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

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

Deacons and Women in the Apostolic Fathers

Deacons as Envoys in the Apostolic Fathers

In the New Testament and in the collection of writings known as the Apostolic Fathers there is ample evidence that many deacons travelled. We have already seen that deacons such as Phoebe and Tychicus travelled and were letter carriers, but other deacons also travelled and acted as representatives, or envoys, of specific congregations or of ministers. For example, in his letters to the Philadelphians Ignatius asks that they send a deacon to the church in Syria as an ambassador (IgnPhild 10:1-2; cf. IgnSmyrn 11:2-3). Deacons helped to maintain a network of communication between the churches that were spread across the Roman Empire (cf. Tit. 3:12-13).[1]

In the first and early second centuries, travelling deacons provided assistance by carrying letters, and by collecting money for Christian communities suffering hardship or famine (e.g. 2 Cor. 8; cf. 1 Cor. 16:1-5). They also personally assisted missionaries. When Paul was travelling on his missionary journeys, he was often accompanied by men and women from different churches.[2] For instance, in Acts 20:4, we read that while travelling through Macedonia, Paul “was accompanied by Sopater son of Pyrrhus from Berea, Aristarchus and Secundus from Thessalonica, Gaius from Derbe, Timothy also, and Tychicus and Trophimus from the province of Asia.” These men may have been sent by their respective churches to assist Paul in his mission. Paul also sent deacons to churches he had founded to act as his representative. For example, Acts 19:22 states, “He sent (aposteilas) into Macedonia two of those ministering (diakountōn) with him, Timothy and Erastus, while he stayed in Asia.”

Deacons also personally assisted Christians in prison. The church at Philippi had sent Epaphroditus to minister to Paul when he was in prison. Paul expressed his gratitude in his letter to the Philippians, thanking them for their much needed support brought to him through Epaphroditus. In Philippians 2:25, he describes Epaphroditus in glowing terms as his brother, coworker, and co-soldier, as well as an apostle or messenger (apostolos) of the Philippians, and a minister (leitourgos) of Paul’s needs. Absent from the passage about Epaphroditus are words related to diakonos. Yet Epaphroditus seems to be functioning as a deacon: he travelled and ministered to the practical needs of Paul while representing the Philippian church. Paul’s free use of ministry titles seems to indicate that some terms such as coworker, deacon and apostle may have had overlapping meanings.

Early in the second century, Ignatius, the bishop of Antioch, was arrested and taken to Rome. During the long trip to Rome he was accompanied by at least two deacons who had been sent by churches in order to minister to him. The church at Ephesus had sent a deacon named Burrhus, and the church at Cilicia had sent a deacon named Philo (IgnEph 2:1), etc. In his letters, Ignatius speaks with a particular warmth about deacons, indicating his deep gratitude for the service and companionship they have offered him. This service was vital, as prisoners were not well provided for by their captors, and were dependent on the assistance of relatives and friends, or, in this case, deacons acting on behalf of their church.

There is another person whom Ignatius refers to with warmth, and that person is Alce (or Alke). Ignatius greets her affectionately in two different letters with, “I greet Alce, a name very dear to me” (IgnSmyrn 13:2; IgnPol 8:3; cf. MartPol 17:2). Alce was a prominent young woman in the church at Smyrna. She came from a wealthy family, and we know that some of the members of her family were hostile towards Christianity. Ignatius’s affection probably stems from Alce’s ministry to him. Perhaps she had been a prostatis of Ignatius, as Phoebe had been of Paul.

Polycarp, in his letter to the Philippians contained in the Apostolic Fathers, commends a man called Crescens who was acting as his representative and letter carrier. Polycarp also recommends Crescens’s sister who was travelling with her brother to Philippi (PolPhil 14). Perhaps Crescens and his sister were both deacons of the church at Smyrna. Alce, Crescens’ sister, and a widow called Gavia appear to be prominent women in the church at Smyrna, yet they are not given any official titles, unless “widow”, used of Gavia, is a title (IgnSmyrn 13:2; cf. IgnPol 8.2). There seems to have been several women in active ministry in the church at Smyrna where Polycarp was bishop. In the other letters of Ignatius almost no women are mentioned. This may indicate that Polycarp and the Christians at Smyrna were accepting of women ministers, unlike some other bishops and congregations.

There seems to be a reticence in giving ministry titles or ecclesial descriptions to women in the Apostolic Fathers. This reticence is also seen in the Gospels where the “many women” from Galilee who were following Jesus, and were clearly among the party of disciples, are never explicitly referred to as disciples.[3] In the undisputed Pauline letters,[4] however, Paul shows no reluctance in using ministry titles or technical ministry terms for both men and women.[5] These titles were given to people who were recognised as leaders and ministers by Paul and by their churches.

There is one more ministry that some deacons were involved with, and that is the ministry of teaching. In both the New Testament and in the Apostolic Fathers we see that women, as well as men taught, even if they are not identified with the title of “teacher” or “deacon”.

Deacons and Women as Teachers

As Ignatius closes his letter to the Philadelphians, he mentions Philo the deacon of Cilicia. Ignatius writes that Philo “even now assists him in the ministry of the word of God” (kai nun en logōs theou huperetei moi) (IgnPhild 11:1). This ministry may have entailed teaching on the part of Philo. Or perhaps Philo was helping in some practical way so that Ignatius could continue teaching even though he was on his way to Rome and martyrdom. The Didache states that both bishops and deacons carry out “the ministry of prophets and teachers” (Did 15:1 cf. Acts 13:1). This indicates that at least some deacons were teachers. Yet the responsibility of teaching lay with bishops.

In First Timothy the only qualification for bishops (episkopoi) that is not a moral qualification, is the ability to teach (1 Tim. 3:2; cf. Tit. 1:9).[6] The qualifications for deacons in 1 Timothy 3:8-12, however, do not include teaching ability. This implies that not all deacons taught (cf. the qualifications for deacons given in PolPhil. 5:2). In the same letter, however, the ministry of teaching is associated with being a deacon, or diakonos. Timothy, who was acting as an apostolic envoy in the church of Ephesus, is told, “If you put these instructions before the brothers and sisters, you will be a good diakonos of Christ Jesus, nourished on the words of the faith and of the sound teaching that you have followed” (1 Tim. 4:6).

In The Shepherd of Hermas is an interesting story that indicates that some women were teachers in the early church. In Visions 2.4.2, an old woman (hē presbutera), previously identified as the Church, speaks with Hermas.  She tells Hermas,

So when I finish all the words, they will be made known to all the elect through you. Therefore you will write two little books, and you will send one to Clement and one to Grapte. Then Clement will send it to the cities abroad, because that is his job. But Grapte will instruct (noutheteō) the widows and orphans. But you yourself will read it to this city, along with the elders who preside over the church. (Vision 2.4.2-3, Shepherd of Hermas 8:2-3)

Deacons and women in the Apostolic FathersGrapte is a woman, most probably a real person in the church in Rome, just as Clement was a real person, even though we only know of her through this vision of Hermas. This passage identifies Grapte as a Christian teacher and, significantly, she is mentioned in tandem with Clement the bishop of Rome, highlighting her prominence. Grapte is not given any ministry title, yet she was clearly recognised as a minister and a leading woman. Her role in the church is one that some later female deacons were responsible for: instructing women and orphans.[7]

Image is fresco of a wealthy young woman of Pompeii with wax tablets and a stylus (so-called “Sappho”), National Archaeological Museum of Naples (inv. 9084). (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Another woman, Prisca, along with her husband Aquila, “explained the way of God more accurately” to a teacher named Apollos (Acts 18:26).[8] Daniel Wallace has argued that Prisca did not “teach” Apollos because the word didaskō is not used here, but the verb ektithēmi.[9] Ektithēmi is translated as “explained” or “expounded” in Acts 18:26, and is also used in the context of Peter’s and Paul’s explanations in Acts 11:14 and 28:23 respectively. Considering Luke’s use of ektithēmi, it is reasonable to assume that Prisca and Aquila’s explanation of “the way of God” included theological teaching. Moreover, as house church leaders, they would have had many opportunities for teaching and exhortation. Paul regarded Prisca and Aquila as his friends and ministry coworkers. The three worked together and travelled together, Prisca and Aquila even saved Paul’s life (Rom. 16:3-5). Paul freely acknowledged the ministries of both his male and female colleagues in his letters.


Endnotes

[1] These itinerant ministers were financially supported by the “good works” of other Christians (Tit. 3:14; cf. 1 Tim. 2:10; 6:18; etc).

[2] Prisca is an example of a woman who travelled with Paul (Acts 18:18).

[3] Tabitha is the only woman in the New Testament referred to as a disciple. Other women, however, behaved like disciples (e.g. Matt. 27:55-56; Mark 15:40-41; Luke 8:1-3; 10:39; Acts 1:13-14).

[4] The letters that most New Testament scholars regard as being authentically written by Paul include Romans, First and Second Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, First Thessalonians, and Philemon.

[5] Some scholars do not regard First Timothy as having been genuinely written by Paul. If so, it may explain the reticence of the pseudonymous author to give the women mentioned in 1 Timothy 3:11 an official ministry title. These women were discussed in part 5.

[6] It could be that the qualification traditionally translated as “able to teach” actually means “teachable” (didaktikos). See Margaret Mowczko, Teachable: A Qualification for Overseers and the Lord’s Servant, at New Life (12.12.15). <http://newlife.id.au/bible-translation-and-interpretation/didaktikos-teachable/>

[7] Other texts, however, comprehensively show a disdain for women as teachers (e.g. Apostolic Constitutions 3.6).

[8] Note that Prisca’s name is mentioned first, before her husband’s, in Acts 18:28. Luke uses the diminutive form of her name, Priscilla, in the book of Acts.

[9] Daniel B. Wallace, Did Priscilla “Teach” Apollos? An Examination of the Meaning of ἐκτίθημι in Acts 18:26 (Biblical Studies Press, 1999) <https://bible.org/article/did-priscilla-teach-apollos-examination-meaning-acts-1826>

This article is adapted from chapter seven 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

Did Priscilla Teach Apollos?
At Home with Priscilla and Aquila
The Consensus and Context of 1 Timothy 2:12
Believing Wives and Female Coworkers of the Apostles (1 Cor. 9:5)
The Church at Smyrna and her Women

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

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

3 comments on “(6) Phoebe: A Deacon of the Church in Cenchrea

  1. […] Part 6: Deacons in the Apostolic Fathers as Envoys and Teachers […]

  2. […] Phoebe: A Deacon of the Church in Cenchrea (Part 6) […]

  3. […] Deacons and Women in the Apostolic Fathers […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

© 2009–2016   Margaret Mowczko | Powered by WordPress

More in Bible Women, Church History
(5) Phoebe: A Deacon of the Church in Cenchrea

In Part 5 of my series on Phoebe, I look at the passage concerning deacons in the church at Ephesus (1 Tim. 3:8-13)....

Close