I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deaconess (diakonos) of the church at Cenchreae, that you may receive her in the Lord as befits the saints, and help her in whatever she may require from you, for she has been a helper (prostatis) of many and of myself as well (Romans 16:1,2 RSV).
I was having a discussion the other evening with a family in our church about the subject of women deacons. I said, “Well, Phoebe, of course, was a deacon.”
Someone said, “Really? Are you sure? Not everyone believes that she was.”
“She was a deacon,” I said. It’s in Romans 16.”
Diakonos means “servant.” Phoebe was a prominent woman who distinguished herself by the services she rendered to her church and to Paul himself.
The word prostatis is usually translator “helper” or “patroness” for Phoebe. Yet in the literature of the time it had the connotation of “leading officer,” “president,” “governor,” or “superintendent.”
In Romans 16:1, the Greek word diakonos is translated, “deaconess” in the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, “servant” in the New International Version, “servant” in the King James Version, and “dear Christian woman” in the Living Bible Paraphrased.
The very same word, diakonos is translated “deacon” in Philippians 1:1, I Timothy 3:8, and I Timothy 3:12, in each reference, in all four versions of the Bible cited above. These verses refer to church leadershi p. Note that I Timothy 3:12 could have buen a warning against polygamy. In I Timothy 3:11, “the women likewise” may mean either “wives of deacons” or “women deacons.”
“Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the bishops and deacons (diakonos).” (Phil. 1:1 RSV)
“Deacons (diakonos) likewise must be serious, not double-tongued...” (I Tim. 3:8 RSV)
“Let deacons (diakonos) be the husband of one wife...” (I Tim. 3:12 RSV)
To be consistent, should not the word diakonos be consistently translated “servant” or translated “deacon”? Why a change in translation for Phoebe, but not elsewhere?
Phoebe’s story begins with her name, which means, “moon.” She was probably named in honor of the goddess Artemis, who was widely worshiped in the Greek world, including in Corinth and the nearby seaport of Cenchreae where she lived. Probably, Phoebe had grown up as a devotee of this moon-goddess of fertility, the patroness of maidens, the helper of women in childbirth, and the giver of a gentle death to women.
She is thought to have been an independent women of means and probably a widow from the upper class. At a particular point in time, maybe the year 51, Phoebe responded to Paul’s preaching concerning the claims of Jesus Christ. She became a believer. She is remembered as a leader in the church at Cenchreae because of Paul’s testimony concerning her in Romans 16:1,2.
The words “patroness” and “succourer,” often used in describing Phoebe’s service, portray the idea that she was extremely generous in helping others financially, as well as with deeds of kindness and help. There is a good possibility that the help she rendered Paul was through her contributions toward the gift he was taking to Jerusalem (I Corinthians 16:1,2). Maybe she was a good fund raiser or business manager.
Phoebe and Paul were close friends. It is commonly believed that she personally delivered Paul’s letter to the Romans, which he had composed while in Corinth. In that letter, he commends Phoebe to the Christians at Rome by introducing her as a deacon of the church. He tells them of the great help she has been to many people including himself. He asks them to receive her and to help her. Maybe Paul sent her to Rome ahead of himself as a missionary to help that church in the same ways that she had helped the church in Corinth.
It is interesting to note the other people mentioned in the Bible as having been a part of the Corinthian fellowship of believers: Erastus, the city treasurer; Gaius, who was host to Paul and the whole church; Titus Justus, a “God-fearer” in whose home Paul preached; Stephanas, the first convert in Achaia; Tertius, a scribe; Chloe, a woman of means; Crispus, who had been president of the synagogue; Apollos, who taught with great wisdom; Cephas, an apostle and teacher; and Priscilla and Aquila, the tentmakers, friends and co-workers with Paul.
The story of how Paul started the new Corinthian church is recorded in Acts 18. His correspondence with the church is found in First and Second Corinthians. It has been interesting to read these accounts with the awareness that Phoebe was a part of the whole experience. Yet so many questions are left unanswered.
Might the Corinthian church have met outside the city of Corinth in the seaport town of Cenchreae? Could Phoebe and Priscilla have been best friends? Did Phoebe prophesy and pray in the church with her head covered? (I Corinthians 11:5) Did she eat meat which had been offered to idols?
In Act 18:18, we are informed, “Before he (Paul) sailed, he had his hair cut off at Cenchrea because of a vow he had taken.” Was Phoebe present?
Most of Phoebe’s life story has been lost to us, left unrecorded. However, by using our informed imaginations, along with pertinent Scriptures from Acts and 1 and 2 Corinthians, we can piece together some ideas which will tell her story.
The two verses that we have concerning her in Romans 16:1,2 can be interpreted in several different ways. Some believe Phoebe was a woman who served the church by doing deeds of kindness. Some believe she held a leadership position of service in the church; that she was a deacon. Some have proposed that she held an office of “widow” (1 Timothy 5:3 ff).
Bu t after many days of researching the facts and imagining her story, I would confidently say again, “She was a deacon. It’s in Romans 16,” and “I commend to you our sister Phoebe... I ask you to receive her....”