In last week's post, I argued that because the apostle Paul commended the work of Phoebe-a deacon (Romans 16:1-2)-the tradition of female deacons continued throughout the early centuries, as noted both by the archaeological evidence and also in Christian literature preserved from this period. For example, Clement of Alexandria (150-215 C.E.), Origen (185-242 C.E.), John Chrysostom (347- 407 C.E.), and Egeria (a fifth century pilgrim) refer to female deacons without reservation. The historical evidence is abundant because the biblical record is so clear.
In Romans 16:1-2, Paul introduces Phoebe as his emissary to the church in Rome and, because they are not acquainted with her, Paul provides them with her credentials.
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)
He tells them she is a diakonos (deacon) in the church in Cenchrea. Not only does Paul refer to Phoebe as a deacon, but he also esteems her as a prostatis (a Greek noun) which, according to Thayer's Greek-English Lexicon, means "one who presides" or "a woman who is set over others." The verb form of prostatis is found in 1 Thessalonians 5:12, where Paul refers to those who "labor over" and have "charge over" (1 Thessalonians 5:12, NRSV). In Romans 12:8, we see the participial form of this word, again, to imply leadership. See Lynn Cohick's valuable article in The IVP Women's Bible Commentary for more information.
The term diakonos (deacon) is used to identify leaders like Paul, Christ, Timothy, Phoebe, Apollos, and Tychicus. And, leaders like deacons and overseers were selected because of their outstanding moral character-they were above criticism. In fact, the qualities of a deacon (1 Timothy 3:8) are nearly identical to those of an overseer (1 Timothy 3:1). Both deacons and overseers were to manage their families. They were to be charitable and self-controlled.
Phoebe's exceptional character, noted by her status as a deacon and prostatis (Romans 16:2), may be the reason Paul sent her to Rome where she delivered (and probably deliberated on) the most theological letter we have from Paul. By referring to Phoebe as a prostatis-one who should be esteemed highly "because of their work" (1 Thessalonians 5:12)-Paul garners the attention and respect of the leaders in Rome's church, which, we should note, included other women leaders who worked hard in the Lord like Mary (Romans 16:6) and Tryphena, Tryphosa, and Persis (Romans 16:12).
This biblical evidence of Phoebe's service as a deacon is made clear in the following translations of Romans 16:1:
- "Our sister Phoebe, a deacon in the church in Cenchrea, will be coming to see you soon" (The New Living Translation).
- "I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church at Cenchreae" (The New Revised Standard Version).
- "I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church in Cenchreae" (Today's New International Version).
- "But I commend to you Phoebe, our sister, who is minister of the assembly which is in Cenchrea" (The Darby Bible).
Rather than obscure their leadership, we should honor Phoebe and those women in countless churches around the world who work hard in the Lord. Let us heed Paul's words (Romans 16:2, 1 Thessalonians 5:12), that those who work hard in the Lord deserve our respect.
Mimi Haddad is president of Christians for Biblical Equality. Join her this July 24-26 and consider these themes more closely at CBE's 2009 conference, titled "Are Men from Mars and Women from Venus? A Biblical Response to Gender Difference."
Read more about the rich history of female leadership in the New Testament and in evangelical Christianity in Mimi Haddad's article Empowered by God in July's issue of Sojourners.