubt that he did—then we need to use them to inform our understanding of passages like 1 Corinthians 14:34–35 and 1 Timothy 2:11–15. Phoebe could not have been just an exception to the rule of God-ordained male authority, because if God had so ordained, God would not make exceptions. Breaking manmade cultural taboos is one thing (Jesus did that, after all), but breaking God’s moral order is sin, and Paul would not have so highly commended Phoebe if she were sinning. What Paul clearly wrote about Phoebe in Romans 16:1–2 shows that we need to do more digging into what he must have meant in these other passages.

Paul simply could not have written the way he did about Phoebe while also teaching that women should not speak in church, were easily deceived, or should not teach or have authority over any man. When we try to understand what Paul is saying about women in 1 Timothy and 1 Corinthians, let’s begin by remembering Phoebe.

Notes

1. See also Mark 10:42–43 and Luke 22:25–26.
2. 1 Cor. 3:5, Phil. 1:1, Col. 1:7, and Eph. 6:21, respectively.
3. 1 Cor. 3:5; 2 Cor. 3:6; Eph. 3:7; Col. 1:23; and 1 Thess. 3:2
4. B.T. Roberts, Ordaining Women New Edition with Introduction and Notes, ed. Benjamin D.  Wayman, (Wipf & Stock, 1993), 74.
5. Ibid., 75. Emphasis his.
6. Craig Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, (Downers Grove: IVP, 1993), 44. 
7. προστατις. An Intermediate Greek-English Lexicon, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), 698.
8. Ibid., 698.


This article appeared in “Making Peace with Paul,” the Spring 2021 issue of Mutuality magazine. 
Read the full issue here.