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

(1) 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 as envoys and teachers
Part 7: Summary and Conclusion

Phoebe and the Ministry of Women

Jesus of Nazareth did not leave specific instructions about how he wanted his followers to be led or organised. Rather than leaving a set of rules concerning governmental structures, he gave guiding principles about relationships among his followers. One of these principles was a warning against emulating the kind of leadership that has been typical throughout most of the world’s history. Jesus commissioned his followers to be servants rather than masters or rulers (e.g. Mark 10:42-44, Luke 22:24-27, John 13:3-15). Jesus himself provided the example of “one who serves” (ho diakonōn) (Luke 22:27).

Following on from Jesus’ example and his teachings on service, the apostle Paul also emphasised that the community of Christian believers was to be led and ministered to by servants (1 Cor. 3:5, 4:1).[1] In accordance with this idea, the New Testament frequently uses the words diakonoi and diakonia (which is sometimes translated as “servants” and “service”) for Christian ministers and a range of ministries. The English word “deacons” is a transliteration of the Greek word diakonoi.

Paul was consistent with how he used the word diakonos (or deacon) in his letters. Like Luke’s use in the book of Acts, Paul used the word for people who were agents involved in some kind of sacred commission. As such, several diakonoi are described as being a diakonos of Christ (1 Tim. 4:6) or of God (e.g. 2 Cor. 6:4), or of a specific church – a church being a holy or sacred community of “saints” (hagioi).

Not once does Paul use any diakon– word for ordinary servants.[1] More especially, with one exception, Paul used the term diakonos for Christian ministers.[2] These diakonoi include Paul himself (Rom. 15:25; 1 Cor. 3:5; Eph. 3:7; Col. 1:23, etc), Timothy (1 Tim. 4:6), Epaphras (Col. 1:7), Tychicus (Eph. 6:21-22; Col. 4:7-9), Apollos (1 Cor. 3:5), and even Jesus Christ (Rom. 15:8).[3] He also referred to a woman, Phoebe, as a diakonos in Romans 16:1-2.[4] Phoebe was a diakonos, or deacon, of the church at Cenchrea.[5]

Introducing Phoebe of Cenchrea

Introducing Phoebe of Cenchrea to the Romans 

I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church at Cenchreae, 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 of many and of myself as well.  Romans 16:1-2 NRSV

In the first two verses of Romans 16, Paul introduces Phoebe to the church in Rome[6] and he gives her a warm recommendation. This is not unlike Paul’s recommendation of Timothy to the church in Corinth (1 Cor. 16:10-11)[7] in that Paul wanted the churches to welcome Phoebe and welcome Timothy, recognise them as ministers, and  hold them in high regard.  Paul also asked the Romans to “receive [Phoebe] in the Lord.” The verb used here is prosdechomai and is “commonly employed in diplomatic correspondence for receiving a messenger.”[8] The same verb occurs in Philippians 2:29 where Paul asks the church in Philippi to “receive” Epaphroditus. There is nothing in Romans 16:1-2 to indicate that Phoebe’s role in the church was any less significant, less important, or less official than that of Timothy or Epaphroditus, or of any of Paul’s other coworkers.

Paul manages to convey quite a bit of information about Phoebe in Romans 16:1-2. We know that she is from Cenchrea, a busy port city of Corinth. However, Phoebe’s family connections are not given, and she seems to be independent of a husband or father.  Like many of the women in the Pauline letters, Paul does not identify Phoebe by her patriarchal status, rather, he uses three descriptive titles that are related to her ecclesial status and functions.[9] Thus, Paul describes Phoebe as “our sister”, a diakonos, and a prostatis.  (Phoebe’s role as a prostatis will be discussed in part five.)

Being referred to as “our sister” is an acknowledgement that Phoebe is a member of the community of Jesus’ followers.[10] The kinship relationship of siblings, or “brothers” (adelphoi), is one of the primary paradigms for relationships among Jesus’ followers in New Testament churches.  The idea behind this paradigm is that brothers and sisters are children of the same Father—God,[11] and that they have equal status in the household of God (e.g. Gal. 3:26-28). Paul’s inclusion of the pronoun “our” (hēmōn) would have helped to promote a ready acceptance of Phoebe into the community of Roman Christians: Phoebe is not just Paul’s sister, a recommendation in itself, but the sister of all followers of Jesus, including those in Rome. When used in reference to a specific individual, however, Paul typically used the term “brother” or “sister” for a fellow minister or prominent Christian (e.g. Quartus in Rom. 16:23; Titus in 2 Cor. 2:13, Apphia in Phlm. 1:2).

Introducing Phoebe of Cenchrea to the Romans

The Harbour at Cenchrea © V. Gilbert and Arlisle F. Beers (Source: Visual Bible Alive)
Phoebe’s home town of Cenchrea was a major port city located on the eastern side of the Corinthian Isthmus and two-hours walking distance from the city of Corinth.

The Ministry of Women in the Gospels, of Tabitha in Acts, and of Phoebe

The appellation of “our sister” is not difficult to understand, but what does Paul mean by calling Phoebe a diakonos? There has been some doubt about whether Phoebe was an officially ordained deacon, as the office of deacon may have developed after Paul wrote his letter to the Romans. (A consensus among scholars is that Paul wrote to the Romans from Corinth in the winter of 56-57.) Moreover, none of the Pre-Nicene Fathers, except perhaps for Origen (who we will look at in part two of this series), refer to Phoebe as a deacon. Nevertheless, Paul explicitly refers to Phoebe as a diakonos, so she is a minister or agent of some kind in the church at Cenchrea.

Aspects of Phoebe’s ministry follow on from a ministry of women that is already evident in the Gospels and in early Acts. In the Gospels, many women (pollai) from Galilee travelled with Jesus and were ministering or providing (diēkonoun) for him and his disciples out of their own means (Luke 8:2-3). Many Galilean women were also at the cross where they ministered or provided (diakonousai) for Jesus (Matt. 27:55-56). (Diēkonoun and diakonousai are diakon- words.) In chapter 16 (or 3:12) of the third century Didascalia Aspostolorum, Mary Magdalene, Mary the daughter of James and mother of Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee, “and other women besides” are referred to as women deacons (cf. Matt. 27:55-56).[12] It seems that these women—who were disciples of Jesus, although this is never explicitly stated in the Gospels—were ministering in a way that the male disciples were not.  Other New Testament women who “provide”, “minister”, or “serve” (diakoneō) include Martha (Luke 10:40; John 12:2) and Simon Peter’s mother-in-law (Matt. 8:14-15; Mark 1:30-31). Hermann Beyer makes the comment in his dictionary entry that diakoneō was often used for the work of women in texts outside of the New Testament.[13] However, this association of diakoneō and women is also evident within the New Testament. This unassuming association with women is significant considering that Jesus and Paul frequently use diakon– words for themselves and for Christian ministry in general.  They regarded Christian ministry as both sacred and humble service.

In Acts 9:36-42 there is a short narrative about a woman named Tabitha, also known as Dorcas. She is described as a female disciple (mathētria) who was “devoted to good works and acts of charity” (Acts 9:36 NRSV). Widows were among those she helped with her good works, which included making clothes for the poor. Ben Witherington notes that “Luke seems to depict Tabitha as at least moderately well-off and single (unmarried or widowed). . . [with a] specialized and ongoing ministry . . .”  He suggests that the main reason for recording Tabitha’s story “is that Luke wishes to reveal how a woman functioned as a deaconess, a very generous supporter of widows.”[14]  Tabitha, however, is never referred to with any diakon-words in Acts, so she may not have been recognised as a deacon in her church.

Tabitha and Phoebe, and other women like them, were among the first pastoral workers, or social workers, in the church as they provided materially for others and served those who needed assistance, whether widows or apostles. Helping others materially may well have been one role of diakonoi (i.e. deacons) in the apostolic church.  Phoebe, however, was involved in more ministries than just providing for others. We will look at some of these other ministry roles in parts 3 and 5, but next I want to look at evidence which shows that Phoebe was regarded as an official deacon.


Endnotes

[1] Diakonoi is sometimes used for table servants in ancient Greek as well as in a few verses in the Gospels (Matt. 8:15; Luke 12:37; John 2:5, etc).

[2] The one exception is in Romans 13:4 where Paul refers to a government minister as a diakonos. A Government minister is not a Christian minister, and yet is described by Paul as having a sacred commission: “For the one in authority is God’s servant (diakonos) for your good. (Rom. 13:4 NIV).

[3] Susan Mathew comments on the use of diakoneō and diakonia in the Pauline epistle and observes that:

The verb diakoneō is used in relation to Paul himself (Rom 15:25; 2 Cor 3:3; 8:19-20) and Onesimus (Phlm 13). In Rom 15:25, Paul expresses that he is going to minister to the saints (diakonōn tois hagiois), which is important to our discussion because Phoebe’s ministry is also in relation to the saints in Cenchreae. He uses the abstract noun diakonia in a range of contexts and in relation to a variety of individuals. It includes himself (Rom. 11:13; 15:31; 2 Cor. 4:1; 5:18; 6:3; 2 Cor. 11:8); Stephanas and his household (1 Cor 16:15); Archippus (Col 4:17); Roman Christians (Rom. 12:7); Corinthian Christians (1 Cor. 12:5); Christians in general (Eph. 4:12); the ministry of death and condemnation (2 Cor. 3:7, 9); the ministry of the Spirit (2 Cor. 3:8); and the relief aid in the form of the collection (2 Cor. 8:4; 9:1, 12-13).
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) 110. <http://etheses.dur.ac.uk/369/>

[4] The same word diakonos, with the same forms and declensions, was used for male and for female servants, agents, and ministers in Classical and Koine Greek. The gender of the person becomes apparent when a masculine or feminine article, or a name such as Phoebe’s, is used with diakonos. In some instances the word gunē was combined with diakonos (i.e. “gunē diakonos”) to specify a woman minister or women deacon. A separate word for female deacons, diaconissa, was first coined in the late third century, so it is anachronistic to call Phoebe, a first century woman, a deaconess. Moreover, English translations which incorrectly render the word diakonos as “deaconess” give “the inaccurate impression that Paul is drawing a distinction of roles based on gender”. Kristina LaCelle-Peterson, Liberating Tradition: Women’s Identity and Vocation in Christian Perspective (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008) 62.

[5] Paul had visited Cenchrea during his second missionary journey (Acts 18:18).

[6] Paul commended Phoebe to a church he had not founded and not yet visited. Despite not having first hand knowledge of the church in Rome, Paul is already acquainted with some of their ministers, both men and women, and sends them greetings in his letter (Rom. 16:3ff). He had met some of these ministers when his and their journeys intersected (e.g. Priscilla and Aquila, Andronicus and Junia). Others he may have known by reputation Some scholars believe, however, that the last chapter of Romans was not originally part of Paul’s letter to the Romans, but part of a letter that Paul wrote to the Christians in Ephesus. Paul was well acquainted with the Christians in the Ephesian church. Nevertheless I presume in this series that Romans 16 is part of a letter that Paul wrote to the Romans. (See also endnote 5 in Part 3.)

[7] Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, “Missionaries, Apostles, Coworkers: Romans 16 and the Reconstruction of Women’s Early Christian History”, Word & World 6/4 (1986) 423.

[8] Lynn H. Cohick, Women in the World of the Earliest Christians: Illuminating Ancient Ways of Life (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009) 304. Paul is following a pattern in his recommendation of Phoebe found in other ancient Greek letters. See C.W. Keyes, “The Greek Letter of Introduction”, American Journal of Philology 56 (1935) 28-48; and John L. White, “Light From Ancient Letters”, Foundations and Facets: New Testament, Robert W. Funk (ed) (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986) 186-220.

[9] Fiorenza, “Missionaries, Apostles, Coworkers”, 424.

[10] Lynn Cohick notes, “As a sister in the household of God, Phoebe would be expected to use her resources to better the lives of her brothers and sisters.” Women in the World of the Earliest Christians, 304.

[11] Joan Cecelia Campbell, Phoebe: Patron and Emissary (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2009) 25.

[12] Anon., Didascalia Apostolorum,  R. Hugh Connolly (transl.)  (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1929) 147-148.

[13] Hermann W. Beyer, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Volume 2, Gerhard Kittel (ed.), Geoffrey W. Bromiley (transl.) (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964) 82.

[14] Ben Witherington III, Women in the Earliest Churches (Cambridge University Press, 1989) 150-151.

This article is adapted from chapter four entitled “Phoebe and the Ministry of Women”, taken from 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 and women in the Apostolic Fathers as envoys and teachers
Part 7: Summary and Conclusion

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

Jesus’ Teaching on Leadership and Community in Matthew’s Gospel
The Ministry of the Seven Men in Acts 6
Jesus had many female followers – many!
Believing Wives and Female Co-workers of the Apostles
Did Priscilla Teach Apollos?
Junia and the ESV
The Diakon– Words in Major Greek Lexicons

Posted November 12th, 2014 . Categories/Tags: Bible Women, Equality and Gender Issues, Equality in Ministry, Women in Ministry, , , , , , , ,

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

20 comments on “(1) Phoebe: A Deacon of the Church in Cenchrea

  1. Myriam says:

    Thank you for this topic!! I am really waiting for this to know the ministry of Phoebe! And also I want to know about Prisca’s ministry, and Junia’s as well!

    • Marg says:

      Hi Myriam, on this page, under the heading of Related Articles, I have listed an article on Priscilla and one on Junia. I hope they will be useful to you.

  2. Bev Murrill says:

    Well done, Marg. As ever, succinct and empowering exegesis.

  3. TL says:

    Great work. thank you!!

    I have believed for some time now that Paul called everyone who served the gospel in the body of believers, servants/ministerers. But I see no evidence that it was in the sense of an office as we do today. There is no indication that I can see that any of the terms used to describe those who served were evidence of an office even though some carried a certain authority. Rather as you suggest it is indicative of people devoted to do God’s work who have an anointing in the Lord to do so.

    IMO the rush today for leaders in the churches to claim an official authority can often get in the way of their growth in sensing the leading of God. Just recently I heard an elder pray for someone in such a way as to suggest that because he was an elder and came in that authority, God would hear his prayer. I was a bit shocked frankly. But we all ignored this and continued to pray as God led. But I couldn’t forget this idea that suggested he carried a heavier anointing because he served as an elder in the church. It seems he had it backwards. Those who are elders are to be those who are mature in the Lord and already carry anointing by responding to God’s leading in their lives. Thus, they are to be recognized for their service and commitment.

    It is my belief that both elders and deacons are to be already chosen by God and the “choosing” we are to do would be to recognize those whom God has already chosen. I believe that Paul has done this well. Throughout his writings he very consistently calls those who serve the gospel, servants and ministerers recognizing their commitment to the Lord.

    • Marg says:

      I think many churches have a faulty and unhealthy understanding of authority that has little in common with what Jesus taught about leadership and relationships in the church.

      I agree that churches need to choose leaders and ministers by recognizing those who God has already chosen, and gifted.

  4. […] Was Phoebe a Deacon of the Church in Cenchrea? (Part 1), by Marg Mowzcko (New Life) […]

  5. […] Phoebe: Was Phoebe a Deacon in the Church at Cenchrea? […]

  6. […] Was Phoebe a Deacon of the Church at Cenchrea? […]

  7. […] Philip’s daughters (Ac 21:9), Phoebe (Ro 16:1-2), Junia (Ro 16:7), Euodia and Syntyche (Php 4:2-3) and probably Lydia (Ac 16:40), plus others, were New Testament women with significant Christian ministries which probably included house church leadership. […]

  8. […] Phoebe was not a stay-at-home wife and mother. She was active as a minister in the church of Cenchreae and as a leader-patron in the public sphere. Paul used Phoebe as an apostolic envoy in Rome by entrusting her with his letter to the Romans.  Paul trusted Phoebe and recommended her highly to the Roman Christians. [More on Phoebe here.] […]

  9. […] Part 1: Phoebe and the Ministry of Women […]

  10. […] New Testament women who were involved in ministry include Priscilla (with her husband Aquila) (Acts 18:26; Rom. 16:3-5, etc), Lydia (Acts 16:40), Nympha (Col. 4:15), Apphia (with Philemon and Archippus) (Phlm. 2), “the chosen lady” (2 John 1) and “the chosen sister” (2 John 13), Philip’s daughters (Acts 21:9), Phoebe (Rom. 16:1-2), Junia (Rom. 16:7), Euodia and Syntyche (Phil. 4:2-3), plus others. […]

  11. […] Phoebe, Lydia, Euodia, Syntyche, Junia, Priscilla, and other women associated with Paul, travelled, worked, and had influential leadership roles in ministry. Apart from knowing that Priscilla was married to Aquila, Paul did not identify these women by their family relationships or their domestic situations. Instead they are described and identified by their work, their travels, and their ministry. Paul does not advise women to be shy and housebound in his letters.[12] The one instruction for women to be silent–in 1 Corinthians 14:34-35–is possibly an interpolation, but, if not, its application is limited like the other two instructions for silence in 1 Corinthians 14:28 and 30.[13] [My article Interpretations and Application of 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 here.] […]

  12. […] Many deacons in the apostolic and post-apostolic church acted as agents and envoys of their church and travelled. We know that Phoebe travelled to Rome as Paul’s envoy, but a later writer asserts that she travelled to other places too.[13] Theodoret of Cyrrhus (393-460 AD) wrote: “[Paul] opened the world to her and in every land and sea she is celebrated. For not only do the Romans and Greeks know her, but even all the barbarians. . .”[14] It seems that Phoebe travelled widely and preached the gospel to foreign lands where she effectively ministered as an evangelist. [More about Phoebe here.] […]

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

  14. […] The clearest NT identification of an individual with titles associated with senior local church leadership is not a man at all, but a woman: “Phoebe deacon . . . of the church in Cenchrea. […]

  15. […] Alke was a high-status woman and may have been the patron of the church at Smyrna, just as Phoebe had been the patron and deacon of the church at Cenchrea. […]

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