Learning to thrive in the new life Jesus offers us – 2 Corinthians 5:16-17

(5) Phoebe: A Deacon of the Church in Cenchrea

Deacons in the Ephesian Church, and Phoebe as Patron

Other articles in this series are here.

In one of the later New Testament letters[1] is a passage about diakonoi which outlines their moral qualifications. The diakonoi of 1 Timothy 3:8ff were most probably official deacons with a recognised position in the church. Whether the women mentioned in 1 Timothy 3:11 are female deacons or the wives of deacons is debated but, considering that up until the fourth century there was no separate word for female deacons (see Part 1, endnote 4), it is likely that the female deacons were simply called “women” here to distinguish them from the male deacons.

Deacons likewise must be serious, not double-tongued, not indulging in much wine, not greedy for money; they must hold fast to the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. And let them first be tested; then, if they prove themselves blameless, let them serve as deacons. Women likewise must be serious, not slanderers, but temperate, faithful in all things. Let deacons be married only once, and let them manage their children and their households well; for those who serve well as deacons gain a good standing for themselves and great boldness in the faith that is in Christ Jesus. 1 Timothy 3:8-13 NRSV

There are indications in the text that suggests these women were female deacons and not deacons’ wives. For instance, there is no specific mention of women or wives associated with the episkopoi (bishops or overseers) in 1 Timothy 3:1ff, but there are women or wives mentioned in association with the deacons. It doesn’t make sense that Paul would regard the moral requirements of the wives of male deacons to be worthy of mention, but not the moral requirements of wives of episkopoi.[2] So the women in 1 Timothy 3:11 are most probably not deacons’ wives, but deacons themselves.

Furthermore, if deacons’ wives were intended, we might expect a definite article or a genitive pronoun in the Greek of 1 Timothy 3:11 which could be translated as “the wives” or “their wives” respectively. However, it is the use of the word “likewise” (hōsautōs) which indicates that a distinct but similar group to the deacons in verses 8-10 is being addressed in verse 11.[3]

“Likewise” (hōsautōs) is found at the beginning of 1 Timothy 3:8 and 1 Timothy 3:11. Lesly Massey writes that “likewise” is “customarily used to introduce the second and third entities in a series.” He suggests that the use of hōsautōs “seems to place the three groups [episkopoi, deacons, and women] in categories of a similar nature.” That is, the people belonging to these three groups are involved in somewhat similar ministries and require similar qualifications.[4] Taking the word “likewise” into account, we can see that verses 8-10 refer to male deacons, verse 11 specifically refers to female deacons, and verses 12-13 probably refer to both male and female deacons.[5] This slight distinction between the qualifications of male and female deacons indicates that there may already have been some slight distinction in roles also. In later centuries there would be a clear demarcation between the roles and ordination ceremonies of male deacons and deaconesses.

Deacons in the Ephesian Church, and Phoebe as PatronJohn Chrysostom weighed in on the debate about whether the women in 1 Timothy 3:11 were deacons. In his Homily 11 on 1 Timothy he wrote: “Some have thought that this is said of women generally, but it is not so, for why should he introduce anything about women to interfere with his subject? He is speaking of those who hold the rank of deaconesses.”[6] In response to 1 Timothy 3:12, including the idiomatic phrase “a one woman man” which some believe excludes women[7], he added “This must be understood therefore to [also] relate to deaconesses. For that order is necessary and useful and honourable in the Church . . .”[8] Chrysostom may have had the deaconess Olympias, his close friend and patron, in mind when he wrote this.[9]

Image is an icon of Olympias the Deaconess (diakonissa).

Phoebe as Patron

The ministry of the deaconesses in Chrysostom’s time and the ministry of female deacons like Phoebe were somewhat similar in that women who were wealthy acted as benefactors for the church and for individual church members, and they hosted travelling ministers and fellow Christians in their homes. Paul specifically identified Phoebe as a prostatis, a word that can be translated as “patron” or “benefactor”, when he introduced her to the Roman church.[10]

The noun prostatis occurs only once in the New Testament—in Romans 16:2. The masculine form of this word, prostatēs, does not occur at all; however it is used of Jesus in 1 Clement 36:1 and 61:3 where Michael Holmes has translated it as “benefactor”.[11] Older translators of First Clement have translated prostatēs into English as “champion”, “protector”, and “guardian”.[12] Kevin Giles writes that “In either its masculine or feminine form it means literally ‘one who stands before.’ This meaning is never lost whether it be translated leader, president, protector or patron.”[13] Furthermore, participial cognates of prostatis are used in the New Testament in the context of church leadership (Rom. 12:8; 1 Thess. 5:12; 1 Tim. 5:17 cf. 1 Tim. 3:4, 12). While Phoebe was some kind of leader in the church at Cenchrea, possibly the host and leader of a congregation that met in her home, it is unlikely that she was a leader of Paul. So the translation of prostatis as “patron” or “benefactor”, rather than “leader”, fits with what Paul says in Romans 16:2: that “she has been a benefactor of many and of myself as well.”

A prostatis (feminine) or prostatēs (masculine) was, without exception, an influential person in Roman society. When translating or commenting on prostatis in Romans 16:2, however, more mundane words such as “helper” have typically been used. James Dunn notes the bias against recognising Phoebe as an influential woman, and states, “The unwillingness of commentators to give prostatis its most natural and obvious sense of patron is most striking.”[14] He adds that, unlike many modern readers, Paul’s original readers “were unlikely to think of Phoebe as other than a figure of significance whose wealth and influence had been put at the disposal of the church at Cenchrea.”[15]

The practice of patronage flourished in the early Roman Empire and was an important and essential part of Roman society.[16] Seneca even described it as “the chief bond of human society” (De Beneficiis 1.4.2).[17] While the practice was informal and voluntary, there were certain social constraints and reciprocal obligations involving the client-patron relationship. These constraints and obligations were an extension of the honour-shame dynamic that pervaded Roman society, and the typical client-patron relationship was one of unequal power. A wealthy man or woman who made a generous donation to his or her city, community, guild, or to an individual, etc, was able to exercise considerable influence and power. Patrons expected loyalty, public support, as well as public praise that reinforced or elevated the patron’s level of honour, while conversely reinforcing the client’s lower level on the all-important and highly competitive “pecking order” of honour-shame.[18]

Not every client-patron relationship, however, was between people of unequal rank and power. Paul was not without honour yet he publicly acknowledged and praised Phoebe and other ministers, such as Stephanas, for the considerable help they had given to him and to the church (Rom. 16:1-2;1 Cor. 16:17-18).

Susan Mathew suggests that “Phoebe’s mission in relation to the community at Cenchreae may be the same as that of the house of Stephanas . . .”[19]  Stephanas and his household ministered to the church at Corinth, as well as to Paul personally. Similarly, Phoebe and her household may have been a base of ministry in Cenchrea, a port town of Corinth. Paul may have been a guest in the homes of Stephanas and Phoebe and enjoyed their hospitality during his travels in Corinth, but both Stephanas and Phoebe also travelled. We know that Stephanas and two of his colleagues travelled from Corinth to Ephesus to visit Paul and serve him in his mission (1 Cor. 16:17). We saw in Part 3 that many deacons travelled as part of their ministry. Perhaps Stephanas, like Phoebe, was also a deacon.

In the next installment I give a summary of the possible roles of Phoebe as deacon.


[1] The dating and authorship of First Timothy is debated, but it seems certain that First Timothy was written, at the latest, before 120. This is when Polycarp of Smyrna wrote his letter to the Philippians in which he alludes to First and Second Timothy. The Apostolic Fathers, Greek Texts and English Translations (3rd edition), Michael W. Holmes (ed.) (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007) 273. I do not rule out the likelihood that Paul is the author of First Timothy.

[2] The list of qualifications in 1 Timothy 3:1ff assumes that the episkopoi in Ephesus are male, and married, and have children, and have their own households to manage; but nowhere in the Greek New Testament does it explicitly state that the leadership of churches, or the office of overseer, is restricted to men only.

[3] Kevin Giles, Patterns of Ministry Among the First Christians (Sydney: Collins Dove Publishers, 1989) 53.

[4] Lesly Massey, Women and the New Testament: An Analysis of Scripture in the Light of New Testament Era Culture (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 1989) 61.

[5] Many scholars, both ancient and modern, provide similar lists with between three to five reasons for understanding that 1 Timothy 3:11 refers to female deacons. Each reason on its own is not particularly convincing, but the reasons together are compelling.

[6] John Chrysostom, “Homily 11 on First Timothy”, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Volume 13. Edited by Philip Schaff. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1889) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight.

[7] The Greek phrase mias gunaikas andra, usually translated as “a one-woman man”, is an idiom found on numerous sepulchral (gravesite) inscriptions celebrating the virtue of a surviving spouse who had not remarried. By noting that he (or she) was married only once, it suggests the virtue of extraordinary fidelity. Bauer/Danker, A Greek-English Lexicon, 292. The NRSV somewhat captures this meaning in their translation of this phrase as “married only once” in 1 Timothy 3:2, 12, and Titus 1:6 (cf. 1 Tim. 5:9).

[8] Chrysostom, “Homily on First Timothy”.

[9] Olympias (c. 361–408) became a wealthy widow at the age of twenty-five after only two years of marriage, at which point she devoted her life to the church. She was ordained as a deaconess at the age of thirty. Olympias was a loyal supporter and correspondent of Chrysostom, and many of their letters, written while Chrysostom was in exile, survive. Olympias built hospitals and an orphanage, and became a deaconess-abbess of a monastery, named Olympiades, which housed more than two hundred and fifty deaconesses and virgins.
Joan Cecelia Campbell, Phoebe: Patron and Emissary (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2009) 63; and Jeannine Olsen, Deacons and Deaconesses throughout the Centuries (St Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2005) 62.

[10] In the ninth-century uncial manuscripts F and G, the word prostatis is replaced by parastatis which can be translated as “helper” or “assistant”.  The overwhelming textual evidence, however, indicates that prostatis is the original word in Romans 16:2.

[11] Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers, 93 & 129.

[12] For example: Clement of Rome, “The First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians”, transl. Charles H. Hoole (1885), Early Christian Writings <http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/1clement-hoole.html> ; and Clement of Rome, “The First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians”, transl. J.B. Lightfoot (no date) Early Christian Writings <http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/1clement-lightfoot.html>

[13] Giles, Patterns of Ministry, 36. The LSJ lexicon gives the following definitions of prostatēs: “one who stands before, front-rank man . . . leader, chief, especially of a democracy . . . generally, ruler . . . chief authors . . . administrator . . . president or presiding officer . . . one who stands before and protects, guardian, champion  . . . patron . . .” Liddell/Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, Ninth Edition, 1526–27.

[14] James D.G. Dunn, Romans 9–16, Word Biblical Commentary, Vol 38B, (Dallas, TX: Word, 1988) 888.

[15] Dunn, Romans 9-16, 889.

[16] “Personal patronage was an essential means of acquiring access to goods, protection, or opportunities for employment and advancement. Not only was it essential—it was expected and publicized!” David deSilva, “Patronage and Reciprocity: The Context of Grace in the New Testament”, Ashland Theological Journal 31 (1999) 32.

[17] Quoted by deSilva in “Patronage and Reciprocity”, 33.

[18] Much of the information in this paragraph has been drawn from Carolyn Osiek, “Diakonos and Prostatis: Women’s Patronage in Early Christianity”, HTS Theological Studies 61 (1 & 2) (2005) 346-370. See also David deSilva, Honor, Patronage, Kinship and Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000); and Bruce Winter, Seek the Welfare of the City: Christians as Benefactors and Citizens (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 1994)

[19] Susan Mathew, Women in the Greetings of Rom 16:1-16: A Study of Mutuality and Women’s Ministry in the Letter to the Romans (Durham University: Durham E-Theses, 2010)  119.

This article is adapted from chapter six of a paper submitted on the 6th of November 2014 entitled “The Roles of Diakonoi, Male and Female, in the Apostolic and Post-Apostolic Church (c. 40–120) with Special Reference to Phoebe of Cenchrea”.

The bibliography is here

Phoebe: A Deacon of the Church in Cenchrea

The First Century Church and the Ministry of Women
Part 1: Phoebe and the Ministry of Women

Part 2: Ancient Latin texts in which Phoebe is regarded as an official deacon
Part 3: Phoebe’s role in Paul’s mission to Spain
Part 4: Deacons in the Philippian Church and Phoebe
Part 5: Deacons in the Ephesian Church, and Phoebe as Patron
Part 6: Deacons and women in the Apostolic Fathers
Part 7: Summary and Conclusion

Related Articles

7 Lessons in Ministry from the Ministry of Stephanas
Likewise women . . . Likewise husbands . . .

The First Century Church and the Ministry of Women
Believing Wives and Female Coworkers of the Apostles (1 Corinthians 9:5)
The Diakon– Words in Major Greek Lexicons
Paul’s Qualifications for Church Leaders

Posted November 25th, 2014 . Categories/Tags: Church History, Equality and Gender Issues, Women in Ministry, , , , , , ,

Unkind, judgemental, bizarre, and off-topic comments will be deleted.

11 comments on “(5) Phoebe: A Deacon of the Church in Cenchrea

  1. john n says:

    Thanks, Marg, for your comprehensive consideration of Phoebe. Not going to delay you much with this. Was interested indeed to see you including the ideas relating to envoys and representative travels. And, not unnaturally, this made me wonder why you had not, apparently, been taken with my consistent view that Phoebe as diakonos of the community in Cenchreae was in fact being designated as their delegate to the community of Rome (and hence perchance an excellent postie for Paul’s document addressed to the Roman Christians).
    Oh well…
    Your work has been meticulously researched, and every best wish with the submission.

    • Marg says:

      Hi John, I do suggest that Phoebe was a delegate (or emissary) of the church at Cenchrea in Part 3:

      Another possible scenario is that the church at Cenchrea had agreed to be a sponsor of Paul’s mission to Spain, and had chosen Phoebe to be their emissary in Rome, to act on their behalf, and to see Paul’s project funded and fulfilled. If so, this may have been one of her roles as deacon of the church at Cenchrea.

      I have been paying attention to your research. 🙂

      I look at several possible roles of Phoebe as deacon in my essay and will present my conclusion(s) in the next part.

  2. TL says:

    Marg, I thought I ran across some instance(s) where prostatis or prostates was used in the sense of a dean of a college. Don’t remember where at this moment. Possibly in Liddel-Scott.

    • Marg says:

      In endnote 11 I’ve included every meaning for prostatēs listed in the LSJ. After work I’ll have a go at looking up the references (which I’ve replaced with the three dots in endnotes 11) to see if any of these are used in the sense that you mention, but that could take a long time, and I doubt that I will find them all.

      I know that the word is used for presidents or presiding officers of various events and various groups including different kinds of voluntary associations, some of which are called collegia. But the word “dean” doesn’t ring true for me, perhaps because of what “dean” and “college” mean in our modern day.

      • TL says:

        I remember the college association. But my memory keeps saying that one of the many older uses was as some sort of ‘overseer’ in a college of learning. It’s probably not important. 🙂

  3. […] She was a wealthy business woman – she dealt in expensive purple fabric – and so Lydia may have been a patron of the synagogue. Being a patron was an influential role in Roman society and its institutions. Other Jewish women in Philippi may also have played influential roles. From ancient Greek and Latin inscriptions we know that some women had leadership titles in synagogues during the Roman and Byzantine periods. Many titles may have been honorary, but at least some denoted genuine leadership functions. […]

  4. […] [49] During the reign of Augustus “Livia invented new ways of extending patronage in the social and political dynamics of the early principate . . .” and she created a network of “personal contacts among the provincial and foreign elite through which Roman authority was administered abroad.” After Augustus’ death “Livia quickly developed a more overt presence in a wide variety of public forums” Beth Severy, Augustus and the Family at the Birth of the Roman Empire (London: Routledge 2004) pp.234 & 236. Other high status Roman women followed Livia’s example and began exercising more power through patronage. “Personal patronage was an essential means of acquiring access to goods, protection, or opportunities for employment and advancement. Not only was it essential – it was expected and publicized!” David deSilva, “Patronage and Reciprocity: The Context of Grace in the New Testament”, Ashland Theological Journal 31 (1999) p.32. The practice of patronage was an important and essential part of Roman society.  Seneca even described it as “the chief bond of human society” (De Beneficiis 1.4.2). Quoted by deSilva in “Patronage and Reciprocity”, p.33. [More about patronage and women patrons here.] […]

  5. […] Jesus is called a prostatēs (the masculine form of prostatis) by Clement of Rome. In reference to Jesus this word is usually translated as champion, protector or guardian. However, in the case of Phoebe, prostatis most likely means that she was a patron or benefactor. A patron held a respected and influential position in Greco-Roman society. [More about Phoebe as patron here.] […]

  6. […] Some of the more wealthy women in the church were also able to exercise leadership due to the social system of patronage. […]

  7. […] The participle proistamenos in Romans 12:8b comes from the verb proistēmi.[3] This verb can mean “lead”, “preside”, or “act as patron”. (Leadership and patronage were closely associated and intertwined in the first century Roman world.) A cognate of proistēmi occurs a few chapters later in Romans, in reference to Phoebe (Rom. 16:2). Cognates also occur in 1 Thessalonians 5:12; 1 Timothy 3:4-5, 12; 5:17; and Titus 3:8, 14. These verses are all about church leadership and engaging in “good/noble works” (cf. 1 Tim. 3:1). […]

  8. […] I suspect Apphia was one of a number of high status women who were attracted to early Christianity, and she may have been the patron of the congregation that met in Philemon’s or Archippus’s home, or patron of a network of house churches in Colossae. Perhaps she was like Phoebe who was patron and deacon of the church at Cenchrea. Was Apphia another Phoebe? If so, this makes Apphia a woman of considerable influence. [More about patronage here.] […]

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