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

Summary and Conclusion

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

In part one of this series on Phoebe of Cenchrea we saw that the apostle Paul was consistent with how he used the word diakonos (“deacon”). He always used the word for someone who was involved in a sacred commission. It is in this context that Paul calls Phoebe a diakonos of the church of Cenchrea. We also saw that one aspect of Phoebe’s ministry (providing materially for others) was a ministry that other New Testament women were involved in.

In part two we looked at the Old Latin texts of Romans 16:1-12, as well as in an early Latin translation of Origen’s commentary on these verses, and saw that the Latin translators believed Phoebe to have been an officially appointed deacon or minister of the church at Cenchrea. However, these translators were writing in a time when the role of female deacons had changed from that in the apostolic and post-apostolic period, and so they may not have understood Phoebe’s actual role or position as deacon. In this chapter we also saw that Pliny had tortured and interrogated two women whom he regarded as ministrae, official ministers or deacons of the church.

In part three we looked at the possibility that Phoebe was involved in Paul’s planned mission trip to Spain and that she delivered his letter to the church at Rome. We also looked at the role of letter carriers in the first century Roman Empire and saw that being a letter carrier was a role of some deacons, including Phoebe, in the apostolic and post-apostolic church.

In part four, the ministries of Euodia and Syntyche of Philippi were compared with that of Phoebe. John Chrysostom saw similarities between the women; however, he was writing in the late fourth and early fifth centuries, and so his comments regarding the first century women need to be read with caution. In part four we also looked at the development of governmental structures and church offices in the first century which gradually became more formal and increasingly excluded women.

In part five we looked at whether the church at Ephesus had female deacons, as well as male. The conclusion reached is that the women in 1 Timothy 3:11 were female deacons, even though this is not explicitly stated in the biblical text. We also looked at the role of patrons in Roman society. By understanding Phoebe’s role as prostatis (i.e. patron) it becomes evident that the many English translations which have translated prostatis as “helper” in Romans 16:2 have been unjust and misleading. A prostatis was a wealthy and influential woman in society who exercised leadership. Similarly, the translation of diakonos as “servant” in many English translations of Romans 16:1 is completely unwarranted and misleading. “Helper” and “servant” do not convey Paul’s commendation of Phoebe; rather, these words downplay her credentials.

In part six we looked at more evidence that deacons in the apostolic and post-apostolic period were envoys and agents who travelled and ministered in a variety of situations, some of these situations were desperate and dire. We also saw that some deacons and some women were teachers.

In studying this topic, I’ve noticed that, despite the participation of women in many kinds of ministries in the apostolic and post-apostolic church, there seems to have been a reticence in giving women official titles, even a title such as “deacon” which has a humble origin and simply means “agent”. The unwillingness of some early Christian writers to describe women ministers using ecclesial terms seems similar to the unwillingness of Bible translators to correctly identify Phoebe as a deacon and patron. This downplaying of the ministry of Phoebe, and women in general, has resulted in their ministries being largely obscured and overlooked. Despite the reticence of others in giving women titles, Paul plainly called Phoebe by the ecclesial title diakonos.[1]

Deacons were ministers that had a recognised authority in the first and second century church. A hierarchy among church leaders quickly developed, however, which mostly excluded women from the official positions of bishop, elders, and deacons. After the first century, women were still ministering but seemingly less so, and there is no evidence that they were called diakonoi in extant Christian literature or letters of the second century. Conversely, there is ample evidence in the Apostolic Fathers that there were official male deacons in many churches at that time. Single women and widows could be ordained as virgins and widows, but these were minor church orders compared with what was available to men. Female deacons and deaconesses are mentioned in later writings of the third and fourth centuries, and beyond. Some of these women were influential patrons, but none were permitted to minister in typical church services as many of their first century sisters had done. The ministry of these later women was clearly differentiated from the work of men, and it was restricted in ways not seen in first century church life.

This trajectory of differentiating between men and women ministers continued, as did the trajectory of giving increasing power and prestige to the men at the top of the ecclesial hierarchy, the bishops. This ruling power of the bishops was something Jesus had expressly cautioned his followers against. The concept that Christian leadership and ministry was humble service was largely forgotten. By the third century, male deacons were simply seen as assistants to bishops and elders, and female deacons were greatly restricted in how they could serve. By the year 1000, deacons had declined to a minor degree of consecration for men on the career path of becoming priests. Eventually, male deacons disappeared entirely in the East, while deaconesses, virgins, and widows became cloistered nuns in the West.[2]

For centuries women have been entirely excluded from many ministries that were open to men. This situation is unlike that experienced in the very early church, especially in Pauline churches and missions where men and women ministered in almost equal numbers, in similar ministries, with similar ministry titles such as “deacon”.


 Endnotes

[1] Paul uses the same language and same ecclesial titles such as co-worker (Rom. 13:3-4: Phil. 4:2-3), apostle (Rom. 16:6-7), and deacon (Rom. 16:1-2), to describe both male and female ministers.

[2] Much of the information in this paragraph has been drawn from Martin Heimgartner, “Diakonos” in Brill’s Encyclopedia of the Ancient World, Volume 4 (Leiden: Brill, 2004) 347.

Image credit: Mosaic of Paul presenting St Praxedes (who was martyred in 165) to Christ, Basilica Santa Prassede, Rome. © Sr Anne Flanagan (Source) Paul was a champion of women in ministry.

This article is adapted from the conclusion of a paper submitted on the 6th of November 2014 on “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

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 in the Apostolic Fathers as Envoys and Teachers

Other articles adapted from chapters in my “Deacons and Phoebe” essay

The First Century Church and the Ministry of Women
The Diakon– Words in Major Lexicons
3 Views on the Ministry of the Seven Men in Acts 6

Related Articles

Paul and Women, in a Nutshell
Believing Wives and Female Coworkers of the Apostles
Are women pastors mentioned in the New Testament?

Posted November 26th, 2014 . Categories/Tags: Bible Women, Equality and Gender Issues, Equality in Ministry, , ,

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One comment on “(7) Phoebe: A Deacon of the Church in Cenchrea

  1. Gloria says:

    I enjoyed the article

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