Even if the New Testament identified by name many men and no women as local church officers—in particular, elders, overseers, or pastors—this would not logically exclude women from local church leadership. After all, the New Testament does not name any Gentile men with those titles either. Does this exclude them from those leadership positions?
However, apart from Jesus Christ (Heb 13:20; 1 Pet 2:25; 5:4), the New Testament does not identify any man or woman by name as an overseer (episkopos) or pastor (poimēn, literally, “shepherd”). John refers to himself in 2 John 1 and 3 John 1 as “the elder,” but nothing in either context associates this title with a local church or with administrative duties. The article (ho, “the”) indicates that this title refers to something unique, which would not apply to local church administration. It probably identifies something like the last surviving elderly apostle and eyewitness of Christ. The only other New Testament association of “elder” with any named person is Peter’s self-identification in 1 Peter 5:1 as “the fellow-elder (sumpresbyteros) and witness of Christ’s sufferings and the glory that is to be revealed.” This “was the essential qualification of an Apostle in the strict sense,”1 identifying Peter not as the leader of a local church, but of “the whole church.”2
The only person named with an explicit title of local church leadership is not a man at all, but a woman: “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, who is deacon of the church in Cenchrea. 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 leader of many, including myself also” (Rom 16:1–2).
“Deacon,” as in the NIV 2011, is the best translation of diakonos here. The same title was used for a pagan religious office and could apply to women.3 This is not the feminine Greek noun for deaconess (diakonissa), and in context certainly does not mean “maid.”4 Cranfield argues it is “virtually certain that Phoebe is being described as ‘a (or possibly “the”) deacon’ of the church.”5 Even Calvin says she had “a public office in the Church.”6
Paul’s logic is natural: “Help her in whatever matter she has need, because she is a leader of many, including myself also.” It should not be surprising that Paul, who calls all believers to submit to one another (Eph 5:21), should himself submit to the local leadership in churches he visited.
If Paul had intended to say simply that Phoebe had “helped” others, it would have been natural for him to repeat paristēmi to make his reason parallel his request. Translations such as the pre-2011 NIV, which repeats the word “give her any help . . . for she has been a great help,” hide the fact that the Greek verb translated as “help [her]” (parastēte from paristēmi, “I help,” which combines para, “alongside,” with histēmi, “I stand”) is almost opposite in meaning to the word describing Phoebe as a prostatis “one who leads,” which combines pro, “in rank before” with histēmi, “I stand.” G. H. R. Horsley identifies citations of prostatēs to identify the president of an association.7 Horsley also cites “Sophia, ‘the second Phoibe’” and six other inscriptions or papyri about “female deacons and office-holders” that were discovered and published in 1979 alone.8
Every meaning of every word in the New Testament related to the word Paul chose to describe Phoebe as a “leader” (prostatis) that could apply in Romans 16:2 refers to leadership. This includes the usage shortly before in Romans 12:8, “Let the one in leadership [ho poistamenos] govern diligently”; 1 Thessalonians 5:12, “respect those who . . . have charge over you [poistamenous] in the Lord”; and 1 Timothy 5:17, “The elders who rule [proestōtes] well are worthy of a double honor.” Used in relation to the family, the word means, “ruling one’s household” (1 Tim 3:4, 5, 12).
Prostatis can also, like the Latin patrona (“patroness”), denote the legal representative of strangers and their protector, for aliens were deprived of civil rights.9 C. K. Barrett, however, argues that meaning does not fit Romans 16:2 because “Phoebe cannot have stood in this relation to Paul since he was born free, Acts 22:28.”10
The NRSV translation, “for she has been a benefactor of many and of myself as well,” has the disadvantage that this meaning is not listed by the lexicons Liddell Scott Jones (LSJ)11 or Bauer Arndt Gingrich (BAG).12 Additionally, Paul’s companion Luke uses a different word for “benefactor” in Luke 22:25, “those in authority over them are called benefactors [euergetai].”13
Thus, the lexical evidence and the context of Phoebe’s standing in the church strongly favor the normal meaning of the term prostatis, namely, “leader.” Since her leadership was in the church, it would entail spiritual oversight. Even Charles C. Ryrie, who teaches that woman’s role in church is “not a leading one,” acknowledges that prostatis “includes some kind of leadership.”14 This term almost always refers to an officially recognized position of authority.15
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 place. If by prostatis (“leader”) Paul identifies a church office here, then he describes Phoebe using two titles for a church office that may have been equivalent to the later-documented titles “overseer,” “elder,” and “pastor.”
In contrast to everyone else Paul “greets” in this chapter, he commands the Romans “to receive her [Phoebe].” The scholarly consensus is that this indicates that Phoebe delivered the epistle to the Romans as Paul’s emissary. As a result, she naturally would have answered the Romans’ questions about it. Consequently, just as Mary in the Magnificat is the first Christian exegete of Scripture, Phoebe can properly be regarded as the first exegete of Paul’s letter to the Romans.
In conclusion, the only person unambiguously identified by name with a title as a local church leader in the New Testament is Phoebe, and she is given what appear to be two such titles: “deacon of the church of Cenchrea” and “leader (prostatis) of many.” Consequently, the argument is spurious that, since women are not given the title “elder,” “overseer,” or “pastor” of a church in the New Testament, they may not occupy those offices. The same logic would exclude men from these local church offices as well.
- J. H. A. Hart, The First Epistle General of Peter, vol. 5 in The Expositor’s Greek Testament, ed. W. Robertson Nicoll (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1970), 5:76.
- Johann Eduard Huther, Critical and Exegetical Handbook to the General Epistles of James, Peter, John, and Jude, vol. 10 in Meyer’s Commentary on the New Testament, 6th ed., trans. Paton J. Gloag, D. B. Croom, and Clarke H. Irwin (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1884), 10:328–29.
- E.g., see Corpus inscriptionum graecarum, ed. A. Boechkh (Berlin 1828–1877), 2.3037.
- See Demosthenes 24 (Against Timocrates, 384–322 BC), 197; Aristophanes, Ecclesiazusae (v/iv BC), 1116.
- C. E. B. Cranfield, The Epistle to the Romans, International Critical Commentary (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1979), 2:781.
- John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries, Romans (Wilmington, DE: Associated, n.d.), 1522.
- Examples include the papyri O. Tebt. Pad. 67 and I Eph. III.668a.
- G. H. R. Horsley, “Sophia, ‘the second Phoibe,’” New Documents Illustrating Early Christianity: A Review of the Greek Inscriptions and Papyri published in 1977/79 (NSW, Australia: Macquarie University, Ancient History Documentary Research Centre, 1982–87), 4:239–44, 242.
- E.g., Lucian, Bis accusatus 29, uses prostatis to mean “patroness,” according to A. M. Harmon (LCL) 3:140–41.
- C. K. Barrett, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans (London: A. and C. Black, 1957), 283.
- LSJ 1526–27 identifies prostatis as the feminine form of prostatēs, for which it gives only the following meanings: “one who stands before, front-rank man . . . leader, chief . . . ruler . . . chief authors . . . administrator . . . president or presiding officer . . . one who stands before and protects, guardian, champion . . . patron . . . suppliant . . . prostate gland.”
- The Bauer, Danker, Arndt, and Gingrich (BDAG) lexicon, 885, does, however, list “a woman in a supporting role, patron, benefactor,” citing Horsley, “Phoibe,” 4:242–44. BDAG ignores Horsley’s citations of instances where this word means “guardian” (a person with legal authority) and “president.”
- LSJ, BAG, and BDAG identify euergetai as meaning “benefactor.”
- Charles C. Ryrie, The Role of Women in the Church (Chicago: Moody, 1958), 140, 88.
- See the examples in Leonard Swidler, Biblical Affirmations of Woman (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster, 1979), 310–11; James D. G. Dunn, Romans 9–16, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas, TX: Word, 1988), 888–89; and Philip B. Payne, “The Interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:11–15: A Response to Douglas J. Moo’s Article, ‘1 Timothy 2:11–15: Meaning and Significance,’” Trinity Journal 2 NS (1981): 169–97, 195, and Man and Woman, One in Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009), 62–63.