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Published Date: April 22, 2022

Published Date: April 22, 2022

Women in Scripture and Mission: Phoebe

Portrait courtesy of Cara Quinn from knowyourmothers.com.

Women in Scripture and Mission: Phoebe

Published Date: April 22, 2022

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Phoebe
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Febe

“I commend you to our sister Phoebe, a deacon (diakanos) of the church at Cenchrea, 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 (prostatis) of many and of myself as well” (Romans 16:1-2 NRSV).

Letter Carrier Responsibilities

Paul introduces Phoebe to the Roman church, asking them to welcome her as she carried his letter to them. Paul routinely provided credentials for his letter carriers (2 Cor. 8:16-24; Eph. 6:21-22; Phil. 2:25-30; Col. 4:7-9), but Phoebe’s welcome was vitally important as she was an unknown to the Roman church, and she carried Paul’s most important theological work, his letter to the Romans.1 Thus, in this introduction, Paul “commends” Phoebe, which is a way of asking the church to trust her just as he has.2 This trust was critical, because those who carried correspondence were responsible for reading and explaining its contents to the recipients. Like seminary students today, she would have been taught by Paul, to ensure she could accurately convey the letter’s meaning, explain difficult sections, and help the congregation understand its complexities and implications. As Dr. Jeffrey Miller says, in today’s language we would call her a preacher.3

Diakanos: Servant Leader who Preaches, Teaches & Administrates

Paul’s introduction of Phoebe supports the fact that Phoebe was an experienced and powerful leader. He describes her as a deacon with the same Greek word diakanos, which was used to describe his work and that of other leaders, such as Timothy, Apollo, Epaphras, and Tychicus. In the early church, this term meant “servant,” and it was applied to those who served the congregation in teaching, administration, and guidance. When this word is used in Scripture to refer to a man, English translations typically use the word “minister.” Only for Phoebe has the term been translated as “servant” or “helper,” though this distinction does not honestly represent Paul’s use of the word.4 The fact that Paul designated Phoebe a deacon at the church of Cenchrea meant that she served in an official church position that required vetting. This was clear to the early church fathers, such as Origen (c. 187- c. 253) and John Chrysostom (late 300‘s), who understood that Phoebe had been ordained in her church.5 Thus, she should be trusted, because she was vetted and approved by the Cenchrea church to lead.

Prostatis: Powerful Financial & Legal Protector of Church

Further, Paul called her a prostatis, meaning one who presides.6 In English it is often translated as “benefactor” or “patron, ” but for Phoebe “helper.” In Roman society a patron was a position of honor and power and was meant “to manage/manager, rule/ruler, or lead/leader.”7 Patrons interceded in legal and financial affairs on behalf of those they represented, and the term could even mean that they stood before gods to entreat them on behalf of their clients.8 So, when Paul describes Phoebe as a prostatis, he is indicating she was an honored person with great authority. Therefore, the fact that Paul describes Phoebe as both a deacon and a patron indicates that she was a person of authority in the church of Cenchrea, who taught and represented the church.

However, that is not all. Paul also indicates that Phoebe was a missionary through the technical language of “receive Phoebe in the Lord,” and “give her anything she may need.” Paul uses similar language in relation to Timothy in 1 Corinthians 16:10-11 and to Titus in 2 Corinthians 7:15.9 In fact, Phoebe‘s missionary activity was recognized throughout the ancient world, as noted by inscriptions and writings of the early church fathers.10

Related Resources

To learn more, see: “Phoebe Through the Eyes of Paul,” by Julie R. Frady.

Ordained Women in the Church,” by Christine Marchetti in Priscilla Papers.

Editor’s Reflection: Autumn 2020,” by Jeff Miller, in Priscilla Papers.

Notes

  1. Linda Belleview, ”Women Leaders in the Bible,” in Discovering Biblical Equality: Biblical, Theological, Cultural & Practical Perspectives, 3rd edition,  ed. Ronald W. Pierce, Cynthia Long Westfall, and Christa L. McKirland (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2021),82.
  2. Julia R. Frady, ”Phoebe through the Eyes of Paul,” Mutuality: Making Peace with Paul vol. 28, no. 1 (March 25, 2021). 
  3. Jeff Miller, “Letter from the Editor,” Priscilla Papers: The Academic Journal of CBE International vol. 34, no. 4 (Autumn 2020): 3. 
  4. Leanne M. Dzubinski and Anneke H. Stasson, Women in the Mission of the Church: Their Opportunities and Obstacles throughout Christian History, (Ada, MI: Baker Academic, 2021), 47-48.
  5. Elizabeth Gillan Muir, A Women’s History of the Christian Church: Two Thousand Years of Female Leadership, (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2019), 6.
  6. Muir, A Woman’s History of the Early Church, 5.
  7.  Leanne M. Dzubinski Women in the Mission of the Church, 49.
  8. Frady, “Phoebe Through the Eyes of Paul.”
  9. Belleview, “Women Leaders in the Bible,” 82. 
  10. Muir, A Woman’s History of the Early Church, 6.